Another postcard from the edge: life on the Kuril Islands

Published on openDemocracy /oD Russia, by Ksenya Semenova, 19 January 2012.

For many Western readers the Kuril Islands are famous chiefly for being the subject of an post-WWII territorial dispute between USSR/Russia and Japan. Amidst the political wrangling, the Kuril islanders continue to go about their daily lives, reports Ksenya Semyonova, a native of nearby Sakhalin … //  

… Visiting – yes, but living there?

Travelling on the islands, I wondered if I could actually live there.

The first obvious pull of the Kuril Islands is the extraordinary natural beauty of the wild landscape. And the absence of fellow man. Each of the inhabited islands has a population of no more than 6000 – it may not be a huge area of land, but it’s not insignificant either.

And where there are so few people, the air is different, there are no huge rubbish dumps, or enterprises which pollute the environment with their waste products. There’s fish in the river and sea eagles in the sky.  Whether a scientist or a philosopher, one could find no better place to seek out the meaning of life at one with nature.

But as for the cons….well, how many do you want? Food is expensive and there’s a pretty poor selection (often no fruit or milk). Leisure facilities are badly organised if there at all. There are no cinemas or theatres, and the cultural centres don’t have much to offer either. Young people go there of an evening and what they get up to is entirely predictable: drinking and fighting. There aren’t enough schoolteachers or hospital doctors.

And then there is the matter of the territorial dispute, which continues to be assessed as hugely important at the top. To simple islanders, however, it is  a subject of almost no concern. Given the abundance of problems listed above, this is hardly surprising. In 2011 Kuril islanders and Japanese people celebrated 20 years of visa-free travel, which speaks much eloquently of the relationship between the two regions. (full text and map of the Kuril Islands).

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