World War II Never Ended Between Russia and Japan: The Curious Case of the Kuril Islands
Russian nationalists push Putin to forget about peace with Japan if it means giving up the the windswept Kuril Islands. And vice versa.
MOSCOW—Not many Russians know where to find the southern Kuril Islands on a map, and if they went there they’d discover there’s not much to do on that fraction of a freezing archipelago.
Locals called the mysterious cape of Shikotan “The Edge of The World.” Tourist companies trying to sell excursions advertise the islands as part of the Pacific Rim’s “Ring of Fire,” as if that were a selling point. But once you get there, points of interest are very few.
There’s a school, a library, a hospital, a military base, and one bar. A couple of rusty tanks overlook two dusty villages from the top of a hill. (“Dusty,” because Shikotan’s roads are not paved.) A few homeless immigrant workers live in an abandoned military barracks.
On long stormy winter nights, when the island’s 2,820 people are left without transportation to the mainland, local fishermen and border guards drink at the pub in Crab Bay.
Oleg Klimov, a well-known Moscow photographer, spent several years documenting the life of the ghostly military bases on the Kurils.
“The fishermen and the military dislike each other both on land and on the sea, so the drinking nights often end badly,” Klimov tells The Daily Beast.
“Women smell like fish, men smell like fish, most people on Shikotan work with fish and crab, the main treasures of the islands,” Klimov said, remembering with a certain nostalgia his favorite delicacy, crab boiled in seawater.
A Japanese oceanographer and expert on Japan’s maritime disputes, Prof. Yoshihiko Yamada had a rather more positive view after a tour of the islands in October. His photos capture lush green hills and pristine beaches. He described dolphins swimming nearby on his boat ride.
But after landing in one small town Yamada noted, “In the square, right before the town hall, a bust of Lenin is still installed, making one recall that this island was stolen by the Soviet Union.”
He wanted his readers to remember Japan and Russia are still at war over this territory seized by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet military in 1945.
You read that right. Almost three quarters of a century after World War II and Japan’s unconditional surrender to the other Allies in August 1945, Tokyo and Moscow are still technically at war, albeit a cold war, and if they ever manage to make peace, the prize that goes to the final victor will be… the very cold southern Kurils.
But in both countries, whenever there is movement toward a settlement, historical emotions become hysterical emotions among passionate nationalists. And there are plenty of those around these days.
On Moscow’s side, resentments date back to crushing defeats handed Russia in 1904-1905 by the fledgling navy of the rising Japanese empire. That war started with a surprise attack on a Russian naval base, and ended after a battle in which more than 5,000 Russian sailors died. Forty years later, Joseph Stalin saw his chance to take revenge.
The Americans are part of this history–and also, almost by accident, part of the current problem.
At a conference in February 1945 that brought together Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Churchill at the resort town of Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula, and where they talked about dividing up spheres of influence in Europe, Roosevelt also made a secret deal with Stalin about Asia.
The Americans wanted the Soviets to enter the fight against the Japanese, and to that end Roosevelt said “he felt there would be no difficulty in regard to the southern half of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands going to Russia at the end of the war.” Stalin was adamant about this, according to The Kremlin Letters: Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt, by David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov.
The Yalta agreements signed Feb. 11, 1945, reflected his obsession: “The former rights of Russia violated by the treacherous attack of Japan in 1904 shall be restored,” and the islands “shall be handed over to the USSR.” The U.S. State Department questioned the way Stalin’s loose demands “were packaged as recompense for its humiliating defeat by Japan in 1904-1905,” according to Reynolds and Pechatnov, but Roosevelt had made his decision, Churchill signed off on it, and the stage was set.
Stalin finally declared war on Japan on Aug. 9, 1945, three days after the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and less than a month before Japan’s unconditional surrender. The Soviets moved into the territories promised to them by Roosevelt.
Today, Japan’s foreign ministry presents the history as a clear case of victimization at the hands of the Soviets, albeit without mentioning FDR:
“Close to the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union, in violation of the Neutrality Pact that was still in force between Japan and the Soviet Union, opened the war with Japan… The Soviet Union unilaterally claimed the territories, and by the end of 1949 had forcibly deported all Japanese residents of the Four Northern Islands, approximately 17,000 people.”
Earlier this month as rumors swirled that the dispute would be resolved at last, Lt. Gen Jerry Martinez, commander of U.S. forces in Japan, was asked a leading question about whether the Americans would deploy to the Kurils if they were threatened. “At this stage the U.S. has no plans to deploy troops there,” he said, which was essentially a way of saying, “Ask me another question.” But Russian hyper-patriots immediately jumped on the remark.
“Thanks to the American general, who talks of our Russian islands as if they already belong to Japan, we are not going to allow this deal to happen now,” Yuriy Krupnov, one of the biggest critics of the deal on the Kuril islands, told The Daily Beast. “Just imagine a Russian general saying that ‘at this stage’ we are not going to have our bases in Texas.”
There was no end of screaming. Top propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov devoted half of his Sunday television show to Japan’s “lack of tact” describing Russian sovereign territories as Japan’s. Kiselyov told millions of Russian viewers about Shinzo Abe making an oath on the grave of his father, a former foreign minister of Japan, promising to reach a deal on the Kuril islands with Moscow this year, referring to the Russian islands as “the Northern territories“ of Japan. “This is not a reason for hara-kiri yet, but Abe has already lost his face here,” Kiselyov concluded.
“We hear that Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov was yelling and cursing his deputies lately,” Krupnov told The Daily Beast. “There must be some sort of a deal being discussed with Washington, not just between Putin and Abe.”
One of the ironies in the curious question of the Kurils is that, while both President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Abe built their political bases by exploiting jingoistic pride, at a personal and practical level it appears they would like to put the Kuril dispute behind them.
Odiferous Shinkato certainly is not the kind of place Japan’s “bon bon” (born as a wealthy brat) Abe would want to spend much time.
One might say Abe has never met an autocratic tyrant he didn’t like and he’s even been hot-tubbing with Putin. Putin appears to love Japan and Japanese martial arts. He considers himself a judoka. So there is some common ground culturally as well as personally. And before the Martinez flap it looked like Abe just might get Putin to give him those few fishy islands that used to belong to the Empire of The Rising Sun.
On Tuesday last week the two negotiated for more than three hours in Moscow. There was no hot tub but Putin addressed Abe using the informal “ты,” similar to the French “tu,” as if the two were old pals. “I am so glad to see you,” Putin said, shaking Abe’s hand.
In the room, the atmospherics seemed more than positive: The two spoke tête-à-tête again for about an hour, with doors closed. "Obviously, the conversation included more than just Kuril islands,” Krupnov said afterwards. “Putin wants Abe to work on cancelling sanctions against Russia."
But the problem was not in the room with the two leaders, it was out on the streets. Both the opposition and pro-Putin nationalists had seized on the Kuril issue. Thousands of activists protested for weeks before Abe’s arrival. Two days before the meeting activists surrounded the Consulate General of Japan in St. Petersburg, chanting: “Shinzo Abe, nobody is happy to see you here!”, “Stop trading Russian land!” and “Hell will freeze over before you get the Kurils!”
After the meeting Putin told reporters that although both sides were interested in making a peace agreement, the talks will have to continue. Abe invited Putin to come to Japan in June.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, on background, told The Daily Beast, “There will be no peace without at least a partial return of the islands to our country.”
Christopher Dickey also contributed reporting to this story.