YUZHNO-KURILSK, Kunashir Island — Sergey Starzhinsky figures that his first taste of nearby Japan was a fruit-flavored lollipop that washed up on the beach in the 1970s.
These days, when sailors take his son-in-law’s sea urchins across the strait to Hokkaido, Starzhinsky has them pick up a large order of sushi before they head back.
An Asian Iron Curtain lingers on the edge of the Pacific, eight time zones and 4,500 miles from Moscow. In Russia’s ever-broadening quest for influence under President Vladimir Putin, this Cold War-era outpost is emerging as a pivotal piece on the Kremlin’s global chessboard.
Japan has long claimed that Russia illegally occupies Kunashir and a handful of other nearby islands on the southern end of the Kuril archipelago, which threads the sea between mainland Russia and northern Japan. Seen from Kunashir, the snow-sheathed mountains of northern Japan tower on the horizon, but there’s no regular passenger service to connect the two worlds.
A recent flurry of talks between Tokyo and Moscow has brought speculation that the Kremlin may be willing to hand some of the islands, seized by the Red Army in the closing days of World War II, back to Japan.
Such a move could help Putin win closer ties with one of the United States’ most important allies. Russian nationalists have staged demonstrations across the country insisting that Putin must not give up an inch of Russian land.
But in the Kurils themselves, the debate highlights more existential questions. What does it mean to live in Russia? What would happen if your home suddenly turned Japanese?
And is this really, as the plaque next to a tank by the beach insists, “primordial Russian soil”?
“Russian people are used to living their own way,” said Alexander Kisleyko, director of the nature preserve that is home to a boiling lake and steaming fumaroles. “They don’t want beauty like in Japan.”
Starzhinsky, who found the flotsam Japanese lollipops as a boy, now runs an antenna station and makes rock music in his spare time. (He once placed second on a nationally televised song contest.) One of his hits hints at his home’s split identity — and the anxiety of living on disputed territory:
They told me this land isn’t mine
They told me the frosts are too weak
They say there is a lot of Japanese bamboo here
But I hear the breathing of the Russian birch
Baffled by chopsticks
Kunashir — known in Japan as Kunashiri — is a 76-mile strip of land connecting four active volcanoes. They poke out of the gray-black sea where the Pacific ends and the Sea of Okhotsk, stretching to continental Russia, begins.
Interviews on the island exposed the artifice and the power of national identity in the 21st century — and the imprint left by the Soviet Union across an enormous swath of the globe. They helped shed light on the efforts of many in Putin’s Russia to wall off the political from the personal — and to see hardships as facts of life rather than as calls for change.
“People live badly here, and people live badly over there,” said Valentina Muravyova, a pensioner. “What, does everyone live well in Japan? No!”
Theoretically, a different life beckons from just across the strait.
Japan calls the disputed islands its Northern Territories, part of Hokkaido prefecture. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made returning these islands to Tokyo’s control a “personal crusade,” according to James D.J. Brown, an associate international-affairs professor at Temple University’s Japan campus.
“Despite so many apparent setbacks, so many apparent disappointments, he is sticking with it, and still desires to give everything to make a breakthrough,” Brown said.
Amid the territorial dispute, Japan and the Soviet Union never signed a World War II peace treaty. Negotiations over finally sealing one have heated up in recent months, with Abe seeing a new chance to return the islands and Putin grasping an opportunity to win friendlier ties with a U.S. ally.
The problem for Putin, though, is that speculation about a handover fired up opposition from his nationalist base.
Five years after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, purportedly to safeguard Russian-speakers — touching off global outrage and sanctions on Russia — it would seem counterintuitive to hand islands populated by Russians to a close ally of Russia’s main adversary, the United States.
The Kurils “have always been Russian, are Russian now and will remain Russian,” Sergey Mironov, leader of the pro-Kremlin Fair Russia party, thundered on state TV in February. He called for them to be renamed the Russian Islands.
These days, most of the civilian cars on the island are Japanese — many decorated with Russian flags. On the roadside, some of the telephone poles date to the Japanese era, residents say. They identify the Japanese poles, long ago re-strung with Russian wires, by their metal caps.
During the Cold War, TV signals from Hokkaido and flotsam on the beach fed the new Soviet residents’ curiosity about Japan. Starzhinsky, the singer, recalls a microeconomy that developed among youths on the island who combed the beaches and sold valuables such as Japanese baseball caps.
“We had no idea what chopsticks were,” Starzhinsky said. “We thought they were pointing sticks.”
From Muravyova’s home village of Golovnino on Kunashir Island’s southern end, Japan is right across the strait, 15 miles away.
For decades, residents saw the Japanese city lights at night and the mountains during the day. Since the 1990s, under a joint government program, residents have been able to take a boat to Japan a few times a year on organized trips.
Japan sees the trips as a way to build goodwill among Russian island residents ahead of a future handover, even though the prospects still remain nothing more than hopeful rhetoric by Tokyo.
Muravyova never bothered to take the trip over the strait.
“We need nothing from the samurais,” she says.
By contrast, Anna Kosheleva, a 22-year-old engineer at Starzhinsky’s antenna station, would spend half a day downloading a single episode of Japanese anime to watch in the evening before high-speed Internet finally arrived this year. As for the DVD set of the J-pop group Kalafina: “This is my treasure.”
“It’s possible that, on the inside, people try to block themselves off from Japan,” she said. She first visited in 2011. “I like the discipline. It’s not like here, all chaos.”
In the Yuzhno-Kurilsk library, an exhibit celebrated Crimea’s “reunification with Russia” — a reminder, one might think, that Russia doesn’t see national borders as set in stone. Librarian Galina Glushkova, though, says parallels between Crimea and the Kurils never crossed her mind.
“I believe in the wisdom of the decisions being made,” she says of the territorial dispute. “Without a doubt, we support the policies of our state. This is natural.”
At the same time, Glushkova recites Japanese poet Takuboku Ishikawa from memory to underscore the islands’ deep links with their neighbor. He wrote of riding a train through a blizzard while reading the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev. She long ago took up Japanese cooking and says one can substitute red Russian radish for daikon.
An in-between life
For some, the in-between life is comfortable. Salaries are higher and vacation time longer than on the mainland, and some locals can afford holidays in Thailand or Vietnam. Storms deposit surf clams and luscious scallops onto the beach. If you toss a rubber boot into the water, it might wash up with an octopus inside.
But the future remains uncertain — and, potentially, lucrative.
Sergey Kiselyov, the editor of the island paper, On the Frontier, classifies residents by their attitude to the territorial dispute: “patrioty,” “pofigisty” and “ozhidayushchiye”. Roughly translated, that’s the patriots, the don’t-give-a-damn crowd and those who are waiting (for the Japanese to arrive).
“I came up to one guy and said, ‘Why don’t you leave [the island] and live a little?’ ” Kiselyov recalls. “And he responds: ‘Well, aren’t you clever! You yourself are staying put!’ ”
But Kiselyov says open talk of anticipating the Japanese arrival has dissipated amid national attention to the territorial dispute.
A poll conducted by the state-run VCIOM research agency, found that 96 percent of residents want the islands to stay Russian-controlled.
“It’s scary,” said Sergey Korostylev, 50, head of the near-shore fleet at the island fish company. “I have nothing on the continent. Where will I go?”
Quality of life has improved on Kunashir — as it has for many across Russia in Putin’s two decades in power. Asphalt and a modern swimming pool appeared a few years ago. In recent months, a fiber-optic cable finally brought high-speed Internet. For some this has only heightened the unease.
“You can view all this as a sort of pre-sale preparation, not just as improving our lives,” said Andrei Sevalnev, a former policeman who now runs a security firm and an irreverent island news source on the Telegram messaging platform. “Before you sell your car, you clean it up.”
Japan’s economic output per person still dwarfs Russia’s by a factor of nearly four. In a low-slung apartment building in Yuzhno-Kurilsk, Anatoly Yakovlev, 73, hangs his smoked smelt by the tail from the basement ceiling. He grouses about the government’s disregard for the common man — expressed, in his telling, with limited fishing rights for locals.
“It would be too bad for Russia,” he said, if Japan took over the islands, given their strategic importance controlling access to the Russian mainland.
Otherwise, he could live with the Japanese taking over.
“Things wouldn’t get any worse,” he said. “At least there’d be order.”
Yakovlev was born and raised in eastern Ukraine, near the front line of the war with Russian-backed separatists. Tired of the hardship, his sister moved to northern Siberia last year. A vacuum-packed smoked salmon takes a month and a half to get there, but he said it is still good when it arrives.
He came to the island as a construction worker in 1971. He saw Japan as a cook on a fishing boat. It was amazing, he said, that regular people were allowed to fish from the pier.
“They respect people over there,” Yakovlev said. “No one will ever be rude to you. They have a totally different attitude toward people.”
Reenacting the takeover
In September, scores of servicemen from the Kunashir-based 46th Machine Gun Artillery Regiment of the Russian army stormed the beach of Yuzhno-Kurilsk amid black smoke, fire, flashes and bangs. The attack finished with mock hand-to-hand combat and a red Soviet flag planted in the sand.
Two days later, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, called the action “unacceptable.” It was a reenactment of the Soviet assault on the islands 73 years before.
Kazakhstan-born Alexander Yalovoy, a member of the municipal council and the head of a security company, came up with the idea for the raid. He’s also setting up an open-air museum of military equipment in town with a $45,000 grant from the regional government.
“Our contact with the Japanese on the island is more intense than ever before,” Yalovoy said. “Especially in this situation, you must not lose your identity and your history.”
As a retired high-ranking military officer, Yalovoy was banned from going abroad for five years after leaving service. Last year, he finally visited Japan on a government-organized trip.
He was shocked: People were friendly.
“My leadership style used to be authoritarian,” Yalovoy said. “I probably started to deal more gently with the people around me — to pay more attention to them and value them more.”
Simon Denyer and Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo and Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report. Photography by Elena Anosova for The Washington Post. Photo editing By Chloe Coleman. Video editing by Sarah Parnass. Copy editing by J.J. Evans. Designed by J.C. Reed.