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Friday, 29 July 2011

Russian Far East: Cold War Kurils

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In my previous blog post, I discussed the wilderness and wildlife of the remote Kuril Islands, but alluded, to in that previous post, the Cold War history, and to a lesser extent these days, World War II History. The abandoned military bases of the Kuril Islands give an amazing insight into our recent past. To be able to visit once top secret and extremely strategic bases in one of the remotest parts of the world is truly a fascinating experience.

Soviet Propaganda, SimushirSoviet propaganda featuring Comrade Lenin in the abandoned Kraternyy Naval base on Simushir

Three of the islands I was lucky enough to visit had remnants of the Cold War militarisation of the Kurils. The first and least significant was the border guards post on Urup. Next was the one time Japanese WWII Airbase, then converted by the Soviets on Matua. But by far the most dramatic and fascinating visit was to the abandoned and once top secret Naval base on Simushir, inside the crater of a volcano. Reportedly construction of this naval base started in 1978 and with the end of the cold war the base was abandoned in 1993. When the Cold War ended these bases were totally abandoned, simply walked away from. So much equipment and infrastructure was just left behind.


Compared to the following two islands, the Cold War remnants on Urup, or at least those I was able to see, were limited to a former border guards outpost.

There was a lot of rusting communications equipment decaying in the grass, large watch towers, and significantly reinforced buildings, some of which are being “recycled” by Salmon fishermen, using them as a base during the warmer times for their fishing expeditions.

Urup is the next island in line to the disputed Japanese territories, so I can imagine the strategic significance of a surveillance post on Urup in the Cold War era.

Radio Mast, UrupRadio mast at the old Border Guards outpost on Urup

Guard Tower, UrupSunrise over a distant watch tower on Urup

Border Guard Post, UrupDecaying buildings at the old Border Guard post on Urup

Border Guard Post, UrupThe former Border Guards outpost on Urup

Border Guard Post, UrupThe former Border Guards outpost on Urup

Border Guard Post, UrupElectronics simply rusting in the grass on Urup


Matua not only held Cold War relics of significance, but also significant WWII history as well. Several large concrete bunkers from the WWII era can still be found around the island, and the significant runway was constructed by the Japanese originally for use during WWII.

The runway had some quite unique engineering features, built in by the Japanese, such as geothermal vents running under the length of the runway heating the runway to allow it to be ice free through out the year. This feature would have been equally as significant in WWII as it would have ben during the Cold War.

Matua also held dozens of military helmets, most Soviet era, but possibly some from the Japanese in WWII. One of the most interesting finds was a 44 gallon (200 litre) drum with the inscription “Wehrmacht” and the date 1943. One could assume this was a remnant of WWII supply from Germany to their Japanese allies.

The amount of vehicles left on Matua was mind blowing. Tracked vehicles, armoured vehicles, trucks, trailers, electronics filled vehicles, dozens and dozens of them. And the number of empty 44 gallon drums would have been into the thousands., scattered around the island.

Also wandering around Matua it was easy to notice many underground tunnels. The state of them did not really invite deep exploration, but one got the impression there was significant underground installations on the island.

Soviet uniform, Matua A Soviet tunic button complete with torn fabric oxidised to a piece of concrete, Matua

Tracked Vehicle, Matua A decaying tracked utility vehicle, still housed in it’s garage on Matua

WWII Japanese Gun, Matua A Japanese WWII Era Anti-Aircraft Gun remains to this day at the base on Matua

Vehicle Graveyard, MatuaThe vehicle graveyard on Matua was significant

Vehicle Graveyard, Matua Numerous command and control type trailers, filled with decaying electrical and electronic equipment filled the vehicle graveyard

Vehicle Graveyard, Matua Numerous command and control type trailers, filled with decaying electrical and electronic equipment filled the vehicle graveyard

MatuaAs seen on Urup, there was plenty of electronics equipment strewn around Matua as well

Matua RadarSignificant Radar stations and associated equipment sit abandoned across the island

Matua 44  Gal DrumsEmpty 44 Gallon Drums numbered in the thousands

MatuaOne of the many “solid” buildings on the island

Matua HelmetsMany military helmets were scattered around the island. I would argue they were all Soviet era, however others speculate there were some WWII Japanese helmets amongst them

Matua Wehrmacht Drum 1943This 44 Gallon Drum was particularly interesting, containing the inscription Wehrmacht and the date 1943. One could assume that it was left over from WWII supplies from Germany to their Japanese allies.

MatuaAnother heavily reinforced concrete building, which was connected to significant underground tunnels

Matua Helmets 2Many military helmets were scattered around the island. I would argue they were all Soviet era, however others speculate there were some WWII Japanese helmets amongst them

Japanese bunkers MatuaJapanese WWII era concrete defence bunkers still line the foreshore of Matua

Japanese bunkers MatuaJapanese WWII era concrete defence bunkers still line the foreshore of Matua


Out of three Cold War islands I was able to visit, SImushir was by far the most dramatic, interesting and fascinating. The island is essentially a series of four volcanic cones, with the northern one being a flooded caldera. In a situation reminiscent of the best Cold War James Bond movie, the soviets blasted an entrance channel into the caldera so Submarines and other vessels could access the base. And in a sign of the modern digital age we live in I was able to locate a picture of the actual blasting to make the entrance taking place (see below © All Rights Reserved by Sergey Nogovitsyn ).

© All Rights Reserved by Sergey Nogovitsyn In a sign of the times of this age of modern digital communication, I came across an original photo of the construction of the secret base, including this shot of the blasting of the entrance into the caldera  © All Rights Reserved by Sergey Nogovitsyn

NASA SimushirThis NASA pic of Simushir, shows the four volcanic peaks in a line, with the final northern most caldera being the home of the Kraternyy Naval Base (NASA/Wikipedia)

Broutana Bay Map (Wayne Brown)A topographic map showing the northern Caldera and Broutana Bay (Map from my friend Wayne Brown at Ocean Adventures)

Construction of the base started in 1978, and went on to eventually house over 3000 people in the base town of Kraternyy. It’s no doubt given the era, and the fact it was constructed inside a volcanic caldera on an extremely remote island, that the base was “top secret”. However it’s quite ironic that abandoned as it is today, there is a sign on the hill naming the base and listing the units that were based there. Reminds me sort of like the bat cave, secret but everything labelled!

A declassified US Navy report I located on line described the base as having the role of using its submarines to lay sea mines across the lines of supply in Northern Japan and around the Kurils in the event of outbreak of hostilities. There was also reportedly radar and electronic reconnaissance equipment for surveillance on the island as well.

The following report was disseminated by the Reuters news agency in 1982, when the presence of this base became public knowledge.

Russians Said to Have Built Submarine Base Near Japan


Published: October 24, 1982

TOKYO, Oct. 23— The Soviet Union has deployed attack type conventional submarines at a new base in the Kurile Islands in the north western Pacific, a Japanese newspaper reported today.
The mass-circulation Yomiuri Shimbun quoted Japanese and American Government sources as saying that the submarine base had been built at the northern tip of Simushir Island, about 250 miles northeast of Japan's main northern island of Hokkaido.
33276054 Early days of the base under construction © All Rights Reserved by Sergey Nogovitsyn

One could spend days or weeks wandering around this former town base. With numerous buildings, installations and facilities all pretty much left as they were at the end of the cold war. Nuclear Chemical and Biological warfare suits lay tossed around rooms. Once secret code rooms lay open to those who can get to the island. Kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, gun racks, sleeping quarters, sports rooms, lecture halls, movie theatres, all just left to decay in time. Charts lay on tables, maps line walls, book shelves filled with once relevant military information lie exposed to the elements through broken windows and rotting infrastructure.

Exploring deep enough you can find secret stair cases to hidden rooms, some accessed through narrow passages with gun ports either side, that in its operational time would have allowed only authorised entry through threat of instant death to those who should not enter. In one such area I found an interesting curiosity, in one cupboard I chose to open, out of many that I could have, was a CIA sticker! A kind of tourist sticker from CIA headquarters in Virginia. Whilst it looked like it had been there a long time, it could also have ben placed there more recently as a kind of joke. It did make me think it had ben there since the Soviet days as there were several other “western” stickers located nearby including a Mars Bar sticker. Being this was in the secret part of the building through hidden entrances, one could speculate this was a KGB or Military Intelligence (GRU) area of the complex.

Kraternyy Base, SimushirKraternyy Naval Base, Simushir

Kraternyy Base, Simushir Kraternyy Base, Simushir

Kraternyy Base, Simushir  Electronics inside on the buildings

Kraternyy Base, Simushir Equipment inside the base

Kraternyy Base, Simushir  An old Soviet Naval gun mount stands as a monument at Kraternyy Base

Kraternyy Base, SimushirNBC Warfare suits lay scattered everywhere

Kraternyy Base, SimushirA former Soviet Submarine Tender that didn’t quite make it through the narrow entrance to the caldera during bad weather

Kraternyy Base, SimushirSoviet propaganda covered many of the walls

Kraternyy Base, SimushirI found this CIA sticker inside a cupboard on the base!

Kraternyy Base, SimushirInside the base

Kraternyy Base, SimushirMaps and charts were hung on walls and scattered on tables

Kraternyy Base, SimushirSeveral rooms were filled with gun racks

Kraternyy Base, SimushirA sign shows 1978, the year construction began on the base

Kraternyy Base, SimushirThe irony of a top secret base, with a large sign on the hill declaring it’s name

Kraternyy Base, SimushirAnd a further sign listing the units that were stationed there!

Kraternyy Base, SimushirThe Soviet Naval Ensign, overlapping the then former Russian Naval Ensign, which since the fall of the Soviet Union is once again the flag of the Russian Fleet

To be able to wander freely through this once great military base, to see the significant infrastructure abandoned, to see the equipment left behind was an amazing experience. Knowing the strategic significance of this area still today, it would not surprise me if one day in the future we once again see the militarisation of the Kurils.

As my comrade Huckorivitch would say; nazdarovya!

 PART ONE: Russian Far East: Kuril Island Wilderness

How Do I Get There Banner

So you want to visit the Kurils?

- being so remote and without airfields on al but the disputed islands next to Japan, the only way in is by ship.

- several expedition cruise companies offer expeditions through the Kurils in the warmer ice free months of the year, departing either from Kamchatka or Hokkaido normally.

- other than that its very difficult and expensive to get to these remote and unique islands


Monday, 18 July 2011

Russian Far East: Kuril Island Wilderness


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The Kuril islands stretch between Hokkaido in Japan’s north, up to the Kamchatka Peninsula that stretches off the Siberian mainland in the Sea of Okhotsk. All of the Kuril Islands are currently part of Russia and have controversially been that way since the end of World War II in 1945. Much like Sakhalin from the previous post, the Kurils have changed hands between Japan and Russia constantly during modern times.



Kuril Islands regional map/WikipediaRegional map showing the strategic location of the Kurils (from Wikipedia)



Kuril Islands Map - WikipediaMap of the Kuril Islands, showing the historically moving Russian-Japanese border in 1875, 1855 and the current controversial border that has been in effect since 1945 (from Wikipedia)



And again like Sakhalin there has been various treaties and agreements (or disagreements…) over the sovereign rights to the Kurils, exacerbated by the strategic location between Russian and the US (and US allies like Japan) during the cold war. Currently several of the islands are in dispute between Japan and Russia. Tee southern most Kurils, only a handful of miles off Japan, are claimed by Japan as their Northern Territories. The Russian’s have recently reactivated a military base on one of these islands have announced one of their new large naval helicopter carriers being purchased from France will be based there. The Japanese claim to these islands is based around a treaty signed before the end of WWII, whereas Russia claims the treaty is overridden by the fact the Japanese lost the war, so why would the treaty be relevant, as the islands were taken during the closing stages of WWII. It is often said that as long as the US forces have bases in Japan, Russia will not relinquish it’s hold on the strategic Kurils.



Soviet Era Radar, Matue, KurilsA Cold War radar station on Matua



Rugged Kuril Islands, view from Brat ChirpoyThe rugged Kuril Islands have long been seen as a Strategic Buffer between the US and their allies and Russia



The points above withstanding, the majority of the cold war bases in the Kurils have been long abandoned. The islands are essentially void of populations with exception of the odd Salmon fisherman, or the odd scientific researcher or the odd adventurous traveller. The number one reason to visit the Kuril; islands today is for the wilderness and the wildlife. Large volcanic cones, steaming and erupting, surrounded by wild arctic foxes, seals and sea lions by the hundreds if not thousands lining the shore, and the diverse bird life which is almost unbelievable. In some places you can barely see the sky for all the birds!.



Sky full of Birds, off Chirpoy, Kuril IslandsThe sky absolutely full of birds, off Chirpoy in the Kurils



Sea Lions off Chirpoy, Kuril IslandsMarine Mammals are abundant, this photo was off Chirpoy



The many islands of the Kurils have different names depending on which country is giving the name. The Japanese have their own names for the islands and the original Ainu people who were the indigenous peoples of the region also had their own names. Since all the islands are technically Russian today, the “correct” names are also technically the Russian names, all political arguments aside….


The following were the islands I was able to visit, listing the main highlight for visitors;


Geology, old Border Guard post


Marine Mammals, Birds


Foxes, Geology


Geology, old Prison Camp


Sea Otters, Marine Mammals

Skaly Lovushky

Marine Mammals, Birds


old WWII and Soviet Air Base


old Soviet Naval Base

I intend to cover the former Soviet remnants in the Kurils in a later post, but here we will look at the wilderness and the wildlife, island by island;




The first of the group I was able to visit was Urup. Urup is larger than many of the Kurils and is just outside of the Japanese disputed territories. Originally inhabited by the indigenous Ainu who also inhabited Sakhalin, Hokkaido and the other Kurils, Japanese Colonists lived on the island during the times it belonged to Japan, and then Soviet Border Guards resided there from WWII till the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today apart from the odd Salmon fisherman, there is little habitation on the island.



Fishing Boat on Urup, Kuril IslandsA fishing boat on Urup



Wild Flowers on Urup, Kuril IslandsWildflowers on Urup



5912040156_c31b61c7b2 Old Soviet Border Guard outpost on Urup



UrupMountains and glaciers of Urup



Urup FishermanLocal salmon fisherman camped out on Urup




Chirpoy and Brat Chirpoy (literally Russian for Chirpoy’s Brother) actually make up the island group known as Chyornie Bratya, although most visitors just refer to the islands collectively as “Chirpoy”. The native Ainu people called these islands Repunmoshiri, a word meaning “place of many small birds”, a a name still relevant today. As well as birds there was no shortage of Marine Mammals today either.



imageNorthern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) and other birds fill the sky off Chirpoy



Tufted Puffin off ChirpoyA tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) floats off Chirpoy



Steller Sea LionsSteller Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubatus) Rookery, Chirpoy 



Chirpoy BirdsEvery available surface was used by nesting birds on Chirpoy




Yankicha is one of the islets making up Ushishir in the central Kurils. The northern islet is known as Ryponkicha. There appears to have never been any permanent human inhabitation on the island, although Ainu certainly visited the island during summers. Yankicha had abundant wild Arctic Foxes (Vulpes lagopus) running around, who showed now fear of humans, and lots of fumaroles and other volcanic activity. Volcanically heated water made for a great impromptu hot spring bath, although finding the right temperature was difficult as the water really was super hot. As with all the islands, there was no shortage of birds.



Makeshift bath - hot springs YankichaMaxim, an officer from our navigation team, tries the impromptu hot spring feed bath



Arctic Fox, Yankicha, KurilsAn Arctic Fox wanders the shore line of Yankicha



Crested Auklets raft up off Yankicha, Kuril IslandsA raft of Crested Auklets (Aethia cristatella) drifts until being disturbed off Yankicha



Birdlife of Yankitcha, Kuril IslandsA slaty-backed gull (Larus schistisagus) stands proud while hundreds of Auklets and Puffins fill the sky behind at Yankicha



Arctic Fox YankichaAnother Arctic Fox prowls around the fumaroles and volcanic vents on Yankicha




Both the northern most island in the Kurils and the largest volcano, sitting off the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. It’s often described as one of the world’s most perfectly shaped volcanic cones, giving Japan’s Mount Fuji a run for it’s money. There are remains of a Soviet prison camp on the island still today.



Atlasova, Kuril IslandsAtlasova, with it’s summit in the clouds



imageThe old Soviet prison back dropped by Atlasova’s Volcano



imageOne of Atlasova’s active volcanic vents





Like Atlasova, Shumshu is at the northern most end of the Kuril Chain, it was once home to a large number of Ainu and was significant Japanese base during the battles for the Aleutian Islands in WWII. The day of my visit was shrouded in fog, but numerous Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) and Spotted Seals or Largha Seals (Phoca largha) showed themselves through the mist.



imageSea otters floating off Shumshu



imageA spotted seal pops up for a look at Shumshu



imageAnother pair of Sea Otters off Shumshu



imageSpotted Seals are also known as Largha Seals, Shumshu



imageSeals and Otters were the order of the day at Shumshu





Hardly an island, Skaly Lovushky is nothing more than a pile of partly submerged rocks, surrounded by underwater kelp forests. This pile of rocks however is home to several seal and sea lion colonies, including the giant Steller Sea Lions. Whilst the Stellers were the most spectacular, Northern Fur Seals (Callorhinus ursinus) were by far the most numerous.


imageThe giant Steller Sea Lions were in significant numbers around Skaly Lovushky



imageBut the Northern Fur Seals were the most numerous



imageThe Northern Fur Seals seemingly had no fear swimming right up to our boats



imageThrough the thick fog the giant frames of bull Steller Sea Lions could be seen atop the rocks



The incredible diversity and more so density of wildlife in the Kuril islands is impossible to describe with words and pictures, it needs to be seen, heard, smelt and experienced to appreciate it all……….


PART 2: Russian Far East: Cold War Kurils


How Do I Get There Banner


So you want to visit the Kurils?

- being so remote and without airfields on al but the disputed islands next to Japan, the only way in is by ship.

- several expedition cruise companies offer expeditions through the Kurils in the warmer ice=fee months of the year, departing either from Kamchatka or Hokkaido normally.

- other than that its very difficult and expensive to get to these remote and unique islands



Kuril Islands





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