Russia spans an enormous length across this globe. The Russia that most travellers are familiar with is the European end, but far far away on the opposite side of the globe is the Russian Far East. This area is difficult to reach for the average traveller. The simple remoteness makes it challenging, along with harsh winters and an administration system more akin to the former Soviet Union then “modern” European Russia.
A map from Wikipedia showing the Russian Far East in red and showing the expanse covered by Russia
A dominant feature in the Russian Far East is the island of Sakhalin. Once assumed to be a peninsula attached to the main land until someone managed to sail around it, today Sakhalin is the centre of a blooming oil and gas industry. Historically, as with the Kurils, Sakhalin has been claimed and fought over by both the Russians and the Japanese. During the Cold War the strategic location north of Japan and not that far from US territory in the form of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands meant Sakhalin was used by the Soviet Military to assert their authority in the region. Probably the most tragic example of this was the 1983 shoot down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 which strayed into Soviet Airspace and was shot down by a Soviet Sukhoi Su-15 Interceptor flying out of Sakhalin. The Soviets believed the Korean airliner was an American spy plane at the time of the shoot down.
The island of Sakhalin sits just off Russia’s coast on the Far East (map from Wikipedia)
Mikhail Gorbachev, one time Soviet leader, with his significant birthmark on his forehead, which Sakhalin residents, even to this day are quick to point out, closely resembles the shape of the island of Sakhalin! (pic – wikipedia)
A Sukhoi Su-15 interceptor of the kind that destroyed Korean Airlines Flight 007 over Sakhalin, on display in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk’s derelict military museum.
An artists rendition of KAL Flight 007 shot down over Sakhalin in 1983 (Wikipedia)
Even today in these post-Soviet times and the growth associated with the oil and gas offshore, reminders of the Soviet time are everywhere, particularly in architecture. Large drab, grey concrete, apartment complexes are everywhere. Significant military infrastructure, most of it appearing run down, lines the main road between the port of Korsakov and the main town of Yuzhno Sakhalinsk. At one military compound beside the road tracked amphibious vehicles by the dozen appear to be rotting away. In the heart of Yuzhno Sakhalinsk a military museum and function area is decaying, bricks falling off the building, the once proud military vehicles on display are now covered in graffiti and surrounded by empty beer cans and vodka bottles.
Typical drab Soviet Era buildings of Sakhalin
A Soviet era BTR Armoured Personnel Carrier decaying in the derelict museum
the now derelict displays at the old military museum
As with many Russian towns, Yuzhno Sakhalinsk has a giant Lenin Statue in the centre of the city and elsewhere numerous monuments to the soldiers who fought and died in various conflicts of the Soviet era. And again in common with most of Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church represents the majority in Christianity. The Orthodox Churches use significant amounts of Iconography within the churches, much more so than Roman Catholic or more contemporary Protestant Churches. I was also lucky enough to catch a traditional Russian folk performance in the park, with Cossack-style dancing and sword wielding, bear fur hatted men in uniform strutting there stuff beside traditionally dressed Russian women.
Dominant iconography surrounds the altar in Yuzhno Sakhalin’s Orthodox Church
Crucifix and Candles inside the Orthodox Church
Lenin striking a “gay” pose? In Yuzhno Sakhalin’s Lenin Square.
Heroes Square, Yuzhno Sakhalinsk
Traditional Russian Folk Performance in Yuzhno Sakhalinsk
Traditional Russian Folk Performance in Yuzhno Sakhalinsk
This was my first travel experience to Russia, and whilst there was no shortage of wealth on display in Yuzhno Sakhalinsk, particularly with the oil and gas developments, there were certain images that were exactly what I expected from a remote Russian experience. Run down Lada cars, drab buildings, homage to Lenin, and similar powerful icons of Russia’s past history were never far from the eye.
A dock worker and his dog in the port of Korsakov
A street mural paying homage to Lenin in Korsakov
Russian Border Guards giving travel writer John Borthwick the once over in Korsakov
An iconic Lada in Korsakov Port
A stereotypical image of an elderly Russian woman in Yuzhno Sakhalinsk
The Russian-Japanese conflict in this area is intriguing. Sakhalin itself was at one point divided roughly in half with the northern half Soviet controlled and the southern half Japanese controlled. The city of Yuzhno Sakhalinsk was once the Japanese prefectural capital of Toyohara.At the end of WWII, after the Atom Bombs had been dropped, the Russians saw their chance to capitalise and took the southern half of Sakhalin and the nearby Kuril Islands. The southern most Kuril Islands sitting very close to Japan are still subject to controversy today. Whilst they are firmly under Russian control the Japanese still lay claim to them creating political tension to this very day. There are still remnants of the pre-1945 Japanese occupation of southern Sakhalin, the most notable being the building which today houses the local museum, still complete with the crest of the Japanese Royal Family on it’s doors.
the old Japanese administration building is now a museum
So YOU want to visit Sakhalin?
- There is a substantial airport at Yuzhno Sakhalin
- Regular flights from Moscow, Seoul, Vladivostok and else where land there
- Airlines servicing Sakhalin include Aeroflot, Vladivostok Avia and Asiana Airlines
- Ferries from northern Hokkaido to Korsakov port are available
- You will need to carefully check and comply with Russian Visa requirements for your nationality. Some aspects of the Soviet era die hard……