Kurilsk, Russia – Kurilsk is a bleak and ominous town with dozens of wooden houses scattered among the mounds of snow. It is the largest settlement on Iturup Island, which lies between Japan’s Hokkaido Island and Russia’s Kamchatka and belongs to the Kuril Islands chain.
In the winter, Iturup is nearly impossible to reach. There is a ferry from port Korsakov on Sakhalin Island that runs every two weeks and the whole commute takes up to 20 hours. The flights are also irregular and are often delayed for four to five days due to the weather conditions.
The Kurils are strategically important for Russia. It has a number of military bases on the islands, which also guarantee secure access to the Pacific Ocean through the the Sea of Okhotsk.
Russia has included social and economic development programmes approved since 2014 for the development of these territories in its federal budget, allocating almost 70 billion roubles ($1.1bn) to the cause.
According to the “Social and economic development of the Kuril Islands (Sakhalin region) 2016-2025”, priority is given to the development of a transportation system, infrastructure and the improvement of living conditions. The development plans are ambitious but locals complain that they have yet to any effect on unemployment, low salaries and a lack of roads.
The island is rich in natural resources, including unique reserves of rhenium on the Kudryavy volcano, but the main profit comes from the fishery industry and the production of fish roe. The delicacy is quite popular in Russia although it is much cheaper than caviar.
Roman Rasskazov, a coal shoveller, who has been living on the island for more than 25 years says that poaching for fish has become common as residents try to make extra income from the fish roe.
“You might get fined or even arrested for poaching, but it’s worth risking and everyone does it here. I have to work at two jobs to make ends meet,” he says, because the cost of living is very high.
“No one could ever think about it back in the day because people had access to all the fish in the river, but now it’s quite common to poach.”
This year, Rasskazov says he harvested more than 500kg of fish roe. It costs about 2,000 roubles ($32) a kilo in a local shop, but he has cultivated a network of trustworthy buyers and sells his product much cheaper than the retail price.
Rasskazov drives a 20-year-old Japanese off-road vehicle – the only viable means of transportation across the island. “There are even no gas stations so we have to buy the diesel oil stolen from the factories where we work,” he says.
Gydrostroy is one of the main employers on the island. They have built a hospital, a kindergarten and a couple of years ago, the airport in Kurilsk. However, the majority of locals say that it’s hard to get a job there, the salary is not competitive, and most of their jobs are taken by migrant workers.
“The population of the island is too low and most of the work is seasonal, so we are forced to bring people from elsewhere. To make a person interested in the job, we need to pay them as much as we do the locals,” says Yury Svetlikov, the general manager of Gydrostroy.
“We are a socially responsible business and we have different guarantees for our employees,” Svetlikov says.
“Recently, we’ve been able to witness positive changes on the island. At least there are asphalt roads now so women can wear high heels because before there were clouds of dust,” he adds.
“I have been interested in Japan since university and I always wanted to go there,” says Ksenia Vinogradova. She is a young, enthusiastic research fellow at the local museum. Vinogradova came to Iturup two years ago and immediately became involved in local community activities.
There’s a special tourist exchange programme that allows small groups of tourists with local registration to travel to Japan without a visa, and Vinogradova has gone on several such trips.
“During my first trip we met Japanese colleagues and worked on an archaeological site,” Vinogradova says. “Apart from work, we managed to establish very warm and friendly relations.”
The opportunity to undertake such a trip and meet Japanese people is more than just an academic and touristic affair. But Vinogradova does not want to discuss the issue that underlies the main political confict surrounding the islands.
The Kuril Islands were annexed by the Soviet Union in aftermath of the Kuril Islands landing operation at the end of World War II. The territorial dispute prevents Russia and Japan signing a formal peace treaty. Japan lays claim to four islands: Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashir and Iturup.
“We’d better work on something together with our Japanese colleagues rather than thinking about arguments,” Vinogradova says.
Before his official visit to Japan, President Vladimir Putin said in an interview with Bloomberg that Russia does not “trade in territories”. Many specialists agree that Russia is not going to give up any of the islands in exchange for greater economic cooperation.
“All the negotiations should be based on the treaty of 1956 which was ratified both by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and by the Japanese parliament. It’s the most logical decision right now,” says Tamerlan Abdikeev, the founder INVERO Advisors, a consulting company based in Tokyo.
“There are several problems, such as the Russian military bases on the islands or the possible placement of American military bases if Japan gets any of the islands which will definitely not be accepted by Russia,” adds Tamerlan.
“We need to understand that without solving the Kuril Islands dispute there will be no boost in economic cooperation between two countries. It’s hard to expect mutual trust without signing a peace treaty between two countries.”
Rasskazov, the poacher and coal worker, feels strongly about maintaining the territorial integrity of Russia. “I don’t think we’ll give up any of the islands,” he says.
“Putin is not Ekaterina [Ekaterina the second, empress of Russia], he’s not going to give away a piece of land. If you give away one, the Poles will claim some territories, the Finns will claim some. There’ll be nothing left of Russia.”
But, maintaining the status quo, means that the chances of change are small.
“With the amount of money that the government invests in the region there should be a completely new town here. I don’t know who’s responsible for that but I don’t understand what the government thinks of. People are basically surviving here,” says Rasskazov.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hosted Vladimir Putin in Japan on December 15, but the two leaders failed to come to an agreement over the disputed islands and the meeting ended in a stalemate.