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  • Under the Red Star's Faint LightHow Sakhalin Became Soviet
  • Sören Urbansky and Helena Barop (bio)

On 1 May 1946, the large square in front of Iuzhno-Sakhalinsk's main station was crowded with a peculiar mix of people. A photograph shows some of them dressed up as seals, holding handwritten signs in Russian and Japanese. The crowd, consisting of former Toyohara residents and newly arrived Soviet citizens from all over the USSR, had gathered to honor the "Soviet heroes" on International Workers' Day.1 The snapshot from a Soviet official's photo album conveys an image of friendly coexistence. However, between December 1946 and December 1949, close to 300,000 Japanese civilians, most of whom had moved to the southern part of the island in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War, were forced to leave their homes—which were then taken over by Soviet families—and to board crowded ships bound for Japan, a country some of them had never seen. Where the empires of Russia and Japan had shared zones of control since the mid-19th century, uncertainties [End Page 283] of belonging would now be clarified. What used to be a part of Russia, then Japan, was now called "Soviet," and the former Karafuto would again become southern Sakhalin. Renaming this piece of land was, however, only one step in a process of reinterpretation that was supposed to make all of Sakhalin a Soviet island. How did this process unfold in the decades after 1945? Was southern Sakhalin turned into just another administrative unit? Or was it made "Soviet" in a more traceable, material, visible sense?

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May Day Celebration in Iuzhno-Sakhalinsk, 1 May 1946

Source: D. N. Kriukov, "Vospominaniia 1945–1947 gg.," Nauchnyi arkhiv Sakhalinskogo oblastnogo kraevedcheskogo muzeia (NA SOKM) f. 1, op. 3, d. 322 (Fotoal´bom).

Understanding how an empire such as the Soviet Union deals with its changing periphery will improve our grasp of several issues. Obviously, it provides insights in the special case of Sakhalin, which because of its peculiar location in the North Pacific Ocean is worth knowing more about. But it also provides a useful example of the implementation of Soviet imperial strategy at the margins. In discussing one of the largest territorial empires in history, the question of how centralized control really affected the empire in its entirety can be answered only by looking at the peripheries and specific developments there. By not only looking at political change but also at cultural integration strategies and their limitations in practice, we can understand how the Soviet empire worked "on the ground." This approach also reveals more abstract insights into the Soviet Union's place within the broader history of empires.2 [End Page 284]

The island of Sakhalin, situated a few miles off the eastern coast of the Eurasian continent in the North Pacific Ocean, was originally inhabited by Ainu, Oroks, Nivkhs, and other indigenous peoples.3 Because early episodes of Chinese rule on the island have mostly been ignored by Sakhalin's residents to this day, the island is said to have been "discovered" by Japanese and Russian sailors in the 17th century.4 In 1853, following almost two centuries of disinterest, the Russian naval captain Gennadii Ivanovich Nevel´skoi founded the first permanent settlement on the western coast. The Treaty of Shimoda, which was signed by Russia and Japan in 1855, declared that both nationalities could inhabit Sakhalin. During the following decades, the disputes between Russia and Japan over the affiliation of the island slowly escalated. In the Treaty of St. Petersburg of 1875, Meiji Japan lost Sakhalin to tsarist Russia in exchange for the Kurile Islands. Engaged in rapid and radical modernization at home, Japan was forced to give up the island but was able to maintain important privileges for Japanese traders, fishermen, and settlers.5

By the early 20th century, Sakhalin had become the biggest penal colony of the Russian Empire. Exiles from all over the country were banished to Sakhalin, where they were subjected to forced labor (katorga) and lived in dreadful conditions.6 As a penal colony, the island was only sparsely populated and...


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