October 03, 2013

Who “Discovered” Sakhalin?


Who “Discovered” Sakhalin?

This Friday, October 4th, is the anniversary of navigator Gennady Nevelskoy's 1853 raising of the Russian flag over Sakhalin Island.


When reading snippets of history, of the type “explorer N raised X country’s flag over Y place,” we tend to assume a successful outcome – at least for X country’s colonization efforts. In the case of Sakhalin Island, however, the outcome was complicated, to say the least.

Rock formations at Cape Velikan

The Russians, as is often the case, were not the first to “discover” the island – nor was Gennady Nevelskoy, the flag-planter, the first Russian visitor. Ivan Fyodorovich Krusenshtern, who led the Russian expedition to circumnavigate the globe, had been there before, as early as 1805. French explorers, Dutch explorers, Jesuits – all had tried their hand at charting one or more of the island’s coasts, without attempting colonization. So why plant the flag in 1853?

For most of its history, Sakhalin and its indigenous peoples (Ainu, Oroks, and Nivkhs) had been within the Chinese and Japanese spheres of influence – unsurprising, given its location. Qing-dynasty China had claims to the island, but in a rather hands-off manner, not attempting to form any colonies or dispute the claim with anyone else. A more active role was played by Japan: in the seventeenth century they began to actively colonize the island, officially proclaiming sovereignty in 1807, as a deterrent to those pesky, nosy Europeans.

The flag-planting, then, was in response to Japan’s declaration of sovereignty, as Russian settlers began to establish coal mines and other industry on the island. For all of Japan’s declarations, their actual rights to the island only diminished over time. The Treaty of Shimoda (1855) forced the two countries to “share,” and the Treaty of St. Petersburg (1875) gave Russia full control over the island.

Russian settlement at Aleksandrovsk, 1903

What is the best thing for a large empire to do with a far-off, inhospitable island? Naturally, make it into a natural prison (admittedly, it wasn’t very secure – prisoners kept escaping to Japan somehow). The katorga (penal colony) at Sakhalin was established by decree in 1869 and lasted until 1908, after visits by Chekhov and other writers exposed the abysmal conditions suffered by both prisoners and supposedly “free” settlers.

A staged photograph of Sonya Golden Hand - she was so famous [ru]
the prison made money [ru] off postcards depicting her.

But the legal battle over Sakhalin continues! (Spoiler alert: it’s still a controversial issue in Russo-Japanese relations.) The Russo-Japanese War, in many ways disastrous for Russia, ended with the island being split in half at the 50th parallel, with the southern portion returned to Japan (1905, Treaty of Portsmouth). Not to be outdone, the Russians took advantage of the next major war – World War II – to take back the remainder of the island (along with the nearby Kuriles), having first run the idea past the other Allies in Yalta (Japan, however, was not consulted).

The rather artificial-looking split of 1905

Even though Russia now holds official claim to Sakhalin, its history has been colored by many influences – indigenous, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and, of course, Russian. Turns out planting a flag doesn’t necessarily make things clear-cut!

Photo credit: Katya Tyapkina, Wikimedia Commons

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