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The Sakhalin Region: Russia’s Wild Wild East

Sakhalin Island is the largest island in the Russian Federation, lying just off the eastern coast of Russia in the Sea of Okhotsk. The very narrow Mamiya Strait separates the island’s northern portion from the mainland, while its southern cape is close to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Sakhalin is part of Russia’s part of Sakhalin Oblast.

The island has been inhabited since antiquity, yet is sparsely settled today. This is partly a result of historical disputes over the island between Russia and Japan, but mainly due to the area’s inhospitable weather. A typical day on Sakhalin is cloudy, foggy and very cold, due to the chilly sea current that brings frigid Arctic water and ice flows to the shores of the island.

Sakhalin is a long, thin island with two mountain chains running parallel to one another along the length of the island. Farming is difficult and the island has mainly been a base for fishing or a site for coal mining. Recently, Russia and Japan have been collaborating on oil and gas exploration on and around Sakhalin. Relations between these two North Pacific nations have not always been so cordial, however. Russia’s loss to Japan in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War saw the island being divided between the two nations along the 50th parallel. At one point, the Japanese population on what was called “Karafuto” was as high as 400,000. After World War II, the Soviets forced the Japanese to leave Sakhalin and the island became an exclusively Soviet - now Russian - possession.

The capitol of Sakhalin is Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, a city of about 175,000 people with a large Korean ethnic minority. The city was called Toyohara when it was the administrative capitol of Japanese Karafuto. Some traces of the former Japanese presence remain, notably the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk museum with its oriental pagoda-style architecture. Things are looking up economically for Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Sakhalin, as demand for wood from the island’s expansive forests and ongoing oil and gas exploration create a wide range of job opportunities. An English-language newspaper and website called The Sakhalin Times caters to a growing number of foreign oil workers and business-people. It’s likely that ecotourism will also grow as the island’s wild expanses come to the attention of travelers looking for something off the beaten track.


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