Two of Russia's independent media channels, TV2 — an independent television channel that had been designated a ‘foreign agent’ by the authorities and is now operating solely online from Tomsk — and Govorit Ne Moskva — an online channel about various Russian regions whose name means Speaking Not from Moscow — released a documentary by Yulia Kortneva about dying villages on the island of Sakhalin in the Russian Far East. The film has garnered almost 1.5 million views on YouTube since August 2023.
As described on Ne Moskva's YouTube channel, 115 towns and villages in Sakhalin may be subject to administrative removal, since almost no one lives in them anymore, apart from a few people who stay over winter. While some residents have been waiting for many years on housing promised to them elsewhere, so they can leave, others have no intention of leaving their usual way of life.
In her new film from the “Hermits of Russia” series, director Yulia Kortneva traveled along the western coast of Sakhalin, from south to north. Via her Telegram channel, Kortneva explained that that she is no longer working for TV2 [after it had been closed down by the authorities]. Now, she travels, films and edits all of her documentaries alone.
The coast of the Strait of Tartary was the first that was actively populated during the development of Sakhalin, according to Ne Moskva.
This “development,” however, was in fact the colonization of Sakhalin, by both the Japanese and Russian empires. The Indigenous peoples of Sakhalin, known as Nivkhs, Ainu, Uilta, remain today, albeit in small numbers. Overall the population of Sakhalin is around 500 000, with Russians being a majority of them.
The island's history of the 19th – 20th centuries has been a constant dispute between the Japan and Russian Empires. It had changed hands several times.
In 1845, Japan claimed the entirety of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, despite Russia's counterclaims, states Wikipedia. Russian explorer Gennady Nevelskoy later documented a significant strait and Russians established settlements on Sakhalin. The 1855 Treaty of Shimoda allowed both Japanese and Russians to inhabit Sakhalin without a clear boundary, and Russia later secured territories from China after the Opium War. By 1857, Russia had a penal colony on Sakhalin, and, in 1875, the Treaty of Saint Petersburg saw Japan cede its Sakhalin claims to Russia.
During the Russo–Japanese War at the beginning of 20th century, Japan took control of the southern part of Sakhalin, solidified by the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth. However, Japan also briefly occupied the north in 1920, returning it in 1925. The south was governed by Japan as the Karafuto Prefecture, seeing significant Korean migration, while the north was Russia's Sakhalin Oblast.
In 1945, violating a neutrality pact, the Soviet Union invaded southern Sakhalin, facing staunch Japanese resistance until August 25, when Russia captured Toyohara. Of Sakhalin's 400,000 inhabitants in 1944, 100,000 were evacuated to Japan by the war's end, and, while many were repatriated after the war, a significant number stayed in the Soviet Union.
No final peace treaty exists between Russia and Japan, with sovereignty over four islands still disputed. Japan renounced claims over southern Sakhalin and the Kurils in 1951 but maintains claims over four Hokkaido islands.
The documentary captures the broken pieces of history found in Sakhalin. For example, a man who Yulia interviews shows her an empty field, and says: “Everywhere over there used to be old Japanese houses. I dismantled the last one which was on my land plot.”
Then the director shows us a garbage damp, where broken vintage Japanese porcelain may be found.
Some people maintain a collection of such artefacts, and some make jewelry out of them.
Nevertheless, the state is prepared to eliminate over a hundred villages where only a few people live.
Since the collapse of the coal industry in Sakhalin, one of these villages is Due, which was the first Russian settlement on the island, and is now is practically uninhibited.
Those who are left there live in very bad conditions.
In other villages, there are often only one or two houses left. But the residents sometimes do not want to leave. For example, this couple says: “We can not go to the city, we have our garden here.”
Another retiree shows the director that he catches crabs and sea urchins by hand in the sea. “Where would I do this in the city,” he asks.
In November 2018, in the Sakhalin region, the regional parliament adopted a law on social support for citizens who needed to be resettled from ‘unpromising’ villages. The Sakhalin regional law classifies as small unpromising settlements villages that have no prospects for socio-economic development and where the number of inhabitants does not exceed 20.
The document provides for the issuance of certificates for the purchase of housing within the region. Before this, people could not legally claim these certificates, since their houses were formally registered with them — even if the village was dying or did not exist at all, says Rossiiskaya Gazeta. Between the years 2008 and 2018, five settlements have been abolished, mainly in the north. It could have been more — 12–14 years ago the authorities started optimizing the education system and began closing schools in sparsely populated villages. The schools were often the only bonds thanks to which villages still existed. “Optimization” was only partially possible; there was no mass disappearance of settlements. Apparently, people find reasons to stay, even when there was no school, pharmacy, electricity, or running water.
Between 1960 and 1980, the Soviet Union had a policy of shutting down smaller villages and moving people to bigger ones. The idea was to concentrate people, work, and public facilities in larger villages. This was seen as a bad decision.
From 1968, villages seen as “not having a future” weren't given new buildings or major repairs. They lost facilities like schools and shops, and transport was reduced. This made people leave these villages.
However, the places they were supposed to move to weren't much better. There was always a shortage of resources. Many people were given city-style apartments, but most didn't move to these designated places. Instead, they went to bigger towns or different parts of the country. The closing of small villages was forced, and people weren't happy about it. When these villages closed, nearby farming lands were abandoned. This made fewer people live in these areas, making them less populated.
Because of this policy, communication between settlements got worse and public services suffered. Many moved to cities, making villages age faster demographically.
In 1980, the government decided to stop labeling villages as “promising” or “not promising.” But the damage was done. Many small villages continued to fade away because they had lost most of their facilities. This trend continued in parts of Russia, including the Far East, and Sakhalin island.