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At the Edge of the Nation: The Southern Kurils and the Search for Russia's National Identity.

At the Edge of the Nation: The Southern Kurils and the Search for Russia's National Identity. By Paul B. Richardson. (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018. Pp. xvi, 244. $68.00.)

If you want to read a book not so much about the disputed Kuril Islands, but instead about what people--especially Russians--think and say about the Kuril Islands, this is a book for you. Only about ten pages (23-32) examine the actual history of this island chain, while the other 150 pages deal with how the Russians have rationalized keeping territory stolen from Japan at the conclusion of World War II. And stolen they were. In sharp contrast to the view that it was the 1945 Yalta agreement, or the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty, that ceded these southernmost islands to Russia, other scholars have argued that it was President Harry S. Truman's rewritten "Order No. 1" from 18 August 1945 that allowed Soviet troops to occupy temporarily "all" of the Kuril Islands, as part of Japan's post-surrender occupation (see Bruce A. Elleman, Michael R. Nichols, and Matthew J. Ouimet, "A Historical Reevaluation of America's Role in the Kuril Islands Dispute," Pacific Affairs, Vol. 71, No 4 [Winter, 1998-1999], 489-504).

This was in no way a cession of territory, however. It was, simply, an occupation agreement, and it was valid only so long as a state of war existed. This fact alone explains why the Russians cannot afford to sign a peace treaty with Tokyo, since they would automatically have to return all four islands to Japan. One Vladivostok academic essentially told the author this, admitting that, "according to the documents signed between the two states, Russia's control over these islands is illegal" (119).

Written over a period of many years and citing an enormously wide range and depth of Russian-language source material, this book examines how the Russians perceive the territorial dispute over the Kurils. It is so sensitive, the author explains, that Boris Yeltsin even had to cancel a planned trip to Japan because of it. The Russian position has been divided into Liberal Institutionalists who support adopting Western norms of behavior, Territorial Imperativists who are obsessed with "territory, prestige, and power" (165), and the Pragmatic Patriots who are more adaptable and flexible when it comes to the "relationship between territory and identity" (166). Those hoping to retain the islands (at 1,800 square miles, Iturup and Kunashiri are about the size of the U.S. state of Delaware) make exaggerated claims of wealth, claiming their natural resources alone could be worth as much as US$2.5 trillion (66).

These three groups have essentially been bickering for the past two decades over what to do with four small islands at the southernmost tip of the Kuril chain. At various times, Vladimir Putin has backed different factions, appearing at one time to support the 1956 Joint Declaration, which would transfer Shikotan and the Habomai islands back to Japan, but at other times stressing "territorial integrity and the inviolable results of the Second World War" (164). Due to Putin's increasing financial obligations in the Crimean peninsula, however, the southern Kurils could soon be shorted, quickly becoming associated with "an endemic culture of inefficiency, the centralization of authority, and corruption" (169).

It is also important to recall that Russia does not merely have a border problem with Japan. Outstanding border disputes exist with Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Norway, and also with the U.S. in the Bering Sea (62). Russian nationalists worry that, if they give back the four disputed islands to Japan, then sovereignty debates over Konigsberg and Crimea would be impacted. However, this clearly did not happen when, on 14 October 2004, a secret (at the time) Sino-Russian agreement gave Tarabarov Island and about half of Bolshoi Ussuriiskii Island back to China, in their long-running Ussuri River territorial dispute.

One of the most important lessons this book imparts is how land powers fundamentally differ from sea powers. Anti-Western Russians like Alexander Dugin have argued that, "Any idea of a borderless, homogenized, and globalized world is the antithesis of his [Putin's] Eurasian project for Russia ..." thereby presenting "a historical alternative to Atlanticism" (79). Land powers like Russia tend to think of the world as zero-sum, while sea powers are accustomed to think in terms of positive sums, in which all parties can become equally rich.

The picture of the southern Kurils the reader gains from this book is simultaneously pristine and dismal: "[o]ne of the most beautiful and potentially rich corners of Russia, but in reality monstrously poor and desolate" (123). This book is similarly skewed, since its analysis is all on the side of the perpetrator, not the victim, Japan, which is the rightful owner of the disputed islands. Doesn't the victim get a say?

Bruce A. Elleman

U.S. Naval War College
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Author:Elleman, Bruce A.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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