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Articles Blog

Korsakov, Russia

Karyn Planett

A brief visit to Korsakov will only make you wish you’d re-read your Anton Chekhov. You might recall that this Russian born author and playwright (not to mention physician) wrote about Sakhalin after his 1890 stay in what was then a Czarist penal colony. You’ll hear much about his time here as you explore this remote outpost that’s about the same size as Maine. In fact, you can visit the Chekhov Museum, which guides tout as the world’s only such institute built to celebrate just one book.

The Sakhalin Islands

This off-the-beaten-track Russian port is found at the southern end of the Sakhalin Oblast on the edge of Anniva Bay. (As a point of clarification, “oblast” means “region” and this one is linked with the Kuril Islands to form the aforementioned Sakhalin Oblast.) In fact, Korsakov is so far off the beaten track that this island marks the far eastern end of Russia.

The distance between St. Petersburg, Russia and Korsakov is 4,161 miles. From Korsakov to Anchorage? About 1,966 miles. Seattle is only 3,398 miles away and Japan is a mere 25 miles away, across La Perouse Strait.

Well, you certainly will get the picture about the isolation of this place as you wander about. Perhaps it’s why the Russians used it as a penal colony—the out-of-sight, out-of-mind concept. After all, there was plenty of space for prisoners because Sakhalin, at 596 miles long, is Russia’s largest island.

The early prisoners sent here were considered quite hardened and were sentenced to forced labor. They lived along with their families in harsh conditions as described in the works of V.M. Doroshevich and Anton Chekhov.

For the record, the port was named after a Mikhail Korsakov who had been Governor General of Eastern Siberia. Today’s population hovers around the 30,000 mark, plus or minus.

Political Tug of War

But the Russians weren’t the only ones to view this place as an ideal dumping ground for undesirables, and an important bit of real estate. Japan, which had previously shared control over the territory with Russia, took back the island in its entirety after the Russian Revolution. That lasted until 1924. In 1945, the Soviet Union once again controlled the island’s southern half and set about repatriating all the Japanese from Sakhalin and the Kurils.

By the way, before the Russians handed over the town in 1905 in the back-and-forth tug-of-war between Japan and Russia, they burnt many wooden structure to the ground. That’s why, today, much of the city’s architecture is post-conflagration … paved roads, power poles, bricks-and-mortar. Unfortunately, the Japanese also burned down the old town before turning control back over to the Russians following the end of WWII. In the flames were memorials, a Shinto shrine, and other important landmarks. Most of the Japanese were repatriated along with many of the Koreans who’d been brought by the Russians as slave laborers, though some of their descendants still reside in the area.

Remembering Chekhov

For those who’ve forgotten, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in 1860 and became one of history’s most celebrated authors, especially of short stories. He won the Pushkin Prize in 1887 for At Dusk (V Sumerkakh), a collection of short stories.

Meanwhile, he feared he’d been stricken with tuberculosis, a disease that took his brother’s life not long after Chekhov’s diagnosis. Perhaps this is what drove him to endure a miserable journey from Moscow to the Russian Far East and to Sakhalin Island. While there, the author passed months with convicts and others who’d suffered under the Russian penal system. They’d endured beatings and depravation all within the presence of their young children who were forced to live under the same labor-camp conditions. Their stories, and more, were woven into several of his works including “Ostrov Sakhalin” that found its way to the public eye in 1893 and 1894. While cold and stale in its reporting, the book expresses his position that even prisoners were worthy of humane conditions and treatment. In his more expressive work, “The Murder”, Chekhov vents his feelings about what he considered the “Hell of Sakhalin.” All is then revealed in his exposé “The Island of Sakhalin.”

Well, on a lighter note, there’s always great food. Since this island is 85% covered with taiga forest, there’s usually plenty of tasty game and yummy berries on offer. The surrounding seas are among the country’s richest fishing grounds along with the 60,000 rivers and creeks that lace through the countryside. Salmon and seafood reign supreme. Add some glorious black caviar and some balalaika music and you have a proper meal waiting for you. Don’t forget the blinis with some luscious homemade blackberry jam on top.