This Remote Russian Island Is Home To An Eerie Graveyard Of Abandoned Tank

At the southern end of the Kuril archipelago in the North Pacific, there lies a remote island called Shikotan. Here, the gently undulating landscape – unremarkable, but pleasingly green – has one particularly astonishing characteristic. The island is dotted with the decaying hulks of Russian military tanks from the 1950s. And these rusting relics hint at the troubled past – and present – of Shikotan.

Before we find out why Shikotan is littered with old tanks, let’s learn more about the island itself. Shikotan is part of the Kuril archipelago, a chain of islands stretching from the southeastern tip of Russia to the north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The Pacific lies on one side of the Kuril Islands, with the Sea of Okhotsk found on the other.

Shikotan lies in the southern part of the Kuril chain. In fact, it’s one of the four most southerly islands – all of which are subject to a territorial dispute between Japan and Russia. The latter has ruled these islands since annexing them at the end of the Second World War, in 1945. But that’s not a situation that contemporary Japan is happy with.

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This territorial rift between Russia and Japan is at the heart of Shikotan’s extraordinary collection of tanks. These days, all of the armored vehicles are immobile. But they’re still an imposing presence, looming over Shikotan’s lush landscape. And perhaps the more whimsically minded might imagine them as iron dragons guarding the island.

In fact, the actual role of the tanks was, indeed, to protect Shikotan. The Soviet Union put them in position to defend against the possibility of an invasion. How real that threat was is open to question, but the Soviets obviously felt it was a potentiality worth preparing for. Now they’re a kind of memorial to the days of the Cold War.

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We can trace today’s rift between Japan and Russia over the southern Kurils back to the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda. This early agreement was the first formal framework of relations between the two nations. In part, the treaty dealt with territorial claims over the Kurils and another island called Sakhalin.

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The Treaty of Shimoda proclaimed that all islands south of one called Urup were Japanese, while Urup itself and the islands to its north were Russian. This left Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and the Habomai islets in Japanese possession. Indeed, these are the four presently occupied by Russia but claimed by Japan. To the Japanese, these isles are known collectively as the Northern Territories.

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Another agreement, the 1875 Treaty of Saint Petersburg, saw the Japanese give up claims to Sakhalin Island – not part of the Kurils. This was in exchange for possession of the Kuril Islands in their entirety. However this treaty left room for confusion, since the definition of which islands were part of the Kurils was unclear.

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Hostilities between Japan and Russia came to a head in 1904 with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese were the victors in this conflict, maintaining their grip of the Kurils and taking back half of Sakhalin. Later, the bitter relationship between the two continued throughout the Russian Civil War, when Japan deployed soldiers to Siberia.

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In the late 1930s the Second World War erupted. And at first, Russia – or, by this time, the Soviet Union – declared a neutral stance. As, indeed, did the United States of America. But for the Soviets, neutrality ended in 1941, when Hitler invaded Soviet territory. The Americans joined that same year, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

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So the Soviets were fighting on the side of the Allies, whereas the Japanese were on the side of the Axis powers. Yet hostilities didn’t initially break out between the two. To the contrary, before Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the Soviet Union, the two countries had signed the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact.

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The rationale for this neutrality agreement was based on the notion that both the Soviet Union and Japan would have enough on their plates upon inevitably entering WWII. And this proved to be correct in 1941, when they both joined the war. So this was the strangely paradoxical situation during WWII. Although fighting on different sides, Japan and the Soviet Union did not attack one another throughout most of the conflict.

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Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, however, had made an agreement with his wartime allies that he would attack Japan – but only when the war in Europe had been decisively won. In an October 1944 session with the U.S. ambassador to the Soviets, Stalin was quite specific. He said that he would only attack Japan three months after Germany’s capitulation.

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And Stalin made good on his word. Germany yielded to the Allies on May 8, 1945, and the Soviets declared war on Japan on August 8. And this declaration of war triggered part of the Yalta Agreement. This was the February 1945 treaty between Russia, Britain and the U.S. about post-war geopolitical arrangements.

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Amongst many other points, the Yalta agreement included stipulations about the future of the Kuril Islands – they were to go to the Soviets. And in August 1945 the Soviet Union moved to enforce its ownership of the islands. At that time, the southern Kurils – including Shikotan – were occupied by Japanese soldiers.

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In fact, the Japanese military on the Kurils – a force of some 20,000 men – had been ordered to surrender on August 23, 1945. Japan had already announced its surrender to the Allies on August 15 – although the capitulation was not formally signed until September 2. But some soldiers on the Kurils refused to obey the command to surrender to the Soviets.

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In the later part of August, the Kurils north of Urup were taken by the Soviets – leaving the four southern islands. Then, on September 1, the Soviets seized Shikotan with a seaborne landing using mine trawlers, torpedo boats and other transport vessels. Some 600 Soviet soldiers landed on the island and overcame Japanese resistance.

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So now Shikotan was in Russian hands, as it still is today. But disputes about the status of the island continued. The Russians stood ready to defend their possession and proceeded to fortify the island and to deploy those tanks. As we’ve seen, most of them were actually positioned in stationary emplacements, meaning they were effectively artillery pieces.

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The Yalta Conference had resulted in a proclamation that the Kurils would go to the Soviets at the conclusion of WWII. Yet from the Soviet point of view, there was reason to view other states’ commitment to the agreement. After all, it was quite unclear as to which specific islands could be considered a part of the Kurils.

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Both the Americans and the Japanese claimed that the four most southerly islands in the Kuril archipelago – one of which was Shikotan – were not actually part of the Kuril Islands. They said that those four islands were actually Japan’s Northern Territories. It might seem a petty argument, but it was of great importance to both the Soviets and the Japanese.

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And another Allied wartime negotiation from July 1945 only served to muddy the waters further. The so-called Potsdam Declaration stated that, “Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honsh?, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.” These four named islands are indeed undisputed Japanese territory today.

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But the four islands which Japan called its Northern Territories – Shikotan, Iturup, Kunashir and the Habomais – were not specifically mentioned at Potsdam. This omission – and the imprecise phrase “such minor islands as we determine” – added to the ambiguity of the situation. However, an attempt was made in 1951 to try and clear up this confusion.

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This 1951 attempt to solve the Kuril islands dispute came before the Treaty of San Francisco. By the time of this latter treaty – six years after the end of WWII – no formal and permanent peace agreement between the Allies and Japan had been signed. The talks in San Francisco were intended to remedy this situation.

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It’s worth remembering that by 1951 the Cold War was a stark reality dominating world affairs. And it certainly had its influence on relations between the Soviets and the Americans. This spilled over into the negotiations for a peace treaty with Japan. And the Soviet Union baulked at one particular provision mooted for the San Francisco Treaty.

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This provision suggested that Japan give up any claim to the Kurils. But it didn’t go on to say that the Soviets would have unchallenged possession of the islands. And the Japanese, supported by the Americans, continued to argue that the two southerly islands of Shikotan and Habomai were, in fact, part of their Northern Territories and not truly part of the Kurils. Whether the other two southerly islands – Kunashiri and Iturup – are part of the Kurils is disputed to this day.

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The Soviets walked away from the negotiating table in 1951, refusing to sign the Treaty of San Francisco. The exact legal position of the southern Kurils – or the Northern Territories – was left up in the air. Soviet sovereignty of the islands was not recognized by America, Japan or their allies. Then, in 1956 there was yet another attempt to sort out the dispute.

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As a result of talks in 1956, the Soviets offered to relinquish Shikotan and Habomai to the Japanese. In return, the Japanese would give up their supposed rights to Iturup and Kunashiri. Under this deal, the Soviet Union was at last prepared to sign a peace treaty with Japan. But U.S. diplomats didn’t like the deal and so they pressured the Japanese enough to scupper the agreement.

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So the status quo remained. The four southerly islands of the Kurils remained in Russian hands. And there was still no peace treaty between the Soviets and the Japanese. And so from the latter part of the 1950s and on into the 1960s, the Soviets implemented defenses of Shikotan. A major part of this project involved the stationing of Soviet IS-2 and IS-3 tanks.

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The IS tanks were named after Joseph Stalin, using the alternative spelling of his first name Iosif. These were introduced during the Second World War as heavy battle tanks, crewed by four men and weighing around 50 tons. They were heavily armored to protect them from anti-tank guns and their cannons were powerful enough to take on the most formidable German tanks.

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These IS tanks were used as the Soviets swept across Europe from the spring of 1944. Indeed, they were at the vanguard of the Soviet Red Army’s final attack on Berlin, as Hitler skulked in the bunker. This, of course, is where he eventually died an ignominious death by his own hand.

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So, the IS tanks were dynamic weapons capable of facing the best the Nazis could put in the battlefield. The Soviets built several thousand of the tanks throughout WWII. But their role on the island of Shikotan was very different to the one they had fulfilled in the effort to defeat the Nazis.

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On Shikotan, the tanks had been transformed into stationary artillery pieces. Their job now was to defend the island against any attack from the sea. In many of the photographs of the now rusting tanks, it’s clear to see that they stand on concrete emplacements from which they were not intended to move.

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Of course, the seaborne invasion the tanks were meant to repel never came. In hindsight, the notion that the Japanese or the Americans would ever have invaded tiny Shikotan might appear, to some, a ludicrous prospect. But the idea serves to illustrate how high tensions and paranoia ran during the Cold War.

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Now, 75 years after WWII ended, Japan and Russia have still not actually signed a peace treaty. And this means that the four southerly Kuril islands, including Shikotan, are still disputed territory. In 2005 the parliament of the European Union called on Russia to return the islands to Japan. And Russia, in turn, said “nyet.”

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In 2006 Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to return Shikotan and Habomai to Japan if the Russians could keep the other two islands of Iturup and Kunashiri. But nothing came of this offer. And it seems sensitivities are still raw. When a Japanese textbook stating that the southern Kurils were Japanese launched in 2008, the Russians were quick to complain.

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Attempts to resolve this dispute over the Kurils have continued, but with little success. In January 2019 Taro Kono, Japan’s foreign minister, paid a visit to Moscow. There, he had talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. But these seem to have been fruitless, merely confirming the stalemate that exists on the Kurils.

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Lavrov apparently insisted that Japan must acknowledge Russia’s ownership of the southern Kuril islands. And after the talks, his words were quoted by a Russian news agency known as TASS. “We pointed out to our Japanese friends that the sovereignty over the islands was non-negotiable. This is Russia’s territory,” Lavrov emphasized.

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In the meantime, it seems that those slowly disintegrating tanks are going to stay exactly where they are. Looking at the photographs, they give the landscape a strangely other-worldly atmosphere. In fact, you could almost imagine them becoming a tourist attraction in their own right. Perhaps a kind of outdoor museum of rusting Second World War tanks.

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The 2,100 or so residents of the island – most of whom work in the fishing industry – would perhaps be glad of the tourist dollars. But before you rush to book a ticket to visit the tanks of Shikotan, there are obstacles to overcome. First of all, you’ll need to obtain a permit from the Russian authorities – by no means a straightforward task.

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Secondly, the island is notoriously difficult to reach. In fact, the predominate means of getting there is by boat – though one might also do so by helicopter. But what little services there are can be easily suspended because of bad weather. So it may be that your best chance of contemplating Shikotan’s rusting behemoths is by simply perusing photographs.

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