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.