No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent


A visual contemporary anthropology project based on the Anton Chekhkov’s book Sakhalin Island



 In 1890, Anton Chekhov made a journey across the entire Russian Empire, from Moscow to a hard-labour island. The trip resulted in the book called Island Sakhalin.

The causes of the author’s act so self-sacrificing for that time are yet unknown. Some researchers call it ‘civic duty’, while others see the reasons in his ‘private life’. Only one thing is beyond any doubt – each and every one in the Anton Chekhov’s inner circle considered it their duty to talk him out of the risky trip. “Nobody needs and is interested in Sakhalin,” his friend and publisher Alexei Suvorin wrote, the reply to which was: “… we have destroyed millions of people in prisons, destroyed them for no purpose, without giving it a thought, in a barbaric manner; we would drive people for tens of thousands versts in cold weather in chains, infect them with syphilis, deprave them, multiply criminals, shifting the blame for all of it on the red-nosed prison wardens. Now, the whole of educated Europe knows it was not the fault of the wardens but of all us, whereas we do not care, it is not interesting…”.

The Island Sakhalin’s first edition was planned to be illustrated. Before his trip, Chekhov contemplated drawings. Artists, however, requested a fee too large, whilst the cost of a joint travel would be enormous. Checkhov was in distress for money and could not pay even a minute part.

In Sakhalin, the author got acquainted with a local telegraph clerk Innokenty Pavlovsky, who turned out to be a photography enthusiast. It was then that the idea to illustrate the future book with photographs came up. Chekhov compiled a list of the photo stories he planned to make.

Most of the Innokenty Pavlovsky’s photographs were made at the writer’s request, which becomes clear from personal correspondence, in which the photographer asks for assistance by granting official permission to shoot in prisons and places of hard labourers’ residence.

A drawing (by Lilia Fedotova, 2012) at a bus stop in Alexandrovsk-Sakhalinsky, where Anton Chekhov first arrived from the continent. 

Photo by Oleg Klimov, 2015

“Here is where Asia ends, and one could say the Amur falls into the Great Ocean at this place were it not for the Sakhalin Island sitting across”. 

Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island

I tried to not only find the originals of photos by Pavlovsky in Kamchatka, Moscow and America but to compile a photographer’s biography, though tentative, and his acquaintance with Anton Chekhov greatly facilitated my task.

Another amateur photographer was Alexander Scherbak, a doctor on the Petersburg ship. The fifty days spent onboard the ship with Chekhov, apparently, laid a foundation for a friendship. The same follows from Chekhov’s letters. The photos taken onboard the Petersburg transporting hard labourers from Russia to Sakhalin are by Alexander Scherbak and were as well intended as illustrations to the first edition of the Chekhov’s book.

One of the photos depicts a sailor being laid to rest in the sea. Anton Chekhov was supposed to be present. In one of his short stories, Gusev, there is a conversation, in which one sailor says to another that should he die at sea his relatives will never find out about it. The other sailor replies that if he actually dies, the deceased’s surname will be written in the logbook. It became the reason to examine the logbook of the Petersburg ship, where the photo was taken in 1890. The deceased’s name was Ivan Chublinsky, a private of the Alexander marine team from the Sakhalin island. He was on his way home to Russia but fell ill and died. While it may seem inconsequential to some, I am particularly proud of it, because 125 years later we can learn more through examining photos.

One hundred and twenty years on, with the book Sakhalin Island and a photo camera I, for one year, travelled across Sakhalin from south to north, from west to east, and I lived on the Kuril Islands, the modern-day Russia’s only island area. Surprisingly, as I decided to make a book on Sakhalin, my peers tried to convince me, too, that “nobody needs Sakhalin”, it is “a shift-team island” and there is nothing there except oil, gas and fish. “It is dull and boring”.

I talked a lot to native islanders and I asked questions to people who came from the continent. “I am here because…” was the answer I wanted the most. Why do Russians still live in the islands and from generation to generation entertain the hope of returning back to the continent, to Russia? What is left of the hard-labour colonies and what have the people gained by gaining freedom? Was there and is there freedom? I was interested in the irrational and subconscious motives, as the other ones I knew quite well from books and mass media. I thought by so doing I would be able to get the answer to why Chekhov had decided to visit the prison of Sakhalin.

Eventually, based not on opinion polls or Chekhov’s 1890 census, though I used those as well, I concluded that the answer to the question “why am I here?” rather lied in the realm of my own judgement made after talking to locals, and in my photographs – a visual contemporary anthropology project I tried to implement on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.

To find the answer in the field of the irrational, not only did I have to travel in space and study the islands’ history. I decided that a “journey to the country’s subconscious”, situated topographically in its outskirts, post-Soviet-empire islands, while all that is rational and conscious is found in its capital, Moscow, was much more important.

In a sense, it is a visual follow-up on Anton Chekhov’s social research project that did not happen 120 years ago – therefore, as a grateful reader, I used quotes from Sakhalin Island for each photo story, to both confirm the continuity of the local history and its content determined by human presence.

Oleg Klimov, documentary photographer



The Ainus are an indigenous people inhabiting Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Is now extinct. 1890. Photo by Innokenty Pavlovsky/the USA, Library of Congress.

Whoever was the first to discover Sakhalin – the Dutch, French, Russian or Japanese – both Russians and Japanese still feel subconsciously that Sakhalin and the Kurils are ‘no man’s islands’ and that either of the nations is entitled to own them.

The perception, whether conscious or not, is still in the minds of the islanders, despite the state’s attempts to root out and destroy all the cultural layers connecting Sakhalin and Japan. I am not sure, but it appears to me something similar takes place in Japan, for instance, when the Japanese mark a part of Sakhalin and the Kurils on geographical maps as a Japanese territory.

When in 1875, however, the Kurils became Japanese and Sakhalin Russian, we made the island into a hard-labour colony, though “when punishment, except for revenge, intimidation or correction, sets other goals, like colonisation, it has to constantly adjust itself to the colony’s needs, and make concessions. Prison is the antagonist of colony, and the interests of the two are contrary.” (Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island).

Later still, when a part of Sakhalin became property of Japan, the Japanese did not make it a ‘hard-labour island’ but rather literally colonised the south of Sakhalin through building an infrastructure, a railway and industry… They simply wanted to live on the island forever, not temporarily as we did throughout the history of developing Sakhalin: as a place of hard-labour punishment, seeking a big pay-packet in the USSR or using it for the present-day Russia’s oil companies’ shift work.

We have never built anything on the island, we have simply been fishing and recovering oil and gas, the natural resources only stored on Sakhalin to be quickly sold off including to Japan. Meanwhile, that very ‘Russian Sakhalin’ is still heated with coal, the prices of fish are higher than in Moscow and the people still live in barracks. More often than not this ‘trade’ looks like thieving rather than colonisation

Apparently, the subconscious feelings have no legal foundation but are very important to any person, as in fact it is them and not the rampant patriotic propaganda that produce the sense of belonging, including civic one, to the islands, land and sea.

“A hard-labour settlement does not begin from the hard labour but from the settlement” – our only achievement so far has been transforming a penal-colony island into a shift-work island.

This is why I, naturally, felt an attraction to the natives of Sakhalin, genuinely attached to the land, their habitat since time immemorial, hated by those who had built a penal colony here.”, – From the letters by the hard-labourer Bronislaw Pilsudski from Sakhalin, 1891 

“It appeared that we had found a nature-deserted island in the Sea of Okhotsk, glanced at it, and, from that moment, it became our property…”, – Jacob Butkowski, a researcher of Sakhalin, executed in 1937

“In 1867, (…) the Russians and the Japanese acknowledged one another’s equal rights to govern the island of Sakhalin – meaning neither considered the island their own…”

Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island


The Sakhalin Region is the only area of continental Russia fully situated on 59 islands, most of which came under USSR’s jurisdiction in September 1945, according to the Potsdam Conference, whose resolutions resulted in 275, 017 Japanese nationals and 8,303 Japanese POWs repatriated from Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Over the period of Japanese nationals’ resettlement, the number of USSR citizens residing in the island area increased from 70,000 to 450,000 



New arrivals are being chained. Sakhalin Island, 1890. Photo by Innokenty Pavlovsky/ USA Library of Congress

Each individual I met seemed, when alone, like a nice person to me, but whenever my new acquaintances found themselves together in some “interest groups”, they often became monstrous in their judgements about people who were not part of their circle or did not share their views of life, national policies and national leaders.

Thus, I saw the burgeoning of a subconscious feeling of hatred the human mass produces whenever an “only true idea” or ideology purporting to embrace the whole world fails.

Unlike other continental empires that have ceased to exist, our empire has at all times been “idea-driven”, which is why it is the last one to vanish. Spiritual strength is the great power of the subconscious. An idea and, consequently, ideology determines the very essence of the Russian lifestyle: the Third Rome, world revolution, communism in the whole world. The most recent attempt is the Russian World.

Our ideological conquistadors have discovered and subdued new lands, in which tsarist hard-labour colonies or Soviet GULAG camps have cropped up one after another, including as a means of colonising new or difficult to live in territories.

Not only violence towards its own citizens and aggression against other countries was the foundation of the “idea-driven empire”, but violence and aggression became the driving force of each individual’s and society’s lifestyle, which has, for centuries, contributed to a particular set of values, the Russian ressentiment.

Both inborn and acquired hostility toward everything the Russian has considered the cause of their failures and grievances promotes ressentiment only too well. Their humiliation and abused state is always some external enemy’s fault and is never their own, because they never decide anything and own anything, often including their own life.

A former prisoner with a tattooed Russian emblem not far from the village of Smirnykh – the place of the Sakhalin prison. Photo by Oleg Klimov, 2015

“The rods punishment has, because of being used excessively, become supremely banal on Sakhalin, so that many are no longer repulsed or afraid, and they say there are quite a few prisoners who do not even feel any pain during the execution.”

“When one of the people accompanying me in my rounds of the cells began scolding him for having robbed a church, he said: “So what? God needs no money.” Seeing that the prisoners were not laughing and the phrase had left a sour impression, he added: “But instead I have never killed people.”

Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island



A stoker in the village of Due, Sakhalin Island, 2015. Photo by Oleg Klimov

While a hard-labour colony had, according to Anton Chekhov, begun from the settlement, a contemporary shift-work station first began from hard labour. In a sense, it is a historical tradition resulting from objective conditions in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union due to the islands’ continuous development.

The entire period of Sakhalin and the Kurils’ colonisation was imbued with violence, including against the colonists themselves. In the beginning, there was a hard-labour settlement, where they tried to use hard labour for the purposes of colonisation. After 1945, the south of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands came under the jurisdiction of the USSR again, and violence was used not only against the Japanese population but the indigenous peoples as well, while Soviet citizens moving there from the continent was not solely the result of the propaganda that promised the good life. Citizens often had to set up homes there despite the climate and island lifestyle being utterly foreign to them. Several GULAG camps were opened in the north of Sakhalin, to build a tunnel between Sakhalin and the continent. The plan that cost hundreds of human lives was, after Stalin’s death, acknowledged as “inefficient”.

It is quite safe to state that any colonisation is based on violence, but, unlike in the West, the Russian and Soviet colonisation gave nothing to the colonists in exchange for their hard work and distress. In the Russian Empire, they were hard labourers, who, even if they settled, had no right to leave Sakhalin. The colonisation at the cost of a lifelong deprivation of freedom proved to be inefficient.

In the Soviet Union, the islands were developed by citizens, whose rights, including the private property right, were effectively forfeited, as well as by GULAG prisoners. Both groups openly or secretly wanted to leave the “alien islands”. They had too few reasons to love this land and consider it their own, regardless of how much the empires’ rulers wanted them to.

The love of the islands’ unique nature, very different from the Russian midlands, is the only feeling granted to the hard labourers, settlers and colonists in reward for their misery. It is both evident from the Chekhov’s “travel notes” made 125 ago and from today’s realities. The love of the nature came as a reward not from the state but from God. Unfortunately, the Russian person, both then and now, confusese, as the saying goes, “a God’s gift and scrambled eggs”.

“The islands are to work on, not to live on,” one of the Sakhalin’s and Russia’s wealthiest people told me. It is the paradigm of shift-working in a contemporary colony, based on the old hard-labour system.

In 1890, the only privately owned coal mining company, Sakhalin Society, operated on the island, in the village of Due. Its owners lived in Saint-Petersburg. The entire hard-labour colony’s population worked as coal miners. The contract with the state stipulated its every breach or failure to fulfil, like absence at work, being penalised by enormous fines to be paid to the coal mining company. The agreements between Sakhalin Society and the Russian Empire effectively made the hard-labourers serfs. They did not serve their sentences for the benefit of the state but, practically for free, recovered coal for private individuals.     

 “It is not hard labour but serfdom, as a hard labourer does not serve the state but an individual who cares nothing for correctional purposes or reasonability of the punishment; he is not an exiled hard labourer but a slave dependent on the master’s and their family’s will, accommodating to their whims and being involved in their kitchen-sink dramas”.

Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island

“Before 1888, individuals who were granted the peasant’s rights were forbidden to leave Sakhalin…, the prohibition that deprived a Sakhalin resident all hope for a better life and instilled hatred to Sakhalin in people… The measure was caused by the opinion that if peasant began to leave the island, Sakhalin would simply turn into a place for a short-term exile, not a colony. But would life sentences really make Sakhalin Australia?”

Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island


In 2015, there is only one coal mine left on the island but Gazprom and Rosneft are the gas and oil recovery successful operators of today. The process is based on a “month-after-month” working system. The owners are the shareholders and the state, although in fact the monopoly is property of a group of well-known oligarchs and their families. The products – oil and gas – are in most cases supplied to China, Korea and Japan, whilst entire cities on the islands are still heated with coal.

The other type of industry found on the islands is seafood production. The business uses the same shift-work scheme and a great many illegally hired employees who come from various former Soviet republics and Oceania. The products are supplied to China, Korea and Japan.

Shift work is certainly not the same as hard labour, but that is not what needs evidence, though some fishermen on the Kuril Islands say their shift work is “voluntary hard labour”, as they have no or very limited choice. “It is not really shift work. It is the same thing, just a different angle.”



Vzmorie village, Gulf of Patience, Sakhalin island. July 2015. Photo by Oleg Klimov

My understanding of the subconscious of a huge empire, nearly a continent, was not formed through reading books – they were rather proof to what I saw – but through hearing simple stories from the people whom I met on the islands scattered in the ocean.

Only once a year a small ship delivers food and coal for heating to them. There is no phone communication on the island. Portable radios have not worked for a long time, yet these people, despite of civilian status, perform tasks for the national military. They are only five and they work to ensure the submarine fleet’s navigation: “We guide nuclear submarines in the Pacific Ocean, but we cannot phone our mothers at home. It is not because it is a secret military site, but simply because there is no communication with the continent whatsoever. Only with the submarines,” Yuri, whose experience of working and living on the islands is 16 years, explained to me.

When his mother died and he was told about it over the radio (it worked then), there was no transportation to reach the next inhabited area. Yuri walked in the winter across the volcanoes and mountains to the other side of the island, the village of North Kurilsk, to fly by helicopter to Kamchatka, where his mother lived. He covered about one hundred kilometres on impassable roads in three days on foot, but still did not make it in time for his mother’s funeral, as there was no helicopter flying to North Kurilsk – so he had to go back. “Since then I have not been trying to reach the continent,” he says. “Especially because there is no reason to.”

Misha Pak is a Japanese with a Korean last name. When he was 16, he refused to accept Soviet citizenship and a Soviet passport, because in the passport’s section five, nationality, the state denied him the right to write “Japanese”, as Japanese were not supposed to be found on Sakhalin. We met in 2007, when he was the “chief of fishing” of Aboriginal cooperative in the Gulf of Patience. Misha Pak died in 2014 of cardiac failure as a citizen of the world, with no citizenship. “I have for 60 years lived in and never left a small town on the island. Accepting Russian citizenship now would mean betraying my whole life, as nobody has written in my passport I am Japanese [section five was annulled],” he told me in August 2007 in the Gulf of Patience, where we waited out a storm and, for several days, talked in his fisherman’s cabin on the seashore, where he had me.


“At the Korsakov station there is an exiled hard labourer Altukhov, a man aged 60 or above, who escapes in the following manner: he takes a piece of bread, locks his cabin and, walking at most half a verst from the station, he sits down on the mountain and stares at the taiga, the sea and the sky; after sitting this way for three days, he returns home, takes food and walks into the mountains again… He used to be whipped for it, but nowadays they only laugh at his escapes… A yearning for freedom comes over some types from time to time, resembling in this sense binge drinking or the falling evil…”

Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island”

In 1994, after an earthquake destroyed 80 percent of Shikotan’s buildings, residents of the island were given the opportunity to leave Shikotan and choose whichever place they wanted to live in either Russia or Japan. Japan was to pay for their relocation and for rebuilding the island’s infrastructure.

No referendum was ever held on the islands, but almost every Shikotan resident wrote a request to the Japanese government asking to leave the island on Japan’s conditions. The island’s administration is still holding onto these requests, but this history is silenced. Eventually, Russia erected new infrastructure on the island.

The Russian government kept its promises and erected temporary barracks, and then replaced them with sturdy homes, which were mostly meant for military servicemen and border control officers serving in the region.



Fish harvesting. Near the Iturup Island, the Kuril Islands. May 2015. Photo by Oleg Klimov

While guest workers in Moscow weep pavements, on the Kurils they scale fish. Both on the continent and on the islands the attitude of the “simulated locals” to them is quite the same – “too many newcomers”. “Simulated locals” means there are practically no genuine local residents on the Kuril Islands, as most are “newcomers” themselves.

The guest workers, or temporary workers, on the islands are divided into two categories – “coastal” and “marine”. The latter ones are often called “processing sailors”, as they are required to be qualified as sailors, to work on a ship in the open sea. It is why the “processing sailors” are more often than not local residents, as the majority are directly related to the sea and seafood and in the most traditional way, and are equipped with the necessary documents.

Land-based processors are generally not required to have any qualifications, and they often come to the islands from all the former USSR republics, Russia, as well as from China and less than prosperous countries of the Pacific Ocean islands, seeking quick money.

Fishermen here like to say, “the shorter the deck, the longer the rouble”, meaning the smaller the fishing ship and, consequently, the crew, are, the larger is the share of each fisher, as the length of the rouble is contingent on the number of caught fish tails. In fact, it is an old Soviet-era myth. On smaller vessels, up to 20-25 metres, Alaska Pollock is bought of fishermen at 5-6 roubles a kilo, while on larger ones at 1.5-2.5 roubles a kilo, but fishermen on smaller ships catch three tonnes a day at most, dividing the take between 5-7 people, whilst on larger ones the yield is 30 tonnes or more, divided among a 16-25 crew. It easy to understand that the length of the rouble is not directly related to the length of the deck but rather hinges on luck and “sea’s kindness”, in any case multiplied by a most exhausting effort.

“The Sakhalin’s greatest wealth and its future – perhaps enviable and happy – is not the fur animals or coal, as they think, but the periodic (salmon) fish… Thus, the fish is going to be the wealth of Sakhalin, but not of an exile colony.”

Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island

The profitability of cod or Alaska Pollock catching, for instance, is as high as 50 percent and is comparable to that of producing oil or gas in Sakhalin. Everything that can be sold outside the Sakhalin Region is oil, gas and fish. There is nothing more. This is why the ideal sea resource market to the state is, like the oil one, several large monopolist corporations, supervised by public officials.



Oil recovery in the sea. The north of Sakhalin Island, March 2007. Photo by Oleg Klimov

My attempts to find a way to the Rosneft and Gazprom-developed oilfields on Sakhalin were to no effect. The monopolies owned by the state – in fact, by the state within the state – were vehemently opposed to me visiting their sites, referring, first, to security measures and, second, to them being willing to give any information, including photographs, to the mass media. But I was not content with the kind of services, and so I had to use other sources.

The only public association able to control the Rosneft’s and Gazprom’s work in terms of environmental protection was Sakhalin Ekovakhta (Sakhalin Environmental Watchdog), but in September 2015 the government pronounced it a “foreign agent”. The Justice Ministry claimed the environmentalists’ work “hampered the national energy sector’s progress” and “increased the feeling of environmental hazard” in the citizens.

The environmentalists are reluctant to operate branded as “foreign agents” not only for moral reasons but because the state can impose a new law demanding “foreign agents” be prosecuted criminally.

The islanders’ love of the Sakhalin nature – coves, bays, mountains, plains, lakes and even the impassable roads – where they strive to go to on their Japanese cars whenever they have spare time, can only be explained by substituting the lack of “cultural life” in the Sakhalin Region’s settlements, not counting the “mass cultural events”, sponsored by the state on the occasion of yet another election or patriotic festivities. Any harm done to the islands’ ecology, therefore, produces in the islanders a feeling of injustice not only to the nature but to themselves as well, and it can cause a public outcry damaging to the state and energy corporations.

“And yet, a hard labourer – as corrupt and unjust as they may be – above all loves fairness, and if it is not found in the people ranking higher than themselves, they, year to year, go increasingly bitter and extremely mistrustful.”

Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island.

“A. N. Korf (governor general)… made a brief speech: “I saw for myself that the “miserable” ones’ life in Sakhalin is easier than anywhere else in Russia or even in Europe. In this respect, we have a lot to do, as the path of goodness is infinite”… His commending remarks disagreed in one’s mind with the famine, epidemic prostitution among exiled women, harsh corporal punishments, but the listeners had to believe him: the present time, as compared to what happened five years ago, seemed nothing short of the beginning of a golden era.”

Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island



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 The photo book No Man Is An Island contains contemporary photographs, stories and opinions of island natives, collected by the documentary photographer Oleg Klimov over his several years at Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.

The research uses quotes from the Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, as well as materials and photographs from the archives of the Moscow Literary Museum, Sakhalin Local History Museum, Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island book’s museum, USA Library of Congress, and from media reports.

A comparative visual and social analysis of the local residents’ lifestyles, from the hard-labour times to modern day, is conducted at Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands – the continental Russia’s only island area.

Through topographically singling out the unique islands of the state that is nearly a continent, and enduing them with the qualities of Russia’s “social subconscious”, OIeg Klimov tries to explain the post-Soviet person’s behaviour and examine the causes of their ressentiment, confirming his conclusions with visual images.

Treemedia Content Publisher, Finland

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