The recent visit of President Vladimir Putin to Japan has again raised the critical problem of possible surrender of the disputed Kuril Islands. The grave economic situation in the islands and the vicinity of a powerful state can create an impression that Japan’s claims are fair. However, most of the Russian citizens including the clergy and laity of the Russian Orthodox Church have spoken clearly for the preservation of the territorial integrity of the state. Bishop Daniel of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and the Kurils expressed the opinion of his parishioners on this matter in an interview to Olga Kiryanova of Interfax-Religion.
- Your Grace, you are the head of the easternmost diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Kurils, which make up a considerable part of the diocesan territory, have been put in a claim ever more vigorously by Japan. Recently an Orthodox chapel has been built on one of the islands, devoted to the Holy Martyr Dimitry of Thessaloniki, which has displeased our eastern neighbor so much.
- Yes, recently we have built a chapel in the Tanfilyev Island. It is one of the Kurils islands, closest to Japan. The coast of Japan is clearly seen from it. The chapel is made of wood, with a traditional helmet-shaped cupola typical for Russian church architecture. The cupola is covered with a very durable composition of nitrite titanium. The cupola shines like a golden one and can be seen from a great distance.
The Japanese were shocked by the appearance of a chapel on the island, the more so that they do not understand the difference between a chapel and a church. Unfortunately, radically-minded political forces in Japan believe these islands to be their own so much that anything built on them shocks them as if it were built on their own territory. Recently, for the first time in my four years as bishop here, I visited Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Autonomous Orthodox Church. Japanese journalists repeatedly asked me: What did you build a church on a deserted island for? Why do you ask what for, I answered, the island is inhabited, there are Russian frontier-guards living there, and fishermen come from Sakhalin. And then, brothers, you should not forget that it is a Russian territory. So we have the right to build whatever we need on it. This was my answer to the reaction from the Japanese press.
I have been to this island. There are twelve frontier-guards living there. It is an absolutely wonderful place. First, there is unique black-earth soil; the grass growing on it is very thick and waist-high. Domestic animals at the military farm, cows, pigs, horses, run the island freely. They are not penned because it is senseless to do on an island. They pasture as they can. If a cow needs to be milked, she comes to her masters and moos to say it’s milking time, then goes away again. There are a lot of various fishes at the coast - trepangs, sea-urchins, crabs, shrimps. A paradise. We have arranged the chapel properly, putting in icons and candlesticks. The soldiers, who are mostly Orthodox, come to it for prayer. The priest whom I have assigned to it will come from Shikotan. He will be able to come only if there is a convenient opportunity, because it takes about five hours to sail from Shikotan to Tanfilyev Island. Plus the way back. As foodstuffs are brought to the islands for the soldiers on a regular basis, the father may come on the same carrier and leave on it. He will celebrate the Divine Liturgy at the chapel on a portable corporal and conduct prayer services.
- Is it true that there is a forest in one of the Kuril islands, growing in the form of a cross if you look at it from above?
- Yes, one of the islands has a forest, locals say, which grows in a special way. If you look at it from above, it has the outlines of a cross. It is especially noticeable in autumn when broad-leaved trees turn crimson and yellow. This forest may have been planted by ancestors of today’s Sakhalinians to mark the land as an integral part of Orthodox Russia.
- Life in the Kurils is not easy. Are you not afraid that everything will end some day? Those who can will leave, the rest will simply pass away some day, and the Kuril land, so much desired by many, will be left free?
- We think about it. There is certainly such danger. One of the problems is that we are actually isolated from the rest of Russia. It is very expensive to go from Sakhalin to any place in the center of the country. Prices here are higher then in Moscow, as almost everything has to be brought over. For instance the wholesale price for a kilogram of onion here is fifteen roubles. We have no onion of our own. It is not cultivated here. Besides, the option is limited: for the most part they bring low-quality Chinese foodstuffs. There are very many problems, which, of course, have caused an outflow of the population from the island.
Sakhalin is now crowded with illegal immigrants - people from China who are modest and industrious. Those among the locals who can work do work, while the rest vegetate in poverty and drink. I do not know what to do with all that. In the Soviet time, people were not educated for responsibility and desire to work, because there was a system of social security. Now all that has ended and, in addition, we have gone through the fifteen years of democracy. Many people in Sakhalin look to the future with fatalism. We urge them to arrange their own household, such as pig-breeding or vegetable-growing farms. The same onion can be grown in greenhouses. One of our woman parishioners has been successful in it. If people are taught to work, everything can be arranged and put in order. But what we need to do this is not to show thrillers on TV around the clock but to give useful information, for instance, how to grow onion, how to make something useful with one’s own hands.
- The Orthodox Church in Sakhalin in your person has actively advocated the retention of the Kurils as part of Russia. But the Church should be concerned in the first place for the welfare of her parishioners, the Kuril people in this case. Perhaps they will feel better ‘under the Japanese’?
- We have no people here indifferent to the question of the Kurils’ belonging, as it affects every section of the population. Last Saturday, a mass rally was held in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk against handing the Kurils over to Japan. The clergy also participated in it. Of course, this action was planned to coincide with the visit of the Russian president to Japan. Significantly, the rally gathered together all those who usually disagree with one another: the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Motherland party and the United Russia party. The Japanese also protested at the same time, putting forward opposite demands to Russia.
Most people in the Kurils understand that in Japan they have a very strict capitalism that we are lacking now. Living ‘under the Japanese’, you will not be able to go out into the sea and fish wherever you want, as island people do here now. Everything will be regulated. People are aware of this all and are not in a hurry to take a decision. The Japanese are tough people. They will lay down such conditions that native islanders will find it hard to live here.
As far as people’s welfare is concerned, it does not mean only material wealth. National welfare includes first of all our culture, history and spirituality. Without it we will cease to exist as a nation, we will disappear and become just a crowd. The most important thing is not a full belly but our roots. The people begin gradually to understand it, to realize that without roots, without memory, we are nothing. We are doing everything possible to bring this idea home to our fellow-countrymen. We would like to see our youth educated in this spirit in kindergartens and schools and in their families. Look at the Americans, how they honour their flag, how they kiss it and how they respect their state symbols. This is what we are lacking, unfortunately. We have no national idea.
Soldiers often ask me: Whom and what exactly do we defend? What is Motherland? People want a concrete answer. From the Orthodox perspective, one can give only one answer: Russia cannot be understood from the point of view of the year 2005. She is to be viewed in the historical context. What stands behind us is the Church of Christ, the Heavenly Church, the triumphant Church and we are in it together with our ancestors. They remain citizens of our Motherland, and there are more then we are. And we are the Church earthly and militant. We are only a visible and smaller part of an iceberg. One cannot be an Ivan who does not remember his kin. Perhaps it is only though the extreme situation, the offensive from outside that our people will come to their senses - they say ‘he won’t lock the barn door till after the horse is stolen’. God has to hurt, to put the people on trial so that they may come to their senses. A man in faint is slapped in the face for him to come to himself. I am sure that the Lord punishes us mercifully in order to bring us to reason.