The first Japanese settlers came across from Hokkaido in the early 1800s, attracted by marine life so rich that one explorer wrote ‘the water looked as though it was boiling’. The island – mistakenly named for an early map reference to ‘cliffs on the black river’ (‘Saghalien-Anaghata’ in Mongolian) – already had occupants in the form of the Nivkhi, Oroki and Aino peoples but, just as this didn’t give pause to the Japanese, the Russians were equally heedless when they claimed Sakhalin in 1853. Japan agreed to recognise Russian sovereignty in exchange for the rights to the Kuril Islands.
Japan restaked its claim on Sakhalin, seizing the island during the Russo-Japanese War, and got to keep the southern half, which it called Karafuto, under the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth (1905). In the final days of WWII, though, the Soviet Union staged a successful invasion, and Sakhalin became a highly militarised eastern outpost of the Soviet empire, loaded with aircraft, missiles and guns.
In 1990 Muscovite governor Valentin Fyodorov vowed to create capitalism on the island. He privatised retail trade, but most people soon found themselves poorer. Fyodorov left, head down, in 1993. The demise of the USSR and the influx of thousands of oil-industry internationals succeeded where Fyodorov couldn’t, and today Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is one of the wealthiest cities in Russia.