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The Monster in the Corner of the Map: Russian Visitors Describe Nature on Sakhalin Island (1850–1905)

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This article examines evolving constructions of nature on Sakhalin Island in late imperial Russia, emphasising changing Russian views of not only the island, but of science, modernisation, mankind’s power over nature and the borders of the empire. From a European land of plenty in the 1850s, welcoming to its Russian visitors, after a quarter-century of penal colonisation, the island had become a monster devouring its prey. This article argues that contradictory and evolving descriptions of Sakhalin’s nature reflect tensions Russians faced in a modernising world, as they questioned the relationship between mankind and nature; the reliability of science; and the correct borders of their state. In the 1850s, Sakhalin seemed normal and bountiful, a gift to Russia, while two decades later, it was wealthy but hostile, although, with science, Russians could prevail. By the 1890s, that was called into question, and the island was portrayed as not only hostile, but foreign, desolate and unsubmissive to science; while activists of the early twentieth century reimagined it as abundant, comprehensible and vital to the empire. The image of Sakhalin as hostile and unintelligible prevailed, reflecting a widespread disillusionment with Western modernity. In 1905, Russia surrendered the southern half of the island to Japan.
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Keywords: Russia; Sakhalin; colonisation; environmental orientalism; nature; orientalism

Appeared or available online: April 1, 2019

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