The Kuril Islands' ghost town Life in the military town the military forgot. A photo series
The military town Gornoe was built in the early 1980s on Iturup, one of the Kuril Islands, facing Kasatka Bay. It was settled by the families of artillery, helicopter pilot, and fighter pilot regiments, which were stationed nearby. To this day, Kasatka Bay on Iturup Island is thought to be “the most suitable landing point for a potential adversary.” In the 1990s, however, two of the regiments were disbanded, and part of Gornoe's residential area and administrative buildings were abandoned and later looted. An earthquake in 1994 completely destroyed the town's infrastructure.
Kasatka Bay, once called Hitokappu Bay by its former occupants, has played a significant role in world history. On November 26, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Navy led two dozen ships with six aircraft carriers from Hitokappu Bay toward Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, where Japan would mount a surprise attack 11 days later, bringing the United States into World War II. The fleet never returned, and, in 1945, the Potsdam Agreement transferred sovereignty over Iturup Island to the Soviet Union. The island's population was then repatriated to Japan.
Today, the Russians living in Gornoe often say it's a ghost town, and sailors call it a Fata Morgana (a mirage), in honor of the sea fairies who, as legend has it, live on the ocean floor, deceiving travelers with phantom visions. By the last count on December 1, 2015, there were 635 people living in Gornoe—128 of them children. Late last year, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced plans to build new military towns on Iturup Island. In December 2015, photographer Oleg Klimov visited Gornoe, observing life in the “ghost town,” and speaking to the people who live there.
“It's very hard every day to look out your own window and see a broken city. It breaks you inside, and you want to reach for a drink, even first thing in the morning. That's why my wife and I often have breakfast at the coast, looking out at the sea and drinking coffee from a thermos—not vodka from a bottle,” one apartment-owner explained.
Laying eyes on Gornoe is no easy task. There are two ways into town: “at low tide,” if you drive along the shore during low tide, and “the strategic road,” which the military built. But the strategic road can only accommodate tanks. If you don't have a tank, you're better off taking the “low tide” route, where there are other risks, admittedly: your car might sink in an incoming wave, or (worst still) you could sink with your vehicle.
Gornoe became a ghost town in July 2005, when then Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov noticed the settlement while flying overhead in a helicopter en route to Burevestnik airbase. Looking down on the destroyed buildings, he asked the soldiers with him, “What's the story with the ghost town?” Unmysteriously, someone in the group answered, “Nobody lives there.” Since then, Gornoe has disappeared from all military and strategic maps as an “inhabited locality,” but the land and the buildings still standing continue to be listed as Defense Ministry property. Only the town's people aren't listed, though they're still there, alive.
One man, a now retired captain still living in Gornoe, managed to see Defense Minister Ivanov once when he was still in the service. When they met, he reminded Ivanov about his “ghost town” remark. In response, the defense minister suggested to the regiment's commander that he set up an Internet cafe at Burevestnik airbase for the conscripts serving in the area, “so the soldiers could write emails home.” “I thought at the time,” the retired captain says today, “that this man isn't even from Moscow—he's fallen to us from the Moon. It's a shame we didn't get to show him our little ghost town then.”
“In the mid-1990s, when I came here as a lieutenant,” a now 38-year-old retired soldier says, “I first thought the whole place was just a firing range where they trained special ops guys to fight in Chechnya. I didn't think it was my new home. Seriously. I looked around, amazed, and thought, ‘If this is the training grounds, the regiment's actual housing is gonna be amazing!’ My wife understood before I did. She started crying.” Today, the Defense Ministry's official apartments in Gornoe are inhabited mostly by retired military personnel and active officers in the Russian Army, along with their young wives and small children. The number of troops stationed at Gornoe is a military secret, but medical records from a local paramedic list 635 people—128 of whom are children, including some infants.
The shops in Gornoe are privately owned. Residents set up grocery stores and other outlets in neighboring vacant apartments, minimizing their commutes. That's why, if a store is “barricaded shut,” people here say you just need to knock on the neighboring apartment's door, where the owner lives, and tell them what you want to buy. Gornoe has a serious shortage of window glass and frames. You won't find them in any of the unoccupied apartments. As soon as anyone moves away, there's a race to grab their windows. If the people moving away bought vinyl replacement windows for their apartment, they'll sell them before leaving. It's impossible to buy or sell the apartments themselves—they're property of the Defense Ministry. As a result, the city's residents don't sell each other apartments, but “apartment repair work.”
Though the military town of Gornoe doesn't formally exist, the Defense Ministry still has to keep heating some of the buildings there, as the soldiers and their families stationed in the area have nowhere else to live. After Ivanov's visit to Iturup Island in 2005, the unoccupied homes in Gornoe were condemned “as hazardous” and scheduled for demolition. But they only managed to blow up the school and the recreation center, turning them into ruins. Officials opened a new school in what used to be the military barracks. The residential buildings—constructed to withstand earthquakes—weren't destroyed completely, but that little adventure in explosives did manage to injure a local kindergarten teacher, who was hit by a piece of glass debris. The Defense Ministry's “military action” ended there.
Officially, it's never been clarified who was under occupation on Iturup Island, but everyone “knows” that the Japanese occupied all Russia's islands in the Pacific. In what battles did the Red Army heroically liberate Iturup Island? Nobody talks about this, either, because the Japanese surrendered the island without firing a shot.
Because it's nearly impossible to buy clothes in Gornoe (except for tracksuits and camouflage), locals say they like using online shopping, ordering goods from China. In the best case scenario, their orders arrive several months later by boat, and the delivery charge is higher than the cost of the items. But people try to pool their orders into one big one, to save money. If somebody buys something that doesn't fit as hoped, they offer it to someone else in the group.
Tatiana Belousova, the chairperson of the Kuril city district council, says the situation in Gornoe is complicated and “unresolved”: “There are municipal services operating there, but their facilities belong to the military. We don't have the right to do anything with them—we can't make improvements or do any remodeling. For instance, there's an oblast-level state program called ‘Warm Windows,’ which we could use to replace the kindergarten's old windows with modern double-paned ones. But we're not allowed to make modifications to property that isn't ours. It would be against the law.” In the winter, the snow isn't cleared from the roads in Gornoe. After typhoons, it's often physically impossible to exit an apartment building. People are forced to jump out second-floor windows, carrying shovels, so they can clear the snow from entrance ways. Snow drifts pile higher than 3 meters (almost 10 feet). Depending on where you park your car outside your home, you could have real trouble finding it under the snow. You'll have an even harder time digging it out. For weeks at a time, the whole town is cut off completely from the outside world.
There are no street names in Gornoe, but every building was originally designated by a number. Admittedly, the numbers weren't assigned in any particular order, so the designations appear to be random. New arrivals have trouble orienting themselves, even though all the buildings stand in a row.
Housed with love inside several apartments of a half-ruined building, Gornoe's kindergarten is the town's one bright spot. The school is staffed by the officers' wives and the children's parents, who do everything they can to make their kids' lives resemble a “happy childhood” as much as possible. Nothing escapes Gornoe's absurdity, however, and last December a state inspector fined the kindergarten for “fire safety violations” because the building's stairwell is 10 centimeters too narrow by school safety standards.