Humanities and Teacher Education

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In histories and geographies of Russia, Sakhalin Island, off the east coast of Siberia, is often treated as separate from the mainland, an isolated island sharing little with its neighbor across the strait. Yet this has not always been the case. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Amur River and its delta were viewed as a unit centered on waterways, and included the mainland to the north of the river and Sakhalin across the delta to its east. To Russians, it was an unknown wilderness, unmapped, uninhabited, and of little interest to the state. Yet this was changing, as an increase in Pacific shipping rendered the region economically and geo-politically strategic. This article examines the negotiation of Russia's eastern border, a conflict not between nations, but between liberal Russians, who sought to locate ‘natural,’ scientific borders, and the Tsar's conservative statesmen, intent on preserving the status quo. To the state, the land was Chinese based on a seventeenth-century treaty, although the exact border was unknown and unimportant. Naval officer Gennadii Nevel'skoi disagreed, arguing that the land was naturally Russian, and vital to Russia's interests. After four years of exploration, Nevel'skoi and his supporters finally convinced the Tsar of the region's Russianness and importance, and the Tsar ordered in troops and a Russian administration. In the process, however, the region was divided, the mainland becoming Russian both administratively and in the Russian imagination, while Sakhalin became the ‘other,’ imagined as separate from Russia and governed as such.

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Journal of Historical Geography