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Severo-Kurilsk: the classified tragedy of the Soviet seaside town
Severo-Kurilsk: the classified tragedy of the Soviet seaside town

In the history of the USSR, it happened that some events of the country's authorities (for whatever reason) tried not to give wide publicity. This mainly concerned those incidents that were associated with significant human casualties. Even the consequences of some such disasters, both man-made and natural, remain in secret archives years later.

Some events, such as the tragedy of the seaside town of Severo-Kurilsk on Sakhalin, were a little more fortunate: part of the truth about the natural disaster that occurred here in the middle of the 20th century and its consequences is now available to the general public.

Living surrounded by volcanoes

If we talk about the location of Severo-Kurilsk, then the colloquial expression “live like on a volcano” is precisely about this seaside town. Indeed, on the island of Paramushir (on which Severo-Kurilsk is located) there are 23 volcanoes. Of which 5 are considered valid at the present time. The closest (7 km) to the city - Ebeko, regularly reminds of itself, throwing clouds of volcanic gases into the air.


Such "sighs" of the hills twice in history (in 1859 and 1934) caused massive gas poisoning of people living on the island and the death of animals. Knowing about these features of the local nature, the Sakhalin Hydrometeorological Service, together with a storm warning, always notifies the residents of Severo-Kurilsk about the degree of air pollution by volcanic gases. In such cases, people in the city try not to go out without masks or respirators. Residents must pass water for drinking through filters.

Volcanoes are volcanoes, but at the beginning of November 1952 in Severo-Kurilsk it happened as one well-known Russian proverb says - "A trouble came from where they did not expect." Not from the mouth of a volcano, but from the ocean.

An unexpected blow from the ocean

At about 5 am (local time) on November 5, 1952, a powerful earthquake with a magnitude of 8.3 on the Richter scale struck the Pacific Ocean. Its epicenter was under the ocean floor at a depth of about 30 km, and at a distance of about 200 kilometers from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. As a result of tremors in the ocean, a tsunami was formed, which also moved towards the island of Paramushir. The height of the waves that reached land ranged from 10 to 18 meters.

Waves hitting Paramushir Island 10 meters high

The entire then Severo-Kurilsk with its 6,000 population was located in a natural bay in the northern part of Paramushir Island. A tsunami with waves 10 meters high hit the unprotected city that had just begun to wake up. In a few minutes, the elements almost completely wiped out Severo-Kurilsk from the face of the earth. And along with it there are 4 more fishing villages - Okeansky, Rifovoye, Shelekhovo and Shkilevo. All buildings on the island: houses, outbuildings, headquarters of military units, were completely destroyed.

According to official statistics, 2,236 people are considered dead in the 1952 tsunami. However, these are only those whose bodies were thrown ashore by the ocean, and who were subsequently identified. The real number of victims of the tragedy in Severo-Kurilsk is still classified.

The horror of that November morning is captured in the memories of surviving fishermen and border guards.

Wave or war

In 1952, the USSR did not have any specialized meteorological services that would track earthquakes in the ocean and could timely warn of the approaching tsunami. Therefore, in the early morning of November 5, when most of the inhabitants of the settlements on the islands of Paramushir and Shumshu (where, in addition to the military, about 10 and a half thousand people lived) were still asleep, only the military and fishermen who were awake at that time felt the earth shake a couple of times.

Ocean Wave

The approaching giant tsunami wave was first noticed by those who were closest to the ocean in the Severo-Kurilsk Bay.Separate shouts of "wave!" Rushed through the city. The fishermen saw a wall of water rushing from the ocean onto land. However, some people, who had already woken up from the aftershocks, heard something completely different - "war!" Many survivors of the tragedy admitted that in the first moments, when the disaster struck the island, they believed that the island was attacked.

And then a real nightmare began in Severo-Kurilsk. The tsunami, with its blow, demolished all the buildings that were in its path. The wave carried away with it, and then brought down fishing boats and military boats on the city. In a matter of minutes, the water flooded all the buildings that resisted its impact. Most of the people either died from the blows or drowned. Many bodies were swept into the ocean by the tidal wave. And after several days it washed ashore.

Blue whale discarded by the tsunami

Of the buildings that withstood the impact of the elements, there was the entrance gate to the city stadium. When the water was gone, they were a very depressing sight. Many eyewitnesses have compared them to the arch of the apocalypse. Along with hundreds of people, many domestic animals and wildlife were killed. In archival documents, a photo of a dead ocean giant, a blue whale, washed ashore, has been preserved.

Tragedy of Severo-Kurilsk

After the disastrous blow of the elements, assessing the real losses, the authorities came to the conclusion not to restore the fishing villages and separate military units, which were located on the island of Paramushir and neighboring Shumshu. Moreover, in the first days after the tsunami, all the surviving soldiers were hastily evacuated from these islands. Thus, strategic land areas were left completely unprotected.

Tsunami aftermath in Severo-Kurilsk

Many researchers associate the evacuation of border guards and army units with the fact that the tragedy of Severo-Kurilsk was immediately classified as "top secret." Officially, the Soviet authorities declared only 2,236 people killed in the tsunami. However, these were only civilians. And even then only those whose bodies were found and identified.

Monument to the victims of the 1952 tsunami in Severo-Kurilsk

The number of killed sailors and soldiers from military units stationed at that time in Paramushir was immediately classified. And if the archives of the naval department in the early 2000s became available for study, then the documents of the Ministry of Defense are still in the archives "sealed with seven seals." According to historians and researchers of this tragedy, the total death toll from the tsunami on November 5, 1952 is no less than 8 thousand people. Almost 2 thousand of them are children and adolescents.

How Severo-Kurilsk lives today

Currently, Severo-Kurilsk is the only settlement on the Paramushir island. After the tragedy of 1952, most of the fish processing plants and bases were closed. The military contingent was also significantly reduced. Since 1961, the migration of herring has stopped in the coastal waters, which has hit the main branch of Severo-Kurilsk even more. Workshops for the production of canned fish continued to close. Naturally, people began to leave the city en masse: to Sakhalin, to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky or to the mainland.

Severo-Kurilsk today

As of January 2021, the population of Severo-Kurilsk is 2 thousand 691 people. All adult residents of North Kuril are mainly employed in the fishing industry, which is still preserved in the city. Also in Severo-Kurilsk, on the Matrosskaya River, there are 2 small hydroelectric power plants that provide the settlement and enterprises with electric energy.

It is difficult to say what the future of this seaside town is, located between two elements: volcanic and oceanic. However, as sad as it may sound, the tragedy of Severo-Kurilsk became the reason for the creation of a very necessary department. In 1956, a seismic and meteorological service began operating in the USSR, whose duties included detecting earthquakes in the ocean and warning about tsunamis. It still works today, although after 1991 it changed its name a little. Now it is the Russian Tsunami Warning Service.

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