Far Eastern Region

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The easternmost extremity of the Russian Federation is a vast territory with a sparse and declining population. It comprises 6.2 million square kilometers (2,394,000 square miles), or more than 36 percent of the country, but holds barely seven million residents, or less than 5 percent of the population. Given the inclement climate and poor transportation infrastructure in the north, residents are concentrated near the southern border with China, many living along the Amur River and the Pacific coast. Russians reached the coast during the seventeenth century; only in 1861 did they establish the city of Vladivostok after securing control over the southeastern maritime zone through a treaty with China. Construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad from the 1890s onward brought increased settlement. The Soviet state continued to rely on prison labor and exiles as well as military garrisons to develop the region, although at times it succeeded in drawing young settlers and workers with material incentives. During the 1990s incentives were ended, and many began to leave the region.

The Russian Far East is rich in natural resources, but fear of neighboring countries has affected their development and use. After accepting migrants and welcoming trade during the 1930s and 1940s, the Kremlin, led by Josef Stalin, expelled the Chinese and deported the Koreans to Central Asia. At great cost, the Far East sent marine products to European Russia in return for industrial goods. A brief rise in Sino-Soviet trade during the 1950s was followed by a massive military buildup that forced Moscow to spend much more on the area. Plans for exporting vast quantities of coal and lumber to Japan in return for investment in infrastructure were only partly realized before bilateral relations deteriorated at the end of the 1970s. Huge cost overruns meant that during the early 1980s, when authorities announced the completion of the Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad to extend development northward, even funds for maintenance could not be found. During the 1990s local elites diverted marine and lumber products to exports without paying taxes to Moscow. None of these approaches to the use of natural resources proved efficient for sustained development. During the early twenty-first century, Russians hoped that oil and gas projects, especially offshore by Sakhalin Island, would fuel the region's prosperity, yet fear of foreign control continued to leave investors uncertain of their prospects.

The Russian Far East has the potential to become part of the emerging Northeast Asian region, drawing together China, Japan, South Korea, and eventually North Korea. First, it would need to resolve tensions between the ten regional administrations, which pressed local agendas during the 1990s, and Moscow, which made efforts at recentralization. While there was a brief fear of the local governments banding together to restore the Far Eastern Republic of the early 1920s and gain substantial autonomy, the pendulum tilted toward Moscow; a presidential representative resided in Khabarovsk. Second, territorial disputes with China and Japan must be further resolved, stabilizing tensions over the border. Third, Russia must become confident of the balance of power in the region, overcoming fear that China or another country will dominate. Finally, plans for economic development need firm backing in Moscow, which must recognize that only by opening its eastern border to the outside world can it secure its future as a country facing both the developed European Union and the dynamic Asia-Pacific.

See also: baikal-amur magistral railway; china, relations with; geography; trans-siberian railway


Bradshaw, Michael J., ed. (2001). The Russian Far East and Pacific Asia: Unfulfilled Potential. Richmond, UK: Curzon.

Minakir, Pavel A., and Freeze, Gregory L., eds. (1994). The Russian Far East: An Economic Handbook. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Stephan, John J. (1994). The Russian Far East: A History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Gilbert Rozman