Far Eastern regional identity as a contemporary indigeneity: historic and contemporary discourse

Ivan Zolotukhin 

Ph.D., Far Eastern State University, Vladivostok, Russia


This article seeks to emphasize further aspects. Firstly, the Russian State plays an important role in the origin of Far Eastern identity, as it impacts the socio-cultural processes on the East, as well as introduces new forms of economic structures, controls migrant flows, and develops the necessary military and transport infrastructure to hold the territory together and prevent possible outside invasion.

Secondly, because of the geographic remoteness of the Far East, the state implemented different measures to overcome the sense of alienation among the newcomers and migrants from the central parts of the Russian Empire and USSR, intending to turn the Far East into a buffer.

However, weak population density, as well as the unsuccessful performance of infrastructural and transport objectives, led to a severe miscalculation in Far Eastern development and, as a result of the frequent exacerbation in the socio-cultural structure, the threat of the gradual secession the Far Eastern territory from the Russian mainland.

Finally, the contemporary attempts of the Russian Government to realize strategic projects, which refer to the significance of the Far East as a probable core center of Asia-Pacific integration, collide with the risks of depopulation and both illegal and unqualified labor migration. The data reflects contradictions and differences among federal and regional interests and challenges as well as the transformation of regional Far Eastern identity.

The resulting conclusion reflects changes in perception of the Far Eastern territory as a possible locality of new identity. It may lead in turn to the emergence of a new indigenousness, not unlike that of local minorities.

Territory and Colonization

The destiny of the Russian Far East is closely related to the destiny of the whole of Russia. The entire history of Russia is a motion north- and eastward, to the coasts of the two oceans – the Pacific and Arctic ones.

In the beginning of the twenty first century, the senior political leadership of the country has taken a course on the major increase of an active presence of Russia in the Asia Pacific. Further decisions have shown that the national leadership of our country, as a minimum, has plans to increase the general level of development of the Far Eastern territories.

In accordance with the program adopted in 2007 to boost economic and social development of the Russian Far East and Baikal Region through the year 2013, the federal budget has allocated some 400 billion Russian rubles (approximately $14 billion) to build new, and modernize existing, transportation and energy networks, as well as other infrastructure, and to create new industrial production. To implement the federal program of development of the Russian Far East and Baikal Region (adopted in 2009) with the time range through 2025, the authorities have pledged to provide some 3.7 trillion rubles (more than $120 billion) from the federal budget for the duration of 11 years.[i]

The success of the implementation of these projects is largely dependent on their perception by the local population. Previous federal programs have shown their poor effectiveness: none of them was fully completed. It is important to keep in mind that if until recently the human resource flows were moving from the West to the East of the country, now they reverted and move from the East to the West. All attempts to change the direction of this flow did not bring any meaningful results, as the population of the Russian Far East, while not being large to begin with, continues to shrink. However, it is the people who are the main resource of exploration and development of the territory.

It was Fridrich Ratzel who pointed out that the measure of development of a culture is the level of spiritual connection that a person has to the land in which one lives. The lack of a settled lifestyle is the lack of “spiritual roots”. Thus, colonization became the most important element of the government policy towards the population of the Far Eastern lands.

The settling of the lands now known as the Russian Far East started in the seventeenth century, and the first large permanent settlements have appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century; this was the time when such major cities as Khabarovsk and Vladivostok were founded. The establishment of the cities gave a new impulse to the migration processes in the Russian Far East.

The buildup of military forces, including first of all the Cossacks of Transbaikalia and the Urals, allowed the establishing of an administrative authority in the region. Those who were transferred to the army reserve and who were willing to settle in the Russian Far East were recipients of certain benefits, which encouraged an allocation of the labor force to the economy of the region. Settlement was also encouraged by the impeded communications. Besides, an important role was played by the relocation of the peasantry during 1861-1907.

The inflow of migrants was also boosted by the organization of a maritime communication route between Odessa and Vladivostok. Another meaningful factor affecting the migration flow was forced settlement, which occurred when settlers who had been political and criminal prisoners in the past were forbidden to come back to their native lands; very often these were highly educated and active members of the various ethnic, religious, and cultural communities.

The ethnic composition of the migrants was also diverse, however, the dominant factions of these were migrants from the Ukrainian provinces who made over 70% of the total figures. For instance, in the Soviet period, they constituted the majority of the population of the Primorsky Krai province.

A breakthrough of migration took place when the Trans-Siberian railroad was completed and when Russia has lost the Russo-Japanese war. The appearance of railroad communication towards the Russian Far East encouraged the development of ethnic processes, which before that were characterized as sluggish. An additional factor became the development of the Russian Pacific Navy.

The success of the migration policy in Siberia can be explained by the fact that it relied on free folk colonization, while the government implemented its plans relying on free folk migration. There was a geopolitical task of its own embedded into this process. Petr Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky describes this shift of ethnographic borderline between Europe and Asia in a way of moving it further to the East, which came as a result of the Russian colonization.[ii]

The peasants’ colonization was intentionally planned as a much needed supplement to military expansion. The imperial authorities have tried to “along with the military service, also create a migration service. Thus, intentionally or unintentionally the peasants’ colonization was becoming an important component of the imperial policy, while the peasants themselves were becoming an effective conduit of such an imperial policy. In the ideas of the imperial politicians those were the peasants who should have created bonding constructions of the imperial space.”[iii]

In the Russian colonization model, the expansion of the empire was a synonym of the acquisition of the Eastern periphery by Russia. Russia was growing at the expense of the new lands. Contemporary researcher Leonid Gorizontov sees this through the lens of the “dual expansion” of the Russian Empire: territorial growth of the empire was accompanied by the gravitation of the adjacent periphery into the orbit of influence of the Russian “imperial nucleus.”[iv]

However, the Russian imperial project, which made provisions for a gradual acquisition of Siberia and the Russian Far East by the imperial nucleus, had put forward not so much economic, but rather, political tasks. It was a difficult and long process to turn the Siberian and the Far Eastern territories into Russia itself.

As Benedict Anderson points out, the “Russification” of the diverse ethnic communities of the tsar’s territories was in essence a forced and intended merger of the two opposing political orders, one of which was ancient, while the other one was completely new.”[v]

This should have given the empire a greater stability and should have provided the Russian imperial build-up an important internal impulse, thus giving the empire a national future. Not only in the Russian, but also in the Ukrainian and the Byelorussian provinces, one could see a strategic reserve of expansion of the imperial nucleus of the West and the Southwest, to Siberia and the Russian Far East, where Ukrainians and Byelorussians, along with Russians, could successfully build “a great Russian nation.”[vi]

Constructing New Indigenousness

Migrants have kept their historical memory via preserved features of their culture and the names of thousands upon thousands of towns and villages (such as Chernigovka, Novokievka, Poltavka, etc.) While being detached from the socio-cultural environment that they were so much used to, they would enter into completely different natural and environmental conditions, so they therefore would need to change their professions and trades at the point of experiencing the culture of the Orient. They would realize that their “Russianness” rubbed off on all their local cultural features, which they had so passionately preserved in their former native lands.[vii]

However, the composition of the Slavic population of Siberia and the Russian Far East was complex, not only ethnically (the Russians, the Ukrainians, and the Byelorussians), religiously (the Orthodox, the Old-believers, the sectarians) and socially (the peasants, the Cossacks, the deportees, the retired soldiers and sailors), but also by the regional characteristics of their place of origin. The preserved regional and ethno-cultural differences, frequent inter-ethnic marriages, ethno-cultural contacts and economic cooperation, and close interaction with the non-Slavic religious environment have pushed Slavic peoples towards consolidation based on the Russian ethnicity and discouraged the formation of clearly defined Ukrainian and Byelorussian enclaves in the Russian Far East.[viii]

However, in Siberia and the Russian Far East, a new challenge to the imperial policy was arising, which was the formation of a feeling of the territorial isolation of the local population. Besides populating the territories with colonists desirable for Russian statehood, it was also important to strengthen imperial unity.

The collapse of the Russian Empire did not bring about the independence of Siberia and the Russian Far East (even the Far Eastern Republic was rather a political formation, a buffer state against Japan) due to the preservation of the close political, economic, and cultural links and existence of the Trans-Siberian railroad that served as an important connection with the center. As Domenique Liven suggests, “[…] if Siberians would get their liberty and regional representative institutions, around which their regional patriotism could form, they could have created their own identity, which similarly to Australia and Canada might have grown into an independent nation-state.”[ix]

The next generations of migrants were forming a feeling of the territory as a land of their own; this was the relationship with their new homeland.

In the Soviet period, the structure of the inflow of the population included the former prisoners of the GULAG and those who remained in the settlements after they were discharged: the military servicemen, the workers, the young party activists, those who participated in the grand socialist construction projects, and college students who were offered employment opportunities far away from their homes after graduation, as well as the representatives of ethnic minorities. This inflow of migrants was characterized by the diversity of ethnicities, social origins, and educational and cultural backgrounds.

The factors that encouraged an active inter-ethnic cooperation between the migrants who arrived in the Russian Far East are identified as follows: ethnic diversity; sufficient autonomy of the Russian Far East that was caused by the remoteness of the transportation communication lines; presence of their own transportation links with the major states of the East; partial localization of production; autonomous facilitation of education and reproduction of culture; insufficiency of the population and a lowered competition in all industries and areas of human activities; presence of threats on a national scale; and uniqueness of natural. New behavior stereotypes and cultural values were formed, which in turn allowed those who lived here to call themselves Far-Easterners, all of that while they still preserved their affiliation with their smaller territorial communities – those of Primorye, Magadan, of Sakhalin Island, Khabarovsk, and Kamchatka, along with their ethnic affiliation since they remained Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Uzbeks, Jews, Koreans, etc.[x]

Regional Identity of the Russian Far East

It is important to mention that the retention of colonization as a priority did not go through any transformations, even during the times of the USSR, as the government policy was directed at the exploration and exploitation of the Far Eastern territories, and not turning “the far away periphery” into “the new frontier”.

For nearly 400 years, both the Imperial and Soviet governments exploited Siberia’s fabulous resources, treating it as a colony. The pattern of development included the creation of military outposts and the fur trade, followed by the colonization by peasants and government resettlement policies. In the twentieth century, the Far East and Siberia were the most “Soviet” regions of the country, as far as its economy (defense industry and extraction of raw materials), social structure, and way of life were concerned.[xi] This was also the land of GULAG.[xii]

After the collapse of the USSR, some dramatic transformations on the political space took place, which brought about changes in the self-consciousness and hierarchy of the group identities. While in the majority of the “ethnic” republics of the Russian Federation the ethnic identities were coming to the forefront, the “Russian” constituencies of the Federation promoted their regional identities.[xiii]

In the 1990s, the process of the formation of regional identities rose to a new level that could be explained by the “sovereignization” of the ethnic autonomies, as it also boosted a similar process in the Russian regions. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, regional identity became a prominent factor of social life for the Russian Far East, which accompanied the escalation of the issue of Center-Region relations in the complex of security challenges.

Andrey Kuminov highlights the existence of the Far Eastern identity that is based on a sense of ethnic belonging, as he says that “far eastern ethnicity is a reality, which has not yet led to self-consciousness due to the fact that the Russian Far East is currently a subsidized region.”[xiv]

In many ways, the formation of the Far Eastern regional identity was the outcome of government policy. As was noted by S.B. Pereslegin, “Russian’s exploration of Siberia and the Russian Far East used to be of a colonial character. Here we speak about… exploitation, hawkish exploitation of natural resources… The situation has changed in recent years due to indifference demonstrated by Moscow regarding the destiny of eastern and northern lands. The Russian Far East ceased to remain a colony, as Moscow would no longer need it”.[xv]

An analysis of socio-cultural situation of the Russian Far East suggests that the routine life of far-easterners is different from the routine life of those who live in Central Russia. Very often, regional collisions and differences are over-exaggerated by local politicians.[xvi]

It is obvious that the “problem of the Russian Far East” exists, as there exist three components that constitute it: (1) historically brief period of time of being an integral part of Russia, its insufficient cultural and psychological sense of “belonging”, and the relatively low “rootedness” of the population; (2) remoteness from “native Russia”, which nurtures an image of the colonial character of the region; (3) borderline proximity to foreign centers of economic gravitation and geopolitical activity; this proximity is related to the sensation of inter-civilizational separation, which manifests itself as closeness to Another.[xvii]

A Research Project of the National Political Agency (an autonomous non-governmental organization of information and analysis programs) conducted a study that identified the following data about the Russian Far Eastern population: some 57.1% of respondents agreed with an existence of a “the far-eastern character”; 42.4% associate themselves with “the citizens of Russia”; and 27.6% associate themselves with the “citizens of the region”. To the question “Are you proud to live in the Russian Far East?” 38.4% answered “quite proud” and 19.7% answered “very proud”. At the same time, this patriotism appears to have an idealistic character. Not all of the interviewees think of their region as advanced and future-oriented. Furthermore, answering the question, “Does the Russian Far East need changes?”, the majority of respondents – some 56.9% of them –  chose to answer, “The Russian Far East needs deep, principal changes”.

Hence, the perception of their status originates from the following positions: “I am proud to live in the Russian Far East, but much needs to be changed here”, or “I am proud of my region, but I poorly evaluate the current socio-economic situation of the Russian Far East.”[xviii]

A major grievance towards the center is not even that the Russian Far East is “abandoned”, but it is about the fact that the center does not have any clear rules of the game or any consistent policy towards the region. This policy is reactive and makes the population unsatisfied, as it imposes the “wrong” way of development for the region.[xix]

Programs of Development as Plans of Keeping Indigenousness

At the end of 2009, the Strategy of socio-economic development of the Russian Far East and Baikal Region for a period of time through the year 2025 was adapted. It indicates that “a strategic goal of the development of the Russian Far East and Baikal Region is an implementation of a geopolitical goal of retaining the population [of these regions] by means of the formation of a developed economy and comfortable environment for life of people in the constituencies of the Russian Federation located on this territory, as well as their achievement of Russia’s average level of socio-economic development.”[xx]

The Program stipulates a complex development of the region through personnel training, the solution of social issues, and development of education, healthcare, retention of the population – all of which is described in 12 sub-programs. Besides, the program now includes two designated federal programs, “The Russian Far East and Baikal Region” (through 2018) and “Development of the Kuril Islands” (through 2015). It plans to change the very structure of the economy of the Russian Far East. From a raw material-supplying appendage, it should transform into a competitive region.[xxi] Victor Ishayev, the Federal Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East, believes that the Russian Far East and Baikal Region, in the course of the implementation of the created program of development of the macro-region, will switch from the “catching-up model of development” to “advanced one” by 2025.[xxii]

October 2012 marked the formation of the Ministry of Development of the Russian Far East, which became an indication of the serious intent of the government in relation to the eastern territories. Scholarly and popular discourses witness the emergence of a new expression, “Pacific Russia”, which sounds promising not only to the citizens of the Russian Far East, but also for the whole of Russia and its neighbors.

However, the level of socio-economic development of the territories of the Russian Far East, by many indicators, is far behind the European regions of Russia. The level and the quality of life here is lower, and the infrastructure is less developed. The population figures are decreasing at a faster pace (among the reasons is the flow of the population away from the provinces of the Russian Far East) than Russia’s average, which creates risks of depopulation and the reduction of the far eastern territories into an anthropological desert. According to the data from the all-Russia census of 2010, the whole of the Far Eastern Federal District was the home for 6.3 million people, and within 8 years (as compared to the figures of the previous census), the population has shrunk by 400,000 people. The most populated territory is now Primorsky Krai, which is currently home to 2 million people.

The Far Eastern community is distinguished by a higher level of crime rates. Among the factors that produce such rates are a lower level of culture (independent of social class) and higher levels of population marginalization. The unwillingness of highly trained personnel to live and to work on the territory of the Russian Far East, along with an inflow of a poorly trained labor force from Central Asia (under conditions of quota elimination), will cause social disruption and cleavages in the region due to the fact that labor and other migrants, in terms of the ethnicity and culture, continue to be aliens (and they very often also remain a marginal part of society).

In many ways, the implementation of large-scale projects initiated and financed by the federal center becomes a major factor affecting the increase of the level of development of the Russian Far East since it also creates the conditions for effective international integration. At the same time, participation in international integration processes, at its minimum, implies a perception of the Far Eastern territories by the Russian political elite not simply as a zone for development projects, but also as an object of strategic interest of the state with consideration to the existing threats and opportunities.

Among major threats is a relative weakness of the geopolitical position of Russia in the region, a low competiveness of the Russian Far East on the level of the quality of life as compared to the other regions of Russia, and the peripheral positioning of Russia’s Pacific coast in regards to the integration processes ongoing in the Asia-Pacific region. It is also important to keep in mind a significant inter-civilizational gap between the population of the Russian Far East and the peoples of the neighboring nations. One of the major challenges is the infrastructural insufficiency of the Far Eastern territories. For example, the level of socio-economic development of Primorsky Krai province, on average, is not keeping up with similar levels observed in the province’s capital, the city of Vladivostok, which in the conditions of an increasing drain of the populations, can lead to the breaking of connections with the center.

At the same time, amongst the conditions favorable to the development of the Russian Far East, one could speak of the meaningful geopolitical weight of Russia in the world. This generally encourages national unity as a common interest for all members of our country, as well as a positive perception and sense of attractiveness for Vladivostok as the easternmost largest Russian city, an intriguing image of Vladivostok as “Europe in Asia”, and its proximity to the Asia-Pacific nations. In 2009, Vladivostok started building APEC-2012 Summit venue facilities, including among many others, a brand new campus for the Far Eastern Federal University on Russky island, the world’s largest cable-stayed bridges in Vladivostok, a new oil terminal and a refinery near Nakhodka, a gas pipeline from the Sakhalin Island to the Primorsky krai province, etc.

The accelerated development of Vladivostok is aimed at the necessity to compete with such Asia-Pacific centers as Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, San Francisco, and Shanghai. The capital of the Primorsky Krai province is a major center of diplomatic cooperation: here one can find eight general, and 11 honorary, consulates of foreign nations. The city has established sister relations with 12 foreign cities and one autonomous region, as well as having concluded friendship and cooperation agreements with cities in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

Vladivostok actively develops trade relations with its neighbors throughout the region while being a venue for economic forums and programs of cultural cooperation, as well as remaining a major tourist destination for the Russian Far East. Among existing transportation hubs, there exists a base point for the Trans-Siberian railroad, a large sea port with a cargo turnover of 10 million tons per year, and a new international airport.

According to the opinion of Igor Romanov, a Russian scholar who deals with migration problems, the territories of Siberia and the Russian Far East conceal a potential that provides Russia with its only option to reach a new level of development, yet even today there is the prioritization of a material component: the resources of the region and its economic development. However, the first thing that should look at is the social and cultural situation of the examined society. The colonial treatment of the Russian Far East should be rejected, and one should start looking at it anew as a major point of development for Russia.[xxiii]


In conclusion, we may acknowledge that despite the existing threats of possibly losing the Far Eastern frontier territory that the Russian government currently faces, the further development of this region, as a component of the Russian territorial identity, becomes evident in one two scenarios: on the one hand, it is likely to be integrated both with Central Russia and the Asia-Pacific; on the other hand, taking into account the failure of government’s development projects, it will become a desolate periphery with a decrepit infrastructure, which would await its abandonment while remaining in neglect. Therefore, the prospective concept of the Far Eastern territory’s development is still being formulated, but that concept would depend not only on the coherency of Moscow interests, but also on the processes that occur inside the land that is twice as big as the European part of Russia.


[1] See Dalniy Vostok: Programma Razvitiya do 2025 goda (The Russian Far East: The Program of Development through year 2025), http://kapital-rus.ru/articles/article/225259/ (accessed 26 May 2013).

2 Nikolay Nartov, Geopolitika (Geopolitics) (Moscow: Aspekt-press, 2003), 119

3 See Anatoliy Remnyov, Sdelat Sibir i Dalniy Vostok russkimi. K voprosu o politicheskoi motivatsii kolonizatsionnykh protsessov XIX-nachala XX veka (To Make Siberia and the Far East Russian. On the issue of Political Motivation of the Processes of Colonization (XIX-early XX century)), http://www.panasia.ru/main/182/4.html (accessed 3 June 2013).

4 Leonid Gorizontov, «Bolshaya russkaya natsiya» v imperskoy I regionalnoy strategiyah samoderzhaviya («Great Russian Nation» in Imperial and Regional Strategies of Autocracy), in B.V. Ananich and S.I. Barzilov, eds., Prostranstvo vlasti: Istoricheskiy opyt Rossii i vyzovy sovremennosti (Moscow: Moskovskiy obshchestvenniy nauchny fond, 2001), 129-151.

5 Benedict Anderson, Voobrazhaemye soobshchestva. Razmyshleniya ob istokakh I rasprostranenii natsionalizma (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism) (Moscow: Kanon-press, 2001), 108.

6 Aleksey Miller, «Ukrainskiy vopros» v politike vlastey i russkom obshchestvennom mnenii (vtoraya polovina XIX veka) (“The Ukrainian Issue” in the Government’s Policy and in the Russia’s Public Opinion (sec. half of the XIXth Century) ) (Saint-Petersburg: «Aleteya», 2000), 31-41.

7 Remnyov, Sdelat Sibir i Dalniy Vostok russkimi,

8 Ibid.

9 Domenik Liven, Rossiya kak imperiia: sravnitelnaya perspektiva (Russia as Empire: Comparative Prospect), in A.O. Chubar’ian, eds., Evropeiskiy opyt i prepodavanie istorii v postsovetskoy Rossii (Moscow: IVI-RAN, 1999), 273.

10 See Andrey Kuminov, Dalnevostochniki kak novaya etnicheskaya sushchnost (Far-easterners as a New Ethnic Essence), http://www.clubdv.ru/forum/index.php?showtopic=161 (accessed 4 June 2013).

11 Sergey Karaganov, Strategiya dlya Rossii: Povestka dnya dlya Prezidenta-2000 (The Strategy for Russia: Agenda for President-2000) (Moscow: Vagrius, 2000), 67.

12 Dmitri Trenin, The End of Eurasia. Russia on the Border Between Geopolitics and Globalization (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2001), 208.

13 See Valeriy Achkasov, Regionalnaya identichnost v rossiyskom politicheskom prostranstve (Regional Identity in Russian Political Space), http://www.politex.info/content/view/90/30/ (accessed 29 May 2013).

14 Kuminov, Dalnevostochniki kak novaya etnicheskaya sushchnost,

15 Sergey Pereslegin, Samouchitel igry na mirovoy shakhmatnoy doske (Tutorial for Playing on the Global Chessboard) (Moscow: AST, 2005), 428-429.

16 Proekt nomer 166 «Naselenie rossiyskogo Dalnego Vostoka: identichnost, patriotism, stsenarii budushchego» (Noyabr 2009) (Project #166 «The Russian Far East Population: Identity, Patriotism, Scenarios for the Future») (November, 2009) (Uglich-Moscow: Natsionalnoe politicheskoe agentstvo, 2009), 25.

17 Ibid., 25.

18 Ibid., 51-56.

19 Ibid., 27.

20 Strategiya sotsialno-ekonomicheskogo razvitiya Dalnego Vostoka i Baikalskogo regionana v period do 2025 goda (The Strategy of Social and Economic Development of the Far East and Baikal Region though year 2025), http://www.minregion.ru/activities/territorial_planning/strategy/federal_development/346/ (accessed 30 May 2013).

21 Dalniy Vostok: programma razvitiya do 2025 goda,

22 See Po mneniyu glavy Ministerstva Dalnego Vostoka Viktora Ishaeva, DFO i Baikalskiy region do 2025 goda pereydut k operezhaiushchey modeli razvitiia (According to opinion of Viktor Ishaev (the Head of the Ministry of Far East Development), the Russian Far Eastern and Baikal Region will move to the advanced model of development). RIA-Novosti, http://dv.ria.ru/economy/20130114/82182052.html (accessed 14 January 2013).

23 See Igor Romanov, Dalnevostochnaya strategiya (The Far Eastern Strategy), http://beregrus.ru/?p=150515.02.2013 (accessed 31 May 2013).

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