Go East, Young Russian

Go East, Young Russian
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Russia appears to be exploring ways to reverse the population figures in its Far East and to give people the opportunity to once again become small-scale land-owners.

One of the most common ways nations have sought to create wealth is by encouraging movements of people to gain access to available land, which they exploit for farming and industrial activities. The United States is one of the best examples: When colonists began to lay claim to the continental wilderness, they created vast amounts of wealth. For many decades, as American populations moved westward, the promise of land ownership, and the freedom to work it as each individual saw fit, attracted a great many people to the United States. This continued until modern urbanization and high-tech economies started to reverse this trend, to the point where a country's wealth is now measured by the number of its cities the and the populations dwelling in them.

Failed Soviet experiments

Russia certainly does not lack for available land. Throughout the 20th century, the Soviet state undertook several massive experiments with far-reaching consequences. After taking control following the 1917 Revolution, the Soviet regime broke the power of peasants across the country, in order to seize all land and get rid of any real or perceived economic inequalities - as well as to completely monopolize power in the hands of urbanized Communist elites. The results were tragic. Millions of peasants were killed, starved to death, and removed from land that they had worked for generations. This period saw the wholesale destruction of the peasantry and its skill for agriculture. The Soviets replaced private property with state-sanctioned and controlled collective farms, where the remaining peasants lost their freedom of action, forced instead to take orders from the central government. Private land ownership was nearly abrogated. These policies bequeathed an inefficient and underperforming system that could barely feed the expanding Soviet population.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Soviet government tried to coax its young, well-educated, and urbanized population to settle in the Far East and in southern Siberia. Soviet leaders wanted a hedge against the growing power of Communist China, since vast territories devoid of people were seen as a strategic weakness. Further, extracting these lands' vast mineral wealth required a viable workforce, which could be created by Russians relocating to the Far East from the western parts of the country. Despite all its efforts, including offers of higher salaries and benefits for those willing to "Go East," the Soviet Union could not achieve the critical population and industrial mass needed to fully realize its Far Eastern potential. More than anything, the harsh southern Siberian climate impeded the large population transfers that the Soviet government needed. Those who did end up there felt trapped by the bleak economic realities of working for a few state enterprises that were heavily subsidized by Moscow.

Finally, when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, the Far Eastern regions experienced massive out-migration to the western parts of Russia, as people sought better economic opportunities and higher standards of living. With the population plunging to just around 7 million people across vast distances - stretching from Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean coast to Lake Baikal in the west - local politicians, as well as Moscow-based nationalists, sounded alarm that the area was ripe for the taking by stealthy Chinese immigration. The end result, it was feared, would be that the Russian Far East would become a de facto part of China.

If at first you don't succeed...

Russia is apparently gearing up for another try. Yuri Trutnev, the Russian president's representative for the Far East, proposed to Vladimir Putin the following plan:

"We want to offer for your consideration a measure that would help strengthen the influx of people to the Far East, since people are the main driver of economies and we wont be able to develop our local economy otherwise. The state today owns 614 million hectares (1.2 billion acres) of land. We want to create a mechanism that would allow for allocation of one hectare (two acres) of land to each inhabitant of the Far East, and to every person who would like to come to the Far East, for use in agriculture, or to create a forestry or hunting business."

Putin expressed openness to such a plan once the major details are worked out - details such as not allocating land plots near big cities in order to avoid misuse or corruption, and ensuring that land will be actively utilized and not left unattended. Trutnev explained that under the terms of the proposal, the state would put parcels out for use for five years, after which the land can become the private property of the individual working it. The state would reclaim any plot that goes unused for a prolonged period of time. Putin agreed with the general idea, citing land reforms by Imperial Prime Minister Stolypin, who encouraged migration and land use in Siberia prior to World War I. Putin:

"Today's economy and other realities are very different, so this plan needs a thorough review before it is implemented."

Trutnev responded that in order to prevent abuses, there will be prohibitions on selling such land to foreigners and foreign entities.

While ambitious in scope, such a plan by itself won't attract enough people to the Far East in the absence of larger economic drivers and benefits, such as participation in international trade. Therefore, representative Trutnev brought Putin up to speed on several plans to create free economic trade zones at the Port of Vladivostok and on the Big Ussurisky Island.

"We showed this plan to the Chinese", said Trutnev, "and they offered their own advice on how further develop this territory. We are also working on developing the Russkiy Island into a scientific and educational hub."

Convincing people to move to the Far East will be difficult now that Russia's economic decline has hit the wallets and savings of ordinary citizens. Still, the adventurous may be pushed to seek out fortunes in this region, providing that the government actually delivers on its promise of oversight and economic development.

(AP photo)

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