The Forgotten Dream of a Russian Africa

Sitting in the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is a small yet strategically important country, controlling access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. You could be forgiven for not knowing much about the place, but it’s currently home to overseas bases of the USA, China, France and Japan; that might give you an indication of its importance. But if you were feeling adventurous and wandered off the beaten path in the Tadjourah region, you might find the deserted scatterings of an old Egyptian fort called Sagallo; it won’t show up on any modern maps, but for a brief moment in 1889, it represented Russia’s sole attempt at establishing an African outpost.

sagallo coast

Sagallo as it looks today.

Russia had never been particularly effective at overseas colonisation; Alaska was sold off, Fort Ross was abandoned, and the Hawaiian affair was a shambles. It stuck to what it was good at, which was looking after its borders. Even in 1889, in the midst of the ‘Scramble for Africa’, Russia had no part in the partition of the continent. Well…almost no part. Enter Nikolai Ivanovitch Achinov, a wandering Cossack with dreams far bigger than his abilities. And it was his endeavours which would drive this story.


A picture of Achinov.

But first, a little background; what we now call Djibouti was at the time part of French Somaliland, and located next to one of the only African nations to remain independent at that time – Ethiopia. Italy was casting its eye over Ethiopia, whereas Russia felt some affinity for the country, seeing as the population were Orthodox Christians. Tie in Russian businessmen looking for opportunities in the region, and you find the ingredients of this story.


Achinov had been frustrated in finding a place to call home for himself and his followers, but became tantalised during a chance encounter with some Circassians, who told great stories of an Orthodox paradise in Ethiopia. He quickly swindled some money out of British agents, and set out on a voyage. Arriving in Ethiopia, he met with a local chieftain by the name of Alula, and attempted to persuade him that he had the ear of the Tsar. Although he was not fully successful in persuading the Emperor Johannes IV, his dreams began to grow; just as Yermak Timofeevich had laid Siberia at the feet of Ivan V, so Achinov dreamed of laying Ethiopia at the feet of Alexander III. A period of scheming began, and not just by Achinov; the inner politics of the Russian elite came into play, with some tacitly supporting Achinov in his quest, and others trying to frustrate him at every turn. Word went as far as the Tsar, who let it all unfold on the off chance that something came of it. The French kept a cautious eye on things, the Italians grew unhappy, and the British supported their fellow colonisers.


Fast forward to 1888, and Achinov was just about set. His plan was to provide weapons and ammunition to Johannes, and further carry out a religious mission. The latter was tolerable for the French, but the former was beyond the pale for the Italians. The French told Achinov that he could cross their territory for a religious mission, but arms sales were off the table. Achinov set sail from Odessa to the cheers of 20,000 believers, who willed the flag and the faith to Africa. Stopping off at Port Said, reports were numerous on the profligacy and debased behaviour of the expedition, with funds tossed away on drinking and gambling. As they moved on towards Tadjourah, an Italian war-ship shadowed them most of the way; the crew almost mutinied when Achinov refused to try and ram the Italian ship. Finally landing at Tadjourah, the group were received by a group of Ethiopian priests, and they quickly moved on towards Sagallo to rehabilitate the old fort. The flag of ‘New Moscow’ was raised for all to see.

new moscow

The flag of ‘New Moscow’

However, the debased behaviour continued, and his group of over 150 were soon harassing and stealing from locals. Achinov had to pay a compensation fee to local groups to avoid more trouble. By now, the French were aware that the Cossacks hadn’t continued towards Ethiopia and sent a protest. Achinov replied that he had obtained the sovereign rights to Sagallo, and would answer only to the Tsar. The Italians were furious. Soon enough the group couldn’t live with each other, and a number of them deserted and surrendered to the French authorities. The French started asking for an official response from the Tsar, who, sensing the embarrassment had already become intolerable, wiped his hands of Achinov and told the French his government had nothing to do with them.


The French swiftly sent ships to the area, and when Achinov refused to surrender, they sent a volley of artillery into the fort. Several were killed and over twenty were wounded. A shambolic surrender was made without any attempt to defend the fort, and the flag was lowered; with its lowering, so died the dream of a Russian presence in Africa. The double-headed eagle would never again fly over African soil, and the Russian legacy was confined to five graves in the barren sand of the Somali coast.


Links (Article) (Pictures) (Summary)


The Forgotten Dream of a Russian Hawaii

For those of you who follow me on twitter, you’ll know I was in Hawaii some weeks backs. While I was there I took a trip to a place that is little remembered outside of history buffs and locals on Kauai: Fort Elizabeth. The fort is all that remains of the presence of the Russian-American Company (RAC) in Hawaii, some 200 years ago. And for of those who you aren’t familiar with the story, it goes a little something like this.


The entrance to Fort Elizabeth

When one thinks of the Russian Empire and its territorial expansion, it would likely involve the conquests of Siberia and the Russian Far East, of swathes of Central Asia and the Caucasus, and of the push south to the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. It may even conjure up romantic nostalgia of Russian Alaska, and the warm waters of Port Arthur. Few however would let their thoughts drift to the Pacific paradise of Hawaii, and the Russian flag flying high on the southern end of Kauai. 200 years ago, during the chaotic operations of the Russian-American Company, that is exactly what happened, in an episode as farcical as it was unlikely.

By 1815 the RAC had ventured down the west coast of what is now the USA, setting up colonies in Alaska and California, and having made a number of failed incursions in between. Desperate for cheap supplies of salt, food and sandalwood for the colonies in Alaska and Kamchatka, attention had previously turned towards Hawaii. A hostile takeover was never seriously considered, but regular ties were enthusiastically established with King Kamehameha around 1804. At this time the king was carrying out his ultimately successful goal of uniting the islands under his leadership, but there was still some recalcitrance on Kauai, with Kaumuali’I retaining ambitions of ruling the islands himself. In 1815, this stand-off would lead to the calamitous attempts to establish a deeper Russian presence on the islands – the ‘Schäffer Affair’.

Georg Anton Schäffer was a German physician employed as a surgeon on the Russian ship ‘Suvorov’, but after a disagreement with the captain he disembarked in Alaska and was hired into the service of the RAC by the governor of Sitka, Alexander Baranov. It was from here that he was inexplicably selected to lead a company delegation to the Hawaiian Islands to retrieve goods and cargo worth 100,000 rubles that had been seized by Kaumuali’I, after the ‘Bering’ had ran aground on Kauai. Why the doctor was chosen for an ostensibly diplomatic mission is not fully clear, but he set sail and arrived at the court of King Kamehameha to charm the leader and get back the company cargo. Court intrigue was firmly against him as American and British representatives tried to set the king against a Russian presence, but after winning him over with medical assistance, Schäffer received parcels of land and permission to set up trading stations, which he carried out with high enthusiasm. This did not, however, satisfy the goal of the mission, which was the retrieval of the seized cargo on Kauai. Without being able to receive any further concessions from Kamehameha, Schäffer waited for the arrival of reinforcements and then set sail to Kauai in May of 1816 to take a more forceful course of action.

When Schäffer arrived on Kauai he achieved an unexpected success: Kaumuali’I pledged allegiance to the company and the Tsar, agreed to reimburse the company for their financial losses, and promised to grant them a monopoly on the sandalwood trade. Kaumuali’I himself raised the Russian-American Company flag on the island, and promised 500 troops if they would help conquer the other islands. Work was soon begun on Fort Elizabeth in Waimea Bay, and two other forts in the north around Hanalei: Fort Alexander, and Fort Barclay-de-Tolly. By 1817, it seemed that an unlikely and outrageous Russian move on the islands was underway. However, not all was as rosy it seemed. Kaumuali’I was not offering such obedience and humility out of love for the Russian Empire, he was setting his sights on victory over his old foe Kamehameha, and after American support had abandoned him by 1815, the Russian arrival soon after was too convenient an opportunity to pass up. Schäffer’s growing sense of prominence was a cruel delusion.

While Schäffer was plotting on Kauai, the Russian military brig ‘Rurick’ arrived on the big island without any idea of the trouble the doctor was causing. A 400-strong Hawaiian force greeted the brig, and it was only after some tactful diplomacy that the captain, Otto von Kotzebue, persuaded King Kamehameha that he knew nothing of Schäffer’s plotting, that the Tsar wanted nothing to do with him, and that their visit to Hawaii was solely peaceful for the purposes of resupplying the ship. Shortly afterwards, the American presence on Hawaii firmly rallied behind Kamehameha and pledged ships and arms to oust Schäffer. Despite a failed attempt to storm the island and tear down the Russian flag, Schäffer was soon chased from the island in a barely sea-worthy boat, arriving in Honolulu under the white flag of surrender. Despite the trouble he was in, Schäffer was given a stroke of good fortune in June of 1817 when a captain he had treated in the past agreed to take him on a one-way journey to Canton. The Schäffer Affair had come to an ignominious end.

Although Schäffer had grand ideas of annexing the islands for the RAC, and by extension the Russian Empire, he did not have the backing of his superiors. The company often mused about the advantages of possessing even one Hawaiian Island, but realistically it was doomed to failure. Not only would American and British interests collude against them, but the Tsar was entirely opposed to the notion and was more concerned about strengthening his hand in the west, not in the east. Indeed, he was completely dismayed at the whole affair and would later attempt to reassure the Hawaiians and Americans that he had no desire to annex part of the island chain. Schäffer would later turn up in Brazil, where he eventually saw out his life.

Today, there is almost nothing left of the Russian presence of Kauai. The two forts to the north in Hanalei are gone, but to the south in Waimea Bay, just before the entrance to the town of Waimea, the last remnants of Fort Elizabeth can still be seen. The outside walls still partly stand, and the site is administered as a State Historical Park. Most striking about the area is the iron-rich red soil, which at the time was considered symbolic of the powerful and sacred nature of the site. And most prominently in the middle of what was once the fort, the flagpole still reaches upwards, where 200 years ago the Russian flag flew under the Pacific sun.


The flagpole at Fort Elizabeth


A view of the fort from atop the walls

The view over Waimea Bay from Fort Elizabeth

The view over Waimea Bay from Fort Elizabeth

A rendition of how the fort would have looked.

A rendition of how the fort would have looked.

Vladivostok – Once More a Free Port

After a lot of talking and legislating, Vladivostok and most of the populated areas of Primorskiy Krai will now be granted ‘free port’ status for 70 years, promising tax benefits, a reduction in bureaucracy and paperwork, and visa free possibilities for tourists, amongst other things. The changes won’t happen immediately – it’ll likely come into force from 2016 – but local politicians and ministers are excited about the possibilities, with talk of a threefold increase in regional GDP and an end to the continued – albeit now at a relative trickle – of outward emigration if all goes to plan. In this article I’ll take a closer look at the announcement, and discuss whether this is the huge boost for the region that it is portrayed to be.

First up though, a little bit of history. The initiative isn’t a new one for Vladivostok; over 100 years ago the city had a bustling port connecting Russia to Asia and beyond. Legislation in the early 1860s had given Vladivostok the status of porto franco, though for Vladivostok it was not simply in the sense of supplying the region with foods and materials, but also as a transit point for goods to enter and leave the rest of Russia. This continued until the turn of the century, at which point the construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad, and political desires to keep Vladivostok closer to European Russian markets, saw this status rescinded. The status was reinstated in 1904, but once again was removed in 1909 to reduce the strong economic influence Japan had been gaining in the region. Delegates from the east continued to push for even just a ‘free port’ status rather than a full-blown porto franco, but the beginning of WW1 put an end to those discussions, and the Soviet era saw a complete closing off of the city. In some regards then Vladivostok isn’t embarking on a new initiative, it’s reverting closer to what was its natural status for half a century. I say closer because it’s not quite the same, and doesn’t go as far as the two earlier periods of porto franco. This is one of the clever perceptions given out by recent announcements, as there is the impression that Vladivostok will now be a completely open market, whereas in reality there are restrictions and technicalities that come into play. For example, companies which want to take advantage of these benefits must go through a long administrative process to be approved as resident, and they can’t already be taking part in regional investment projects, nor can they be based in or hold offices in other regions. On the positive side, bureaucracy will be handled by one solitary government agency, which will do any legwork with other agencies that you need beyond their services, and being a resident will offer further legal protections and representations than before. This is one aspect we’ll really need to give time to see if it performs to the benefit of residents.


But what other concrete benefits will there be? Companies operating in the zone will pay a flat rate of tax at 5% instead of 20% for the first five years, and in the next five years at 12% (or no less than 10%). Payment taxes to non-budgetary funds will be reduced down to 7.6% from the current rate of 30%, property tax will be exempted, and direct state aid can be sought for infrastructure investment if the majority of funds come from the company themselves. These are all positive steps for the promotion of business development and investment, but it remains to be seen if encouragement is given on top of this to native companies and start-ups, rather than just a carrot dangled in front of foreign companies.

The port will also have five very distinct zones with each focusing on certain goals; a port and airport zone, an industrial zone, a scientific zone, a tourist-recreational zone and of course the impending gaming zone. The focus appears to be on developing shipbuilding and repairs, manufacturing, export-oriented and import-substituting industries, some agriculture, and of course tourism. This makes it look a lot closer to the parallel plans for areas of advanced development, or TOP, than as a free port. There’s no doubt that the region could do with a boost to its shipyards considering the pressure put on them by the good work done in places like Korea, but it should ensure support is available for all industries, not just a select few. A further promise that ties in with these zones is that of greater infrastructure investment by the government. If you’ve been to the region, you’ll know it needs it. The better they can connect the parts of the region together, and to neighbouring regions, the more companies will be able to utilise a larger distribution area, something that is lacking at the moment.

One very positive development that should give a boost to the tourist and gaming industries is the announcement that visitors arriving in the region will be eligible for an eight-day visa-on-arrival. Up until now visitors from most countries were required to obtain a visa in advance at a relatively expensive cost. In particular the gaming zone needed this to be effective, as no one is going to get a Russian visa just to visit a casino for the weekend. For potential visitors from Asia and beyond, having basically a week to see Vladivostok at short notice, or do a few days there and onwards to other cities or up to Khabarovsk, is a real step forward by Russia. Previously you could enter visa-free for 72 hours if you arrived by boat, but extending this to all entry points is great. I’ll wait to see full details on the pricing scheme and whether it restricts the visitors to just Primorskiy Krai, but so far its promising. If this ties in with further investment in the tourism industry and making the city a bit more welcoming to non-Russian speakers (restaurants and cafes should really be making more Chinese-language menus as one example) it’ll make the city a lot more attractive to visitors and foreign investors. In saying that, they might need a few more hotels to finally be built if tourist numbers rise…

A final promise in the law that caught my eye is that a special ‘Freeport’ area will be set up the region. Not to be confused with ‘free port’, this is basically an area where goods can be sold duty-free, expensive and luxury items can be stored for use in presentation to potential clients and investors, and generally a contained area for getting around some of the aforementioned restrictions placed on the ‘free port’ status. It seems to work well in various countries in the world, and will probably be a popular destination when the law kicks in.

It would be prudent however to highlight that Nakhodka had already been given a special economic status for a number of years now, so in some ways the region has already had contemporary experience of a ‘free port’ area. Whilst Nakhodka is one of the better cities in the region, it isn’t an economic miracle nor is the administrative process superior to the rest of the country, not to mention previous contemporary Russian experience with special economic zones has hardly been positive. In the past it would almost seem that Russia created these zones and expected the magic to happen by itself –like they’d seen ‘Field of Dreams’ one night and took it literally when Joe glances towards home plate and says “If you build it, he will come.” For this reason it is hoped that the planners and politicians have done a bit more homework than in the past. Yuri Trutnev has said they’ve worked on this for a long time, visiting many Asian free ports, learning from their legislative and bureaucratic changes, and generally educating themselves about how to get the most out of a free port. They still have some months to iron out any wrinkles in the plans, meaning they really have no excuse for not being prepared and giving the project the best chance of success. Hopefully Nakhodka will also finally benefit from a ‘free port’.

Overall the plans given out already are a bit on the vague side, but for the money men there will be opportunities to get more familiar with the processes. Between the 3rd and 5th of September the Eastern Economic Forum will be held in Vladivostok, at which there will be meetings with potential investors to go over the plans in further detail. It’s only after occasions like these we’ll really get to hear the feedback and thoughts of the people who can make or break the plans for the city. Needless to say, progress will also be monitored closely by the federal powers back in Moscow; a lot of money and leeway has been afforded to Primorskiy for this initiative, and any failure will see a few of those at the top lose their position.

But in the end, can the ‘free port’ be all that Primorskiy hope it can? I asked some residents for their views on it, with opinion varying. A few aren’t particularly interested in the proposals or don’t see it as making any difference to their business situation, but for others there’s hope. One resident lamented that local business likely won’t see much benefit and that this is firmly aimed at foreign investors, but despite this would still produce more jobs for people, something important for retaining residents instead of seeing them move away. Another recognised the positives and negatives; it doesn’t reach the porto franco status many would want, but at the same time it’s a change and a breath of fresh air, a chance to experiment and either succeed or learn from the mistakes. Others simply wait with an open mind to see the implementation and reality rather than speculate on how it will play out. And one final comment opens up some potential negatives for areas outside of the city of Vladivostok – a free port means more military ships moved from the city to smaller towns nearby, potentially polluting beaches and swimming areas beloved by locals. It remains to be seen whether the hope and optimism is a good thing, or setting themselves up for another disappointment.

And what do I think of it all? There are free ports in almost every sea-facing country in the world, and for every success there is an underwhelming case story. However, I don’t think Vladivostok should try to become the Russian version of San Francisco or anywhere else – it just needs to be a better and more successful Vladivostok. The city has always had a love of the sea; it’s a core part of the culture and identity of the people who live there, a real feeling in their hearts. Invoking that history of a time when Vladivostok was a world-renowned port will inspire a large group of people and give them a vision for the future of the region. On the other hand, those dreams don’t take into account something that more famous port cities have taken advantage of, something that Primorskiy doesn’t really have in this day and age – favourable geography and a prime location on natural trade routes. Places like Suez and Panama are world-famous, and territories such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Busan, Macau and Tokyo do very well for themselves. Gibraltar, Lebanon and Monaco are not to be sniffed at either, and up until the western world got involved, Libya enjoyed many benefits from its free port area in Misrata. All of these had those natural benefits of location, whilst Vladivostok’s selling point in recent years is as a starting point for the Trans-Siberian railway, or the Northern Passage, both of which are not looking as popular for freight as they had seemed a number of years ago. For these reasons, Vladivostok will have to find other ways to stand out and create a compelling narrative if it wants to make a real success of the restored ‘free port’ status.

Reflections on Vladivostok

For those of you following me on twitter or elsewhere, you’ll have known that I spent the first half of 2015 in Vladivostok, both improving my Russian language and carrying out some fieldwork for my PhD. This was my third visit to the city, with my first trip being in January of 2009, and the second in June of 2014. On both occasions I stopped by for just a few days, but this time I had a lot longer to really get into everyday life and see what’s going on in the city. You may also remember I wrote about my last visit for the Russian International Affairs Council. (in English, and in Russian) This post may be seen as a quick follow-up, so I’m going to just fire out my thoughts in no particular order.

Instead of a hotel as in previous trips, I stayed in FEFU university accommodation. The university has been more prominent in recent years and a lot of attention was paid to the move onto Russkiy Island, but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to stay there as the language school is one of the few components of the university that’s still located in the centre of the city. (I’ve heard talk that it’ll be moved in the near future, but I’m not sure if a definite moving date has been established.) This makes access to the city a lot more convenient, but a real pain in the bum for getting any sort of paperwork or payment made, as everything has to be done in person on the island. It’s basically an hour each way on the bus. I was also quite surprised at some of the further expectations for foreign students; my Russian was quite poor when I arrived, and some other students arrived with even worse language abilities than I had, but it seemed like we were expected to understand everything that was asked of us from the off. I was greeted at the accommodation by an old woman who only spoke Russian, office staff mostly only spoke Russian, and little help or guidance was given aside from being told where to turn up and at what time. Yes, the purpose of going there is to learn and improve on my Russian language, but it doesn’t seem particularly inviting for staff dealing with foreign nationals to be unable to give much help in those foreign languages, particularly when it comes to registration and visa protocols. I was fortunate in that English was the most common language staff knew, but on a number of occasions I could see new students, who had a very low level of Russian, being given information only in Russian even though they couldn’t understand it. Fellow students were expected to act as translators for those who couldn’t translate important information. Now, this shouldn’t be seen as negative press for the university, but if they want to continue to raise their profile as a welcoming place for foreign students, they must invest as much in their support networks as they do on facilities. A happy student is a lot more likely to recommend the university in future, rather than one who felt too intimidated to really get involved with life in a new city. On the positive side though, I got to see a lot more of the new campus on the island, and as I anticipated it’s a first-class facility in terms of infrastructure and lecture areas. It’s on a par with what you would find in a Western university, and should serve as a great environment for students in the years to come. At the moment FEFU is ranked 25th in Russia, 100th in the BRICS, and 701st in the world. I’m sure their expectations will be to have risen higher than they are presently ranked and as such they’ll be disappointed. It’ll take a lot of continued improvement to climb higher in the tables, but they certainly have the facilities as a solid foundation.

Perhaps the greatest advantage that staying in the language centre brought was that I was living in the same building predominantly with Chinese, Japanese and Korean students. Observing how they related to Russia, and even just how they interact within their own groups, was an interesting experience for me. There are certainly differences between Russians and the various Asian populations, something all parties shouldn’t overlook if there is to be any sort of economic and cultural integration between them. I wrote in the summer that I didn’t see as many foreign nationals as expected, but this time around I noticed a stronger foreign presence, particularly Chinese and Korean. (Not just in the language centre, and no there was no fear of a Chinese invasion) China has become the leader of foreign investment in the city, though almost every car on the road is still Japanese. Asian goods are fairly prominent in shops and supermarkets, from instant noodles, to ice-cream, to beer. There are countless Chinese restaurants, and even a North Korean restaurant. Locals have readily embraced quality goods from these Asian countries, the trick next will be to produce greater quality goods domestically that can stimulate the export market. Economic integration cannot be one-way, or served solely by raw materials. I should note that the business sphere is not restricted to Russians and Asians, and there is a small but confident collection of individuals from the West who have chosen to seek their fortune in the region. Most that I spoke to were very happy with the opportunities available, and problems of corruption or bureaucracy were rare. For those with patience, ambition and a good work ethic, you can likely find success in Vladivostok.

One factor of development that disappointed me however was in the look of the city. In places that are aiming for fast and dynamic development, construction is constant, visible and seemingly everywhere. In Vladivostok, very little appears to change. Yes, the bridges are frequently cited, as are facilities such as the hockey arena or promenade development, but too much of the city centre still looks unkempt and broken down. It seems as if development rhetoric is aimed at big projects and overlooks smaller-scale contributions. For those who buy into the ‘broken windows’ theory, a wee bit of maintenance can go a long way. I spotted a number of apartment blocks where construction appears to have just been abandoned, with nothing happening in the nearly 6 months I was there. I realise that a city built on hills and that faces a bleak winter every year has to substitute some form for functionality, but there is simply a feel about the place that development has either stalled or already come to an end. There is a resigned air about the place, and much work has still to be done to ensure that Vladivostok can truly be a gateway between Russia and Asia.

The stereotypes of higher costs for goods in the region was also partially true; for everyday staples and basic meat like chicken, I noticed little to no difference. For everything else, there was definitely a bit of a difference. Even some of the Russian beers were a few rubles more expensive than in the west of the country. On the other hand, a bus ride at 19 rubles compares very favourably to the prices in St. Petersburg or Moscow. Unfortunately I am not aware of all the utility prices so perhaps there is a difference there worth noting. In terms of wages, I was very surprised at some of the low amounts I heard. At those levels I’m not surprised that people will seek a move to western Russia or going abroad if an offer comes up. Yes, Russia is facing tough economic times due to western sanctions, currency devaluation and low oil prices, but when wages are stagnant and don’t seem particularly high, with people working longer hours just to maintain what they have, it presents another difficulty for development of the region. To attract highly-skilled workers, and even foreign labourers, you have to pay good wages. It’s one of the main problems affecting the region in the near future. So far recent initiatives talk about a free port status for Primorskiy Krai, about free land opportunities outside of the city, areas earmarked for advanced development and investment, the casino gaming zone, and so on…but these grand ideas often don’t come with the fine details worked out in advance, and it seems that big ideas are being floated just to make it seem like real work is being done. It results in the citizens of the region still holding great hope for the future, but mixed in with a sense of resignation that it may well fall short of expectations.

As for my fieldwork…at the moment I’m not ready to go into details about the findings. I managed 20 in-depth interviews, which was okay but I may need more later in the year. I’d have loved to do a lot more, but my Russian language really was at a poor level when I arrived, and it took time to get competent enough to interview people. It took time as well to get to know enough people that I could start trying to source people from different backgrounds who were willing to be interviewed. Perhaps I’ll write a post in the future about fieldwork and I can go into more details about what I learned and maybe offer some advice for anyone else who is doing it for the first time, but needless to say I made some rookie mistakes and there will be room for improvement next time. On the other hand, there was a real breadth of opinion that came out, and it was completely worthwhile for my understanding of local politics and local development. For anyone reading who took part, thanks again for the interviews!

The Latest Stratfor Predictions for Russia

I’m no doubt a few days late to the party in commenting on the latest Stratfor predictions for the coming decade of 2015-2025, but given they’ve made some very bold predictions about the future of Russia I’m willing to throw in my two kopecks worth. For those who haven’t read the latest report, you can see it here. For those of you who have, you’ll know that they “expect Moscow’s authority to weaken substantially, leading to the formal and informal fragmentation of Russia.” Going into further detail, they predict that “To Russia’s west, Poland, Hungary and Romania will seek to recover regions lost to the Russians at various points. They will work to bring Belarus and Ukraine into this fold. In the south, the Russians’ ability to continue controlling the North Caucasus will evaporate, and Central Asia will destabilize. In the northwest, the Karelian region will seek to rejoin Finland. In the Far East, the maritime regions more closely linked to China, Japan and the United States than to Moscow will move independently. Other areas outside of Moscow will not necessarily seek autonomy but will have it thrust upon them. This is the point: There will not be an uprising against Moscow, but Moscow’s withering ability to support and control the Russian Federation will leave a vacuum. What will exist in this vacuum will be the individual fragments of the Russian Federation.” And the final part that caught my eye was in the discussion on East Asia, where they predict that “China cannot easily turn nationalism into active aggression. China’s geography makes such actions on land difficult, if not impossible. The only exception might be an attempt to take control of Russia’s maritime interests if we are correct and Russia fragments. Here, Japan likely would challenge China.” and that “Fighting over the minor islands producing low-cost and unprofitable energy will not be the primary issue in the region. Rather, an old three-player game will emerge. Russia, the declining power, will increasingly lose the ability to protect its maritime interests. The Chinese and the Japanese will both be interested in acquiring these and in preventing each other from having them. We forecast this as the central, unsettled issue in the region as Russia declines and Sino-Japanese competition increases.” These three points are all connected, and I’ll address them in two parts.

The Collapse of Russia

The starting point of these predictions is that over the next decade, due to pressures on the economy and the ruble, the current political and economic structures of governance within Russia, and the decline in influence of central government and the security apparatus, the Russian Federation will formally and informally decline to the point of collapse, with the federation splitting into numerous smaller, independent entities. I’ll note that they don’t explicitly say the federation will split up, but when you predict that various territories will leave, including large swathes of it, you can only mean the end of the country as we know it. Based on that, I’m writing from the belief that they predict the end of Russia as we know it. It’s not a new prediction, infact it’s almost becoming a cliché that every now and then the collapse of Russia will be highly anticipated and grossly exaggerated. Whether it’s political collapse, economic collapse or demographic collapse…you name it, the books and articles have been published predicting it. Even a cursory look at history however will show this to be highly unlikely. Since the turn of the 20th century alone, Russia has faced and seen off internal revolutions, civil war, a failed socialist experiment, foreign invasion, the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic crashes, demographic challenges and various economic and political sanctions. And yet there she is, in all her glory, still standing and coming back for more. If a century of cyclical turmoil, and particularly in eras where technological capabilities were lower and the central government had less ability to unify the country through national ideals and opinions, it’s difficult to see how anyone can predict the collapse of Russia within a decade. Notwithstanding a spectacular natural disaster or a massive military defeat and forced partition, the latter of which in the past has failed to split up the core areas of the country for any meaningful length of time, Russia will still be here in a decade.

However, let me focus more specifically on the crux of the argument in the report: “Given the organization of the federation, with revenue flowing to Moscow before being distributed directly or via regional governments, the flow of resources will also vary dramatically. This will lead to a repeat of the Soviet Union’s experience in the 1980s and Russia’s in the 1990s, in which Moscow’s ability to support the national infrastructure declined. In this case, it will cause regions to fend for themselves by forming informal and formal autonomous entities. The economic ties binding the Russian periphery to Moscow will fray.” At the outset it’s an argument based on certain ideas of how states operate. When things are going well and the centre is strong, periphery regions or minority nationality regions go with the flow, enjoying the success and wealth that association in the state brings. This argument has been used to analyse a number of countries, from the UK, to Italy, to Malaysia at the time when it included Singapore. When things aren’t going so well, those periphery and minority regions become unhappy and start doing things on their own, or even pushing for their independence. We’ve seen it recently with the Scottish independence referendum, the cycles of tensions in Italy between North and South, and the racial and economic tensions that led to Singapore’s independence from Malaysia. The problem with using this starting point to view Russia is that it doesn’t take each region as a separate entity, it doesn’t acknowledge that most regions are Russian-majority regions, and it doesn’t take note of geography. Of all the Russian regions, only a handful are not a Russian-majority. Most of them are in the Caucasus area, with the exceptions being Bashkortostan, Sakha and Tuva. Undoubtedly it’s credible to imagine the Caucasus areas being comfortable settling for independence if Russia was collapsing, but Bashkortostan and Sakha are in very unfavourable geographic locations for independence, are very comfortable with identifying as a minority race but still being Russian, and have very different interests from each other. Tuva is the only one of those three outliers with a history of tension towards Russians, and of existing outwith the Russian Federation. The second problem I have with their argument is that it specifies the periods of the 1980s and 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tensions between centre and periphery becoming more prominent. I agree that there were tensions between centre and periphery, but I think they’ve failed to learn some of the lessons on why these movements ultimately failed to succeed.

When the authority of a central government weakens or loses the ability to adequately finance the regions, those regions by necessity have to take on some level of autonomy to get day-to-day things done. Pay bills and wages, ensure the smooth running of imports and exports, secure their borders, maintain local law and order…countless number of things really. In the Russian case, the economic issue was huge. When you add in the levels of corruption that were prevalent in Russia at the time, it was devastating for many regions and citizens rightly were furious and demanding changes. What you rarely saw, outside of the Caucasus, was any movement towards independence. Some regional leaders hinted at it, in the Russian Far East this was predominantly Mikhail Nikolayev of Sakha and Yevgeny Nazdratenko of Primorskiy, but crucially they never tried to implement it. The threat of separatism was a bargaining chip, an emotional lever, a populist statement, and a way to try and pressure more finance and influence from central government. Very quickly after these pressures reached a crescendo, larger republics like Sakha and Tatarstan received further benefits in deals with the central government, and soon thereafter gave more support to the centre. Even after the financial pressures in Russia from 1997, with the drastic decline of Yeltsin, and the military failures in Chechnya, the regional alliances had a chance to achieve greater autonomy or independence. But when 1999 legislative elections arrived, the elites abandoned their support for the ‘Fatherland – All Russia’ party at a late hour (as well as a lot of good PR for Unity Russia in the media, admittedly). By 2001, they had merged with Unity Russia to form United Russia.

Why this collapse and change of heart, just when it seemed they had reached a new level of political strength? Because what the elites really wanted was not autonomy, nor independence, nor a collapse of the Russian state. They opposed the central government because it was weak and they did not consider that it would create a solid future for Russia. When the elites knew that changes had arrived in the political landscape, they saw the strength and unity they had hoped for. He gave them a vision and they believed in it. Much like the average Russian citizen, the elites generally love their country and want it to succeed. The latest Levada poll confirms some of those ideas that the strength of the government is more important than what western countries would consider democratic. Opposition politics is simply an outlet for when dialogue is needed with the government, and not as a system of changing the elites. Whether it works well or not, populations will usually go with the system that favours their national traits, and in Russia this requires more networks and strength than democracy and debate. ‘Sistema’, if you will. Ultimately, no matter the troubles Russia may face in the coming decade, as long as they have leaders at the helm with strength, determination and a vision, the Russian elites and the general population will stick together, for better or worse. Never underestimate the ability of an ethnic group to stick together in tough times.

Various Regions Will Secede or be Absorbed by Other States

The second quote I picked out from the report was the suggestion that Central and Eastern European states will attempt, in the face of a Russian collapse, to take back territories they feel were historically theirs. In addition to this, the Caucasus will go it alone, Karelia will try to join Finland, the Central Asian states will destabilise, and a number of the Far Eastern regions will join together in an independent state. The third quote I feel is a continuation of this, wherein Japan and China both see the Russian collapse as an opportunity to absorb some areas of the Russian Far East, presumably the Amur and Primorsky regions for China, and the Kuril Islands for Japan. Some of these suggestions I feel are actually more credible, but only if you can stretch your imagination and believe that the extremely unlikely first premise comes to pass. Nevertheless, I’ll address some of them. I won’t discuss Central and Eastern European thoughts on reclaiming territory as it’s not my region of expertise, and neither are the Caucasus, Central Asia or Karelia. You can make up your own mind on those, though in short I think that Karelia isn’t very likely whereas the others might be. The Far Eastern ones are more interesting. I’ve accumulated what I would consider, at a minimum, a decent knowledge of the history and present of places like Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. I’ve followed the evolution of events from their starting development to modern attempts at development and economic growth with Asian countries. In my view, the level of support for independence here is extremely low. Even when I’ve played devil’s advocate and brought up periods like the Far Eastern Republic in conversation, people either don’t know, don’t care, or don’t want to see it happen again. There are no opinion polls showing a critical mass or even a significant minority of support for it. I’m sure there are a few patriots out there, but I’m not finding them. Going by that, and the fact that even regional elites have ceased all talk of independence since the populist days of Nazdratenko, I consider it extremely unlikely that a voluntary independence movement would form here.

If it was somehow enforced by a Russian collapse outwith their control, I would also find it hard to imagine that they would happily be absorbed by China or Japan. There are still a lot of military units out this way that would feel the same, and I doubt China are going to sacrifice countless soldiers to make it happen. Although the population of the Russian Far East is also relatively small, you would be absorbing an unhappy population of a few million people who don’t speak Mandarin, have no cultural connections to China, and require massive spending to bring their regions up to scratch. There are just too many political and economic risks involved, with surrounding Asian countries all likely seeing it as Chinese aggression. As for Japan and the Kuril Islands, that’s more realistic, though I still can’t see it happening by force. For one, there’s the aforementioned military units the Russian Far East has to raise as a defence, combined with the limited ability of Japan to conduct an independent attack. Secondly, they would no doubt need the approval of the USA to make such a move, and I think even they would be reluctant to do it. There are too many possibilities for it to stretch into a larger war with China, or other nations who would be left with the principle of complaining about the Crimean accession to Russia and being faced with a similar movement by Japan with the Kuril Islands. On the other hand, I could see the diplomatic route as viable. If Sakhalin had to go it alone, there may well be enough of a financial incentive to give the islands to Japan in exchange for economic and diplomatic support, with the concept of inviolable Russian soil already having been lost. This is the only viable change I could see coming about in the unrealistic scenario, and I still think it’s not a certainty.


In short, I see the Stratfor predictions on Russia as starting from an unrealistic base, possibly an overtly biased one, which makes me see it as unlikely that the events will come to pass. I don’t know the underlying theories or analysis that make them think that these events will happen, but I’ve offered up my own thoughts based on analysis and personal opinion. The later parts of their predictions at least have a bit more realism, but are still unlikely in my view, and so I can’t recommend taking them as realistic. If you feel differently or have other views, feel free to leave a comment below. But if Russia collapses within a decade, I’ll eat my kilt.

Land Reform in the Russian Far East

One of the developments that caught my eye recently was a proposal by Yuri Trutnev to Vladimir Putin on the 19th of January, in which he suggested that the government offer a free hectare of land to anyone willing to move to the Russian Far East. Putin was open to the idea and suggested putting forward a concrete proposal, as at this stage it was a very basic outline. Below I’ll set out the basics of it, and discuss the prospect further. If you want to read a follow-up interview with Trutnev on the issue first, check out this link. (Russian language)

What is the proposal?

In short, Trutnev has proposed that any Russian citizen should be entitled to receive one hectare of land free of charge for up to five years, possibly for three, after which time they can buy that piece of land at a concessionary price if the government/relevant authority deems they have used it properly. He proposes barring foreign citizens from taking part in this venture, or from sub-letting the land out once it has been allocated to a native. As an added bonus, he suggests that applicants can choose which exact hectare they receive using an online system. In a follow-up story, the governor of Magadan jumped on the idea and suggested his region offer five hectares, but since the proposal is at the drafting stage, these proposals await more concrete details. More importantly, people can use this land to engage not only in agriculture, but also in forestry, tourism, industry, hunting…any operation within the law basically. As noted at the start of this article, Putin supports the idea in principle, noting that previous initiatives have been employed in Siberia in the past.

Where will the land be available?

Everywhere in the Far Eastern Federal District, on government-owned land which is not currently in use. This includes the border areas with China along the Amur river, and presumably also the areas close to North Korea. However he does precludes areas situated directly around cities as he feels that ownership of land so close to large companies, transport and infrastructure networks, and prime land is too open to corruption. In saying that, only 1.18% of the available land falls into this category, leaving a lot of land available for the scheme. To put this in perspective, the government land holdings of various categories in the Far East amounts to about 614 million hectares.

What if the land is rented or sold on to foreigners?

In the interview, I’ve translated his response to this question as partially accepting that corruption is a high possibility, but that it would be of limited value since no substantial development could ever take place on the land as it would never be approved by the regional authorities.

What are his reasons for suggesting this initiative?

Trutnev believes that a lot of land is simply lying unproductive in the region, and is essentially wasted economic potential. The state is doing nothing with it, so he feels that others should get a chance to make a go of it. It sounds like he also thinks it may attract more able-bodied citizens to the region, noting that the population in the region rose slightly at the last count around the end of 2014 and as such it is becoming more attractive. Finally, he sees it as an experiment that could be useful in preparing for something similar to be rolled out across the whole of Russia, noting that even Western Russia has far too much unused land.


One thing that stood out in some of the basic news stories was that Putin mentioned that major reforms had been carried out before in Siberia.  I don’t think he would have been trying to invoke any particular movement, and I translated his response as very cautious, but there is a general memory in Russia that major land reforms and developments have occured before. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the history, I’ve laid out a brief summary below.

Russia pressed forward into Siberia by the 16th century, but periods of internal strife in the country delayed any mass civilian movements east until the end of the century. Peasants started making their way into Siberia in the hope of settling on new lands and enjoying greater freedoms, particularly as the best lands were already monopolised in Western Russia. Tales of fertile soil had spread and families took the chance to claim it and make a bit more money for themselves. Perhaps just as enticing, the Tsar had set a far more generous tax system in Siberia, having permission to work five acres of land for every one acre they worked to pay the Tsar, and getting a 10-year tax-break to boot.

This situation petered out for a while as the best lands in Siberia started to become full, but when the Trans-Siberian Railway and other branch lines were completed near the end of the 19th century, migration to Siberia once again increased, with up to 10 million peasants making the journey east. This was encouraged by Tsar Nicholas II and his commissions, occuring during the period of the Stolypin reforms, and are perhaps the most remembered of Russian agricultural reforms by the modern world. Essentially those who were willing to go east were offered various benefits, receiving about 16 hectares of land per person. As with previous migrations they received small sums of money, tax-breaks, and help with their initial resettlement.

The next major reforms were during the Stalin era, carrying out dekulakisation and collectivisation. Not only did this take land mostly out of private hands, and turn the countryside into mass state-controlled farms, it also resulted in the death or exile of many skilled farmers. Agricultural potential and efficiency suffered due to this, but after the death of Stalin, another of the most famous reforms was carried out by Khrushchev; the ‘Virgin Lands’ campaign to settle and farm areas in Southern Russia, Southern Siberia and Northern Kazakhstan. This wasn’t really a reform in the traditional sense, as peasants weren’t given benefits and incentives to move east, it relied on the enthusiasm of Soviet youth to head out and settle these areas as part of the great drive to build the future in the present day. A few hundred thousand volunteers headed south and east resulting in early gains in output, but with time the campaign petered out, soil was overused, and eventually it was considered a failure.

Although later Soviet years didn’t see any substantial agricultural reforms, the economic focus on the city helped the nearby rural areas in unintended ways. Those farming areas close enough to growing and prospering cities were able to develop transport and trading links to the cities, resulting in benefits to both sides and an expansion in agricultural output in those areas. Unfortunately for these areas, the economic decline in Russia throughout the 1980s saw the agricultural areas also suffer as cities began to see a downturn in fortune. By the 1990s agricultural areas continued to collapse in productivity due to the structural problems and car-crash economics that followed the end of the Soviet Union and the beginning of Russia under Yeltsin. It highlighted just how dependent the rural areas had become on thriving urban centres, and perhaps in that lies a seed of a lesson for the contemporary attempts to develop the Russian Far East.

Will the current proposals work?

Until final proposals are put forward, it’s difficult to say for certain, but based on the ideas Trutnev discussed in the interview I linked to at the start of this article, I’m very sceptical on the plans and I think they’re highly unlikely to succeed. For one, the overwhelming majority of people in central and western russia have no intention of moving to the Russian Far East, and they certainly don’t harbour dreams of moving east to become a farmer or a hunter. Most of the able-bodied generation in contemporary Russia enjoy the comforts of modern life, living inside or in close proximity to cities and amenities, and in general they may well be ill-prepared and inexperienced for such a venture. The fact that the proposals restrict the offer to one hectare, and preclude offering land in the areas closest to the city which would be beneficial for production and supplying finished goods to the cities, is likely to be a major drawback. Even for those who don’t need to be close to a city, there would be major logistical and transport issues around the coldest parts of the year when roads are not always safe or available.

Compounding the issue of getting people to move east is plain and simple economics. It’s one thing to get the land for free, but you also need capital to invest in it and get it started. You might need to build a home on the land, and at the very least you’ll need to buy storage facilities and security measures if you don’t live there. You’ll likely need some mechanised equipment to make efficient use of the land, and even if you want to get into a non-agriculture industry you’ll still have numerous start-up costs. Without an accompanying grant, tax-break and financial support this will be a prohibitive venture. Those who are making money aren’t generally going to take a punt on one hectare of land, and those with no money can’t afford to take the chance. Given the current financial restrictions in Russia, low-income citizens aren’t likely to get large loans from a bank either.

On the issue of corruption, although foreigners are prohibited from taking advantage of this offer, it’s not difficult to see that areas close to China could be rented illegally from natives by individual Chinese farmers or collectives, farmed, and the products then sold in Russia or China. The China Daily has already speculated on this, and whilst any meaningful development on each hectare is still unlikely through corruption, most of the fertile areas are close enough to the border that it could still undermine the initiative. Whatever Trutnev puts forward in a concrete proposal is really going to have to have some plans to minimise this possibility. (Note, this is in no way suggestive of a Chinese invasion and annexation of the Russian Far East. That myth has been debunked enough times that I’ve no intention of addressing it here)

The only positive way I could see this idea playing out is if the 1.18% of available land close enough to cities is included in the initiative, as the vast majority of the suitable land is located in the south of the region, around the Amur, Khabarovsk, Primorsky and Jewish Autonomous Oblast regions. This is important for the reasons I alluded to a bit further up, where Russian agricultural areas received a boost when the cities they were close to also developed. It is vital that the cities develop in the Russian Far East if the agricultural side is to prosper as well. Good ideas shouldn’t be discouraged, but until the major cities of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk develop and start to thrive, the areas around it will continue to struggle. Develop the cities, and the agriculture will develop with it, even if it’s through foreign investors rather than native Russians. Where there is demand, supply will surely follow.

Once More to Vladivostok

After a few months of preparation and paperwork, I finally said goodbye to Scotland and flew out to Vladivostok on the 26th of December for a 5.5 month stay. It took almost a day and three flights to get there, and on the 27th I touched down in the city and headed to my accomodation at the university. My stay here is for two reasons: the first is to take Russian language lessons at the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU), or Дальневосточный федеральный университет (ДВФУ) as it’s written in Russian, and the second reason is to later do research and fieldwork for my PhD. Some of you may already know that the university was moved onto Russkiy Island over the past couple of years to take advantage of the facilities built for the 2012 APEC conference, but there are still a couple of departments located in the centre of the city, one of which is the Centre for Russian Language and Culture. This is where I’ll be taking language lessons, and for now at least I’m staying in the obshezhite attached to the language centre. The dorm is home to all the foreign students taking language lessons, so compared to the traditional image of a Russian dorm the standards are a bit higher, as you can see from my room in the pictures below. I’ve got a room to myself with my own bathroom, fridge and TV; the furnishings are a bit below that of the campus on Russkiy Island, but it’s still comfortable enough. For those curious about the cost of lessons, accomodation, visa, insurance etc at the university until mid-June, it comes to about 130,000 rubles all in, give or take a few thousand depending on circumstances.


First world problems, I know, but the most frustrating part of staying in the city centre is the admin side of things. Almost anything important has to be done at the offices on Russkiy Island, but only one bus goes there three times an hour. You take an hour’s journey, spend five minutes paying a bill (if you’re lucky, as they have two cash desks for the entire university) or getting yourself registered, and then an hour back. I’ve no idea why they can’t deal with the admin here, most of it is on their computer system, so it’s really a waste of an afternoon.

Most of the students here are from China, Japan and South Korea, but you get a few students like myself from further afield, and I’ve heard there are a few North Korean students as well. The school itself looks a bit spartan from the outset, and some of the textbooks were either written in the Soviet era or early in the 90s. It shouldn’t make too much difference as long as the lessons are effective, but I’ll tell you when I leave if my Russian language benefitted from the old-school feel. In saying that, they do have wi-fi throughout the building, modern audio-visual equipment and even a free gym, so it’s not all old. There’s a small cafe on one of the floors, though I generally make my own meals so I haven’t tried it. I get on average 3 hours of instruction a day, and with the classes being held in the same large building as the dorm you don’t have to go far. In general it’s self-contained and you even get a view out onto the sea from the rooms.

IMG_20150101_113600 IMG_20150126_130946

And what of the city itself? Not much has changed since the summer. You can walk down the high streets, see modern buildings and nice interiors, then turn into a street and see plenty that is in need of repair. The Asian presence in the city is perhaps more obvious now that I’ve been here longer, from the long-standing connections with the Japanese second-hand car industry, the availability of food and drink from East Asia (especially beer, sauces and instant noodles), and the Chinese market at Sportivnaya selling fresh foods and domestic goods. The only thing I couldn’t find was a decent wok, which was a real disappointment. There are plenty of Chinese and Korean restaurants dotted around the city, and a complete absence of more famous fast-food and beer outlets such as McDonalds, KFC/Rostiks, Burger King, Teremok, Kroshka Kartoshka and Kruzhka. Republic is probably the closest thing to a chain cafe/bar in the city. Prices have apparently risen a few percentage points in the last few months, though as a foreign student being paid in pounds, it’s not something I really have to worry about. Off the top of my head, I can get a kg of chicken drumsticks for about 250 rubles, standard Russian cheese for about 520 rubles a kg, 500ml of natural yoghurt for about 65 rubles, sukhariki for about 20 rubles, brocolli at about 80 rubles a kg, 6 jazz apples for about 150 rubles…and so on. On the other hand, I’ve seen 2 more exotic fruits for several hundred rubles, and an imported beer from Scotland is about 280 rubles, so if you want foreign goods you’re going to have to pay through the teeth for them. These are supermarket prices by the way, so it’s likely you can get everyday goods slightly cheaper in smaller outlets or in markets.


I’ve not spoken too much with people about the economy or political issues. With the holiday period and then getting settled into the routine of classes, I’ve been taking it easy. It does seem like people are a bit more concerned about how they spend their money compared to six months ago though, and a few have mentioned they won’t be going abroad on holiday now. With the ruble weakening and prices for the holidays almost doubling in many cases, it’s simply too much for many to afford. I’ve barely heard a comment about the civil war in Ukraine. There’s still a desire to move away to Europe or the USA, one person I knew here even decided on a whim to just leave and move to St. Petersburg to try their luck after they lost their job.

In short, first impressions are that the government’s dream of a Russian economic stronghold in the East is not yet threatening to turn into a reality.

Back in Business

It’s been a while since I wrote an article for the blog, way too long infact. I started out with the aim of writing articles about developments in the Russian Far East, and it all faded away after I returned from my summer trip there. I got caught up with a lot of work through the end of 2014, but it’s no excuse really. Now that I’ve arrived here in Vladivostok to spend six months living in the city, it’s time to be far more regular with my output. I’ll have a post up over the next couple of days to give my impressions after a month in the city, and I’ve got some other posts planned after that, mostly contemporary stuff but also some historical stuff from time to time to mix it up and give you an idea of how the region has developed over the past 150 or so years. The past several months has seen a lot of attention given to Russia, with a lot of negative and gleeful coverage provided by the western media due to the civil war in Ukraine and the massive devaluation of the ruble. But in terms of the east, the relationship with China has dominated headlines, and for those of us who focus on these eastern regions it’s interesting to see just how far the economic relationship will go between the two powers, and how the overall development of the region will progress with tighter budgets and changing priorities. In short there will be plenty to talk about it in the articles to come.

Russia Through Asian Eyes

After finishing my trip to Russia around 5 weeks ago, I headed onwards to six other Asian countries and made the most of my summer holidays. I first took in Japan then onwards to South Korea, The Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. Aside from relaxing and doing all the fun things that you’d expect on a holiday, I tried to keep an eye out for any sort of Russian presence in these countries and to ask the locals what they thought about the country. As with my time in Russia this amounted to a handful of people in each place, but I think the feedback I got is the starting point for a better understanding of exactly how Russia is viewed by the average citizen in these countries and how far away Russia is from achieving its goal of a greater presence in Asia.

The Asian leg of my journey began in Sapporo, capital city of Hokkaido prefecture and home of the Hokkaido Slavic-Eurasian Research Centre. At the airport things looked promising; as well as having signs written in Japanese and English, they also had directions in Russian. After I left the airport however, that was virtually the last I would hear of Russia beyond the university. English was ubiquitous in transport areas, and some of the locals spoke English, but I didn’t hear a single word in Russian. Despite this it was a great honour to meet the staff and students at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Centre, with my trip very fortunately coinciding with an end of year BBQ that I was invited along to! There was a range of research projects amongst the group, and researchers from a variety of backgrounds, and it was good to see Russia receiving at least some academic focus at the university. It seemed that very few focused on the Russian Far East, aside from some continuing research on the Kuril Islands dispute, suggesting that the region still has much to do to capture the imagination of foreign scholars. Overall it was good to meet fresh faces who focus on Russia, and with any luck it won’t be my last visit to the institute. After this I was able to meet some other citizens of the city, but they knew little of Russia. One girl had met some Russians before and noted that once she got to know them they were great people, friendly, dependable, great sense of humour, but of the country and its development she knew little. She knew vaguely that the Kuril Islands were disputed, but felt that her own generation cared far less about it than older ones, and was not too concerned if territorial claims were dropped. Carrying on my trip in Japan to Tokyo, I was hoping for at least some more awareness of Russia, but none was forthcoming. Once a day I might hear some Russian words from tourists, but nothing more. I spoke with an older businessman who confessed he had little idea about Russia and had read only one Russian novel when he was younger. I spoke with a group in their 20s and 30s who occasionally met a tourist from Russia, but had never had the desire to visit Russia for themselves. For them it was a cold place all year round, far away, with little to do or see. For some it was even a dangerous place as any news they heard about it was invariably negative.

After Japan I moved on to Seoul in South Korea, and yet the same familiar answers were to be found, even amongst some European expats. For all of them Russia was a country that existed on the news, not something they came across in their everyday lives. Oil, wars and cold weather were common stereotypes to be found amongst Russians, and there was no presence of Russian goods, companies or the language in public places. No-one knew of any Russian restaurants or bars, Russian goods, Russian companies, Russian residents…undoubtedly there were some tourists, but not so many to be a common sight. Journeying next through The Philippines and Indonesia brought no change, though I must say I didn’t visit places like Bali or Cebu which may have had more Russian tourists. The most promising lead I had was the Pochta Rossii symbol on a restaurant in Davao, but the waitress informed me it was just a random picture the owner had found and thought would look cool as a decoration. In Jakarta I managed to meet one girl who thought Putin was the sexiest thing to happen to the world in a long time, though she was most certainly an outlier. Indeed it was only a short time before my flight to Singapore that I started to get a few messages from the people I had met in Asia about Russia, regarding the MH17 flight going down over Eastern Ukraine. The impression they had, after the initial shock and confusion, was that Russia had deliberately shot down the plane over a Russian region called Eastern Ukraine. I had to clarify the geography and nature of the civil war in the Ukraine to make them aware that Russia was not shooting down civilian airliners, but at times it was difficult as their news was mostly recycled into their own language from western media outlets, which have shown since the event that they are heavily invested in blaming Russia for the tragedy. Unfortunately I was unable to read websites and media in the local languages for myself, so whether Russian statements were given full coverage I can’t say.

After reaching Singapore I noticed a definite increase in the amount of Russian language I heard; still not much, but it seemed to have some popularity as a tourist place, particularly amongst Asian-looking Russian speakers. It was here that I thought I’d hit the jackpot and finally found a Russian bar, with a street of bars and restaurants apparently having one called ‘Rasputin’. Alas when I got there, despite the street being lively and all the bars open, Rasputin’s was closed. Permanently or temporarily I don’t know for sure, but perhaps it was appropriate to find it closed after seeing so little Russian presence up until then. From there I finished my journey in Malaysia, where discussion was understandably still focused on MH17 and what exactly happened to the aircraft. As with the other Asian countries I visited, Russia was cast in a negative light by the media stories being filtered through, and people were interested to know if, as a researcher of Russia, I could confirm if it was all true. I may have given those few a clearer overview of the situation, but that still leaves hundreds of millions of more who hear a very one-sided of interpretation of Russia being presented in the media.

What then can I take from my trip across six Asian countries, and Russia’s presence there? For one, it’s almost non-existent to the point of being damaging. There was little or no knowledge about what Russia is, about its territorial presence in Asia, and what the country stands for. On a soft power level there was no Russian food, Russian drinks, Russian bars and restaurants, consumer goods…no Russian anything. Even the vodka on sale was usually Scandinavian or European rather than Russian! News was generally coming through western outlets, meaning that if someone did take an interest they would generally meet a wall of negative propaganda about the country. Russian tourism in Asia seems to be focused most prominently in resort areas given the lack of any information and signage in Russian throughout tourist sights and hotels. All of the above is a worrying sign if Russia is serious about making a presence in Asia. Ask people around the world about Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines…there’s a good chance you’ll hear at least one thing positive, whether it’s the holiday resorts, the food, the people, the technology, the sunshine or the culture. Wherever the natives of these countries go, they take part of their culture and offer it to the host country. Russia needs to offer something positive about itself to Asian countries, not just from the government but from businesses and citizens as well. Pick a country and you’ll find an Irish pub there, but chances are you’ll not find a Russian one. It’s hard to say if there are bureaucratic problems that prevent such moves, or if Russian businesses lack the drive and ambition to expand and take a chance abroad. But if it wants to be part of the Asian development story, and develop its own Far East, something has to change in that attitude. A greater Russian news presence and a greater Russian cultural presence are possible beginnings of that. Make a person interested in your story and they might just pay you a visit and try your borshcht.

The End of the Line in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Over 29 days I had travelled 15,000 km, starting in Glasgow and going across Russia all the way to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Some of it has been good, some of it has been great, but at the end of every chapter there’s a bit of reflection, and as I sit here in the departure area of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk airport there’s a fair few thoughts going through my mind. It’s hard to really describe what my expectations for the city were; written material about it usually focuses on the oil and gas industry, or on the nature and scenery, and you get the odd mention of Chekov’s journey and his brutal description of the place. Perhaps with that in mind I expected to see a bit more vibrancy and wealth on show in the capital of the island, or at least some kind of energy and excitement about the place. I’d been told at different times it was expensive, or full of expats, or an island with increasing revenues to spend on the place…but that’s not what I found here.


I’m getting used to flying into minimalist regional airports in Russia, getting onto the bus and sitting in a cramped seat for at least half an hour, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk was no different. The sky was grey and rain was threatening, but it looked like I had avoided the storm that battered the island only a few days before. Evidence of its impact was everywhere, from trees and branches strewn across pavements and streets, to bus stops that had been mangled and blown over walls. However the city lived on, the buses ran, people found their way to work, and shops were open as normal. I would be staying with a guy called Maxim in the city, he works for an international company and was kind enough to offer me a room for a couple of nights. I dropped off my bags with him and set out to explore the city on foot, though I’ll admit I wasn’t too impressed with the weather on this occasion. The conditions were as close to Scotland as I’ve come across in Russia, with temperatures at 7C at the best of times, with gusts of wind and the odd shower of rain a constant presence. My first impressions of the streets were a sense of depression and sporadic development; the pavements were non-existent at times or lost beneath decades of muck, other times there were gaping holes every few steps. Dirt and debris covered every roadside and cars would speed past missing parts of their anatomy. I can accept that the storm caused damage and a lot of the debris is likely from that, but the rest has been there for the long-term and really is in need of repair. Whatever the money from the Sakhalin projects is being spent on, it’s not fully making its way to the benefit of the general population. I continued walking away from the main streets of the city, hoping to see some of the Japanese architecture that is said to remain, but even this seemed an exaggerated claim at best; some of the sites I visited were crumbling. I tried the botanical gardens, but the storm had seen it having to close for a while. A walk through Gagarin Park was a mixed bag; the storm had damaged a few kiosks and rides, but it’s hard to imagine great weather bringing much more beauty to the area. As I walked back towards the centre from the north, the streets blurred into a mish-mash of decrepit wooden buildings and peeling flats covered in Soviet murals from yesteryear. I began to wonder if I was entering the local equivalent of a favela. Maxim would later tell me of an area called ‘Shanghai’ which in the 1990s was the hotbed of crime and poverty in the city, though there is at least a greater sense of safety than in those days.




As I headed back to meet Maxim I had started to completely write the city off as a dead-end, that the city could turn up all of the Tsar’s missing gold and it wouldn’t make a single difference to the development of the city. I tried to remind myself that you can’t just fly into a city for a few hours, make a quick judgement and head off again with a few sensationalist headlines. For all the negatives I had seen, I wanted to find positives amidst the gloom, even if it was only one or two. At worst, I would be able to tell myself I had given it a fair crack of the whip. Maxim’s grandmother cooked a meal for us, and I’ll give my compliments to the chef as it’s one of the few times I’ve been satisfied with a bowl of cabbage soup. I asked him about his life in the city, he told me that he was born and raised here with a few spells abroad including the USA and China, and had been to Europe a few times on holiday. He told me that although he still likes Europe and the UK for music and culture, he was comfortable living in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and was in no rush to move. I enquired about the reasons why, usually those who are such big fans of foreign cultures want to go there, but he described a sense of local pride. It was in sync with Russia, but people had their differences. At this point Alexei arrived and he added to it, feeling that the sense of humour in the city had differences to that in the west of the country, more intelligent and less direct. He said people on the island were more hospitable and helpful than the mainland, with people willing to do a favour even for someone they didn’t know. I won’t pretend to know for sure if that’s the case, but the next day we would see an old woman lying on the ground, and there was no shortage of help and a willingness to stay with her until help arrived, despite lots of those workers previously rushing to make it to the office by 9am.

After dinner we went on a tour of the city, taking in a few of the local monuments to the war heroes, the Lenin statue and best of all a trip to the top of the nearby hills for a view of the city. In the winter the place turns into a great place for skiing and snowboarding, with both Maxim and Alexei telling me it rivals nearby Sapporo for the experience. We would then meet Katya and head off for Korsakov. I asked them about the Japanese cars, and the fact that many vehicles seemed to be bashed, broken or looking the worse for wear, and they told me, quite expectedly, that the second-hand car market here is huge, with most cars from Japan, some from Korea, and even fewer from Russia. However the run-down nature of the cars is because everything delivered to the island is raised in price, even from the Russian mainland. Maintaining a car in perfect condition can be an expensive business, especially with the poor quality of roads. Maxim in particular wasn’t too happy about the degradation of the roads, and it’s something the city really needs to sort out. Korsakov itself is dominated at night by the flaming gas and the lights of the facilities. You can see tankers creeping out or arriving from Japan, and there are usually a few people at the peak of the town looking out on the view. If you’re ever in town it’s something to do when the sun goes down.






We talked more about the development of the island, and all were in agreement that it was lopsided and usually the benefits were in areas important to the gas industry. This I can understand, international companies don’t get into business for the benefit of the average citizen, but it sounded like the regional government had work to do to win over the hearts of the populace. There didn’t seem much optimism about seeing results, though I should add that it didn’t make them want to leave, they still felt comfortable here despite the problems. I asked my obligatory question about the fortunes of the local football team, FK Sakhalin, who had just earned promotion to the second tier of the Russian system, and with it a crazy schedule of matches stretching as far away as Kaliningrad; they weren’t too interested in the team. Football just didn’t seem too popular in general; even hockey was of limited interest for the league on the island. People were more interested in individual sports, winter ones in general, and the forthcoming World Cup matches were more of a novelty than a deep concern. I took a walk to the stadium the next day; it’s a really small place with one stand and it’s hard to imagine it hosting bigger games next season, though it had strong links with local youth programs which was good to hear.


The weather the next day was just as dismal as the last, but I endeavoured to keep up my walking and reach the 10km mark. I paid a visit to the regional museum, set in an old Japanese building that really is a marvel on the eye. The grounds were kept in great condition despite the storm, with only a few signs of disturbance. Inside there’s two floors, covering some fauna and archaeology at the bottom, through to exploration of the islands and life during and between the wars. It’s not the biggest museum I’ve ever been to but it’s definitely the best one on the island and worth a visit. If nothing else the price is an example for all of Russia, 70 rubles to get in, no extra cost for foreigners and 100 if you want to take pictures. Afterwards I tried the local art museum, with some interesting work there from a local artist and even a room of works by North Korean artists. However if you come here as a tourist be aware there’s a very limited amount of things to do and see. Even the local brewery had shut its restaurant doors, and many cafes or restaurants never opened before lunchtime. Either you live and work here, or you find yourself a hobby during your visit and get out to see the surrounding nature.





I met Maxim and Alexei again, as well as a few others, and this time we went out for a beer. They opened up a bit after a while and I began to get more of an insight into the local culture. There was a good sense of solidarity as I had begun to see earlier, and people looked out for each other. However the one thing I had noticed on the streets was the divide between the Koreans and the Russians. There was a bit more mixing than in Yakutsk, but there was definitely a divide there. I asked the group about it, and they agreed that there was a social divide between the two races. The Koreans were born here, they spoke Russian, but they still retained their own cultural preferences, the social structures still related to the Korean mainland, and the Russians could feel that. Not that they complained or held resentment, they understood it as normal, different peoples have different ways of life. There was a bit more resentment for immigrants from Central Asia, though it wasn’t as strong as I’ve come across in other Russian cities. The numbers are very limited and hasn’t reached any sort of tipping point, and interestingly enough a number of construction works have North Korean workers here. I didn’t see any, but I’ll have to take the group’s word for it that they’re there. Indeed one non-Russian group who got the most flak were Americans, with a disappointment that some would stay for several years and learn barely more than a few words of Russian in that time. The numbers are so small that it is unlikely to become an issue, but even here on Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk people like long-term visitors to make an effort. With the beers starting to add up we left the conversation there and called it a night.

With that my stay was at an end, the next day taking the lunchtime flight on to Sapporo in Japan. I’d like to offer firm conclusions and thoughts about Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, but I feel like I was only scratching the surface. The problems that exist there are very visible, possibly permanent, and I couldn’t imagine any Russian moving there unless it was for the energy and resource industries. At the same time the people I spoke with were comfortable living on the island, they had a basic sense of regional pride and there were a number of sub-cultures going on that just didn’t have any obvious outlet. Life will continue to amble along here no matter whether there’s investment or not, and perhaps appealing to foreign investors and even tourists is just completely unnecessary here outside of the nature and adventure tourists. What the island did give me was a few things to chew over about the Russian Far East in general, and I’ll try to approach those issues in future articles.

For now it’s on to Japan and a few other Asian countries. I won’t be posting the same articles as I have done so far, but I do aim to get talking to the natives and find out what people in Asian countries think about Russia and the Russians. It’s time to see Russia from the outside, through the eyes of others.