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.

Background

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.

Advertisements

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.

IMG_20150109_211243IMG_20150109_211231

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.

IMG_20150107_173801IMG-20150117-WA0006

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.