The last time I travelled to Russia was six years ago, during which I spent nine months abroad as part of my time at university. My first experience of the country was daunting, arriving into a jam-packed airport at the same time as several other flights, waiting in a massive queue to hand in my migration card form, and waiting another lifetime at passport control, before heading into a sea of people beyond the arrival gates. I was not looking forward to a repeat performance, but to my surprise, it was a completely different story this time. There were no other flights, there was no need to fill in the migration card myself, and after waiting a couple of minutes in line for passport control, I passed through the gates, received my migration card, and stepped into a virtually empty arrivals area. Sure, a few taxi drivers were touting aggressively for a fare, but in a matter of minutes I was heading into the sun-kissed city on the express train to Paveletsky station. If the airport can keep up that kind of standard in future, there will surely be more repeat visitors to the country.
My trip on this occasion is of course partly about just travelling, relaxing and seeing a few sights, but I also made the time to talk to some of the people I met about their thoughts and ideas of the Russian Far East. The questions weren’t detailed or conducted interview-style, just a few minutes each on the topic. The sample size is quite small, twelve people in total, a fairly even split of male and female, and most of them in the 18-30 age-ranges, so I would stress that the opinions I’ve heard should not be considered as definitive or necessarily representative of the entire population. However it’s still interesting to hear what people think of Russia’s eastern lands, even if, as you will see, the results are maybe to be expected. In addition, I’ve left out the names of the respondents. The main limitation in going further was my language ability; whilst I can get through the day and talk for hours about simple things, I’ve not yet reached the stage where I can talk or understand in detail about complicated topics. It’s one of my main priorities for the rest of the year, and hopefully next time I’m in Russia I can provide more detailed observations than on this occasion.
The first couple I spoke to were of a mixed-marriage, the guy from western Russia and the woman from Italy. They had visited the east a year ago, heading as far as Lake Baikal and Ulan-Ude during the summer-time. They had enjoyed the visit, and inspired a desire to see a few more cities in the country, but their knowledge of the east did not spread any further than the trip. They confessed to knowing little about the region, and the only events they could recall were the recent deal with China and the Amur floods of last year. They had vague recollections that the region was being developed, but had no idea of the cost, and when I asked if they would consider living in the eastern regions the answer was a definite no. They were happy near Moscow, with a preference to move a bit further away from the city and nearer the surrounding countryside. Adding something extra to their salary would not make any difference in their choice.
The second couple I had the chance to speak with were both natives to Moscow, their families mostly from the region too, and both had finished university in recent years. As with the first couple their knowledge of the region was limited. The woman had a classmate from Sakhalin and had heard of the great nature there, as well as in Kamchatka. She said she wouldn’t be against going to see the region one day, but expressed regret that the cost was far too high, and with a baby on the way, it was unlikely it would ever happen in the years to come. They both expressed a desire to remain in Moscow, to live and work there, and no amount of extra money would change that. Once again the floods of last year were something they knew about, and they remembered the numerous appeals for donations on TV. The gas deals with China were fresh in the news, though they admitted they only listened to the headlines of the deal. The only other major events they could recall were spending on the APEC 2012 conference, and there being reports of poor construction standards on the roads.
The third couple I spoke with had a more eastern-oriented background; although the man was from the Moscow regions, the woman was born in Yakutsk, spending her early years there. She’s an ethnic Russian, and had moved to Moscow with family when she was still a child. At this point I expected to hear some more detailed opinions on the region, but as it turns out the woman had absolutely zero interest in the city anymore. She had little desire to go back, and only did so once every several years around New Years’ time to visit older relatives. Particularly interesting was how deep the desire not to go back was, with their intention to live and raise children in Moscow. The woman had heard they wanted to develop the east, and knew about the various mineral and hydrocarbon reserves in Yakutia, but did not know much about the details. Outside of Yakutsk their knowledge was even more limited.
As well as talking to couples I spoke with some single people in the city, firstly with a girl who had moved to Moscow from Tatarstan. She knew there was talk of developing the east, but as with the others she had little idea about the details and expenditure. Her interest was firmly in the west, being very happy living in Moscow and occasionally visiting relatives back home, as well as a love of the New York area after spending some time working there. When asked whether she would consider moving east if the job and money were right, she responded with a laugh and a firm ‘nyet’, unless moving east carried her all the way back to New York. The second single person was from the Moscow regions, in his late-20s and what could be considered as a more liberal representative of the city, with one eye firmly on Europe. He was comfortable talking about events in Moscow and Russian elite politics, but when it came to the east he also had little idea of what was going on in that region. He was aware of the development, but was surprised by the amount of money being spent, albeit he was happier for the money to head east than to the Caucasus. As with all the previous respondents mentioned, he found it highly unlikely that he would move to the region, even for a better or higher-paid job. His preference was Moscow or the UK, and even a holiday east seemed time-consuming, expensive and not particularly interesting.
Perhaps the most interesting set of respondents was on the train from Moscow to Yekaterinburg. I didn’t take the much-feted platzkart option, having done it several times before, and on the previous occasion having enjoyed the atmosphere of a train full of young army conscripts living it up on the 25-hour ride from St. Petersburg to Murmansk…it was definitely kupe this time! It provided less people to talk to, but I had a lot more time to talk to them individually. One of the other passengers in my cabin was a middle-aged surgeon from Kazan, who had experience of living in other countries and travelling to a few cities. He knew of Sakhalin, having visited a friend there, and he spoke warmly of the nature and scenery you can find when you move beyond Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. He was interested in seeing Kamchatka one day, but admitted it was unlikely since he had to work, his relatives were all in Western Russia, and he was at the stage of his life where he enjoyed the quiet life, which he said also meant he was unlikely to ever consider moving to the eastern cities. He knew about the development of the region without having heard many details, but believed it was ultimately fruitless and that the region was unlikely to benefit much, as was usually the case with grand initiatives. As an added bonus he was eager to talk about Scottish independence, and couldn’t understand why Scottish people would want to leave something like the United Kingdom. It was an interesting discussion, but I’ll leave that for another day.
The other passenger in my cabin was an older woman, curious about other countries despite never having travelled, and born and raised in Yekaterinburg before heading to Moscow after university for a work assignment. Her answers ranged from the Far East to the Urals, but she was very bitter about the situation in the country with regards to wages and social benefits such as healthcare, particularly when she was asking about what older people received in the UK. She said that buying train tickets to visit her relatives in Yekaterinburg every now and then was far too much for someone like herself who was making a basic wage in Moscow, so even imagining going to the Far East was just crazy. She loved her home-region, but felt it needed development as much as the east did. As with the surgeon, she mentioned how trying to develop the Far East, and even researching it as I do, was a dead-end and would lead to nothing. She confessed that she didn’t have much knowledge of the region, but from the rare piece of news she had heard it was not a place she would have moved to even as a youngster. Overall it was interesting that the two older people I spoke to on the train had more knowledge and opinions of the east, or regional development in general, than any of the younger people in Moscow. It’s often said that the capital lives in a bubble, and my conversations seemed to reinforce that stereotype, even for those who had previously lived or travelled to the region.
Finally I spoke with two people in Yekaterinburg about the east, with hope that residents of a very proud region would know a bit more about events around the country than those in Moscow. Unfortunately that was not the case, as both had very limited knowledge of the east. The first did not know much more than the names of some cities, though expressed a love of the ocean. I asked if she was referring to the Pacific Ocean, but alas no, it was the Atlantic Ocean after having worked in the USA. Her interest was definitively about preferring to go back to the USA rather than moving to the Russian Far East. The final person I spoke to had a more interesting background, with ties to the region through her mixed Tatar and Mari heritage, a local girl whose father had lived in a small town in Primorsky Krai called Olga. She said he sometimes spoke about his life there, but the stories were short, and the overwhelming impression she got was that it was a place for soldiers and the navy. Given the time-frame involved, her father living there decades ago during the Soviet era and early days of the post-Soviet Russia, this is only to be expected. However once more she did not know much about the region beyond those stories, and had never visited. Whilst she had no desire to move to Moscow, Europe or the USA, she loved the Urals area, and would stay there as long as her relatives did. Holidays were a possibility, but cost, time and distance were once again raised as an issue.
Overall I think there was a clear pattern to responses, with zero interest in relocating to the region, limited or no knowledge of the development plans in the east, limited interest in taking even a holiday there, and any interest restricted with the distances, time and costs involved in getting there and back. It’s perhaps no help that the region rarely features on the national or regional news outside of the east unless there is a catastrophe or energy deal, and it’s viewed as almost a faraway country at times. If the Russian government is serious about developing the region and encouraging skilled workers to relocate there, particularly the married ones when you consider that Russians commonly settle down relatively early and meet their future husbands and wives during their university years, then it will need to utilise far more of its new-found soft power abilities on its own internal projects. Without serious internal initiatives to raise awareness of the region, all the energy deals, mineral extractions and infrastructure development won’t change the demographic and workforce issues that are ever-present.
My next stop is in Yakutsk where I’ll spend five days exploring the city, and where I’ll be taking advantage of the trip to talk to more people; it should be really interesting to hear how people in the northern parts of the Russian Far East think about developments, and in particular if there’s any difference in opinion within the city between ethnic Yakuts and ethnic Russians.