Gerard Clare: Observations on the Development of the Russian Far East
As a Scotsman researching the contemporary attempts to develop the Russian Far East, it can often feel like a distant endeavour when reading and writing about events from my office far away in Glasgow. With that in mind I recently spent a few weeks visiting four cities in the region to bring my local knowledge back up to speed and get a real look at how things are developing, covering Yakutsk, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. As with any traveller, foreign guest or academic, I arrived with my own preconceptions and biases, but my time there helped to give me a far better understanding of how this development rhetoric has played out in the everyday lives of the people there, and hopefully will provide me with both a great starting point for further visits to the region, and far more informed knowledge of local development.
One of the most prominent talking points regarding the development of the region is migration, with the post-Soviet years seeing a negative demographic swing, both from northern cities of the far east towards Primorskiy, Khabarovskiy and Transbaikalia, and in turn from those regions westwards towards Siberia, the Urals and western Russia. This out-migration may have slowed (though not completely halted) but the future development of the region depends on manpower and skilled labour as much as it does on government funding and outside investment. One of the priorities for my visit was in finding out what younger generations hoped for the future, whether to stay or go, and what influenced their decisions. Almost uniformly amongst those I spoke to in the cities was a desire to leave for professional reasons, essentially due to a lack of suitable opportunities for advancement, in particular amongst university-educated students.
Some people wanted to leave purely for cultural reasons, but many were proud of their region and wanted it to improve, particularly in older generations, for prospects to increase, and for the chance to employ their skills in their home cities. If Russia can provide those opportunities at the regional level it will be a great start, however it also leaves the question of where additional manpower will come from; from talking to young people in Moscow and Yekaterinburg before arriving in the east, there was a real resistance to moving out east even for a better wage or a promotion. At most a holiday was all they would consider, but I got the impression this would be nowhere near their first choice of destination. Knowledge of the region was poor, and it seemed like they viewed it still as a place of professional exile than as a window of opportunity on Russia’s attempts to break further into Asian markets and organisations. This is a problem compounded by a continued resistance to labour from Central Asian nations, leaving few options if labour needs to be imported. North Korea is a reliable and proven option, but links may need to be developed with countries perceived with at least cultural neutrality such as the Philippines in order to fill future gaps.
A second observation I would like to mention is related in part to the previous point, and is about regional identities. It’s often perceived, at least in the west, that most of Russian carries a uniform identity, whether linguistically, culturally, in food or any other category. From talking to people in the various cities it became clear that whilst there is a strong correlation of traits across the nation, there is also a unique atmosphere in many cities akin to what we have in western countries. As an example, my own country of Scotland features cities known for history, others for music, others for languages, accents and dialects, others for nature and scenery, and yet others for their local foods and drinks. This is a pattern that can be observed in almost any developed nation, whether we’re talking about Japan, the USA or Germany. The fact that it exists in Russia, even at a basic level, shows there is potential to expand those identities and promote them in future. Moscow and St. Petersburg are often lauded for their different styles, and doing the same for the major cities of the Russian Far East may make a small difference, whether for migration or tourism. On its own it will not make a huge impact of course, but many in the east already have that local pride, and tapping into it will only strengthen the potential of the east rather than promoting any sense of separatism.
A third observation I’d like to raise is that of infrastructure, in particular road maintenance and regional transport networks. Of the four cities I visited, only Khabarovsk had what I would consider a solid road system within the city, and even this could do with some work. Yakutsk has understandable problems due to building on permafrost, but Vladivostok and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk could really do with major repairs and upgrades to its present infrastructure. Vladivostok has of course made a start by developing Russkiy Island and leaving in place an outstanding campus for FEFU (Дальневосточный федеральный университет) with excellent accommodation, facilities, roads and pathways, but it’s not enough and so much more needs to be added to this by the city. This is important not just for the convenience of citizens and tourists, but is a huge part of attracting big business and ambitious students, both Russian and foreign. Until the roads are fast and reliable, and until the cities of the Far East become connected to each other even on a broad regional level, it will be impossible to establish large enough consumer areas and delivery hubs. Businesses prefer to have as many customers in as small an area as possible; this is a bit of a challenge for the Russian Far East, but a large network encompassing the Primorskiy, Khabarovskiy and Amur regions could feasibly manage this and really improve their attractiveness to investors.
A fourth problem is the cost of long-distance travel in the east. It seems strange to me that discounted travel can be arranged for citizens of the east to travel to cities such as Moscow, but no encouragement is given in the opposite direction for those in the west to see the far eastern cities. As with my other observations, changing this would not solve all of the problems in the east, but it would be another step forward. If people are incentivised to even visit the east during their adolescence, it’s always possible for them to develop fond memories of the region and be more willing to return in adulthood or for higher education. Too often the discounted journey west becomes the precursor to a permanent migration, and further talent is lost at a time when the development of the region needs it most.
A fifth and final point for this article is the Russian attitude towards Asian countries, one that hints at an uncertain view on whether to engage with it on a personal level or not. The evidence of Asian business is everywhere in the east, from the second-hand cars, to Asian restaurants, to the household products available in the shops. However this reality is not replicated in the other direction, with Russian presence at an absolute minimum in many places. As an example, Sapporo airport in Northern Japan has numerous signs and help available in the Russian language, but going beyond the airport it is rare to see any Russian language or any type of Russian presence. There are little or no Russian restaurants in Asian cities, and certainly no Russian beers or second-hand cars.
I cannot say for sure at this point whether there is an unwillingness to try and establish a Russian influence in Asia, if there are bureaucratic difficulties involved, or something else entirely, but it’s something that must change before Russia can increase its reputation in the Asia-Pacific region in general. If Scots and Irish bars can be found in most cities in the world, then it should not be beyond the reach of ambitious Russians to do the same. Having visited six Asian countries after my journey to Russia, knowledge of Russian affairs is almost non-existent, news coverage is rare or short; an understanding even of what Russia is all about eludes people. Besides some popular tourist areas it is rare to see a Russian walking around. Russians that I spoke to in the east generally were far more interested in traveling to Europe and the USA than Japan or Korea. If people in Asia know nothing about the country, they are unlikely to invest in the country or even make a weekend holiday visit. Without a personal and cultural engagement with Asia to inspire more interest, Russia is likely to remain looking in from the outside. At the moment, it feels like the region is waiting for things to happen rather than setting out to make things happen for themselves.
Although these points are short and do not cover all the observations I made, it should give you an impression of the issues that came to mind as I spent time in the cities, and an idea of how Scottish and other western researchers views Russia’s Far Eastern regions. Any comments or debate on my points are more than welcome.
Gerard Clare is a PhD candidate with the Russian, Central & East European studies at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. His thesis focuses on the modern attempts to develop the Russian Far East.