The Far East: The Russian Pacific

Across the Pacific Ocean from the United States, the giant Far East federal district of Russia is the largest unit in the country (6.2 million km2). It includes huge Sakha (Yakutiya), which alone is bigger than the European Union (EU) in area, at about 3 million km2. The Russian Pacific in the narrow sense includes only the units that border the ocean: Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, Kamchatka Kray, Magadan Oblast, Sakhalin Oblast, Khabarovsky Kray, and Primorsky Kray. Inland, Amur Oblast and Jewish Autonomous Oblast are located in the Amur watershed along the Chinese border.

The region thus defined has merely 6.7 million residents, giving it a population density of 1.1/km2—the lowest average density in Russia, and only one-third of Canada's density. To put it another way, this huge region is settled by only about half as many people as live in Moscow. The population is 76% urban. In many ways, the Far East is analogous to northern Canada or Alaska. It has plenty of natural resources (especially timber, fish, and gold) and is a perfect location for Russian naval bases, airfields, missile defense, and more. The Pacific Rim is an emerging powerhouse of the 21th century, and Russia's Far East is part of it. Unfortunately, the region is losing population fast, at a rate of about –0.7% per year. As in the case of Siberia, this is due to very low fertility and fairly high mortality, coupled with emigration. Many people are now choosing to relocate to the western part of the country, where the climate is warmer and living expenses are lower. The Far East has lost about 1 million people since 1991. Far Eastern cities are the most expensive places in Russia to live. Magadan, Anadyr, and Petropavlovsk lead the country in the price of a minimal shopping basket of goods, at about 8,000 rubles per capita per month required in 2009 (as compared to the national average of 5,000). Basic supplies must be brought in from far away by ship or plane.

Proximity to China across the Amur River allows cheaper food supplies to reach the south of the region. It also supplies laborers, but this creates uncertainty regarding the growing political influence of China in the region. Japan competes with China for major economic influence, supplying the majority of used passenger cars, as well as other high-tech consumer goods. It continues to claim the four southernmost Kuril Islands and refuses to sign a peace agreement with Russia, but pragmatically maintains good trade relations. The Kurils and the southern half of Sakhalin were controlled by Japan between 1904 and 1945, but were taken over by Russia as an outcome of World War II. South Korea is a third important economic partner of Russia in the region, followed by Taiwan and Vietnam. Contacts with North Korea are now severely restricted along the common border, and the political situation in that country casts its uneasy shadow on the otherwise peaceful region.

Physical Geography

The Far East is more mountainous than the rest of Asiatic Russia. Mt. Pobeda in the Chersky range (source of the Indigirka and Kolyma Rivers) reaches 3,000 m. The Stanovoy range in Khabarovsky Kray and Amur Oblast reaches 2,255 m elevation. The Sikhote-Alin range (home to a few hundred Siberian tigers) north of Vladivostok reaches about 1,700 m. The giants of the region, however, are the volcanoes in Kamchatka, about 20 of them active; the highest, Klyuchevskaya, reaches 4,688 m. The Lena River, which drains much of Yakutiya, is the second biggest river in Russia in terms of annual runoff and the third in overall length and basin size. The Amur is the fourth longest river. The Far East accounts for 10% of Russia's coal deposits, 9% of its phosphates, and 8% of its iron ore. The size of the huge deposits of oil and natural gas on the Sakhalin shelf is still being determined, but they are likely to be bigger than the Norwegian or U.K. deposits in the North Sea (the petroleum is estimated at 10 billion barrels). The region is heavily forested (46%, or 278 million ha) and accounts for 27% of all Russia's timber reserves. On the other hand, farmland is quite limited (only 4.5 million ha, or 2% of the total). All of the farmland is concentrated in two areas: along the Amur River floodplain and near Lake Khanka in the extreme south.

The Far East has a unique climate: Its northeast is the coldest and most continental place on earth, whereas the southeast is monsoonal (with frequent storms in the late summer and early fall, and relatively mild winters). Verkhoyansk and Oymyakon share the distinction of being the coldest places outside of Antarctica, with the minimum record temperature of –72°C (average annual temperature = –15.1°C) and meager annual precipitation (172 mm), like a desert. Winter frost here lasts 7? months. Heavy permafrost makes any construction tricky; the cost of 1 m2 of living space in Chukotka is 10 times that in Vladivostok! That southern city, on the other hand, has an average temperature of +4.2°C and receives 816 mm of precipitation, more than Moscow or St. Petersburg. It has snow for “only” 5 months of the year.

The Far East has many federally protected territories, mainly zapovedniks (there are no national parks in the Far East). Wrangel Island Zapovednik is located off the northeastern Russian coast in the Arctic Ocean. It protects the unique tundra–steppe communities of western Beringia. It is famous for its large population of emperor geese, as well as cormorants, seagulls, eider ducks, murres, puffins, and other cliff-nesting seabirds. Polar bears and walruses are common in and around the island. This was apparently the last place on earth where mammoths went extinct. Lena Delta Zapovednik protects very important wetlands at the mouth of the Lena River. Kronotsky Biosphere Reserve in Kamchatka is home to a famous geyser valley, a number of volcanic craters, lots of brown bears, and wild salmon-filled rivers. Khingan Zapovednik protects two species of cranes in the undisturbed forest–steppe landscapes of the Amur basin on the Chinese border. Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve in Primorsky Kray is home to about half of Russia's Siberian tigers (250) and a rare species of goat-like goral. The reserve encompasses some of the least disturbed and most diverse mixed forests of the Russian Far East.

Cultural and Historical Features

Culturally, the Far East region was settled mainly by Russians (88%), with a substantial Ukrainian presence (7%). Most of the Russian and Ukrainian settlers moved to the region relatively recently, during Soviet times. The indigenous groups of the Far East are the most diverse in all of Russia; they include the Turkic-speaking Yakuts in Yakutiya, the Evens of the taiga zone, the Udege and other related tribes in the southeast, the Paleoasiatic Chukchi and Koryaks in the northeast of the region, and the Aleuts and Inuits along the Pacific Coast. The Nivkhs and Aynu are two endangered ethnicities of Sakhalin Island. Many traditional groups are great hunters and fishermen. The Paleoasiatic people of the northeast also hunt walruses, seals, and whales. In more recent times, there has been substantial Chinese and Korean immigration into Primorsky and Khabarovsky Krays and Amur Oblast. The exact numbers are not known, but probably exceed 50,000.

Cultural notables of the Far East include Russian writer and explorer Vladimir K. Arseniev (1872–1930), author of Dersu Uzala (Dersu the Trapper); Yakut writer Platon Oyunsky (1893–1939); Nobel Prize-winning physicist Igor Tamm (1895–1971); Vladivostok-born American actor Yul Brynner; tennis player Igor Kunitsyn; Khabarovsk-born National Hockey League player Alexander Mogilny; and members of the rock band Mumiy Troll.


The Far East has many important industries, including mining coal and gold, fishing for salmon and crab, cutting timber, pumping petroleum, and making the Su-series of fighter jets. However, its main importance to Russia is strategic: It is the only region that is open to the vast Pacific Ocean and borders China, Japan, and the United States. Nuclear submarines in Petropavlovsk and Vladivostok, and radar installations on the Kuril Islands, enable Russia to demonstrate its military might to the most important emerging economic powerhouse in the world. The Far East is also a natural trading and tourist gateway to and from Asia. As Chinese and other Asian economies continue to grow, the importance of the few entry points into Russia increases proportionally. The seaports of Nakhodka, Vanino, Vladivostok, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk are extremely useful for export–import operations.

With respect to economic development, the southern part of the region along the Trans-Siberian Railroad is more or less contiguously settled. In the north, there are three isolated clusters of development (around Yakutsk, Magadan, and Petropavlovsk), with virtually untouched wilderness in between. The official capital of the federal district is Khabarovsk (established 1858), the second biggest but most centrally located city, which has 580,000 people and is a bustling industrial center on the Amur River. Its diverse industries include machinery, motor, and ship factories; petrochemicals; and wood and food processing. Farther downstream, Komsomolskon-Amur (established 1931) builds ships and fighter jets, and has a large ferrous metal factory and a petroleum refinery. Two other important industrial and agricultural centers, Birobidzhan and Blagoveshchensk, are located upstream from Khabarovsk along the Chinese border. Nearby Svobodny has a new space launching pad, which can be used for both military and civilian satellite launches.

Sakhalin Island has as its main focus fishing and petroleum industries. Most of the petroleum extraction is concentrated along the northeastern shore in a few international projects (Sakhalin-1, -2, -3, and so on). In the south, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Kholmsk are diversified seaports. Petropavlovsk and Magadan are mainly fishing ports, with Petropavlovsk also serving as a naval base for the Pacific Fleet and as the only tourist gateway to Kamchatka, full of geysers and grizzlies. The nearby Commodore Islands are a nature reserve supporting healthy populations of sea lions and other marine mammals.

Vladivostok, surrounding the Golden Horn Bay, is home to the largest naval base in the region and is the largest city (population 620,000). It is sometimes dubbed “the San Francisco of the Far East,” because of its picturesque natural location on the hills around a huge inland bay. However, the ubiquitous Soviet concrete apartment blocks make it less beautiful than its American counterpart. It is a major center for machine building, food processing, and the construction industry. It is also a hub for the Russian Academy of Sciences, with many research institutes and universities focusing on oceanic research. Other cities in Primorsky Kray specialize in coal and metal mining, fishing, container shipping, machine building, and military services. There is a proposal to build a new seaport terminal at the triple junction of China, North Korea, and Russia, to facilitate shipping from China's landlocked northeastern provinces. Yakutiya could be its own country, given its size. In fact, it tried to proclaim independence in the first year of Yeltsin's presidency and proudly renamed itself Sakha, based on the local language.

Although it covers over 3 million km2 of land, it has less than 1 million people and is essentially landlocked. The Lena and Yana Rivers provide access to the Arctic Ocean, but given the present climate the coastal waters remain frozen for over 7 months of the year. As yet, there is no railroad link to Yakutsk from the Baikal–Amur Mainline (BAM); nor is there a year-round passable highway to Magadan. During the winter months, all rivers freeze and turn into icy highways. The old Magadan–Yakutsk highway is being upgraded to become more functional by the end of 2008. Yakutsk is a major industrial center that was established amazingly early by Far Eastern standards, in 1632. Its main industries are food processing, furniture making, and construction materials manufacturing. It is also an important cultural and scientific center. Eastern Yakutiya specializes in gold, tin, and tungsten mining. Reindeer herding and horse breeding are indigenous traditions. Western Yakutiya, centered on the city of Mirny, is the largest producer of diamonds in Russia and one of the largest in the world. There are also substantial, but insufficiently explored, petroleum and natural gas deposits. Finally, there is plenty of timber harvesting and hydropower production in the republic, with a large potential for future expansion.

Challenges and Opportunities in the Far East

Future development of the Far East depends on a number of key issues:

  • The success of efforts at plugging up the existing demographic hole: reducing emigration, encouraging immigration (both from within Russia and from abroad), and providing incentives for local parents-to-be.
  • The impact of the East Siberian pipeline (started in 2006, to be finished by the end of 2008) from Tayshet (Irkutsk Oblast) to Skovorodino (Amur Oblast) and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.
  • The impact of Sakhalin's petroleum projects, both positive (cash flow, labor, infrastructure) and negative (potential massive oil spills, uncertain profitability for the local residents).
  • Further development of economic ties with Japan and China, as well as lesser economies of the Pacific (South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam). The region is already being fed primarily from China, because transportation of food from Central Russia has become prohibitively expensive.
  • Reorganization of the Russian armed forces, including the Pacific navy fleet.
  • Development of tourism along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, as well as ecotourism development in Kamchatka and Primorsky Kray, and at other less exotic and more inland destinations.
  • General stability of relations with the United States, another key player in the Pacific. Scientific and technological cooperation between the two countries is already present here, especially in Beringia, a globally significant former land bridge and a great place to conduct research on global climate change between Chukotka and Alaska. This is also the area where an underwater tunnel could connect Eurasia with North America in a futuristic transportation corridor.


  1. Use Table 28.1 and additional information from online sources to rank the subjects of federation of the Far East in terms of their attractiveness for foreign investment. Explain your rationale.
  2. Compare and contrast the ecotourism potential of Primorye and Kamchatka. Which region, in your opinion, is better positioned for future ecotourism development? Make sure to use concrete statistics to back up your claim.
  3. Investigate the impact of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the BAM railroad, and the new petroleum pipeline on the economy and environment of the region.
  4. Propose a program that would boost population of the Far East. What are the key components of your program? To what extent does it balance natural fertility and immigration from other parts of Russia and from abroad?
  5. What are the arguments that Japan uses to claim the Kuril Islands? What are the Russian counterarguments? Which side sounds more convincing? Use published articles and treaties in your analysis.