Policy Prescriptions for Siberia and the Far East


The Russian Federation has on more than one occasion found itself with a critical conundrum in need of appropriate policy solutions. That conundrum, faced by the Muscovites, the Tsars, and the Soviets, has been how to go about the political consolidation, economic integration, and geographical linkage of Siberia and the Far East to European Russia west of the Urals. That vast expanse of land, harboring harsh climate conditions, is periodically troubled by demographic constraints that create labor shortages and geopolitical insecurity. Two competing camps with two contrasting visions for the future of Siberia have come forward in Russian society. Liberal economists “consider the Far North overpopulated. They argue for an increase of out-migration from the region…Communists and [Great-Russian Chauvinists] support the opposing view…out-migration of people from these regions, they say, is a threat to Russia’s security” and the government must therefore support the populating of the Far East.[1] It is the position of this policy paper that Siberia is a core national interest of the Russian Federation.           Geographically it is a defensive bulwark from heightened tensions in East Asia; Economically Siberia has extractive potential beyond the already uncovered wealth that has benefited the treasury’s balance sheets. The historical record imparts missteps taken by past administrations. By accurately accounting the negative ramifications of misguided policies of the past, the Putin government can avoid these pitfalls and move robustly forward with initiatives that will benefit Russia, rather than weaken it. Developing Siberia is no easy task, but with adequate political and monetary support it is possible to safeguard Russo interests in the Far East and prepare it for a century where Asia, more so then Europe, will be the focus.

Geographically it is a defensive bulwark from heightened tensions in East Asia; Economically Siberia has extractive potential beyond the already uncovered wealth that has benefited the treasury’s balance sheets. The historical record imparts missteps taken by past administrations. By accurately accounting the negative ramifications of misguided policies of the past, the Putin government can avoid these pitfalls and move robustly forward with initiatives that will benefit Russia, rather than weaken it. Developing Siberia is no easy task, but with adequate political and monetary support it is possible to safeguard Russo interests in the Far East and prepare it for a century where Asia, more so then Europe, will be the focus.

Eastward expansion: Past and Present

The common feature of migration into Siberia has been the presence of government facilitation. The Russian government first sanctioned the exploration of Siberia by Nevel’skoi. His land surveys uncovered the vast opportunities abound, creating incentive for direct Russian support of the Stroganov family, who promoted commercial opportunity in the region. Huttenbach states that “Muscovite merchant[s]…entered Siberia with the hope of unimagined success.”[2] Cossacks sent from European Russia defended their successes. Peasants joined as well, leaving the serfdom of a feudal lord to become subjects of the Russian Tsar.[3] As wealth accumulated from the fur trade, a key economic incentive for political mastery over the indigenous Siberians, new agriculture was necessary to sustain the thin bureaucratic and administrative units, as well as the sprawling towns and cities, which rose to link Siberia to Russia and import resources, back west. Huttenbach asserts that Moscow had a policy of “weaning Siberia off its dependency on grain…”4 Migration east began its descent into imposition.

If the labor to make up for the shortage could not be found willingly, it would be forced. Political prisoners, petty criminals, and prisoners of the Great War were sent over the centuries to toil in the farms and sweat in the mines of Siberia, pushing further and further east. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Soviets were faced with the same problem, and ironically used, at first, the same strategies to populate Siberia as those they had overthrown. The Tsar’s Katorga became the Soviet’s Gulag. Essentially prison camps toiled by prison labor, regardless of camp title or ideology of government, the function was the same. The convict population had swelled under Stalin’s reign. Many of them Kulaks[4] tasked with development projects such as Dalstroy in Chutkotka and Magadan Oblast. These projects served to extract both gold and uranium for the advancement of Russian military modernization and industrialization.[5]  At a point in time, these policies were both effective and practical. They served a specific purpose, enriching the Russian state, and that objective was successfully carried out to its conclusion.

In 1929: The Great Turning Point, the author Applebaum writes about the “Berzin era” and the nostalgia some felt for it.

Berzin understood his task in quite a straightforward manner: it was his job to get his prisoners to dig as much gold as possible. He was not interested in starving them or     killing them or punishing them–only production figures mattered.[6]

The Magadan camp had its tumultuous moments in which many casualties were suffered[7]. But prison labor played an integral part in the populating and development of Siberia. It became increasingly untenable to use Russian labor in the aftermath of the Great Purges of the early thirty’s. Forced labor in the Far East was replaced by POW’s of the “Great Patriotic War”. 700,000 Japanese prisoners–many Korean, Chinese, and Manchu–were captured and effectively replaced Russian labor until they too were repatriated to their home countries.[8] To add, Ukrainians were relocated to Siberia as well as Central Asians. Westerners were mostly in European Russia for reconstruction. The policies of the late Soviet Union were not as effective in their extractive potential or in their developmental effects as the period of forced labor. By the Brezhnev era a wave of cynicism washed over the Soviet masses. No longer intoxicated with the euphoric ideology of Leninism, nor mobilized by the specter of utter destruction during WWII, a period of perceived immiseration set in. Russians wanted the same goods as western Europeans and Americans; cars, televisions, and all the other hallmarks of modernity. Brezhnev promised more of the good life then could be delivered.[9] Basic necessities were consistently in shortage, more so in Siberia than anywhere else. A lack of ideology, in addition to the lack of consumer incentive in the Far East created difficulty’s in migrating Russians willingly. The impressionable youth of the Young Communist League (YCL) were often in use as volunteerism became a mechanism for which migration could be facilitated. The youth typically volunteered for one of two reasons. Either they were idealistic enough to want to serve the Motherland, and likely hadn’t realized the brutal conditions they would face once camped in Siberia for development projects. Or they sought entry into the Communist Party, and believed volunteerism could promote their upward mobility in Brezhnev’s Russia.

The other significant incentive system of the post-Stalin, late Soviet period is discussed amply in John Sallnow’s Siberia’s Demand for Labor: Incentive Policies for Migration, 19601985. If labor could not be persuaded to the Far East, particularly the Northern Pacific, with ideology, and force is far from vogue, a more pronounced incentivizing tactic became necessary. The Soviet Union created the coefficient system. That is, they increased real wages of those willing to work in Siberia. Some regions, such as Northern Siberia, received greater coefficients then say, central Siberia, where the price of goods were not as high.[10] This was rather effective, but a hugely expensive subsidy program. Khrushchev decreased the incentive as low as 5% and as a result net migration flowed out of Siberia. Alarmed at how necessary the program was, incentives picked up again. The construction and railroad industry were particularly heavy in their subsidization, as the living conditions in the Baikal-Amur region are quite poor.12 In addition to the high cost of consumer goods, consumer entertainment is rather low. This has not changed much, as could be seen in the Russian Times depiction of life in Siberia through the eyes of a female hairdresser, the only one in the region it appears.[11] There have not been enough cultural centers, adequate housing, or even education institutes to keep up with modernization in European Russia, or for that matter, China and the East Asian countries.

Highlighted thus far have been reasons for which man would travel to Siberia historically; commercial incentive, state-lead mobilization of labor and military, and political and ideological principles. With the collapse of the Soviet Union many of these rationales were diminished. The inattention of Moscow to Siberia in the aftermath of the geopolitical catastrophe created an opportunity for Siberian separatists to take the initiative and loosen the relationship between the center, Moscow, and periphery, Siberia. Vladimir A. Zhdanov in Contemporary Siberian Regionalism highlights the organizational efforts of the Siberians, to create a regional network that could adequately stand up for Siberian interests against the Kremlin in a unified manner. Local elites entered into agreements with one another to cooperate further economically; integrating budgets, lobbying Moscow for more control over local economies, as well as lobbying for lower taxes. But “…despite the widely proclaimed economic character of the Siberian agreement, it did not restrict its activities to economic tasks; it also acted as a political association aimed at securing the interests of the local elites.”[12] During the Yeltsin presidency in April 1993, a dramatic battle occurred between the center and periphery. After firing two governors, Yurii Nozhikov of Irkutsk and Vitalii Mukha of Novosibirsk, the Siberian agreement mobilized and chose not to recognize their dismissal. “The Russian president was obliged to withdraw his order, with apologies to the governors.”15 This dangerous chapter of the Kremlins relationship with Siberia continued into late September of 1993. After the Russian government had dismissed the parliament, outrage poured from the assemblies of Siberia’s elite. An all-Siberian Conference of representatives of the supreme soviets of “republics,” as well as territorial and provincial soviets, was held in Novosibirsk. The outcome is captured by Zhadanav…

The resolutions of the conference were shockingly harsh, threatening a variety of actions if the siege of the Russian parliament was not lifted, including offering a Siberian city as a meeting  place for the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies and holding a referendum on the possibility of forming a separatist Siberian republic[13]

A separatist Siberian Republic never came to pass. The lesson remains: weakness in the center ripples across the Federation, allowing for disturbances and under-the-surface grievances to grow. Allowing these feelings and resulting outbreaks to fester can pose significant security

dilemmas down the road. Creating security infrastructure capable of managing both internal and external competition in the Far East, as well as transit infrastructure and human capital to sustain President Putin and Moscow’s position in Siberia will be a critical test in consolidating the gains of the last decade. These gains came in spite of the humiliations of the 1990’s both by internal separatist movements and external institutions and nations.[14]

Prospects for the Far East

Past policies aimed at developing Siberia have been wrought by both successes and failures. To achieve future development requires the resumption of migration to Siberia for the purpose of labor. Approaching this requires taking into account migration trends into the Far East over the past two decades. As the Russian population in Siberia has shriveled, foreign labor has rushed to fill the vacuum, particularly the Chinese, who have been most important for the Amur oblast. Victor Larin writes in “Yellow Peril” again? The Chinese and Russian Far East, that the Amur oblast is “the main center for re-export of goods from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union to China. In 1992, 87 percent of the total exports from and 98 percent of the imports into the Amur oblast were connected with China.”18 This in and of itself is not a cause for concern. Trade and labor migration across China’s northern border has benefits for both sides. China has more labor then it needs, and Russia is in need of labor in the Far East. Larin asserts that the basic interests and priorities of both sides includes the “…elimination of chronic labor shortages in construction and agriculture by the employment of Chinese” and the “relief of domestic demographic pressures through out-migration.”19 These benefits must be weighed with the tensions of past Russo-Sino relations. Where one nations territory begins and the others territory ends, or demarcation, has been a cause for concern in the past. In the 1960’s war broke out on the Amur border. Each had sent half a million troops in a show of force.[15] It didn’t inflame into more serious circumstances, and joint resolutions have been reached to recognize territorial lines, yet Chinese expansion into sovereign yet unoccupied Russian territory is treated as expansionism.

The migration of Chinese labor into Siberia has the potential to become a geopolitical threat, but it has already achieved the status of an internal one. There are social and political tensions between Siberians, Russians and the influx of Chinese, but less recognized legal and administrative problems. Larin accounts for the illegal and destabilizing actions of Chinese migrants…

The Chinese…actively attempt to monopolize markets and undermine the financial system of Russia. In 1993 alone, according to unofficial data, the total value of hard currency transferred from Russia to China was almost 50 million. Russian currency in Chinese hands is often spent on the purchase of invitations, passports, and forged documents allowing free entry into and movement within Russia. Funds are also used to bribe officials to issue export licenses. Certain areas of the Russian taiga have been virtually cleaned out by Chinese poachers.”[16]

To counter the lawlessness of the undocumented, a police force capable of controlling the activities of labor in the region must be mobilized and sent to the Far East. The benefit is twofold. Russian military and internal security forces would swell the population in the Far East, being available, both them and their families, for labor in the cities they protect. The military continues to be a force capable of being sent where Moscow deems necessary. This is not unprecedented. Mark Harrison points out in Soviet Industry and the Red Army under Stalin: A military-Industrial Complex that “Civil defense programs, hardening of…industrial facilities, and

dispersion and duplication of industries for defense purposes…highways and railroads constructed primarily for strategic purposes…must be considered” when taking into account stimulus spending of the Government. Patriotic labor of the military would be joined by the prison labor of undocumented Chinese, actively breaking the law in Russian territory. It’s not clear how the Chinese government would react to their surplus populations becoming prison labor in the Far East. Economic cooperation and Geopolitical uncertainty require the more active attention of the Chinese government. Jeffrey Mankoff synthesizes in Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics how Russia, by becoming a major supplier of oil and gas, has the ability to diversify where it exports to…

Since the bulk of Russian oil and gas is pumped from fields form Siberia and the Far East, Russian energy would theoretically enjoy a comparative advantage in Asian markets as a result of proximity and lower transportation costs relative to energy extracted the Middle East or elsewhere.[17]

The Russian Federation is in position to take advantage of the anxieties of inter-rival relations in East Asia. The Nakhoda oil pipeline route is an example of Russia’s ability to choose who it partners with. “Since the terminus at Nakhoda would be on Russian territory, the Kremlin would retain control over the ultimate destination of oil passing through the pipeline.”[18] The oil could be transported inexpensively by ship to Japan, but there is also the possibility of shipping to China or South Asia. Japan, extremely dependent on outside energy exports, and a vocal rival of China, could be used as a balance. Far East Pipelines that allow for a diversity of markets for Russian resources is a key national interest. It is labor worth incentivizing, and could be carried out in partnership with multiple foreign firms jointly[19]. With greater economic activity, the extraction of resources, labor from undocumented Chinese, and a reinvigorated defense industry, the Putin government can recreate the positive aspects of past policies, and manage the ascendance of Siberia as a core part of Russia’s 21st century Asia strategy.


Harrison, Mark. “Soviet Industry and the Red Army under Stalin: A Military-Industrial Complex?” Cahiers du Monde russe 44, no. 2 (Apr – Sep 2003): 323-42. Accessed May 4, 2014.http://www.jstor.org/stable/20174777.

Mankoff, Jeffrey Russian Foreign Policy: the Return of Great Power Politics. 2nd ed. Lanham,

MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011.

[1] Dr. Aleksandr 1. Alekseev, Moscow State University (2004) obtained from Blackboard assignments.

[2] Henry R. Huttenbach, Muscovite Penetration of Siberia: The Colonization Process, 1555-1689. P1

[3]  Huttenbach, 1.

[4] “Rich peasants” in the Soviet Union, typically had one too many cows.

[5] notes.

[6] Applebaum, 1929: The Great Turning Point, p 88.

[7] Of the 16000 traveling from to Kolyma, a little over 9900 reached it alive.

[8] notes

[9] notes

[10] Sallnow, p 9.

[11] Russian Times

[12] Vladimir A. Zhadanav, Contemporary Siberian Regional, p 4.  15 Zhadanav, p 4

[13] Zhadanav, p 6.

[14]  Nothing was spent on infrastructure in the 90’s. 18 Victor Larin, “Yellow Peril” again? The Chinese and Russian Far East, p 3 19 Larin, p4.

[15] notes

[16] Lara, p 7

[17] Jeffrey Mankoff, The Return of Great power Politics, 210.

[18] Mankoff, 213.

[19] Rather than depending on one firm

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