Comment: Russia Colonizes Itself… Again

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Sixteenth century ethnographic map of Siberia and the Russian Far East [Image via Wikimedia Commons]
by Kara K. Hodgson

‘The history of Russia is the history of a country that colonizes itself.’

So said the eminent nineteenth-century Russian historian, Vasilii Kliuchevskiy, (himself quoting another nineteenth-century historian, Sergei Solovyev). Ever since the time of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, the Russian state has been trying to secure a(n ethnically) Russian presence across the Eurasian landmass. The first period of expansion occurred during the Russian Empire, (roughly, the end of the sixteenth century through the beginning of the twentieth), and has been written into the history books for what it was – imperialist colonialism. The second period occurred during the Soviet era. This time, it was a form of settler colonialism because it occurred within the established borders of the Soviet Union.

This wave of colonisation was given a variety of different names, such as the ‘involuntary resettlement’ of prisoners to gulags in the Arctic, Siberia, and Far East; Stalin’s ‘population transfer’ of non-ethnic Russian groups near borderlands, (i.e., Ukrainians, Chechens), during World War II and subsequent re-population of those areas with ‘loyal’ ethnic Russians; and the unsustainably subsidized ‘Northern Benefits’ voluntary resettlement programs [pdf] of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s to Soviet monotowns (single-industry or company towns) such as Vorkuta (Воркута) and Magadan (Магадан). The costs of subsidising such towns proved economically untenable after the collapse. Many of those who relocated to the ‘frontier’ for the benefits eventually returned to the ‘mainland,’ as the European Slavic heartlands are often referred to.

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Street scene in Vorkuta, Russia [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
However, it appears that the Russian state refuses to learn from history, and is currently attempting a subject its peripheral areas to a third wave of colonization. For lack of a better term, I call it ‘neo-settler colonialism’. In a move reminiscent of the United States’ nineteenth-century westward expansion programs, the Federal Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East launched the Far East Hectare program in 2016. The program offers a ‘free’ hectare (10,000 m2 or 2.47 acres) of land to any Russian citizen for a period of five years. During this time, the landholder is expected to do something productive with this plot, such as building a home, cultivating agriculture, or starting a business. If they are successful, they are then allowed to buy the plot or lease it for up to 49 years.

The federal government’s motivations for the program have been stated as encompassing an effort to combat depopulation in the country’s peripheral areas, but the plan does have its critics [in Russian]. An important point to note here is that the program was a top-down federal initiative; those in the directly-affected Far Eastern region were not consulted about the potential influx of newcomers to their areas. Although some regional administrations were able to carve out ‘niches of agency’ that would better benefit their local populations, their position was limited to adaptation of federal designs.

To date, only 83,000 claims have been made [in Russian] to the 200 million hectares available, and a number of persons trying to develop their plots have become disheartened by logistical obstacles they’ve encountered. Despite the lacklustre response to the program, the same ministry nevertheless announced on 16 July 2020 [in Russian] that it would be copying this program for Russia’s western Arctic region.

Both the Far Eastern and Arctic regions in Russia are the country’s emerging economic hot spots: mineral resource exploitation in the Far East is on the rise, and both regions have vast amounts of hydrocarbon wealth that is only now beginning to be tapped. The ‘cash cow’ of the Arctic is the Yamal peninsula, where both Gazprom’s Yamal megaproject and the international Yamal LNG venture have launched in recent years. Furthermore, in the Arctic, Putin has (perhaps overly) ambitious plans to develop the Northern Sea Route for international shipping.  However, Moscow has made it apparent that it views its Arctic and Far Eastern territories not as part of the ‘homeland’ or ‘heartland,’ but rather instrumentally: their value to the country lies in their exploitability. The Arctic is seen as ‘a strategic resource base’ and the Far East is the geo-economic answer to Russia’s prayers for more foreign investment.

To be fair, every country has the right to develop its lands as it sees fit, and these peripheral regions are some of the least developed in the country, the residents of which would undoubtedly appreciate an increased standard of living. Where the Far East Hectare and Arctic Hectare programs become problematic is in the underlying motivations behind their genesis. Geopolitically, while Moscow seeks out Chinese business investment, it remains concerned about Chinese influence encroaching onto sovereign Russian territory in both of these regions. A seemingly easy solution is to bolster the sheer number of Russian citizens in these vulnerable areas, thereby rendering people as pawns. Symbolically, Putin is selling the narrative that Russia is ‘rising from her knees’ and reasserting (ethnic Russian) demographic dominion over its territory. As regards the Arctic specifically, such a move appeases the wounded sense of national pride that came from the Soviets’ ‘Mastery of the North.’

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Midnight sun near Lake Ozhogino / Ожогино, Sakha Republic, Russia [Photo by Victor Gabyshev / Виктор Габышев via Wikimedia Commons]
Moreover, if we re-direct our focus from Moscow to the local populations in these targeted areas, we gain a different perspective. Many of the hectare-available areas are on ancestral territories of Indigenous populations, from the Sámi in the west to the Chukchi in the east, and encompass no fewer than eight other Indigenous groups in between. The Indigenous populations of these twice-colonized regions have been proselytised, sedentarised, collectivized, industrialized, and Russified / Sovietized to the point that many Indigenous groups have been alienated from their ancestral homelands, cultures, traditions, and lifestyles. These hectare programs can be seen by local populations as an attempt to (re)assert federal, as well as ethnic Russian demographic, control over these twice-colonized regions. What to mainlanders is considered ‘frontier,’ to Indigenous locals is considered their ‘heartland’.

While, undoubtedly, the administrations of these regions feel the sting of the loss of tax revenue due to out-migration, local populations have not missed the lack of respect that mainlanders have shown to their home territories. In places such as the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) (Республика Саха (Якутия) ), the Indigenous Sakha people have appreciated the opportunities that the return to demographic parity has afforded them in cultural revival and administrative control over their home territory. The possible return of mainlanders could disrupt the gains they have made toward self-determination. Luckily for them and other local populations, so far, the rest of Russia’s populace does not seem to be buying into this ill-conceived attempt at neo-settler colonisation.

Kara Hodgson is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Peace Studies at UiT: The Arctic University of Norway, in Tromsø.