Far East is a region in eastern Russia that includes the territories that run along the Pacific coast and the Amur River, the Kamchatka Peninsula, Sakhalin island and the Kurile Islands. It is a cold, inhospitable and sparsely populated area with stunning scenery, rich fisheries, virgin forest and remote towns.

The entire Russian Pacific coastline extends for almost 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles). The formal dividing line between Siberia and the Far East are the borders of the Khabarovsk territory and Magadan region, whiles extends between 100 miles to 1,000 miles inland from the Russia's east coast.

In the Soviet era, the Far East had its share of gulags and labor camps, Maksim Gorky called it " land of chains and ice." Since the break up of the Soviet Union, its people have largely been forgotten. The whole region would probably be forgotten if it weren't so rich in resources.

The Far East only has 6.7 million people and its population is falling. There used to be around 8 million people there. Eighty percent of the people live in the cities but have a strong ties to the land, hunting or fishing or picking berries and mushrooms whenever they get the chance. Some places only exist because the government subsidizes them, providing the people with shipped-in food and cheap energy for heat. In recent years the government has decided it has spent too much supporting these people and told them they have to move. In some places the people refused to move and the government cut off their water and heat and they still stayed.

Traveling in the Far East is troublesome. There are few roads, and they are in poor conditions. Many places can’t be reached by road anyway. Rivers are frozen much of the year. Helicopters can cost as much as $500 an hour to rent. Corruption is rampant and it seems like everyone wants a cut. Even if paperwork is in order customs officials, police an other authorities demand, sometimes, huge outrageous "fees."

People of Siberia, Arctic and the Far East

There are 40 or so indigenous ethnic groups in Siberia, the Far East and the Arctic. Most have traditionally been shamanist, nomadic animal herders. They have traditionally lived a basic life in hash conditions in areas with few people and migrated over long distances. Those in the south herded sheep, horses and cattle. Those in north herded reindeer. Some were also fishermen, trappers and hunters. Few had written languages.

The people of Siberia, the Far East and the Arctic speak dozens of Uralic, Turko-Tatar and Paleosiberain language and many more dialects, with Russian serving as the lingua franca.

Siberia is defined by four main ecocultural areas: 1) western Siberia, a lowland agricultural area and home to relatively Russified groups such as the Nenets, Komi, Mansi and Khanty; 2) southern Siberia with its large industrial and mining operations; 3) the east-central area, home to traditional horse people like the Buryats, Tuven and Yakut; and 4) the Far East, with the northernmost people in Eurasia, Eskimos, Chukchi and Nivkh.

The Siberian region is shaped very much by the interact between Russians and other Slavs with indigenous Siberia groups. There has traditionally been a high degree of intermarrying between the different groups of the region among themselves and with Russians. Indigenous group are most well represented in rural areas and the wilderness while Russians and other Slavs dominate the large cities.

After spending three years on a scientific journey in Kamchatka, an 18th century Russian wrote, "Only in their power of speech do [these natives] differ from animals. Nonetheless...they believe that the earth, sky, air, water, land, mountains and forest are inhabited by spirits whom they fear and honor more than their god...[and are] convinced that there is no way of life happier and more agreeable than their own."

Books: A History of the People of Siberia by James Forsyth (Cambridge, 1994), Forgotten People of Siberia by Fred Mayer (Scalo, 1993)

Economics of the Far East

The Far East is rich in gold, diamonds, oil, natural gas, minerals, timber and fish. It accounts for more than 60 percent of Russia's total sea harvest and fishing is the region’s leading industry, providing jobs for more than 150,000 people. People in the Far East should be rich from the wealth generated from fishing, timber and minerals but that is not necessarily case. In the case of timber, in the early 2000s, local communities were supposed to get 30 percent of the profits but in reality Moscow took 80 percent and local officials took the rest.

In the early 2000s, gas and oil companies could not pay their workers and utility companies couldn’t pay the oil and gas companies and as a result electricity was only on for a few hours a day. Workers were among the last to receive their wages, factories were cannibalized of scrap metal and part, students studied in sub-freezing classrooms, and people died at early ages. Those that could afford it had to move away.

Many foreign companies were equally frustrated. The U.S. wood product giant Weyerhaueser, Korea's Hyundai conglomerate and Australian mining companies arrived in east Russia with high hopes but after some time there either packed up and left or scaled down their staff down to a skeletal crew.

Amur River

Amur River is the longest river in Russia, the eighth longest in the world and the most important waterway in the Russian Far East. Originating in the high plateaus of Mongolia and Siberia, the 4,166-kilometers (2,744 mile)-long river empties into the Pacific where its mouth is over 16 kilometers (ten miles) wide. It drainage basin, which includes parts of Mongolia, Siberia and China, is approximately 1,844,000 square kilometers (712,000 square miles), an area six time the size of Italy.

Taiga, birch forests and wetlands flank long stretches of the Amur. One hundred species of fish live in its waters, including massive kaluga sturgeon, which can reach over 20 feet in length, weigh more than a ton, live to be 100 and produce 400 pound of valuable caviar.

Salmon are the most important fish. Each year the salmon run last for almost three months. The waters also carry 25 million tons of silt to the North Pacific every year. Although the Amur is primarily a slow, lazy river it is not utilized commercially since it is so remotely located.

The tributaries of the Amur are fed mostly by monsoon rains. Consequently its water levels rise dramatically during the summers and drop during the dry winter. From May to November, when the river is free of ice, the Amur is navigable it entire length. During the winter, the Amur freezes over for as long as six months. The ice is up to six feet deep. Vehicles are driven on the river and floating docks are pulled up from the shores. The remainder of the year it is used by variety of boats, including barges, ferries and gunboats, which are the primary means of transportation.

Route of the Amur River

The Amur River is known to the Chinese as the Heilong Jian, the Black Dragon River. The first 1,100-mile-long section of the river defines the border between northern China and southeast Russia. The region was the site of a battle between Manchus and Cossacks in 1689. The current borders are the result of the Treaty if Aigun, signed in 1858, which the Chinese regarded as only temporary.

The Amur formally begins near the forest town of Skovorodino, where the Argun and Shilka Rivers join to form the Amur proper. Other major tributaries include the Zeya, the Bureya and the Amgun rivers to the north and the Sunagri and Ussuri to the south.

The final 650 miles of the river flows completely through Russia. From Khabarovsk, the Amur heads north for 400 miles, passing through remote forests, swamps, muddy coastal flatlands and empties into the Sea of Okhotsk, an arm of the Pacific Ocean, by way of a large gulf by the drab city of Nokolayevsk. Boat captains hate navigating the final section because the water is shallow and the navigable channels change all the time.

People Living on the Amur River

About 8½ million people live on the Amur’s length. Those that live on the Chinese side are noticeable more prosperous than those on the Russian side. Ferries are the primarily means of transportation across the river in summer. Buses cross the ice in the winter.

Not as many people cross the river as you would think because Russians and Chinese remain so suspicious of one another. Those that cross are primarily Russian and Chinese traders carrying Russian-bound plastic bags filled with blocks of tea, T-shirts, sandals, whiskey and even Chinese-made vodka.

There are only two bridges across the Amur. No dams have been built. In recent years fishermen have been complaining about pollution which comes from both Chinese and Russian sources.

The Nania, Ulchi and Evenki ethnic groups live along the Amur river in far eastern Siberia. Some villages still have shaman and do the old dances but many of traditions are being lost and young people are more interested in the modern world than the old world. There are about 30,000 Evenks in Evenk, National Area, Yakutia, Taimyr, Buryatia and Sakhalin. [Source: Simon Winchester, National Geographic, February 2000]

Sakhalin Island

Sakhalin Island (north of Japan and Vladivostok) is a rainy, snowy, windy, lush, green, 950-kilometer (590-mile-long) island. It is overrun with mosquitos in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. In many places the sea is frozen six months of the year. Fogs often hang over the sea and the coastal towns. It also suffers from frequent earthquakes. It is a very remote place. Most road are dirt. The airport in the north is unusable in the rain. The economy has traditionally been based on fishing and collecting seaweed.

Chekhov described Sakhalin as an absolute hell hole (“If only those who wanted to live here, Sakhalin would be deserted” he wrote) but Westerners who visit it like because of its pristine scenery, crisp cool air, summer wild flowers, good fishing, herds of reindeer, lack of people and the chance to eat as much homemade bread and butter, fresh lingonberry jam, salmon caviar as they want and indulge in local delicacies like salmon dipped in seal oil, washed down with raspberry-, blueberry-, cloudberry and blaeberry-flavored vodka.

About 590,000 people live on Sakhalin, mostly in the south. Most of the people on Sakhalin are Russians. There are about 190 indigenous Oroks, 1,200 Orochi and 5,000 Nivkhs and some Ainu and Korean-Russians brought during the Japanese occupation. The Japanese that lived here were forced to leave.

Sakhalin is rich in oil, coal uranium, silver, timber and other resources. The waters are rich in fish. Many Western oil companies are drilling in the waters off the island, which contain large deposits of oil and gas. It is also known for its salmon streams and seas teaming with cod, herring and crabs. Even so, Sakhalin is one of Russia’s poorest regions. In the mid 1990s the average income was equivalent to $200 a year. Some people live in very harsh conditions. In some places it is so cold and heat is in such short supply that people pitch tents in their living room so they can stay warm. Power outages sometimes last for days. Website:

History of Sakhalin

Sakhalin was originally claimed by Japan and Russia. The first settlers were Japanese from Hokkaido attracted by the waters offshore that were rich with fish and whales. In the mid 1800s a deal was struck that gave the Russians Sakhalin and the Japanese the Kurile islands.

Russia formally took possession of Sakhalin in 1855. The tsars made Sakhalin into a penal colony, where the worst criminals, most unrepentant murders and despicable spies were sent. Chekhov visited it and wrote about his impression of the island and the plight of the prisoners who lived there in The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin. Of the island he wrote, "I have seen Ceylon, which is paradise and Sakhalin which is utter hell...The residents live their sleepy, drunken lives and in general live hungrier and more naked than God created them.” There was “something not Russian” about their lives.

From 1895 to 1945 the Japanese controlled the southern part of Sakhalin Island and also had great influence on the northern part of the island. Tens of thousands of Korean were forced by the Japanese to perform slave labor on the island. They were trapped on the island at the end of World War II and not allowed to return home. In the Soviet era, the island was home to a gulag and contained an air base, submarine base and some fishing facilities and little else. It was a restricted area. Korean Airlines flight 007 was shot down near Sakhalin in 1983, killing all 267 on board. It has only opened to the outside world in the past decade.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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