Koryak shaman woman
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."

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.

People of Siberia, Arctic and the Far East

Ket shaman
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)

People of the Russian Far East

The Chuvan is the name of a small group of creolized natives that live near the Pacific in the Far East. They are a mix of Yukagir and other groups such as Even, Russian, Koryak and Cossack They live mainly along the Anadyr River and its tributaries. They are active in fishing and reindeer breeding. They came into existence in the mid 17th century. Only around 1,500 remain today.

The Ainu are indigenous to northern Japan. Some also resided on the southern half of Sakhalin Island and the Kurile Islands of Russia. There were several thousand of them in Russian territory in the early 20th century. Their culture was affected by alternating periods of Russian and Japanese rule. They are no longer recognized as a separate ethnic group in Russia. Little information is available on them in Russia. See Separate Article on the Ainu under Japan

The Orok are a South Tungistic tribe. There are about 190 of them on Sakhalin Island The Negidals and Udges are minorities in the Krabarovsk Territory. There are about 500 Negidals and 1,700 Udges.

At the time of the break up of the Soviet Union there were 400 Japanese and 30,000 Koreans living on Sakhalin island, people or their descendants who had been there since the end of World War II when they got stuck there and the Soviets wouldn’t allow them to return to their homelands. After the Japanese-Russo War in 1905 the Japanese controlled the southern part of Sakhalin Island and retained control until the end of World War II. At the end of the war there were 380,000 Japanese on the island. Repatriation ships that ran between Sakhalin and Japan between brought most of them home, but not all of them. Many of those who remained were women who had married Koreans men that were not allowed to return home. The Japanese that remained said they suffered quite a lot. Anti-Japanese feeling among Russians and other Soviet people ran high after the war. Many pretended they were Koreans.

People of the Amur River

The Nania, Ulchi and Evenki ethnic groups live along the Amur river in the Russian Far East. eastern Siberia. Some villages still have shaman that 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.

The Ulchi people live along the Amur River in Krabarovsk Territory. There are about 2,500 of them. They have traded in their traditional fishing boats for boats with outboard motor.

The Ulchi, Nanai and Evenki wore fish skin clothes or clothes with fish skin parts. Some Amur River people wore coats of embroidered salmon skin.


The Nanai live in the Khabarovsk Territory and Promotye Territory of the lower Amur basin in the Russian Far East. Formally known to Russians as the Goldi people, they are related to the Evenki in Russia and the Hezhen in China and have traditionally shared the Amur region with the Ulchi and Evenki. They speak an Altaic language related to Turkish and Mongolian. Nanai means “local, indigenous person."

The Nanai have inhabited the Amur region since Neolithic times. On the banks of the Amur River archeologist have discovered 6,000 year old depictions of tigers carved the Goldi people. Their culture has been influenced by the ancient Tungus, Turkish and Mongolian tribes. They shared their territory with the Chinese Manchus and were not incorporated into Russia until the 1850s. After that many became Orthodox Christians and adopted Russian fishing methods and houses. Under, the Soviets, some were settled on fishing collectives. Others migrated to the cities and became involved in modern life.

There are around 12,000 Nanai in Russia. They mostly live along a 700 kilometer stretch of the Amur River, its tributaries and lakes. An addition 5,000 or so Hezhen live in China. In Russia, they are a modern people with a high level of education and work in a number of different fields. Many of those who make a living at fishing are elderly. Most speak Russian. Their own language is in danger of dying out.

“Dersu the Trapper” is a book about a Nanai tribesman who survived a horrible mauling by a tiger yet vowed never to harm a tiger. It was written by Vladamir K. Areniev, a Russian naturalist and geographer who worked in Ussuria between 1902 and 1908 and is about Areniev's guide, Dersu. The book was made into the 1975 Kurosawa film “Dersu Uzala”.

Traditional Nanai Life

The Nanai have traditionally been a hunting and fishing people, relying on fish, particularly salmon, from the Amur. During the three month salmon run they caught so many fish they were unable to preserve them all. Not only did they eat the meat they used the skin to make clothing, footwear and everyday items., They enjoy eating raw fish served with vinegar sauce. They also caught carp and huso sturgeon (a fish that can weigh over 500 kilograms and reach a length of three meters).

The Nanai have traditionally used dogsleds and birchbark canoes and made clothes from fish skins and deer hides with embroidered floral designs. They traded dried fish, furs and deer antlers and made a variety of things from birch bark. Among their traditional structures which for the most part have not been used since the 19th century are semispherical hits and peaked roof, conical- Tungus-style houses and pyramid-shaped hunting shelters.

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. Clan identity and clan unions traditionally have been very important but these have been compromised by modern life.

Nanai Shamanism

Shaman from the Nanai wore a special costume when they performed rituals. The costume was regarded as essential for their rites. For a non-Shaman to wear the costume was considered dangerous. The costume contained images of spirits and sacred objects and was adorned with iron, believed to have the power to defect blows by evil spirits, and feathers, believed to help the shaman fly to other worlds. On the costume was an image of a tree of life to which images of spirts were attached.

The Nanai believed that shaman traveled to a world tree and climbed it to reach the spirits. Their drums were said to be made of the bark and branches of the tree. The Nanai believe that spirits inhabit the upper reaches of the tree and the souls of unborn children nest on the branches. Birds linked with the idea of flight sit at the bottom of the tree. Snakes and horses are regarded as magic animals that help the shaman on his journey. Tiger spirts help teach the shaman his craft.


The Nivkhs are an ethnic groups that live along the lower Amur River and on Sakhalin Island. Also known as the Gilak, Gilyak, Giriya and Nibuhi, they are the earliest inhabitants of Sakhalin Island and were described by Anton Chekhov in his book “The Island”. The speak a language related to the languages of the Ket, Yukagir, Chukchi and Koryak and have traditionally been seal hunters and fishermen who lived wooden or subterranean houses or spent time in temporary shelters made from fish skin while pursuing game and fish,

There are about 5,000 Nivkhs. About half live on the lower Amur River . The other half live on Sakhalin Island. They have traditionally hunted sea lions and seals with harpoons and clubs in the spring and fished much of the year, with a particular emphasis on catching Siberian and humpback salmon. The did some hunting and trapping and gathering of plants and kept dogs but were not involved in reindeer herding.

Social organization revolved around clans, which were bound together by the payment of blood money and bride prices and the expenses of burials, bear festivals and clan-controlled storehouses. Their blood money system replaced obligatory vendettas with the amount paid determined by a neutral clan. Their traditional religious beliefs included dividing the universe on the basis of parts of the body and not mistreating certain parts of fish so as not to offend the Sea Master. Their bear festival involved dramas of a series of events that including the feeding of sacrificed dogs. Death was believed to be caused by evil spirits and the primary responsibility of Nivkh shaman was to keep these spirits at bay.

In the old days, a Nivkh Shaman (ch'am) would preside over the Bear Festival, celebrated in the winter between January and February depending on the clan. Bears were captured and raised in a corral for several years by local women, treating the bear like a child. The bear is considered a sacred earthly manifestation of Nivkh ancestors and the gods in bear form. During the Festival the bear is dressed in a specially made ceremonial costume and offered a banquet to take back to the realm of gods to show benevolence upon the clans. After the banquet the bear is killed and eaten in an elaborate religious ceremony. The festival was arranged by relatives to honor the death of a kinsman. The bear's spirit returns to the gods of the mountain 'happy' and rewards the Nivkh with bountiful forests. Generally, the Bear Festival was an inter-clan ceremony where a clan of wife-takers restored ties with a clan of wife-givers upon the broken link of the kinsman's death. The Bear Festival was suppressed in the Soviet period; since then the festival has had a modest revival, albeit as a cultural rather than a religious ceremony. [Source: Wikipedia]

In the old days women dressed in carp skin outfits and performed a special dance that honored the bear. The dance featured different parst linked with habits of the bear and the way it walks, rushes in a charge and walks with high paws. The Nivkh worshiped salmon. One Nivkh was Russia’s cross-country ski champion.


The Udegeh live around the Sikhotealin Mountains in the Far East, also home to many Siberian tigers, and traditionally survived by hunting in the forest. Their ancestors were farmers and members of the Zhurdzhen empire, which ruled parts of what is now China, Mongolia and Russia. In the 13th century, Zhurdzhen was defeated by Genghis Khan and the Mongols and survived in scattered communities in the forest, where they became nomadic hunters to survive and formed their own language and culture, called Udegeh. There are only about Udegeh 2,000 left. The largest group lives in a village called Krasnyr, about 175 miles southeast of Khabarovsk.

The Udegeh live in wooden houses that often have painted gables with images of bears, dogs, devils and pagan goddesses. Their villages are surrounded by forests, and in the winter deep snow. They primarily live on animals they hunt such as sable, mink, squirrel, deer and boar. They often earn what little money they have by collecting wild ginseng in the forest or selling furs.

About 80 Siberian tigers live in the Udegeh hunting grounds. The Udegeh worship tigers, which are considered sinful to kill. One Udegeh hunter told the Washington Post, "The tiger and the Udegeh people are the same."

In the 1920s, the Udegeh were organized into hunting cooperatives by the Soviets. They sold furs to the Soviets and were able to keep their culture alive even though the Communists frowned upon their pagan beliefs and shaman practices. Today most young Udegeh wear Russian clothes and few of them speak the old language. Intermarriage is common and there are few pure blood Udegeh left. In the early 1990s, the Udegeh were involved in a dispute with the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai, who wanted to log the Udegeh's hunting ground.


The Orochi are a people that live in the Far East, mainly near the mouth of the Tumni River in Khabarovsk Krai and on Sakhalin Island. In the past they lived on the Amur River and around Lake Kizi. They speak and Altaic language similar to Manchu and Tungus and have intermarried with Russians and other groups. Few speak their native language anymore.

There are around 1,200 Orochi. They traditionally lived along rivers in the taiga in sod-covered homes in the winter and bark houses and conical huts in the summer. In the old days they were fishermen and hunters They fished with spears and traps and liked to partition off river to catch fish in nets and seines. Marine animals were killed with harpoons.

In the old days the Orochi were clothes were made from reindeer hide and fur, fish skin and nerpa hides They had close ties with the Nanai, Ulchi and Udegeh. Under the Russians they became Christianized. Even so they maintain some of their old beliefs, which include a cult for ancestors as well as ones for nerpa, tiger, killer whale ad other animals. A special rite was held with a bear that was kept captive for two years, honored with a feast and sacrifices and then killed. Many shaman were women.

Koreans In the Russian Far East and Sakhalin Island

In the 1990s, a large portion of the approximately 321,000 Koreans living in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, in particular Uzbekistan, began migrating to the Russian Federation in l992 when various forms of discrimination against non-indigenous peoples increased in those republics. Most of these migrants to Russia have settled in Maritime (Primorskiy) Territory, where their commercial activities have competed with local merchants and stirred numerous anti-Korean incidents. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1996 about 36,000 Koreans also were living on Sakhalin Island. 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.

When economic conditions deteriorated in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) in the mid-1990s, the North Korean government allowed thousands of carefully chosen guest workers to find manual jobs in Vladivostok and other parts of the Russian Far East. As North Korean guest workers have sought asylum in Russia, the question of their repatriation has caused Russia a difficult diplomatic problem in its relations with North Korea and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), in view of Russia's intensified efforts to expand commercial ties with South Korea without alienating putative ally North Korea. Korean arrivals in Russia from Central Asia and from North Korea receive support from the Association of Ethnic Koreans and from South Korea. Another Korean émigré organization, the United Confederation of Koreans in Russia, lends vocal support to North Korea in its disputes with South Korea. Tensions between the two Korean populations were very strong by 1996. Russian migration officials feared a much larger influx of North Koreans if the North Korean government collapsed. *

North Korean Workers in the Russian Far East

North Korea has earned foreign currency by farming out labor to logging, mining and agricultural interests in Siberia. It was estimated that there were 10,000 to 30,000 North Korean workers working in the Russian Far East in the 1990s, with around 3,000 working in the Vladivostok area and 15,000 workers toiled under slavelike conditions in Khabarovsk. [Sources: New York Times, Washington Post]

The North Korean workers usually work in Siberian mines, logging camps and cabbage farms. Russian companies prized North Korean laborers who are willing to wok hard for little pay (usually between $2 and $15 a day). The workers were watched by North Korean security agents who wouldn't allow the workers to talk to anyone. Married men with children were chosen because they were less likely to defect. In their time off the took part in political study sessions and were required to log any interactions with outsiders in a special book.

The North Koreans often worked 14- or 15-hour days and sometimes slept 20 to a room in abandoned building with pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il but no running water or electricity. They often wore black Lenin caps and Kim Il Sung lapel buttons. Sometimes they lived in prison-like concrete dormitories specially wired to Pyongyang to pick up propaganda broadcasts. North Koreans built the camps and installed their own security. Russian police were not let in. There were stories about executions and corpses being carried out.

A Russian governor told Mary Jordan of the Washington Post, "We do know that their leaders take their money and leave them only enough to survive. Sometimes they commit crimes hoping to be put in jail because they prefer to stay in Russian prisons...compared to where they come from, it's like a paradise for them."

The North Koreans regard the Russians as rich. Some of the North Koreans try to escape and find South Koreans who will help them get out of Russia. After Amnesty International and the Western press began issuing reports about the camps, the local Russian government in Khabarovsk began closing them down. By 2003, only around 600 North Koreans were still working in the camps.

North Korean Worker at a Lumber Camp

A North Korean defector named Ahn Chong Hak told Kevin Sullivan of the Washington Post, he spent 15 months a Siberian camp that was surrounded by 15-foot walls topped by barbed wire. He said the North Korean laborers were often forced to work 15-hour days in -50°F temperatures and subsist on rice, salt, seaweed and slaughtered cats and dogs.

Ahn said all of the laborers $30 a month pay was given to the security agents and the laborers never received any cash, only thing like sugar, candy and cosmetics. Workers died at a rate of about three a month, he said, and the security agents waited until they had 10 bodies before shipping them home. The only time the work stopped was during indoctrination sessions. Many of the workers, he said, were not poor peasants desperate for work but relatively well-educated and well-off men.

In January 1993, Ahn said he bribed a security agent to let him go into a nearby town to get parts for a saw. Ahn used the opportunity to escape. With only a knife, a map, and little money, over the next 17 months he made his way to Vladivostock, surviving on food given to him by Russian families, and stowed away on a freighter that stopped in the South Korean port of Ousan in August, 1994. Leaving behind a wife and child in North Korea, Ahn later remarried and got a job as a car salesman.

Chinese in the Far East

There were about 800,000 Chinese living in Russia in 2001 and more were arriving all the time. They particularly were making their presence known in the Far East, where they have been very active in business and trading. There were around 200,000 of them there at that time. Some Russians claimed there were 2 million of them. In the Soviet era there were hardly any.

The Russians tend to see the Chinese as hardworking while many Chinese see the Russians as lazy. After laying eyes on empty green land of eastern Russia, one Chinese woman told the Los Angeles Times, "I was amazed—such a waste. I thought:'This land is good, but no one cultivates it. How can you possiblely live on the land, and not work it?"

Most Chinese cross the border into Russia legally with tourist or business visas. Chinese are prohibited from settling in Russia but they can visit without restrictions for 30 days. Many overstay their visas. Few hold work permits or pay taxes. In the early 2000s there were water shortages and droughts in northern China and that made coming to Russia all that more attractive.

The study of Asian languages is enjoying a boom in the Russian Far East. At Vladivostok’s Far Eastern State University, Mandarin is the second most popular language after English. Students are also studying Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Hindi and even Bengali.

Chinese Working in the Far East

The Chinese are very active in business and trading. All cities in the Russian Far East have "Chinese" markets with cheap goods, fruit and vegetables brought across the border by Chinese and Russian "suitcase traders."

The Chinese are involved in agriculture too. Some Chinese have taught the Russians how to raise melons and other produce in greenhouses made of plastic sheeting. Other works as laborers for a $100 a month, doing the kind of dirty, menial work that many Russians refuse to do. They go without seeing their families for years at a time. Many of these workers live in wooden shacks without electricity with other workers. They get free meals and save almost everything they earn and use the money to start new businesses back home.

Almost all the goods sold in the markets are made in China: everything from buckets to blouses to televisions. Many of the merchant are Chinese too. Some markets are so full of Chinese that most food stalls serve Chinese-style noodles and play Chinese pop music.

Russian Views Towards the Chinese

Many Russians are worried that too many Chinese will move into the thinly-populated Far East, outnumber the Russians and eventually take over. Russians envision a slow decline of the Russian population and control and a rise in Chinese influence. They like to poit out that in entire Russian Far East there are only about 6.7 million people while in the three provinces of northeastern China are home to 150 million people.

One Russian Vladivostok resident told the Independent, "They spread like jellyfish, penetrating everywhere—and gradually you find that without a shot being fired they've simply taken over." Another Vladivostok resident said, the Chinese "behave as though they own the town. If Russia is not strong, there is a threat that we will lose this territory."

One resident of border town Blagoveshchensk told the Los Angeles Times, "I feel hatred for the Chinese all the time. They are shouting at us, shouting that we work badly, and we should work more and more and more. All the time in our history we are trying to get ride of them...And now they are our masters.”

The Chinese don’t have such great opinions about the Russians either. One Chinese worker told the Los Angeles Times, “Russians are no competition for me. They’re lazy. They drink their vodka and they don’t want to work...They say we must go away because we prevent them from enjoying being lazy.” Chinese also complain they are routinely shaken down for bribes by corrupt police and government officials.

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.

Last updated May 2016

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