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Where does war according to Russia’s West leave its East?

With wider media focus on the Russian West, Sofia Johanson explores the impact of this on Russia's East in wartime.

“It’s not for nothing that they call Pevek the city of romantics and daisies”, local resident Irina Shuvalova tells the camera. Taking part in a documentary for broadcaster Current Time (Настоящее Время), she is wearing both a puffer coat and hoodie in a living-room-cum-greenhouse in the Soviet-built former port town. Nestled cosily within the Arctic Circle on Russia’s north-eastern coast, the city’s panoramas showcase characterless flat blocks, dilapidated industrial enterprises, and – to Irina’s credit – patches of daisies battling against the brutal winds from the East Siberian Sea.

The discovery of uranium and tin deposits in the 1940s made Pevek’s position in the Chaunskaya Bay perfect for the delivery of equipment, but once the mines were closed and the gulag workers had left, industry in the town dried up. Optimism returned when Pevek became the home of Russia’s first floating nuclear power plant in 2020. The New York Times said it could be the ‘power plant of the future’, claiming it would employ 300 people which – although figures are currently unclear – would constitute a significant proportion of Pevek’s population.

And though Pevek seems unremarkable, and the Akademik Lomonosov (as the barge is named) does not look particularly inspiring, this development is an unlikely symbol for the unnoticed regeneration of Russia’s most remote districts.

At this year’s Eastern Economic Forum, an international conference aimed at encouraging foreign investment in Russia’s Far East, delegations from 63 countries including India and China discussed higher education, shipping, and Arctic development with their Russian counterparts. Almost 400 agreements were signed, with 41 involving foreign enterprises. The most notable was a joint deal between a Russian and a Chinese company who agreed to invest 5 billion yuan (£553 million) in the construction of an oil complex to straddle the border between the two countries, making exportation to China easier. Such a project is not only a result of closer cooperation between China and Russia, but is a response to a very practical concern over a decline in European demands for Russian energy.

Russia’s reorientation to the East was articulated more explicitly by the deacon of the Chongyang Institute of Financial Studies, a guest at the conference. Dr. Wang Wen said that Vladivostok could become the next Hong Kong, explaining that “the non-Western world welcomes Russia warmly, with both hands, but Russia must also turn its face to the non-Western world.”

For his part, President Putin showed concordance with his guest’s expectations, saying that “the role of the (Russian) Far East for our country, for her future, for the position of Russia in a multipolar world, is exceptionally important”. This evocation of the ‘multipolar world’ goes beyond a ‘turn to the East’ in describing the Kremlin’s hopes to establish new, more numerous centres of power which will re-balance the world order, bringing about the end of Western hegemony. Whilst votes of abstention and support for Russia at the UN among the global south are perceived as the source of this apparently inevitable process, the Russian Far East offers an increasingly promising launchpad in Asia for collaboration with non-aligned and anti-Western states. In particular, the Far East’s role on the domestic stage is perhaps the more significant compact.

One piece from state news outlet Ria Novosti describes ‘heliskiing’ as “snowboarding down untouched snowy slopes with a helicopter ride up to the beginning of the descent”. This is just one of the many activities you can participate in on a VIP tour of the ‘remote regions’ run by the Cosmos Hotel Group, who are planning to build hotels, chalets, and glamping sites from scratch in Russia’s Far East.

The President of the Russian Union of the Travel Industry told Ria buoyantly that demand for domestic tourism has risen by 30% in the last couple of years. He conveniently omitted the qualifier that Russians are currently prevented from visiting most international destinations by visa bans and a lack of flights abroad. Much like the Chinese transnational oil project, promotion of domestic tourism is yet another solution to the ramifications of the invasion of Ukraine.

Branding the Far East as a thrilling wilderness is a consistent effort that goes beyond state-sanctioned tour group adverts. It has been given a prominent stage at the dazzling Forum-Russia exhibition in Moscow, which is currently showcasing Russia’s regional cultures and landscapes to the capital’s population. One particular event was dedicated to recognising the winners of the ‘Far East – Land of Adventures’ travel competition, where the Grand Prize was awarded to a local who completed a 500-kilometre solo-kayak trip around the bay of Vladivostok. Winners in the ‘Winter Travel’ category, all of whom were from the Far East, respectively completed a seven-day bicycle hike, a dog sled race, and a horse trek along the Kolyma highway (the latter notable for sharing its name with the Stalinist gulag).

Promoting residents of the Far East themselves as courageous and determined is perfectly synchronised to enormous billboards showing Russian soldiers with the defiant text ‘We will succeed in everything!”. The war and civilian life in the East become ever more subtly intertwined. 

But the more immediate practical function of the competition was articulated by the convenor (a deputy Prime Minister) who praised the winners for the videos which they had to submit as part of their entries, which would encourage others to go “in the right direction, to the Far East”. The promotion of internal travel on multiple fronts seeks not only to provide the remote regions of Russia with economic inspiration, but contributes to the Kremlin’s designs for a more tightly connected, inward-facing nation. 

Taken at face value, the prevailing message of the exhibition is one of peaceful harmony between the diverse ethnic groups of the Russian Federation. Great emphasis is placed on the ‘native people’ of each region, and the Chukchi of the northeastern district of Chukotka performed traditional dances, played local instruments and sung in their native tongue to great applause in Moscow. Beaming indefatigably, these members of dance troupes and ‘ethnorock’ bands provide a useful example to be employed whenever the Kremlin wishes to highlight how it not only tolerates but celebrates the cohabitation of different groups within its borders.

Such a narrative is even more chilling when you consider that the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics, as well as the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts have also got stalls at the exhibition, also supposedly demonstrating the Russian value of peaceful coexistence.  

Does this suggest a consistency in policy for Russia’s West and East? The misleading ‘We don’t abandon our own’ doctrine, initially used in connection with the campaign in Kherson, arguably extends all the way to the North Pacific, as the Kremlin decides who constitutes ‘our own’ and how they might be enticed or coerced into greater integration into the Russian Federation.

But there is an obvious divergence in practice, if not in theory. So far, the Far East has only invited flattery; Putin voiced his admiration for Kamchatka after visiting the immersive regional stand at Forum-Russia, conceding that he had never seen anything so beautiful. Indeed, Chukotka’s governor (previously First Deputy Prime Minister of Luhansk) stated he hopes to replicate his President’s reaction in others, expecting that acquainting Muscovites with his region could foster greater ‘closeness’ between Russia’s East and West. Opposition to such ‘closeness’ in the sparsely-populated remote East is not on the cards, but the comprehensive vision of the Kremlin’s policies – aiming at greater integration and centralisation with Russia – is certainly worth noting.

For the inhabitants of the Far East themselves, the material benefits arriving in the region will have far more of an impact than the state’s verbal admiration; the governor of Chukotka recently announced plans to open the local ports to cruise liners, a new regional centre for instruction in the mining industry is being set up in Kamchatka, and state media reported just this month that the cheapest mortgages in Russia are to be found in its distant North East.

Whilst extreme remoteness, 69 days of almost complete darkness, and living by the ruins of a gulag may not sound immediately inviting, Pevek and the settlements of the Far East are being positively redeveloped and growing in attraction. Irina Shuvalova contrasts the deprivation of the 90s, when her daughter would peer into an almost-empty fridge and ask for bread and butter, with the vitality currently being channelled into her town. She celebrates the resumption of shipping activities, accompanied by the appearance of brightly-coloured painted murals on the flat blocks which have given Pevek a veritable facelift.

Last month Pevek even made it to the national news, as discussions over the construction of a second floating nuclear power plant have apparently begun. The memorandum quoted in the article was sent by the government to Rosatom (responsible for the initial barge), and lays out the importance of “ensuring the socio-economic development of the region” with a project which could both help in the extraction mineral resources, and provide energy to inhabitants of Chukotka.

Plans for a second floating nuclear power plant in the North Pacific Ocean are not necessarily the key for a dramatic uncovering of Putin’s plans for Russia’s direction of travel, and I do not predict mass exodus from Moscow, nor Vladivostok becoming the eventual state capital. Nonetheless, the efforts going into the regeneration and promotion of Russia’s remote districts are remarkable, and have clearly acquired a new significance since February 2022. 

Historically, there has been no strong tendency to report on Russia’s Far East in the media, so the fact that these developments have gone under the radar is, in itself, not a surprise. But the difference between now and the decades that preceded the invasion is that our attention is being actively diverted towards Russia’s western border, away from the vast lands east of Moscow. This is a serious mistake, since it prevents us in the West from grasping just how far-reaching the impacts of the war are on the Russian population, and moreover how the Kremlin is seeking to mitigate them.

Paradoxically, by having our eyes so trained on events to Russia’s West, we risk ignoring what true relevance they have on the entire country, especially in the Far East.

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