A little over a year ago, Russia started a program called “A Hectare in the Far East,” which offered citizens free land in the sparsely populated areas of the Far East to encourage migration.
The project was met with much skepticism, but it has so far exceeded expectations, with more than 95,000 applications lodged and more than 21,600 plots of land registered to new users.
While some critics remain, analysts estimate the free land program could act as a catalyst for the biggest migration trend to the Russian Far East since the time of the agrarian reform at the start of the 20th century.
Still, there is much work to do on building infrastructure and a lot of space to fill. In total, more than 145 million hectares of land have been allotted for the distribution program.
The nine regions of the Russian Far East account for 36% of the country’s land mass, yet only 6.2 million people live in those areas, or about 5% of the Russian population.
By comparison, the Chinese northeast province of Heilongjiang that borders Russia has a population of 38 million, yet is about the same size as just two of Russia’s Far East provinces — Magadan and Primorsky Krai.
While the land is given without payment, there is a condition attached: Within five years, the plot of land must be developed — through the construction of a house, a farmstead, or other means — for the tenant to gain outright ownership.
Initially, only citizens living in the Far East were allowed to apply for a land in their local areas. From October 1, 2016, the choice widened to locals applying for a plot anywhere in the Russian Far East. In February this year, the program opened up to all Russian citizens across the country.
The registration is done electronically, with applicants accessing a digital map from which land plots can be chosen and the application submitted. Officials have up to 33 working days to accept the application, review and draw up a land transfer contract.
Only Russian citizens are able to claim land. “We don’t plan to offer hectare-plots to foreigners,” according to Yuri Trutnev, the Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District.
The 19th century agrarian reform program for the Russian Far East, led by then Prime Minister Petr Stolypin, was to reduce overpopulation in the central and European parts of the country.
With peasants dreaming of land going begging in the east of the empire, the government from 1906 started to pay for the cost of migrating families to the territories. It also provided support for installation of some infrastructure, as well as loans for house construction and purchases of agricultural equipment.
A family received 50 desiatina of land (a Russian land measure equal to 2.7 acres) or about 50 hectares. In 1906 alone more than 130,000 people moved to Siberia and the Far East.
By 1914 more than 4 million people had migrated. Of those, about half a million had settled in and around the Primorsky Krai region, which is home to modern day Vladivostok.
Russia’s Ministry for the Development of the Far East set up the current land distribution program to run through to 2035. The goal is to almost double the population of the Far East to 11.2 million from 6.2 million.
“By the end of 2017, according to our conservative base scenario, we expect between 120,000 to 150,000 applications and we aim to process at least 50,000 land plots,” Alexander Galushka, Minister for the Development of the Far East, told Asia Times.
“People are interested in the land for homes, for use as an allotment to grow food, for business activity and so on. At this stage, our main goal is to help them with money, infrastructure, to make it convenient to access state support.”
According to government data, 85% of applicants are men in their mid-thirties already living in Far East Russia, indicating more needs to be done to attract people from other areas of Russia.
The first people to take advantage of the scheme were those already working off the land with small farms. Then others interested in building a country house started applying.
Despite the impression of the Far East as a tough climate, farming has made the region largely self-sufficient in many agricultural products and in Primorsk Krai the weather even allows the cultivation of rice and grapes.
Hence, Primorsk Krai, the southernmost locality of the nine Far East regions, is the most popular with land plot applicants with 40 percent of the total. In particular, there’s great interest in land near the sea that could be used to build a family country house or a hotel to attract tourists.
One of the early adopters of the land program is Sergei Kurechko. In 2004, he and his family opened a fruit winery in the village of Anisimovka, in Primorsk Krai.
The winery makes 13 types of drink based on local berries, wild crops and herbs. These include wild grapes, magnolia-vine, gooseberries, currants, strawberries, honeysuckle and cherries.
The business now makes about a ton of wine a year and Kurechko has applied for a new plot under the program to expand. “It is quite possible to make wine in the region. It takes quite a lot of work, no doubt, but it is worth it,” Kurechko said.
Others see the land grants as an opportunity for staking a place to hunt and fish and have made applications for plots in remote areas of the Chukotka region
About 10 percent of all applications for the land program are done in groups. Places where 30 or more new land owners are concentrated will be the first ones to receive access to infrastructure in the way of roads, power lines and water connections.
Not everyone sees the land giveaway as a good idea.
“A hectare of land is a very abstract measure. For a residence, it is too big. To set up a commercial or industrial activity, it is too small,” said Yuri Avdeev, a senior analyst with the Pacific Institute of Geography, Far-Eastern Campus.
“There are plenty of abandoned settlements that would be much more suitable for living in terms of infrastructure connectivity than offering up a plot in the middle of the wilderness,” he said.
“If you were to do this properly, you need to make an inventory of all the abandoned military settlements and dwellings in the region. They could well be reanimated and re-populated,” Avdeev said.
Still, demand for land in the Far East has been considerable and people have been complaining of delays.
Trutnev, the presidential envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, said they government is trying to solve those problems.
“This is a complex program, but it is necessary for the development of the region,” he said.