Russian Far East

Russian Far East
   A somewhat elastic term referring to Russia’s Pacific littoral, stretching from Vladivostok in the south to the Anadyr Peninsula in the north, and including the Amur region, Kamchatka Peninsula, and Sakhalin. Before the late nineteenth century, the region was administered as part of Siberia but has since been administered separately. Those living in the region are keen to distinguish themselves from Siberians proper. As early as 1700, Cossack explorers arrived on the Kamchatka Peninsula, where they established the port of Petropavlovsk. This served as a departure point for the Great Northern Expeditions led during the 1730s by Vitus Bering, who discovered the straits that bear his name. The Russians went on to acquire Alaska, build Fort Ross in northern California, and even appear briefly on Hawai’i. Russia’s hold on these latter regions proved temporary, but it retained its role as a major power in the North Pacific.
   It nonetheless paid little attention to the region before the mid-nineteenth century. Problems with logistics and communications bedeviled St. Petersburg’s ability to do much in the Far East, and its focus was directed west and south. Russia’s humiliation in the Crimean War combined with the decline of Qing China, however, sparked a renewed interest in the East. In the late 1850s, eastern Siberia’s Governorgeneral Nikolai Nikolaevich Muravev easily wrested the vast, resource-rich Amur region from China. Imperial visionaries saw the Amur River as a “Russian Mississippi” and hoped it would prove a conduit for trade throughout the Pacific. Nikolaevskon-the-Amur was founded at the mouth of the river, followed in 1860 by Vladivostok (“Ruler of the East”) on the southernmost point of Russia’s Pacific shoreline. Both ports supported the settlement and annexation of Sakhalin, especially after the St. Petersburg Treaty of 1875.
   Imperial visionaries’ dreams remained unrealized, however. Vast expanses separated the Russian Far East from Siberia’s most important cities, such as Irkutsk, Eniseisk, and Tobolsk, and so communications and logistics problems remained stumbling blocks. Indeed, the first contiguous motorway linking Vladivostok to the interior was only constructed in the 1990s. Also, despite the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, strict government control over land allocation stymied free migration to the region. As a result, the Russian Far East rapidly became an extension of “the enormous prison without a roof ” that was Siberia. This was especially the case with Sakhalin, which became a tsarist penal colony.
   Nevertheless, a milestone 1889 migration law as well as construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad - contiguously linked in 1904, but serviceable several years earlier - facilitated the Russian Far East’s free settlement during the empire’s final years. The region also experienced considerable immigration from Korea and China. By 1911, the Russian Far East boasted a total population of 855,000. Its population density was only .4 person per square verst - a verst equaling two-thirds of a mile - but settlement was overwhelmingly concentrated in the south. Vladivostok, for example, grew from 14,500 in 1890 to 107,900 by 1926.
   The railroad and the migration law grew out of the “Far Eastern Policy” originating after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War. The rhetorical formulas used to justify this policy demonstrate a uniquely Orthodox Christian and Slavic version of the “white man’s burden.” Russia’s construction of the Manchurian Railroad and its occupation of Port Arthur on Korea’s Liaotung Peninsula were to a large extent physical manifestations of its notion of a “divine right” to dictate terms to East Asia’s inhabitants, but also reflected more rationally conceived strategies to rebuff Japan’s own imperialistic maneuvers. War with Japan was the result and led, as had the Crimean War of a half century earlier, to another defeat that undermined Russians’ faith in their tsar.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Bassin, Mark. Imperial Visions: Nationalist Imagination and Geographical Expansion in the Russian Far East, 1840–1865 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999;
    Stephan, John J. The Russian Far East: A History . Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994;
    Treadgold, Donald W. The Great Siberian Migration: Government and Peasant in Resettlement from Emancipation to the First World War . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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