September 01, 2021

Virgin Arctic



Virgin Arctic
Picture yourself here. Winter in Levkovka village, Arkhangelsk Oblast. Aleksandra Raspopina

Government woos citizens with free land

Russia is pushing ahead with a new drive to populate the country’s remote and unpopular fringes. Starting this year, Russians can claim a hectare (about 2.5 acres) of land in the Arctic zone – absolutely free. The catch? Within five years, you must actually use your hectare, by living there, farming it, or otherwise engaging in economic activity.

The so-called “Far Eastern Hectare” program (bit.ly/fareastland) has been around for five years, thought up as a twenty-first century Virgin Lands campaign or Homesteading Act. The goal is to save Russia’s far-flung regions from depopulation and lack of investment. Up until this year, the plots were only available in Russia’s Far Eastern region, and the project has not been a smashing success. Out of more than 80,000 claimed hectares, only 18,000 have actually been put to economic use. That shows a lack of interest, since the program has over 200 million hectares available.

Perhaps to reignite public interest, and to open up land closer to the European part of the country, the program now also offers land in the Far North, including Arkhangelsk Oblast, Murmansk Oblast, and Karelia. On the one hand, these are regions that are more frequently visited from Russia’s biggest population centers. On the other, there is a reason these lands are being abandoned by people that are already there. Just a brief look at real estate websites is enough to find a 12-hectare (30-acre) lot for sale in the Komi Republic (one of the participating regions) for less than $2,000. As one sarcastic commenter succinctly put it on the Arkhangelsk website 29.ru: “I’ve always dreamed of a hectare on permafrost.”

Clearly, free land surrounded by empty villages, snow (for nine months a year), mosquitoes (the other three months), a lack of roads, healthcare, and electricity may not be all that enticing to most folk. Unless you’re a hermit seeking solitude, rather than a young entrepreneur hoping for a return on your investment of time and energy.

Repopulating the Arctic has been on the government’s agenda as it seeks to develop the region with infrastructure for pumping oil and mining its natural resources. Websites (such as goarctic.ru) promoting the Arctic to the young and ambitious throw around terms like “neonomadism,” “dieselpunk,” and “real male initiative.”

picking up track in the north
Picking up trash @silentcapenaturepark

Time will tell if Russians will be charmed by the prospect of toiling on Arctic land. The hectare program in the Far East relates its success stories on the Instagram account @1hectare. One family opened a retreat offering dogsledding, another runs a dairy farm, a third is growing strawberries.

A group of environmentalists had even pooled their hectares together to create a cooperative nature reserve. Called Silent Cape (@silentcapenaturepark), this special place is effectively Russia’s first protected area on privately managed land. Volunteers are shuttled to the remote site along the Pacific Ocean to live in an abandoned fisherman’s house as they clean up the beach and build trails and benches. Although no one hopes to turn a profit there, it’s certainly a way to appreciate the beauty of Russia’s fringes and their wilderness.


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