In English, Siberia is a synonym for frigid desolation. Actually, it’s much the same in Russian as well. And now that Russians are no longer forced to live there, they are emptying the vast spaces of the Russian Far East, which stretches from Lake Baikal to Vladivostok. According to an article by David Blair in the London Telegraph, only 6.7 million people live there – 14% fewer than in the late 1980s. Furthermore, over a third of these live in only nine towns. The countryside is nearly empty. By 2015 there will only be 4.5 million people in the Russian Far East.

However, just over the border in China, there are 100 million people. “This means that Manchuria already has a population density 62 times greater than the Russian Far East,” says Blair. “This vast disparity between the neighbours, unmatched anywhere else in the world, can only grow in the years ahead.”

For the leaders of China, this must be exasperating. Under the steppe, tundra and ice of the Far East lie enormous deposits of large reserves of natural gas, oil, diamonds and gold. Above it are huge forests which could supply timber for China’s economic boom.

“All this amounts to an astonishing combination: a densely packed country trying to keep its economy roaring ahead by laying its hands on natural resources, living alongside a largely empty region with huge mineral wealth and fewer inhabitants year on year.”

Blair says that Russia is in danger of losing control of the Far East an inch at a time. It seems all but inevitable that Chinese labour will seep over the border in a kind of population osmosis. The vast territory could become a source of conflict in the future. But that’s almost inevitable if Russia is depopulating. ~ London Telegraph, July 16

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.