RUSSIA ACQUIRED its Far East (Dal'nii vostok) the old fashioned way, through war and conquest. The imperialism of the Muscovite state, its Romanov successors and finally Josef Stalin's Red Army fixed the region's current borders with China, Japan and North Korea. The balance of power favored Russia's accumulation of land in these earlier times; its present weakness has cast doubt on its ability to retain all of the territory it now holds. The forces that pushed Russia into the forbidding vastness of what is now its Far East--migration, economic growth and military superiority over weak neighbors--seem poised to reverse course, with potentially disruptive consequences for the entire region.
The Russian Far East is a gaggle of territorial units varying in size and shape.1 A vast expanse of 6.2 million square kilometers three-fourths the size of the "Lower Forty-Eight" U.S. states, the Far East occupies more than a third of Russia's landmass and contains a cornucopia of oil, gas, timber, gold, diamonds, fish, coal and assorted industrial raw materials. Yet no more than 7 percent of Russia's population lives there. Emigration (10 percent of the Russian Far East's population has left since 1991) and a mortality rate that exceeds the birth rate (as is the case in Russia as a whole) ensure that the region's population will dwindle further. The Far East is also isolated from Russia's traditional centers of power in Europe: even its western fringe is more than 5,000 kilometers from Moscow, and its eastern flank, seven time zones away, nudges China, Japan and the Korean peninsula. Since distance dilutes power--the farther a region is from the center, the greater the limits on central control--the Russian Far East is too large to be administered by fiat from a remote capital.