KAMEN-RYBOLOV, Russia >> Standing ankle deep in mud in a swampy grassland more than 4,000 miles from his home, Yuri A. Bugaev surveyed a mosquito-infested wasteland that the Russian government is offering to would-be pioneers under its own modern-day version of the 1862 Homestead Act in the United States.
“This is not really what I had in mind,” said Bugaev, who had traveled across seven time zones from St. Petersburg, Russia, to scout the possibilities for settlers in the country’s sparsely populated Far East, a territory roughly two-thirds the size of the United States.
The nine Far Eastern regions targeted for settlement in the government’s land giveaway, which began on June 1, encompass more than a third of Russia but are home to only 6.1 million people. This is just 4 percent of the country’s population and compares with the 110 million Chinese living across the border in the three provinces that make up Manchuria.
Bugaev is a dedicated, if largely sedentary, Cossack, a centuries-old fraternity of Slavic warriors, freebooters and freedom-loving rebels. A romantic throwback to earlier generations of Cossacks who settled and secured the borders of the Russian empire, he sees getting his Cossack brethren and other Russians to move out east as the only way to keep mostly empty Russian lands safe from China.
For years, he said, he had dreamed of Russia embracing, or rather re-embracing, the pioneer spirit, and he was delighted by the Kremlin’s backing of a program meant to reassert the country’s manifest destiny as a continent-straddling power.
All the same, he conceded that not many Russians living in the European side of Russia, who dream of a house in London or Paris, not a shack in a swamp near China, share his zeal for a new life in wild eastern regions that many associate with labor camps and convicts.
“Most people these days don’t want an adventure,” he said.
The Russian government, however, is intent on proving otherwise and on giving some substance to a command by President Vladimir Putin in 2013 that the development of Siberia and the Far East must be “our national priority for the entire 21st century.”
How to get people to settle in the Far East is a question that has preoccupied and confounded Russian rulers since the establishment of a Russian naval base on the Pacific Ocean at Okhotsk in the 17th century. Cossacks, convicts and desperate peasants have often been the only takers.
In communist times, labor camps, heavy investment in remote industrial sites and the construction of a second railroad across Siberia and the Far East revived the eastward flow of people. But this ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and residents began to drift away. A population of more than 8 million dwindled by about 2 million.
Russia’s Ministry for the Development of the Far East, the agency managing this latest development gambit, cited a survey it commissioned, saying that 20 percent of Russians would be ready to move east if given free land. Younger Russians, the ministry said, were even more enthusiastic, with more than 50 percent expressing an interest in heading east to take advantage of the offer — one free hectare, about 2.5 acres, a person.
But as often happens in Russia, grandiose hopes and plans have run far ahead of the reality on the ground, where bureaucrats, appalling weather and immense distances conspire to smother the Kremlin’s ambitions.
“It is all pie in the sky,” said Vladimir V. Mishchenko, the head of the Khankaisky district, one of nine pilot areas chosen by Moscow to test the free land program. He complained that the whole thing had been dreamed up by people in Moscow who had no understanding of the Far East but needed to show the Kremlin that they were doing something.
For the moment, the free land is restricted to small areas, like the Khankaisky area around Kamen-Rybolov, an isolated settlement north of Vladivostok, and is open only to Russians already living in the Far East.
Starting in February, however, all Russian citizens can apply, and Bugaev wants to make sure he is ready to “help save Russia.”
At the start of his scouting mission, after a nine-hour flight to Vladivostok from Moscow, he found his hotel packed with Chinese, mostly tourists. Donning his Cossack fur hat, he declared his mission even more urgent than he had thought.
He set off the next day for Kamen-Rybolov to inspect the land on offer, driving for hours in torrential rain through sodden taiga and mostly empty villages.
Undaunted, he said he thought there were enough hardy souls ready to join his organization, the Far Eastern Hectare Social Movement, a private outfit in St. Petersburg to drum up interest in the free land program and to organize new settlements.
Its website explains that it is possible to be a pioneer without even leaving home, at least to start with. People can simply apply for free land and pool what they get so a larger plot can be developed by a few adventurous souls.
If this works, those who contribute land but stay behind in St. Petersburg can move east later, after most of the hard work is done.
“Virtually nobody wants to come out here right now,” Bugaev conceded, complaining that the available plots — 100 square yards a person — cannot possibly support sustainable agriculture or any other business venture.
The Russian plan has been derided as a dreamy patriotic stunt cooked up by Kremlin image makers or a scam that will end up enriching officials, who have the right to take back the land after five years if they decide development targets have not been met.
The Kremlin, however, has thrown its weight behind the program, set in motion this summer with a blitz of publicity on state news media presenting the Far East as an El Dorado of opportunity, and the start of a government website that allows citizens to view plots of land and make online applications.
The official website went down as soon as it was unveiled, a mishap that Aleksei A. Navalny, the renowned anti-corruption campaigner, said was probably a deliberate malfunction engineered by officials so they could grab the best land for themselves.
Navalny, in a report last month, noted that coveted plots on the shore of a picturesque lake outside Kamen-Rybolov had been snapped up by the time the website started working again. Yan P. Ovodenko, a local official, denied that the lakeside plots had all been taken.
A more serious blow to Bugaev’s hopes was delivered by Mishchenko, the district head. While the area might look empty, he explained, nearly all the land is already owned or at least claimed by somebody. And even if Bugaev were to get allotted land, developing it would require cooperation from 22 government agencies responsible for enforcing a thicket of rules and regulations.
“The water code, you have to abide by it; town planning code, you have to abide by it; land code, you have to abide by it; border area rules, you have to abide by them; prescriptions of the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance, you have to abide by them; forest regulation, you have to abide by it,” the district chief said.
Of the 460 people who have applied since June 1, Mishchenko said, 390 have been rejected outright because they failed to provide the necessary information. In all, only four people, all from Vladivostok, have thus far secured plots.
“For any meaningful agriculture, you need 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) to start off,” Mishchenko said. “And those lands don’t exist. They’ve been snapped up a long time ago.”
Undeterred by his initial finding in Khankaisky district, Bugaev pressed on. A Cossack leader in the regional administration in Vladivostok, Oleg Melnikov, assured him that the land giveaway was on track and faced no serious problems.
A local company involved in agriculture also liked Bugaev’s plans for an updated version of collective farming and urged him to focus on trying to find people in St. Petersburg ready to apply for plots of land.
“I think this will all work out,” Bugaev said, warily eyeing Chinese tourists crowded in the lobby of his Vladivostok hotel. “This is not just for adventure but to save Russia.”