Russia’s Amur Region is Changing Rapidly - Huge Influx of Chinese Immigrants and Capital!
And another amazing coincidence that has to do with this date, May 9. Few people know that the first victory on this day took place back in 1858. It all happened in the Far East.
Let's have a closer look. Do you notice anything strange about this church in former stanitsa Ust-Zeiskaya, now Blagoveshchensk on Amur? Look closer. Where else in Russia will you find a flagpole next to the temple? But the thing is that it was on this hill, on May 9, 1858, that in the presence of Count Muravyov-Amurskiy and Archbishop Innokenty Veniaminov a Russian flag was raised to celebrate the agreement with China that returned to the fold of Russia the 580,000 square miles of Outer Manchuria and Primorye that surround this church.
Actually, the Russians had first discovered the great Amur River 200 years earlier. And not just discovered. Soon, they laid the foundation for staging posts and fortresses. Interestingly, Cossacks Vasiliy Poyarkov and Yaroslav Khabarov stressed the land's fertility. Unlike the Siberian North, here you can sow barley and oats, peas and cabbages, turnip and garlic, not to mention the Outer Manchuria special, soy.
But back then, the land remained simply a buffer. Later, though, as is often the case in Russian history, that changed because of Crimea. At first glance, Crimea and Outer Manchuria seem to be at the opposite ends of the Russian Empire. Let's see. That's Crimea, and this is Outer Manchuria. But when during the Crimean War, an English-French squadron loomed over Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, Amur appeared to be the artery — here it is — that could be used to transport reinforcements from the country's interior through the then neutral territory — here it's crosshatched. Ever since then, Primorye and Outer Manchuria have been the meeting point of Russia and China. An important stronghold, the area where Zeya empties into Amur is where Blagoveshchensk sits opposite the Chinese city Heihe.
But it wasn't just the memorable date that made us travel to Outer Manchuria. First of all, the true situation at the Russia-China border is of high relevance as already in early June, Chairman of China Xi Jinping will be the main guest at the St Petersburg Economic Forum, and a lot of new things are taking place at the border. And that's on top of what was said earlier about the US-Russia and Russia-China talks that will take place in Sochi next week.
Second of all, this month marks exactly one year since the president nominated Vasiliy Orlov, then 43, for the governor of Amur Oblast. His personality is the key here. He actually majored in Chinese studies, and, unlike the people from the similar stories we've aired recently from Kalmykia, Murmansk, St Petersburg, and so on — well, you've seen them — Orlov has already been elected governor of the region — and what region that is! Orlov's childhood took place in those memorable years when the Baikal-Amur Mainline, the BAM, was being built across, among others, Amur Oblast. Sure, in the late Soviet times, it was presented as a shock construction project of Komsomol youth, as if the BAM's construction wasn't started by GULAG prisoners and as if there were no railway troops. But the fact remains: at the time, the construction was booming, and then booming was China.
How to breathe new life into a region whose coat of arms shows the bends of Amur and the green that represents the land's fertility? One year is not a long time, but still. What changes can be seen in the region which, after socialism collapsed and the troops withdrew from the once tumultuous border, had lost almost one-fifth of its population?
Here's our story from Amur Oblast.
The retirees of Blagoveshchensk got the idea for group fitness dancing from China. A great neighbor moved into our building. The Chinese are indeed their neighbors.
"If you're nice and smiley to them, they respond the same way".
Yet here are the border pillars. Just 30 years ago, this was a fortified district.
Vasily Orlov, Governor of Amur Oblast: This is a border pillar.
- A real one? Numbered?
- Of course.
Just several more yards, and here's Amur.
- That's already China?
- That's China. The city of Heihe. It translates as the Black River.
- And that's a Russian name.
- Yes, they don't have issues with Russian words. Yuan Dun means the Far East.
- That's some kind of shopping mall?
How and what is being traded?
- What is Chinese for Blagoveshchensk?
- The short version is Pu Shi, -and the full name is Blagoveshchenseke.
This is where you can find the Amur honey that President Putin and Chairman Xi bought recently during the Eastern Economic Forum. Remember?
"Here's that famous honey. It's creamed honey: whipped honey with berries".
The Chinese were so impressed with that scene that the sales of Amur honey soared by 80%. Even beekeepers had to learn a little marketing. Here's what they tell to the Chinese.
Vadim Sukhorukikh, Beekeeper: "The healthiest honey is made from the forbs, such as bush clovers, wild garlic, burnet, borage, and globe thistles".
The Chinese love it.
"Here we have three shipments, three contracts. Part of it will go to Shanghai. This will go all around China".
But how is it gonna reach China? To this day, Blagoveshchensk and Heihe are connected only by these tiny hovercraft, since there's no bridge.
"We're hoping it will get open in a year, a year and a half, and then we won't have any pauses in our trade transport communication. Right now we're waiting for the river crossing to open, which will happen only in a week, and only then we'll be able to send the shipment. This pause lasted for one month".
The new beautiful bridge between Russia and China, currently under construction, appears before us during the second wave of ice drift. The bridge will be in operation when no vessel is able to cross Amur. The most difficult work is on the Russian side. The geological conditions are more complicated, and it's 70% of the bridge's length.
- It's an important point. I have some colleagues who are quick to say, "The Chinese have built everything, and the Russians are lagging behind." No!
We ask the governor what's gonna be transported via this bridge. As always, everything from China and raw materials from Russia? The governor invites us backstage, so to speak: to the fields currently being sowed with soy.
- I've managed to catch some. So this is the future soy. Is it genetically modified?
Vasily Orlov, Governor of Amur Oblast: Of course, not. Our soy is clean. We don't have genetically modified soy.
This Russian soy is in high demand in China. The people of Amur Oblast have also started to process it.
Stepan Inyutochkin, CEO of Soya Ank Processing: "This 1.3-gallon packaging was designed specifically for the Chinese market, because the rate of oil consumption, especially of soy oil, in China is much higher than in Russia".
In recent years, the share of agricultural products in the Amur Oblast's exports to China grew from 2% to 30%. The challenge now is increasing the production of soy without using GMO, and this is where the Amur people learned to be hard negotiators.
- I've been to the Far East before, so I don't have that stereotype, but many people in European Russia do have it: people think that from the moment you land in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, or Blagoveshchensk, you are surrounded by seas of Chinese people. But the reality is different, as I saw it once again. I saw many things in Blagoveshchensk: attractions, businesses, people. — But I didn't see any Chinese.
Vasily Orlov, Governor of Amur Oblast: That is true.
- But it would actually be good to have more Chinese.
- We have a great partnership with China. Objectively. We're at the peak of our international relations with China. This potential should be used. In certain sectors of the economy, when we talk about using foreign labor, obviously, for us, it's mostly Chinese labor due to our proximity to that country. But for example, in gold mining, we do not allow foreign workers, including Chinese workers.
- Why is that?
- Because the risks there outweigh the possible profit. It's serious environmental damage, as they don't really abide by our environmental law, which does not sit well with the local people."
- It annoys them.
- That's not good. We're trying not to let them into agriculture, for the very same reasons. We try to use local people wherever we can.
- Right, everyone knows that the Chinese have a peculiar attitude toward fertilizers.
Who are they, the ordinary Amurians? This is a district seat Ivanovka. This is a monument to those killed by the Japanese invaders who, during the Civil War, wanted to capture both the Chinese Manchuria and Russian Priamurye. Here, in Ivanovka, back in the Soviet times, a really nice initiative sprang up. This park with ponds and lotuses has been painstakingly made from a former swamp. Now there are plans to add a boat rental.
Alexandr Titarenko, Ivanovka's Initiative Group Leader: Just imagine. People are rowing their boats. We'd make a floating garden, like in Vietnam, shaped like the continents of Earth. So apart from just racing each other, people could row around continents. I'm a geographer.
- I can tell. You must be a geography teacher?
- I am. We're already collecting bottles with the kids. So this year we're gonna try to do the contours of Amur Oblast and plant the surface with aquatic plants. As an experiment.
An Amurian himself, the new governor decided to give this kind of projects one million rubles from the regional budget.
Vasily Orlov, Governor of Amur Oblast: Last year we've allocated four million, so four municipalities got one million each.
- You're not scared to give power to the people?
- This year, we're planning to give away 80 million.
But where would the extra money come from? Any governor would have to do the numbers. For example, a lot of new things are appearing in Amur Oblast. This is the new Vostochny Cosmodrome. And to serve the Power of Siberia pipeline, a brand-new gas processing plant is being built for exports to China. As a result, in the last year, the salaries in Amur Oblast grew not by 7%, as in the rest of the country, but by a whopping 12%. On the one hand, that means additional tax revenue and a chance to implement new projects.
- When are you gonna build the cable car?
Vasily Orlov, Governor of Amur Oblast:
- We're planning to start this year and finish by the end of 2021.
Two concepts have been suggested. In both of them, the half a mile across Amur with no supports is covered in three minutes. Hopefully, that won't overwhelm the border guards, as there's a lot to gain.
Vasily Orlov, Governor of Amur Oblast: Today, out of approximately 2,5 million Chinese tourists that come to Heihe, only about 100,000 people manage to get to our side, to Blagoveshchensk. I think this place should be an advanced development territory, and the Chinese territory before the bridge should have the same regime, so that the investors would feel comfortable on both sides.
- So in terms of promoting business, there are things for the lawmakers to do.
- By all means. I think this is the case where a creative approach to lawmaking is needed. A more liberal approach.
- Can you do it or are we talking federal legislation?
- Federal, but we get a lot of help from the Ministry for the Development of the Far East. Those are people who come from the Far East, so they understand the specifics. For example, the bridge we saw today had been suggested in the late 1980s. But for a long time, it was kept on the back burner -for security reasons.
- Border area and everything?
- Yes. But eventually, after the president, in the wake of the 2014 events, went to China and set in motion several important projects, such as the gas project, the Power of Siberia, the construction of the bridge began.
But on the other hand, such progress creates unexpected challenges. The salaries are growing at new workplaces. So what's going to happen to conventional industries?
This is a children's hospital, as you've probably guessed. But one step at a time.
- Did you like the doctor? Were you scared or curious?
- Were you scared or curious?
The parents are definitely not scared anymore.
Andrey Subbotin, Amur Oblast's Minister of Health: “In 2018 in Blagoveshchensk, we had 25 new primary care pediatricians. That's unprecedented.”
In this "thrifty" clinic, everything is faster and more convenient.
- I don't see any markings on the floor.
Tatiana Kolchina, Chief of Medicine:
- Right, we said no to markings on the floor, because they easily fade away under the shoes. We took the path of least resistance and put the markings outside the rooms.
- Ah, the numbers are turned so you can see them.
- Yes, you can see them on both sides.
- So little by little, you save 10 seconds here, 20 seconds there.
Things get even more obvious on the next floor.
- Where are all the people?
- There they are.
- So very few.
- There's a check-up underway, that's why there are more people. And this is where our primary care doctors are.
- Such an obvious contrast.
Vasily Orlov, Governor of Amur Oblast: The point of the "thrifty" clinic is to avoid queues, to attend to the patients as fast as possible.
- Here they can play, watch cartoons.
- So this clinic is already made from A to Z, right? How many more are on the way?
Andrey Subbotin, Amur Oblast's Minister of Health:
- Three. We're currently working on a dental clinic.
Vasily Orlov, Governor of Amur Oblast: When is it gonna be ready?
- It's gonna be ready in September.
So what is the challenge then?
- According to the May decree, how much should the doctors be paid?
Vasily Orlov, Governor of Amur Oblast: Double the average across the economy.
- And what's the average across the economy here?
- 39,000 ($600)?
Andrey Subbotin: 39,460 rubles ($609).
- So the doctors should be making 80,000 ($1,200), but... How much do you make? If it's not a secret.
Tatiana Kolchina: I'm not a doctor, I'm Deputy Chief of Medicine. So my situation is not…
Andrey Subbotin: Here we also have a paradox. Today, chiefs of medicine earn less than regular doctors.
- So, Tatiana Leonidovna, for you it would be better to change jobs?
- I'd be better off being a regular doctor, not the chief of medicine.
Andrey Subbotin: And all deputies are paid 10% less than the chief of medicine. Another serious issue that we have is the so-called other staff. The other staff makes on average around 30,000 rubles.
- Like the ambulance driver?
- Not only. It's also the chief financial officer, -the head accountant…
Vasily Orlov: People without medical training.
- Lawyers, HR, and so on.
- Janitors, cooks, and such.
- It's a whole system.
- Psychologists, social workers.
- When the head accountant's pay is half that of a doctor's, it's not very good.
The new governors have a lot of problems to look into, but it is clear who and what should get financing.
Alexandr Titarenko: “Most importantly, people have changed. When we just started planting the lotuses, many people were pessimistic. They'd say, "People are gonna pick the flowers and destroy everything." About the swans, they'd say, "People will throw rocks at them." And so on. Nothing like that ever happened. Only once we had a situation. Well, there's always a bad apple. Someone picked three flowers. So I went to the police and wrote a report. Back then Sidorov was the chief of police. He said, "I will find them. I don't want people to spit me in the back." This is for everyone. And we ask people to say, "These are Ivanovka's lotuses. These are Ivanovka's swans." It's easy for me as a teacher to get the idea in their heads. Well, all methods are okay if it's for a good cause.”
As far as China goes, our whole country should learn from the Amurians how to appreciate the proximity of these neighbors.
Vasily Orlov, Governor of Amur Oblast: "This is something that makes us unique, and it should be nurtured".
Vesti on Saturday. Amur Oblast.
This footage was filmed by Pyotr Mamochkin, Pavel Meyer, Ivan Murashov, and Sergey Seleznyov.