Anthropologist Explores Socioeconomic Change in Far East Russia

Anthropologist Tobias Holzlehner interviews a man in Uelen Russia to understand how residents use borderlands as resources to drive socioeconomic change. All photos: Tobias Holzlehner Cities, towns and villages located near the dividing lines of nations are a complex web of people, politics, cultures, commodities and lives. This unique combination makes the borderlands of the Russian Far East a treasure trove of information for one anthropologist.

Tobias Holzlehner, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, has a keen interest in studying how the people use borderlands as a resource to drive socioeconomic transformation in increasingly globalized economies.

One of his latest projects, Informal Networks and Space at the Margins of the Russian State, is focused on two borderland regions in eastern Russia. The National Science Foundation provides funding for this research.

“The study of borderlands is a topic that evolved maybe 15 or 20 years ago. It’s really closely connected to our attempt to understand an increasingly globalized world where the migration of people or flow of commodities is frequently associated with our borders,” Holzlehner said.

Chukotka and Primore: two different Russian borderlands

Much of Holzlehner’s research focuses on the Chukotka Autonomous Region and Pimorsky Krai, less formally known as Primore. Both regions were severely affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and experienced mass migrations as people left to seek work in larger Russian cities.

Chukotka is a more remote Arctic region in the far northeast corner of Russia. At a local level, many of the 50,000 people who inhabit this region are subsistence hunters and fishermen. Gold mining and oil exploration on the continental shelf also contribute to the national economy.

Primore, to the south, shares its western border with China and is home to roughly two million people. The region has a long maritime history and is still a major shipping port for eastern Russia.

Collapse of the Soviet Union gives rise to research opportunities

Holzlehner first began studying the people, economies and politics of the Russian Far East in 1996, after completing his master’s in anthropology at Germany’s University of Tübingen. His research coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Holzlehner spent three consecutive field seasons studying the people and the politics of archaeology in the 1990s. He began a doctorate program that led to hours of research in open-air markets in regions bordering China. There he observed inter-ethnic interactions and informal and unsanctioned trade in borderlands. He then did postdoctorate research in Chukotka studying the impacts of forced relocations following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“I really tried to combine my year-long exchanges in Chukotka and maritime Primore into one project,” he said. “The obvious thing was that both regions were in borderlands and so I proposed this project to the National Science Foundation doing a comparative study with a focus on how people use borderland regions through time as a resource.”

Breaking barriers

Residents working on a new cabin in Pinakul, a former village site in the Chukotka region.

Collecting data on how people earn a living, move money across borders, and other sensitive subjects requires a great deal of trust between Holzlehner and the people he interviews.

He built this trust through years living and working in these two Russian borderlands. Workers and their families know and respect Holzlehner and are often eager to tell their stories.

“When I first did my field work [in the open air markets], it took me at least a month to make contacts. Day after day, I bought carrots from one of my favorite traders. He finally asked me why I bought all these carrots and we started talking,” Holzlehner recalled with a laugh. “It takes time for people to accept and trust you, especially when you’re working in these gray areas.”

Borderlands as a resource

Sportivnaya market in Vladivostok, a large city in Primorsky Krai, Russia.

During his two- or three-month trips to Chukotka and Primore, Holzlehner interviews subjects and records observations on how people use the regions as a resource.

For example, in Primore, small-scale cross-border traders regularly travel from Russia to China and import most of the commodities for large open-air markets. The shuttle trader system provides various possibilities for the participants who show skillful use of insider knowledge and personal relationships.

In Chukotka, extraordinary resilience, as well as novel strategies of coping with loss and industrial collapse, created new forms of communities, where the re-use and re-settlement of previously abandoned village sites play a paramount role.

Tangible data

Users can delve into Holzlehner’s data via Google Earth to get a better understanding of commodity flow patters and resident migration.

Much like a journalist, Holzlehner starts an interview with a handful of questions and then lets the conversations flow naturally. He’s often surprised at how much information people are willing to share.To protect their privacy, the exact locations and identities of his interview subjects are often changed in published literature.

In addition to collecting interview data on people’s trades and livelihoods, Holzlehner snaps numerous pictures in an effort to help others visualize the flow of commodities and migrating people.

“On my web page, you can download these files and explore certain aspects of the borderlands in a very visual way,” he said. He is using Google Earth as a platform to serve geo-located images and data files to do this.

What’s next?

During his 2012 field season, the project’s inaugural year, Holzlehner spent three months in Primore collecting data. This summer, he’ll return to Chukotka from June to August.

“[With this project] I would like to bring more light in to the shadow of borderland economies because I think these areas have been really underestimated. There are complex and very well functioning mechanisms that regulate the unorthodox aspects of the economy.”

To learn more about Tobias Holzlehner and his research, visit: –Alicia Clarke