KRUGLIKOVO, Russia -- Mikhail Utrobin waded through ankle-deep mud, corralling his cows with help from a farmhand. The animals, lethargic under the late summer sun, refused to budge. Utrobin slapped and heaved at their massive bodies until they did.
“The first months were the worst,” he said on a recent afternoon, surveying the land on which he had built his business and was now building a new home. “My employees were drinking, my cows were dying, and my neighbors were stealing. But everything works smoothly now.”
Four years ago, Utrobin was a traveling executive for a Russian sportswear chain, living out of a suitcase. Today, he’s a celebrated entrepreneur profiled on state TV and paraded before top government officials, the proud owner of a budding dairy business established on land he acquired free from the Russian state.
The 33-year-old has become a poster child for a project launched by President Vladimir Putin in 2016, under which the state has been giving away land in Russia’s Far East to any citizen willing to take it -- a bid to reverse demographic decline in a resource-rich but sparsely populated region occupying one-third of Russia’s landmass.
"The development of the Far East is Russia's national priority for the 21st century," Putin wrote in an article published after the program’s launch.
But the Far East Hectare program, now in its fourth year, has fallen short of expectations. If the hope was to inspire an eastward migration on par with the westward push ushered in by the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, it instead spurred people like Utrobin, a native of the region, to leave the urban bustle and build a second home.
Since the 16th-century reign of Ivan the Terrible, Russian rulers have sought to settle the Far East, a relentless expansion that accelerated with the eastward spread of the gulag labor-camp system under Josef Stalin. But since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, the region's population has steadily fallen amid an exodus to more hospitable parts of European Russia.
“The Far East is not an easy place to live. It’s wet, there’s little oxygen in the air, and the climate changes dramatically between seasons,” said Sergei Surovtsev, 47, another local homesteader. “But when I come here, I enter a meditative state.”
While few Russians migrate east, Chinese head north. Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District is two-thirds the size of China but has a population of just 6 million; the Chinese provinces across the border, on the other hand, are home to more than 100 million. Chinese workers lease land from Russian landowners, turning tracts that once lay fallow into soybean fields. According to some estimates, 300,000 Chinese citizens have settled in Russia’s Far East.
The Russian state has made 220 million hectares of land available under its program, double the total amount allotted under the Homestead Act. But only around 80,000 Russians have taken advantage. In the Khabarovsk region, seven time zones from Moscow, homesteaders like Utrobin and Surovtsev represent a hardy class known locally as gektarshchiki or hectarites -- men who see themselves as modern-day pioneers following in the footsteps of those who came before.
“Khabarov himself was basically the first ever gektarshchik,” said Surovtsev, referring to Yerofei Khabarov, an explorer who in 1651 built a winter camp in the area where Khabarovsk, the regional capital of 600,000 residents, now stands. “He wanted to get rich and get away from the government.”
Khabarov journeyed across the breadth of today’s Russia from his home in the northwest; Surovtsev reaches his homestead via a 50-kilometer stretch of highway from Khabarovsk. And if the plan was to get away from the government, the perks on offer proved too good. With a grant of 1.5 million rubles ($20,000) from the state, aimed at homesteaders with an actionable plan for developing their land, the barrel-chested ex-serviceman bought 100 beehives and set about making honey.
“I wondered if it’s worth it, since I knew the government will now be observing me, asking questions,” he said. Legally, the state can take back the land if he breaks the rules or strays too far from his original development strategy.
As he spoke, a bee slammed into his temple with a loud buzz, and he grabbed it with his thumb and forefinger and tossed it aside, adding: “If they want to take the land away, they will.”
While the program has failed to lure Russians from the western part of the country, it’s been a godsend for some enterprising locals. When he learned of its launch in 2016, the 33-year-old Utrobin jumped on his bicycle and set off from Khabarovsk to scour the region for the perfect spot. He wanted something picturesque, he said, with access to a road. And he found it on the foothills of the Khekhtsir Mountains just across the Trans-Siberian Railway, which ferries passengers from Moscow to Vladivostok, south of Khabarovsk on the Pacific Coast.
He applied for ownership of five hectares --- one in his own name and one each for his wife, his mother, and his two daughters, then aged 1 and 3. Six months later, with deeds for the land in hand and 1 million rubles ($13,250) in starting capital, he began reinventing himself.
It was a baptism by fire.
A company he contracted to build the farmhouse absconded with his money. A barn went up in flames, incinerating 850,000 rubles ($11,200) worth of equipment. And a married couple he hired to help out rushed him with a chainsaw after he rebuffed their drunken demand for higher pay.
“Alcohol is Russia’s scourge,” he said.
He learned from his mistakes, and while he has yet to turn a profit, his farm -- through a small processing plant in Khabarovsk --- produces 200 liters of milk per day and its own line of organic ice cream. And on his sprawling plot of land, which is partly covered with trees and shrubbery, Utrobin is building a house for his family -- and counting down the days until he can leave the city apartment he rents from his mother-in-law.
Utrobin’s transformation from office clerk to farmer has been chronicled in umpteen laudatory reports on state TV, which uses his story to promote the homestead program.
Last year, at an event with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Utrobin proposed expanding the program. "God willing, the land will be taken by entrepreneurs like you," Mishustin told him, endorsing the idea.
Utrobin laps up the attention and uses it to popularize his business, along with social-media pages where he chronicles its ups and downs. “This program is publicity for the state,” he said of the Far East Hectare project. “But I use the government for publicity, too.”
Adjacent to his 5 hectares are plots of land owned by fellow homesteaders -- none of them strangers to the Far East. But most of them lie abandoned, with only a rickety wooden shed breaking the monotony of the scene. Utrobin admits Russians prefer to go west to Europe than try and conquer marshland in the sprawling east.
“People in our country don’t want to work,” he says.
For Surovtsev, a colonel in the Russian armed forces who spent 18 years training cadets, the Russian state had the right idea with the homestead program, but chose the wrong method of execution.
“The government failed to encourage entrepreneurialism,” he said. He believes that after centuries of empire-building, Russians are doing too little to become masters of the vast expanse at their disposal.
“We have all this land,” he said, sweeping his arm in a wide arc. “We should create a new class of landowners.”