The Far East is Russia’s own version of the wild west, where hardened Cossacks in the early 17th century – and young Soviets (and Gulag camp prisoners) in the 20th – came to exploit the region’s untapped natural resources, such as gold in Kolyma, the diamonds of Sakha and oil off Sakhalin. The region was officially just a big chunk of Siberia until the Soviets anointed it a separate administrative entity in the 1920s. Geographers still consider most of the Far East part of Siberia. Yet it has always felt more distant, more challenging, more godforsaken than points west.
Locally, much ado is made of Anton Chekhov’s trip through the Far East to Sakhalin in 1890; of Bolshevik Marshal Vasily Blyukher’s victory in the last major battle of the Russian Civil War at Volochaevka outside Khabarovsk; and of Count Nikolai Muravyov-Amursky, the 19th-century governor of Eastern Siberia who did much to open up the Far East and consolidate Russian control of the left (north) bank of the Amur River. Less is made of the Russo-Japanese War, which humiliated Russia and ended with Japan taking the southern half of Sakhalin Island in 1905; the USSR got it back after WWII.
China and the USSR had their diplomatic bumps too, including an outright battle over an unremarkable river island near Khabarovsk in 1969. In June 2005 Russia and China finally settled a four-decade dispute over their 4300km border by splitting 50-50 the Bolshoy Ussurysky and Tarabarov Islands near the junction of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers, outside Khabarovsk.