In an increasingly globalized world, borderlands provide a very interesting point of investigation of the direction and pace of socio-economic change. This project is comparative ethnographic research of two post-Soviet border zones, Chukotka in the North East and Primore in the southeastern region of Russia. These two regions of the former Soviet Union are of particular interest because the main populations are ethnic minority peoples marginalized both socially and geographically by the majority social and political structure yet in the contemporary geopolitical situation, they occupy the borders with two economic-political super powers, China and the US. As part of his research, the PI will investigate such issues as commodity flow, global mobilities, border space, and informal economies and how these affect local social structures and cultural identities of the people that occupy this porous borderland landscape. Using multiple methodologies: participant observations, archival research, informal interviews and surveys and a Google map-based geo-visualization tool to facilitate an understanding of social pattern in physical space, the project will be able to analyze individual informal networks and community social networks, as well as spatially embedded economic practices, in both border zones in greater depth.

Project Report

The project applied a comparative approach to investigate the flow of commodities and people, economic strategies and spatial practices of inhabitants in two different border regions of the Russian Far East (Primorskii Krai and Chukotka). The Chukotka Autonomous Region (Chukotskii Avtonomnyi Okrug) and the Primore (Primorskii Krai) both frame the eastern part of the Russian Federation; Chukotka delineates its northeastern, the Primore its southeastern border. Despite its different geographic locations and climate both regions share a surprisingly similar historic sequence from a contested frontier during the 19th century, to a closed Soviet border zone, and finally to a transformed post-Soviet borderland. By comparing and juxtaposing commonalities and differences of the two border regions through time, the project explored the longue durée of two Russian borderlands. The central guiding question was hereby how local residents through time have used a borderland as a resource. Formal and informal economic strategies of the inhabitants of these border regions and the spatial dimensions of these practices were the main research focus. Special attention was directed to the interdependence of the formal and informal in the political and economic spheres of the two borderlands. The research results provide answers to problems that increasingly move to the forefront of a globalized world. What new forms of relationships to the state emerge at its borders? How does the grade of border permeability, oscillating between a porous and impervious state, affect these relationships? The research follows the anthropological tradition to study the margins and the marginal. At the same time, it bridges to very current questions of contemporary anthropology by adding to the knowledge of recent investigations into commodity flows, global mobilities, border space, and informal economies. Besides the detailed documentation of local economic networks and strategies in two border zones of the Russian Federation, the key outcome of the research in Primorskii Krai and Chukotka was the identification of comparative anchors that allow for an informed and theoretical sound comparison of the two seemingly disparate border regions: 1. Historic expulsion of foreign traders (economic xenophobia) 2. Continuity and re-emergence of historic bio-resource extractions strategies 3. Informal trade 4. Maritime connections 5. Movements along and across borders 6. Middlemen and brokers 7. Life cycle and chronology of the border 8. Evasive space (state border surveillance vs. local resilience and strategies) A range of actors uses the border as a resource, from small-scale traders to well-connected individuals inside of state institutions. Informality plays, especially in the case study of the Russian-Chinese borderland, hereby a central role, not only as a means to increase profit for individual traders, but rather as a strategy that allows for an easier, further predictable, and more unrestricted way of commodity flows. In absence of trust in state institutions, specifically the customs office, more practical and consequently more reliable solutions are developed. Changing border and customs laws require from traders continuous creative adaptations on the ground. The specific features of the trade evolve out of the necessity to circumvent the border regime and the requirement to organize business ventures outside of formal rules and mechanisms. The project’s pronounced focus on the important role of middlemen and mediators in borderlands provided important insights into the mechanisms and specific character of the links that bridge economic, cultural, and spatial gaps in border zones. Thus, the comparative angle of the project allowed for a preliminary typology of middlemen (facilitators of long-distance networks; facilitators of local networks in a borderland; middlemen with access to administrative and economic resources; and middlemen with access to state border actors) in borderlands with the analytical potential of an application to border zones worldwide. With a focus on these various "trading-scapes" in these borderlands, the analysis underscored the subversive and unintentional consequences of borderlands, and especially showed how people have manipulated and circumvented through time the constructed barriers that result from the territorialization of modern states. Research partnerships between the University of Alaska and Vladivostok’s Far Eastern University and individual community leaders in Chukotka contributed to a trans-Pacific research infrastructure that creates room for an involvement of local students and community members alike. Through geo-spatial mapping and graphical depiction of socio-economic networks the project produced data in a condensed visual form that can be easily exchanged and disseminated on internet-based platforms (GoogleEarth, project website, etc.).

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Polar Programs (PLR)
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Anna Kerttula de Echave
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University of Alaska Fairbanks Campus
United States
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