across an expanse of pristine snow studded with birch trees 3,500 miles east of Moscow, he rejoices at the prospect of finally finding some satisfaction. “Here I can be my own dictator,” Lunin says, outlining his plans to turn the land, granted to him for free by the Russian state, into a sanctuary from, well, the Russian state.
When President Vladimir Putin began a programme four years ago to hand out plots of land in remote areas of the Russian far east, the idea was to lure young, hardy settlers to the vast and sparsely populated region in a Slavic replay of the 1862 Homestead Act’s promise of 160 acres in the United States.
Instead, at least in this patch of territory near the Chinese border, the Kremlin’s programme got Lunin, a self-declared anarchist – though, he insists, “not an idiot who supports violence” – and lifelong gadfly. Before signing up as a pioneer to develop his plot of empty land, he edited a now-defunct newspaper, Dissident; spent time in a Soviet jail accused of “parasitism”; and did freelance work as a political consultant specialising in making mischief.
That someone like Lunin wanted to join the Kremlin’s settler programme – and has been accepted into it – is a measure of how, in more far-flung corners of Russia, the rigid political barriers that define the with-us-or-against-us politics in Moscow and other cities in the west of the country can quickly dissolve.
Like the American west, the Russian far east has always been a land apart. This is true not only because of its distance from the capital but also because of its self-image as a haven of relative freedom, a place of exile and a magnet for all manner of dissenters, idealists and oddballs.
Playwright Anton Chekhov, writing to his family while travelling in 1890 to the region then only recently fully incorporated into the Russian empire, marvelled at how different the territory was from his home far to the west. “Here people are not afraid to talk loudly,” he wrote. “There is nobody to arrest them here and nowhere to exile them to. You can be as liberal as you like.”
Today, there are plenty of people on hand to make arrests. The one-room apartment in the regional capital of Blagoveshchensk, which Lunin shares with his wife, four cats, three dogs, two mice and a rabbit, sits across the road from a compound of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the post-Soviet incarnation of the KGB.
A big billboard on a nearby highway advertises careers in the border service, a branch of the FSB, offering work along the frontier with China. “The Border – A Territory for Real Men,” promises the FSB’s recruitment pitch. The Russian far east, with its vast open vistas and stunning natural beauty, is still a world away from the cramped spaces and often crimped minds of the west. And it often tolerates and even nurtures ruggedly contrarian, freethinking spirits.
Encouraging such spirits was not Putin’s goal when the Kremlin embarked on its Far Eastern Hectare programme, which offers each taker 2.5 acres. The effort is aimed primarily at rescuing the area from decades of declining population and economic malaise The far east accounts for 41 per cent of Russia’s total territory but has just 6.2 million inhabitants, less than 5 per cent of the country’s population.
More than 78,000 Russians have so far taken up the offer of free land. But many of these are not homesteaders from outside the far east; instead, they are locals, including many officials, who simply want to build a vacation home. Kremlin critics mock the programme as a misguided failure, but Lunin, though “initially very sceptical” and still upset by rules that make it easy for officials to take back the land they grant, has come around to embracing it — despite his lifelong wariness of everything connected to officialdom.
Lunin developed his deep loathing of authority from his childhood, spent on Soviet military bases in Chukotka, the Russian Arctic region next to Alaska, and in Kazakhstan, Latvia, Cuba, East Germany and other outposts of empire, where his stepfather was an army officer. Lunin particularly dislikes a military and security apparatus that he sees as menacingly resurgent under Putin.
But Russia, for all its repression, is so huge, diverse and often dysfunctional that there is still plenty of space for divergent views and live-and-let-live accommodations. Lunin has never voted for Putin and rejects everything he stands for, but he also sees him as “the pure pressed juice” of the ideas and attitudes held by the vast majority of Russians. “He not only represents the people but is the clearest expression of the people,” he says. “Look around – all these people will vote for Putin.”
A recent move by the Kremlin to rewrite the rules so that Putin can crash through constitutional term limits and stay in power through 2036 has only confirmed Lunin’s distaste for what he called “Russia’s repulsive reality”. But Lunin does not have any faith in Russia’s Moscow-based opposition, either, which he says “is just another part of the same system”.
It is this bleak picture that made him want to strike out with his wife, his third, on a patch of undeveloped land surrounded by swamps, frozen in winter and swarming with bugs in summer. There are no neighbours for miles other than a nunnery run by the Russian Orthodox Church But his 7.4-acre property, which includes plots received by his wife, Alyona Lunin, and mother-in-law, has a road nearby and possible access to electricity, unlike most of the land on offer.
“This will be my own little country, and I will be its Putin,” he explains during a recent visit along with his wife to their land.
He quickly adds that his wife has nothing to fear from his planned little despotism “We will be equal, dictators together of our own fate,” he says. “Nobody will suffer from my rule.”
His readiness to join the Kremlin’s land giveaway has caused dismay among some like-minded critics of the Kremlin. Appearing last year on Ekho Moskvy, a radio station popular with Russia’s liberal intelligentsia, he faced repeated questions about how a dogged foe of the authorities like himself could join the settlement project. “I am not supporting Putin’s programme,” he said. “I am using it. I’m doing this for myself.”
Aside from going online to apply for the land and filling in official forms testifying to his readiness to develop it, however, Lunin has so far done very little. He has hammered wooden stakes wrapped with red plastic tags into the frozen ground to mark the boundary of his territory but has done nothing substantial to develop it as required by the programme’s rules.
He planned to start last summer, but with only a tent to shelter in during a long and violent storm, he fell ill and retreated to his rented apartment in Blagoveshchensk, the nearest city. He says he will try again this summer and has grand plans to one day grow his own food, cultivate fruit and vegetables for sale, and build a two-storey wooden house next to a small lake at the property’s edge.
To do this, however, he needs money. With a monthly salary of 7,000 rubles (£71) from his day job in Blagoveshchensk as a technician, Lunin gets by with support from his wife, who has a better-paying job at a medical institute. But even with their combined wages, they still have nowhere near enough cash to buy the equipment and materials needed to develop their land.
Unless he does something soon, authorities can take back his property. To demonstrate that he is making some small progress, Lunin plans to build a small hut once the snow melts this year to shelter in and, he hopes, keep covetous officials away until he can save enough to start building something more permanent. Describing himself as an optimist despite his dyspeptic view of Russia and its leaders, he says he learnt long ago to never lose hope or let officials get him down.
“I was free under Brezhnev and am free under Putin,” he says. “I am free inside.”
The New York Times