stories

Two countries, one island Russia and China divided up an island in the Far East in 2004, and here's how life there has changed

Meduza
Alexander Yanyshev for Meduza

Located near the city of Khabarovsk, at the confluence of the Ussuri and Amur rivers, Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island has long held strategic importance for Russia. In 2004, Moscow reached an agreement with Beijing to share the island (known as Heixiazi Island to the Chinese), dividing it roughly in half. Four years later, the new arrangement was fully in effect, and each country was free to do with its piece of the island what it liked. China transformed its side of the island into a nature reserve, attracting more than 600,000 tourists every year. On the Russian side, there are about 100 people trying to survive in ramshackle homes, and all development plans have failed to secure the necessary funding. Journalist Ekaterina Vasyukova traveled to Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island to learn more about life in a land shared with China.

Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island on the Amur river is essentially part of Khabarovsk and the Khabarovsk region. Once upon a time, it was home to houses, summer cottages, and agricultural and ship-repair enterprises. Russia and China quarreled over Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island for more than 150 years, after drawing the border along the Amur river. (The river itself belonged to neither country, and the status of its islands remained undetermined.)

In 1929, the USSR took complete control of the island, formally putting the territory “under protective custody.” During the Second World War, Japanese troops occupied the island, but the Soviet Union later reclaimed it. In 1964, the Chinese government launched negotiations to regain the territory, and these talks only concluded in 2004, when Russia signed an agreement handing over 170 of the island’s 350 square kilometers (65 of 135 square miles). The deal entered force a year later, and the border was fully in place by October 2008. From that moment, Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island has been divided into two parts: one Chinese and the other Russian.

In Khabarovsk, locals often call their side of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island “the Left Bank.” One of the settlements on the island is basically a continuation of the mainland town of Bychikha. A second community is called simply “Ussuriysky” (it was known as Chumka until 1955); it sprung up around a salvage depot operated by the Amur River Shipping Company. The island is also home to many summer cottages.

The fastest way to get to the Russian side of the island is a ferry boat that takes about 15 to 20 minutes. It runs from the Khabarovsk shore to the island and back, from April to late October. You need to plan the trip in advance: the boat only makes three round trips a day, and it doesn’t operate at all on Mondays and Thursdays.

The Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island pier
The Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island pier
Alexander Yanyshev for Meduza

In 2013, the authorities finally erected a bridge connecting a Khabarovsk suburb to Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island. Leaving from the center of the city, factoring in the usual traffic, it can take about an hour or two to reach the island. When you finally arrive, however, there are no paved roads: they built the bridge, but they didn’t lay any asphalt. Instead, you come to an embankment that’s too treacherous for some vehicles. In the summer and fall of 2013, moreover, Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island was hit with torrential downpours that caused serious flooding on both the Russian and Chinese sides of the island, washing away roads and damaging buildings.

On the Chinese side, there are tourist boats and road and rail service from the town of Fuyuan, which is home to about 30,000 people. Nearly every 15 minutes, another tourist bus leaves the town and drives to the island over a bridge built in 2012. For the first several years, these trips were free for Fuyuan locals, most of whom work in trade. Traveling by boat along the river, it takes about an hour to get from Khabarovsk to Fuyuan, where private entrepreneurs arriving since the 1990s make up a small Russian diaspora.

The woman living on the balcony

It’s late October, just a few days before the ferry-boat season ends. There are five passengers today — pensioners carrying backpacks, bags, and baskets — waiting for the boat, headed to the island to collect the last remaining crops at their “Left Bank” dachas.

Lyubov Suslova, one of the roughly 100 people living on the Russian side of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island
Lyubov Suslova, one of the roughly 100 people living on the Russian side of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island
Alexander Yanyshev for Meduza
Lyubov Suslova’s apartment. To the right, the balcony, where she lives during the warmer seasons.
Lyubov Suslova’s apartment. To the right, the balcony, where she lives during the warmer seasons.
Alexander Yanyshev for Meduza
“Building condemned since 2013”
“Building condemned since 2013”
Alexander Yanyshev for Meduza

In less than half an hour, everyone marched down the gangway onto the shore of the island, stepping onto a narrow wooden footpath. The first snow of the season powdered the sand, and tall dried grass waved in the wind. Beyond the beach, there were crooked black fences, overgrown yards, and abandoned homes. “There used to be a vegetable store here,” a local woman explained. “And there was once a bakery here — they used to come from the city [from the mainland] for the bread. And there was a public health center here, like a clinic, but it’s gone now. And you see these ruins here? This was a wooden schoolhouse.”

Wearing a pink headscarf and a green camouflage jacket several sizes too big for her, Lyubov Suslova steps off the ferry, as well. She was born and raised on the island, and worked as a teacher here for 40 years. She’s retired now, but she has no plans to abandon her home.

“First snow. It’s about time I get myself moved from the balcony to the bathhouse,” she says, describing her living conditions on the island.

It wasn’t the 2013 floods that forced Suslova onto her balcony, but the botched response. The authorities wanted to tear down her apartment building, and a demolition crew managed to remove most of the roof, but the work came to a halt in the winter. In the spring, however, melting snow flooded Suslova’s apartment and rendered it totally uninhabitable. Today, the whole interior is covered in black rot.

After the flooding, an expert commission determined that 11 homes in the Ussuriysky settlement — both brick and wooden two-story structures — were still partially habitable, warning that the buildings’ foundations needed to be monitored. The floodwaters eventually receded from the damaged apartments, however, and the residents still on the island then dried out everything from the roofs to the basements. Afterwards, many locals moved to Khabarovsk and received housing, but roughly 100 people decided to stay put.

On November 7, 2014, a demolition crew’s commotion awoke the community. Workers in hard hats told locals that they were under government orders to tear down their homes, showing them a report by experts from Pacific National University stating that the buildings were hazardous. Lyubov Suslova says residents later tracked down one of the experts who supposedly endorsed this report, and he told them that he’d never signed anything. To this day, locals can still only guess why the authorities suddenly decided it was necessary to demolish their community.

The crew managed to tear down nine homes completely, but Lyubov Suslova refused to let them touch her building: she planted herself in front of their bulldozer and didn’t move.

The following spring, after the district attorney got involved, officials opened a criminal case against the bulldozer operator who demolished the homes in Ussuriysky for a company called “R-Stroi,” which it turned out was hired to complete “restoration work” for a Khabarovsk municipal enterprise that does home repairs. The bulldozer operator was later amnestied and avoided criminal penalties.

Lyubov Suslova’s winter housing is located just a hop and a skip from her apartment balcony. In the courtyard of a crumbling, abandoned wooden home, there’s a tiny extension that once served as someone’s bathhouse. Behind the padlocked door, a changing room serves simultaneously as Suslova’s kitchen and entrance-way. She doesn’t have much. There’s a teapot, a single-burner hot plate, a dim lamp, and some bedding spread out over the sauna bench, where she sleeps.

Suslova says the 2014-2015 winter was harder on the island’s remaining residents than the year before. After the demolition of several apartment buildings, marauders started showing up, probably “from the mainland,” locals believe.

“Our barns and homes were repeatedly set on fire that winter. We don’t have a precinct of our own — no police — and it’s hard to get here in the winter, so you do what you want. Once we caught one of the arsonists, and he told us that he’d supposedly been paid by someone from City Hall to do this ‘job’ and take the blame himself. The police even opened a case at the time, but then he was released right there in court, under the amnesty,” recalls Suslova.

Other people on the island have managed to keep their homes in good order. The house that stands out most is probably a two-story building with its own flower garden and farm. Surrounded by a sturdy fence, it belongs to the Adelbaev family, who came from Yakutia and settled here about seven years ago.

Valentina Adelbaeva shows a photograph of Vladimir Putin, who was once a guest at her home
Valentina Adelbaeva shows a photograph of Vladimir Putin, who was once a guest at her home
Alexander Yanyshev for Meduza

“We sold our apartment in Yakutia and brought the building materials here. And after the flooding, it turned out that we needed to do construction all over again,” says Valentina Adelbaeva. “After the floods, Putin came here with [Far Eastern Federal District presidential envoy Yuri] Trutnev and [former Khabarovsk Governor Vyacheslav] Shport, and we drank tea with them. At one point, the president turns to us and says, ‘Will a million [rubles] be enough for the repairs?’ My husband and I were shocked, of course, and we told him yes! That would be enough! Then Putin looks at his envoy and at the governor and says, ‘If it’s not enough, add some more.’ Except I don’t know how many years have passed and we never saw any million. And nobody has ‘added’ anything, either. They say, ‘Putin made the promise. Go and ask him.’”

People living on Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island have little reason to put their hopes in Khabarovsk’s city officials. Mayor Sergey Kravchuk says everyone entitled to state assistance after the floods has already received it, and the “10 to 12 people” still living on the island are “neither here nor there.” He’s even called these residents “scroungers who want to live on the government dole.”

The park, pagoda, and garden

The Chinese call their side of the island Heixiazi (Black Bear Island), and since 2008 they’ve developed it into what is basically a nature reserve. Russian tourists, as it happens, enjoy only limited access to the territory. Travel vouchers are available only in Fuyuan, and vendors frequently refuse to sell tickets to Russian tourists, says Alexander Leonkin, a member of the Russian Geographical Society and a writer in Khabarovsk.

Leonkin took an interest in the history of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island in 2004, when the agreement was signed to hand over half the land to China. In 2008, he found an apartment on the island where he could watch developments on the Chinese side.

Leonkin didn’t visit the Chinese side of the island until 2014. The first thing the Chinese established after the deal with Moscow was a wetland park, which is essentially a two-kilometer (1.2-mile) wooden walkway, raised over mud and water, snaking through whole lotus plantations. The area is full of birds. According to Leonkin, there are literally birds “swarming your head” on the Chinese side of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island, totally unafraid of people, he says. This park takes up about 75 percent of “Heixiazi Island.” It suffered worst of all in the 2013 floods, but it was restored almost completely within a year.

Tourists at the wetland park on China’s side of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island, July 2011
Tourists at the wetland park on China’s side of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island, July 2011
Wang Jianwei / Xinhua / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

The Chinese media describes Heixiazi Island as an environmentally pristine haven, promoting it as the country’s most eastern territory with the easternmost nine-story pagoda. (On clear days, the structure is visible from Khabarovsk.) The pagoda is surrounded by 56 traditionally decorated pillars — one for each of the ethnic groups that live in China.

The Chinese authorities have also opened a 17,000-square-meter (4.2-acre) botanical garden on the island, and they’ve nearly finished building an ethnographic park and zoo, which will feature different kinds of bears.

All these facilities comprise a single tourist complex; there’s been almost no residential housing here at all. The Chinese media’s message here is clear: Heixiazi Island’s habitat must remain undisturbed. The only people permanently residing on China’s side of the island are members of the Hezhe ethnic minority (a community closely related to the Nanai people). Heixiazi Island is hardly a lonely place, however. More than 600,000 tourists from mainland China visited the territory in 2016, and crowds are growing by 20-25 percent every year.

A territory with enormous investment potential

Since the mid-2000s, there have been at least a dozen different proposals to develop Russia’s side of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island.

In 2006, the St. Petersburg Urban Studies Institute proposed adjustments to Khabarovsk’s site plan that would have brought serious urban construction to the island. The project called for the construction of several bridges, in order to open up “bright prospects” for city planners, as well as road and rail routes all the way to the border with China. These suggestions are included in Khabarovsk’s current site plan, and they even call for roughly a dozen schools and preschool facilities on the island. So far, however, nobody has found a way to pay for this development.

In 2010, following a meeting between the prime ministers of Russia and China, Moscow and Beijing agreed to a protocol affirming that the two countries were “prepared to develop Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island jointly.” The idea was to make the island into a resort area that would attract paying tourists from Asian countries. Regional officials approved a document formalizing this concept on December 31, 2010, but nothing ever came of it.

Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island during flooding, August 2013
Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island during flooding, August 2013
Vitaly Ankov / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

In 2011, regional officials in Khabarovsk announced that they expected foreign (namely Chinese) investment for a development project that would bring an international tourist complex with hotels and cultural, logistics, and business centers to the island. The Chinese media wrote that the island would become a “symbol of neighborliness and cooperation” between the two countries. Russia also vowed to invest 19.3 billion rubles (roughly $630 million, at the time), but it never found the investors.

Alexander Galushka, then the deputy development minister in Russia’s Far East, said in 2016 that flooding in 2013 derailed all these investment plans.

In 2014, there was talk of resettling refugees from eastern Ukraine on Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island, as well as a public discussion about building a tourist center and even an entire hippodrome.

A year later, the Russian authorities cooked up another plan that would have built docking piers for cruise ships over the next three years. According to a federal earmarked program for developing domestic and foreign tourism, cruise ships would have sailed north on the Amur river, all the way to the Shantar Islands off the northwestern shore of the Sea of Okhotsk. Except it later turned out that regional officials lacked the authority needed to organize all the necessary border control points independently. Additionally, the development project would have cost an estimated 37 billion rubles (about $563.2 million), and once again investors were nowhere to be found.

In 2017, it became clear that no tourism would be possible on Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island without a checkpoint at the Chinese border. Irina Serova, then the Khabarovsk region’s acting investment, land, and property policy minister, promised that a border checkpoint was coming. Nevertheless, the only project finished that year on Russia’s side of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island was the creation of a nature reserve for rare Gossamer-winged butterflies.

For four days in October 2018, Khabarovsk hosted the Third Far Eastern Business Forum, where entrepreneurs argued that all previous development plans for Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island are now hopelessly outdated, in light of Russia’s dramatically changed economic situation over the past eight years.

Alexander Yanyshev for Meduza
Alexander Yanyshev for Meduza
Alexander Yanyshev for Meduza

At the forum, entrepreneurs and ordinary business enthusiasts dreamed big, envisioning the creation of a new system called “Smart Khabarovsk.” Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island would get a major role in this plan, becoming the single most developed and high-tech place in the country. Now a special economic zone, the island would be home to high-tech industries, robotics and biotech developers and manufacturers, and a stock and commodity exchange for the entire Russian Far East. Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island would get roads that would clear themselves of snow and recharge electric cars. Vertical farms would carpet the land, and one entrepreneur even fantasized about “quadcopter drones flying together in rows.” All this, the forum’s participants were sure, would attract Russians from across the country to Khabarovsk.

But not a single speaker at the forum could say when the Russian side of the island will get a border checkpoint with China. Yuri Chaika, the region’s current investment, land, and property minister (and not Russia’s long-time attorney general), evaded the one question he got about this issue.

Almost immediately after his inauguration earlier this fall, Khabarovsk’s new governor, Sergey Furgal, ordered the restoration of the “Zarya” collective farm on Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island, which went bankrupt in 2014. Livestock, he says, should be a priority.

Story by Ekaterina Vasyukova, reporting from Khabarovsk. Translation by Kevin Rothrock.