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Bugaev surveyed a mosquito-infested wasteland that the Russian government is offering to would-be pioneers under its own modern-day version of the Homestead Act in the United States. Bugaev is a dedicated, if largely sedentary, Cossack, a centuries-old fraternity of Slavic warriors, freebooters and freedom-loving rebels. A romantic throwback to earlier generations of Cossacks who settled and secured the borders of the Russian empire, he sees getting his Cossack brethren and other Russians to move out east as the only way to keep mostly empty Russian lands safe from China. All the same, he conceded that not many Russians living in the European side of Russia, who dream of a house in London or Paris, not a shack in a swamp near China, share his zeal for a new life in wild eastern regions that many associate with labor camps and convicts.

How to get people to settle in the Far East is a question that has preoccupied and confounded Russian rulers since the establishment of a Russian naval base on the Pacific Ocean at Okhotsk in the 17th century. Cossacks, convicts and desperate peasants have often been the only takers.

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In communist times, labor camps, heavy investment in remote industrial sites and the construction of a second railroad across Siberia and the Far East revived the eastward flow of people. But this ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union inand residents began to drift away. A population of more than 8 million dwindled by about 2 million. Younger Russians, the ministry said, were even more enthusiastic, with more than 50 percent expressing an interest in heading east to take advantage of the offer — one free hectare, about 2.

Mishchenko, the head of the Khankaisky district, one of nine pilot areas chosen by Moscow to test the free land program.

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He complained that the whole thing had been dreamed up by people in Moscow who had no understanding of the Far East but needed to show the Kremlin that they were doing something. For the moment, the free land is restricted to small areas, like the Khankaisky area around Kamen-Rybolov, an isolated settlement north of Vladivostok, and is open only to Russians already living in the Far East. At the start of his scouting mission, after a nine-hour flight to Vladivostok from Moscow, he found his hotel packed with Chinese, mostly tourists.

Donning his Cossack fur hat, he declared his mission even more urgent than he had thought. He set off the next day for Kamen-Rybolov to inspect the land on offer, driving for hours in torrential rain through sodden taiga and mostly empty villages. Undaunted, he said he thought there were enough hardy souls ready to his organization, the Far Eastern Hectare Social Movement, a private outfit in St. Petersburg to drum up interest in the free land program and to organize new settlements.

Its website explains that it is possible to be a pioneer without even leaving home, at least to start with. People can simply apply for free land and pool what they get so a larger plot can be developed by a few adventurous souls.

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If this works, those who contribute land but stay behind in St. Petersburg can move east later, after most of the hard work is done. American pioneers got more than 60 times that amount — acres — under the Homestead Act. The Russian plan has been derided as a dreamy patriotic stunt cooked up by Kremlin image makers or a scam that will end up enriching officials, who have the right to take back the land after five years if they decide development targets have not been met.

Of the people who have applied since June 1, Mishchenko said, have been rejected outright because they failed to provide the necessary information. In all, only four people, all from Vladivostok, have thus far secured plots. Undeterred by his initial finding in Khankaisky district, Bugaev pressed on.

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A Cossack leader in the regional administration in Vladivostok, Oleg Melnikov, assured him that the land giveaway was on track and faced no serious problems. Petersburg ready to apply for plots of land. More in World News.

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