An outspoken critic of Russia’s current president, and of all the Kremlin leaders who came before, Sergei Lunin is an inveterate malcontent. But as Lunin, a penniless 60-year-old, tramps 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.