François Artusse, Udege people Russia – man with a t
Yura Kanchuga on his snowmobile. All photos by the author.

Photos of People Living at the Furthest Reaches of Far Eastern Russia

With only 1,600 members, the Indigenous Udege community is struggling to preserve its culture in a society where it feels abandoned.

This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

It’s late afternoon on a February day in 2022 when I finally set foot in Krasny Yar, a village in the ​​Primorsky Krai region of far eastern Russia. And when I say far eastern, I really mean it: The area is basically opposite Japan’s Hokkaido island, just above North Korea and next to eastern China. 

It took nine hours to get here on a train from Vladivostok, the region’s capital, to Luchegorsk, the nearest city located about 150 km away; and then three more on a bus through local villages, together with only two other passengers. When we arrived, the other two men were whisked away by their awaiting loved ones. As for me, I was told by my guide, Yura Kanchuga, to find him at the “house after the bridge”.


The driver quickly realises I’m a foreigner and asks who I’m meeting. When I mention Kanchuga, he whips out his phone and calls him. Two minutes later, Kanchuga arrives, dressed in a thick brown coat, snow boots and a fur hat. “Welcome to Krasny Yar,” he says, before we hop on board his snowmobile and speed away under a clear blue-violet sky.

François Artusse, Udege people Russia – Photo of a group of snow-covered, slightly disheveled houses made of wood.

As I arrive at the village, the sun sets and the temperatures fall sharply to about -15 degrees.

Kanchuga, 30, is a member of the Udege people, an Indigenous community from the Primorsky Krai and Khabarovsk Krai regions, both in this part of Russia. Behind his initially deadpan expression is a quite fun-loving man, curious to learn more about me and trying his best to put me at ease. 

After a short stint at art school, Kanchuga came back to his native town to practise the traditional art form of bone carving. Since he speaks English, he’s often an unofficial guide and point of reference for tourists and other foreigners in the region. His wooden house is similar to many others in the village, very comfortable and welcoming. He lives just down the street from his parents. That evening, we have dinner with them, and chat about our respective cultures in front of a steamy plate of beef ravioli and a few glasses of vodka.

François Artusse, Udege people Russia – man kneeling on the ground next to a doghouse covered in snow, holding a husky puppy while his mother sniffs him.

Just like other tribes living in sub-artic territories, the Udege have formed a close working relationship with husky dogs.

When we’d arrived at Kanchuga’s parents, his little sister Valeria, 11, had rushed towards me, even though she’s generally quite shy. She’d asked her brother if I could teach her some English and directed me to a whiteboard in her bedroom with a Russian sentence written on it. After some help from Google Translate, I’d figured out she was offering an exchange: I'd teach her English and she’d teach me Russian.


Valeria tells me she wants to become a doctor when she grows up. To do that, she’ll have to leave her village and maybe even her country behind, like her big sister who is living in Shanghai.

François Artusse, Udege people Russia – young girl with long braided hair writing the Russian translation for the English sentence "Would you like to be a pop star?" underneath it.

Valeria Kanchuga writing on her whiteboard.

Kanchuga is one of the few people in the younger generations who’s decided to stay behind in Krasny Yar. “I am surrounded by incredible nature,” he says. “Many of my school friends left years ago to pursue their careers. Even if this threatens our culture, I understand them. There aren’t many opportunities for young adults around here.”

The Udege are one of around 40 Indigenous communities officially recognised by Russia out of the over 100 ethnic groups living in the country. Most of these communities are concentrated in Siberia and in the far eastern regions, which correspond to about a third of the Russian territory. Just like other groups, the Udege are a disappearing people, with 1,600 members spread across Russia, China, the U.S. and Ukraine. Krasny Yar is their main settlement, with 500 inhabitants.

Descendants of ancient nomadic and semi-nomadic communities, the Udege established encampments along the banks of the Bikin river, in the vast taiga forests they call home. The groups used to move along the river according to seasonal hunting patterns. But “In early Soviet times, we rediscovered a new society based on the unity of all our local communities,” Kanchuga tells me. “In just a few years, our people settled, began building homes and learning Russian.”


The fall of the Soviet Union marked a period of decline for these far eastern communities as well. “The USSR was great for us, we were prosperous and had many opportunities,” says Vladimir Ignatev, 73, a woodworker in Krasny Yar. 

François Artusse, Udege people Russia – elderly man wearing a thick jumper, snow shoes and pants, standing on top of a Persian-style carpet inside a room with highly decorative wallpaper and several hand carved wooden objects.

Vladimir Ignatev surrounded by his woodwork.

In the 70s, Ignatev was a maths and physics teacher in Luchegorsk, a once bustling coal-mining town, which slumped after the fall of the USSR. In the 1990s, after Luchegorsk had lost economic opportunities and part of its population, Ignatev returned to his native village to become a woodcarver and reconnect with his culture of origin.

Ignatev invites me to his place to show me around his studio, built inside a hut just next to his house. Sat at his kitchen table with a cup of tea prepared with a local herb from his garden, Ignatev tells me more about his craft. “Most sculptures are decorations and lucky charms,” he says. “I also have bigger pieces in my studio that I sell to the people in my village.”

Although Ignatev misses the Soviet days, he’s happy to be able to come back to his hometown to hone a craft related to his identity. “It’s a way to keep our culture alive,” he says. “Today, our president doesn’t care about us, that’s what pushes young people to look for better opportunities outside the village. And I understand them.”

François Artusse, Udege people Russia – living room with highly decorative carpets, wallpaper and sofa covers. In a corner, a small TV is playing footage of Putin

Kanchuga is also keenly aware of the challenges facing young Udeges. When the weather is good, he likes to take the village kids out in nature, where they can put on skis and pick a dog to pull them across the snow.

“The kids love this activity in winter, they have fun while exercising at the same time,” he says. “I also use this time to teach them some words in Udege, because nowadays, they are only taught Russian. Our language is disappearing, and the new generations tend to forget their roots when they grow up. It’s not much, but it reminds them of the language of their ancestors.”

According to a 2010 survey, fewer than 100 people currently speak Udege, which classifies the language as endangered. Kanchuga can’t fully speak it either, but he knows enough to teach the kids the basics. He knows too well that this knowledge won’t be very useful to them, but he wants to preserve the cultural heritage of his people.

As he previously mentioned, Kanchuga makes a living carving bones, another traditional craft of the Ugede people. Hunters bring him pieces of game from which he strips the meat and then boils the bones for several hours. After that, the bones are ready to be sculpted with a variety of tools he keeps in his studio, also a hut just outside his house.

“It’s a difficult job,” Kanchuga says. “It took me six months to sculpt all these signs and illustrations. Now I’m refining them for the exhibition. I want to create a clean, perfect sculpture for the museum to show that the Udege’s work is still remarkable.” Filled with enthusiasm for his craft, Kanchuga walks me through some of the traditional engravings he’s made. “The bear represents the Udege woman, the tiger the man,” he says. “That one is a carving of a tiger’s footprint, which brings luck.”

François Artusse, Udege people Russia – man carving intricate details into deer antlers with a special tool.

Yura Kanchuga at work.

When I ask Kanchuga if I can visit the museum, he pulls out his phone and makes a quick phone call. “We’re going in an hour,” he says, “they’re gonna open it for you.” From the street, the museum doesn’t look any different from the regular wooden houses of the village. Inside, two women welcome us into the building’s two simple rooms. 

The first room displays mostly books, paintings and other paper documents. The second is filled with numerous objects, tools, furs, traditional clothing and a model hut. Polina Suanka, one of the guides, explains to me the function of most of the objects exhibited. “I know our culture is endangered,” she says. “It’s important for us as a museum to maintain as much of our cultural heritage as possible.”

François Artusse, Udege people Russia – Room with wooden floors filled with traditional costums and various decorative objects

The second room in the museum.

As I walk back from the museum, I can’t help but notice a number of freshly-cut tree trunks laying either in front of or behind multiple houses in the village. Sighing, Kanchuga explains that many villagers are cutting down trees in the taiga to sell them to sawmills.

“Over the past 20 years, it’s been a way for us to make money at the expense of our forest,” he says. “Lately, many new industries have come to open up in the region and are trying to profit from our natural resources. It’s not just our culture that’s at risk, it's our whole ecosystem.”


Since the community is so heavily dependent on nature, these deforestation processes have made it increasingly hard for locals to make a living in the region. “People don’t understand that destroying the forest also impacts the local natural habitat and the animals living in it,” he continues. “Hunters have fewer animals to track and need to go on hunts for days at a time.”

But even though the local population contributes to the exploitation of their own lands, most of the damage is done by large companies. According to a 2013 study conducted by a partner of the United Nations Environment Programme, over 60 hectares of forest had been cut down in the region around Vladivostok, far more than the 14 hectares that were authorised by the law. And the phenomenon has only picked up in the past ten years.

François Artusse, Udege people Russia – A pile of logs laying in the snow next to a wood shed.

Many Udege people are opposed to deforestation and are actively fighting for the conservation of their lands. Among them is Galina, Kanchuga’s 55-year-old mother, who is very invested in the community. 

Back in 2016, the Russian government passed a so-called Far-East Hectare law allocating one hectare of territory to any applicants for personal use. The land is easily accessible after a quick online query. Galina chose to take part in the programme a few months ago with the idea of planting new trees on her newly-acquired hectare. Together with her daughter, Valeria, she’s been preparing seeds for the upcoming spring. 


After a week with Kanchuga and his family, and with a plan to stay longer, my trip is suddenly cut short by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and I’m told by the French government to immediately leave the territory.

I still don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go back and see the Kanchuga family again, but over the past year, I’ve been trying my best to stay in touch with them. I hope to be able to continue my trip one day, even though the current conditions are not yet favourable.

Scroll down to see more photos:

François Artusse, Udege people Russia – kitchen table with two stools, covered in mugs of tea, a dish of butter, a plate of food and different jars. In the background: a window framed by purple curtains.
François Artusse, Udege people Russia – person on ski being pulled by a dog.

Dog skiing is a popular activity in the village.

François Artusse, Udege people Russia – close up of carved deer antlers.
François Artusse, Udege people Russia – various wooden sculptures, two representing women and one a large bird
François Artusse, Udege people Russia – wooden houses with colourful details, all covered in snow.