A modern-day version of the United States' 19th century western land rush is about to unfold in Russia, albeit on a much larger scale.

On Monday, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that would allow Russian citizens the opportunity to apply for a free 2.5-acre tract of land in the country's remote Far East. The vast region, stretching from Siberia to the Arctic region near Alaska, encompasses 3.9 million square miles but holds only 7.4 million of Russia's 143 million citizens. It is often referred to as one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world.

"We view this project as a possibility for Russian citizens to achieve self-realization in our Far East and for attracting people to the region," Alexander Galushka, minister in charge of development in the Far East, said last summer.

Those who are approved to receive the free plots will have five years to put their land to use, either for a farm or home, without payment or tax. After that grace period, land that has not been used for some purpose will be returned to the government. Families are also encouraged to apply –– a household of five will receive over 12 acres.

Unlike the land rush days of the United States' "Wild West" in the 19th century, interested parties will be able to choose plots remotely from an online map.

Government officials are hopeful that the scheme helps to create an influx of more than 36 million people to the region. That optimistic estimate is especially important along the region's southern borders, where fewer than 6 million Russians currently face more than 90 million Chinese. The Kremlin is deeply concerned that China may one day find the need to annex large swaths of Russian wilderness.

"The vast expanses of Siberia would provide not just room for China's huddled masses, now squeezed into the coastal half of their country by the mountains and deserts of western China," writes Frank Jacobs for the New York Times. "The land is already providing China, 'the factory of the world,' with much of its raw materials, especially oil, gas and timber. Increasingly, Chinese-owned factories in Siberia churn out finished goods, as if the region already were a part of the Middle Kingdom's economy."

According to Reuters, Chinese firms already lease or control at least 1.5 million acres of land in Russia's Far East. Critics of Putin's land grab plan say it will only increase the amount of Chinese workers immigrating in masses across the border to work on newly-developed Russian farms.

Countered one Chinese businessman: "I think the Russians need to understand that if they don't allow Chinese investment or Japanese investment or Korean investment here, they will actually lose the place."