A Mystery Revealed
In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Westerners and other outsiders were permitted for the first time in over half a century to visit Kamchatka, one of the most mysterious regions of the former Soviet empire. Kamchatka is a 900-mile-long peninsula roughly the size of California, yet only 400,000 Soviet persons were allowed to live there, and all with special military clearances. The reason for the secrecy was Kamchatka’s far eastern site: A bit west of the Aleutian Islands, the peninsula was just far east enough to eavesdrop on the United States during the Cold War.
While Kamchatka was shrouded in military secrecy, its animal population was left to flourish. Some of the largest grizzly bears in the world roam Kamchatka’s interior, while tens of millions of salmon invade its undammed streams and rivers each summer, just as they have for thousands of years. Kamchatka is also one of five major geothermal areas in the world, making it a main link in the Earth’s “Ring of Fire,” a circular pattern geologists have named for the location of volcanic fissures in the Earth’s crust. With more than 200 volcanoes, 30 of them active, Kamchatka is a prime spot of study for the world’s volcanologists.
Although Kamchatka has been a Russian secret until recently, the land mass does have a history to speak of. The Russians were among the first to discover Kamchatka, but not nearly the last to make use of its abundant wildlife for trade and survival. Three hundred and fifty years ago, a Cossack explorer named Fedor Alexeyev discovered this bubbling geyser of lava and abundant animal life involuntarily; he is thought to have been stranded there for some time, although his ship and crew were never found. Small huts still stand in Kamchatka today that are believed remnants of this first traveler. The first to erect a flag of ownership was another Cossack by the name of Vladimir Atlasov. Reportedly, Atlasov was incredibly cruel to the native Itelmens and Koryaks people, forcing them to pay respects to the Russian empire by providing a surplus of animal furs. Anyone who refused to pay the price was killed, their village burned down. It is no surprise that Atlasov was killed by his own crew members in a mutiny.
It was not until 1724 that the Tsar Peter I of Russia commissioned the first official expedition to Kamchatka. His chosen leader of the expedition was Vitus Bering, a Dane who served in the Russian navy for 20 years. Bering was sent to discover whether there was a land bridge between Asia and America to the north, and although his mission did not achieve this particular goal, it was successful in bringing Kamchatka to the attention of the world’s scientists. Aboard Bering’s ship was a man by the name of Georg Wilhlem Steller, whose ability in concocting medicines from Siberia’s plant life saved hundreds of crew members’ lives from scurvy. Unfortunately, Steller could not save Bering, who died of scurvy in 1741. Steller’s most recognized success, however, was on Kayak Island, one of the Aleutian chain, where he was able to describe 160 plant species. Steller died at the age of 37 in 1746.
Steller was the first to ignite an interest in the vast mystery of Kamchatka and the Bering Sea area, but the first full account of the peninsula was recorded by a natural scientist named Stepan Krasheninnikov. This Russian-born professor and explorer succeeded in describing the religion, myths and beliefs of the natives, their customs and their language. He experimented with the land by trying to grow grain, and lived in a house full of plant and animal collections that he studied. He got along extremely well with the indigenous Peoples of Kamchatka, a friendship that was given full value in his book “An Account of the Land of Kamchatka,” published after his death in 1755
In Krasheninnikov’s footsteps came the tyranny of fur hunters, aroused by the world’s interest in this strange and vacant land. The peninsula’s primary wealth lay in its sable, silver and red fox, kalan sea otter, fur seal and the brown bear. In less than 100 years, the seemingly inexhaustible resource of fur was nearly exhausted. By the mid 19th century, the kalans and walrus had nearly disappeared. Despite the overkill, the hunters only slowed their massacre in some places. Finally, in 1934, the Kronotsky Nature Reserve was set up by a natural conservation act. Today, it remains one of the largest nature reserves in Russia, covering more than a million hectares
Throughout the discovery of Kamchatka, there was significant struggle for power between the Cossacks and the indigenous Peoples of the peninsula. Many violent incidents occurred due to the indigenous Itelmens’ pride and refusal to be humiliated out of their culture. Countless Itelmen suicides took place due to Cossack cruelty, and many Russian occupants were speared and burnt to death in traps. The last rebellion in Kamchatka was in 1731, when the Russian government held an enquiry and punished Cossack officials who mistreated the indigenous Peoples. Although an unsettled peace came over the peninsula, the native Peoples were brutally hit by an infection of small pox. The Itelmen and Koryak populations were so severely diminished that together they amounted to little more than 10,000 people. Today, most of Kamchatka’s inhabitants grew up on the Russian mainland and emigrated to Kamchatka later in life. Although the mass of land is nearly the size of France, only 400,000 people live there, three-quarters of them residing in the capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
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