Kamchatka is regarded as one of the world's last truly unspoiled wildernesses. Sometimes called the "the land of fire and ice," it has 29 active volcanos, 100,000 lakes, 14,000 wild rivers, floating boulders, a wealth of oil and gold, the world's largest population of grizzly bears, the world's largest eagles, geyser fields that rival those in Yellowstone, birch forests, blueberry bushes, and snowcapped mountains.
Kamchatka is a 1,200-kilometer-long (750-mile-long), 470,00-square-kilometer (82,000-square-mile) peninsula that drops off of eastern Siberia like the foot of a swimming duck, with the Sea of Okhosk to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east . Larger than California and twice the size of England, Scotland and Wales, it is located ten time zones away from St. Petersburg and so far east of Moscow it is almost to the west. There are 24 wildlife sanctuaries, parks and UNESCO World Heritage site covers 27 percent of the peninsula.
Two thirds is covered by mountains. It is rich in rivers. The climate is maritime and monsoonal. It can be very cold and there are frequent storms, winds and blizzards in the winter. The summer is short. the average temperature is below 0 degrees C. Snow covers much of the landscape for nine months of the year.
Kamchatka is the only part of Russia located in the Pacific Ring of Fire. It boasts 300 conical volcanos, crater lakes and natural hot springs and has more earthquakes and eruptions than almost anywhere on earth. It is home to Asia's largest and most active volcano. The lava fields that surround many of the volcanos served as training areas for the Soviet Union's planned missions to the moon. Life is found in the boiling springs on Kamchatka Peninsula. The springs are not just hot. Some are as acidic as battery acid. Some are alkaline. Some have high concentrations of arsenic. [Sources: Bryan Hodgson, National Geographic, April 1994; Jeremy Schmidt, National Geographic, August 2001.
History of Kamchatka
Kamchatka was originally occupied by Eskimo-like and Lapplike tribes like the Koryak, Chukchi, Itelmen and Kamchdales. The Russian credited with discovering it, in 1697, was Cossack named Vladimir Atlasov. The first settlers were Cossack fur traders who built stockades and reduced the numbers of local people, mostly trough introducing disease.
Kamchatka was largely ignored by the Russians. Some historians have suggested that the Russians would have sold to the United States in package deal with Alaska if the Americans had shown any interest in it. During the Cold War, its nearness to the United States became of strategic importance. Airfields, submarine bases and early warning systems were set up. The entire peninsula became a closed area and only opened up in the 1990s.
Animal and Plant Life on the Kamchatka
Kamchatka is covered by large areas of mixed forest and plains of tall grasses. There are Stellar sea eagles, 20,000 bears, sables, wolves, foxes, beavers, white-fronted geese, reindeer, bean geese, sea otters, seals, Stellar's sea lions, tufted puffins, thin-billed murees, and snow sheep. The bears are generally more concerned with looking for berries than people. Occasionally they charge but there are few attacks.
From June to August king salmon and red salmon swim up rivers and streams to spawn. The salmon found here are among the world's biggest. Their spawning grounds are among the richest. The trout reach a size of two feet.
Unusual plant life includes kind of dropwort that can gruw five inches in 24 hours. Among the fumaroles and volcanic waters are plants that are found nowhere else in the world.
People and Life on Kamchatka
About 300,000 of Kamchatka's of 400,000 residents live in a single city. There are only 150 miles of paves roads and most vehicles are right hand drive cars brought in from Japan. Many of the towns are grim places with pot-holed dirt streets, run-down houses and garbage and littler piled up everywhere.
In Kamchatka unemployment is rampant. Some people keep themselves from starving by subsisting on stray dogs and fish they catch illegally. Few crops can be grown. Most types of food have to be imported. Many people use trubas (20-foot pipes with a fishing net and floats attached). Many people are leaving because they can't find jobs. Some of the people are rumored to be assassins lying low until their next assignment.
There are about 10,000 indigenous people left in Kamchatka. They belong to the Evenski, Koryak, and Chukchi ethnic groups. The Alyutors are an ethnic group with less than 500 members that live in Kamchatka. Reindeer herders in the north have suffered and since there is not enough money to pay bounty hunters and population explosion of wolves has devastated their reindeer herds. Some reindeer herderss are so desperate they have been forced to kill reindeer to feed themselves. Some groups eat psychedelic mushrooms
After spending three years on a scientific journey in Kamchatka, an 18th century Russian wrote, "Only in their power of speech do [these natives] differ from animals. Nonetheless...they believe that the earth, sky, air, water, land, mountains and forest are inhabited by spirits whom they fear and honor more than their god...[and are] convinced that there is no way of life happier and more agreeable than their own."
Economics of Kamchatka
In the Communist era, Kamchatka's main economic function was to supply the Soviet Union with fish and little else. Its waters are home to sone if the world's largest salmon spawning ground as well as huge amounts of herring, king crabs and haddock.
Kamchatka's lakes and seas account for nearly half of Russia's fish catch. In the 1990s the fishing industry was in a mess primarily because it couldn't find a good way to transport fish to the main population centers. Things were so bad that most of the fish caught in a record 1998 harvest of 50,000 tons of salmon were left to rot in a huge field because local factories could not process the fish.
There is an estimated 500 to 1,000 tons of gold in Kamchatka worth as much as $10 billion as well as platinum and silver. There are concerns that mining these metal might cause considerable environmental damage.
The Itelmen are a small groups that live on Kamchatka. Also known as the Kamchadals, they are very close to extinction. There numbers in the late 17th century were estimated at around 12,000. Today there are round 1,500. They live in the Koryak National Area. Only about 20 percent speak the Itelmen language, which is similar to the languages spoken by the Chukchi and Koryak and is believed to have evolved into native American languages in North America.
Archeological evidence seems to indicate that the Itelmen occupied the Kamchatka peninsula before the Koryaks and Ainus. They survived from fishing, hunting and gathering of tundra roots and grasses and to a lesser extent hunting sea mammals. They used tools made from bone, wood and stone. Before they arrival of Russians they had no knowledge of metallurgy. Their was no word in their language for “war” or “enemy.” After coming into contact with the Russians the were incorporated into the fur trade and their population was devastated by smallpox and “rotten fever” (probably influenza). They were pushed out of some of their homeland areas by Russian settlers.
The Itelmen that still speak their language occupy only a small areas of Kamchatka between the Tigil and Icha rivers. Under the Soviets they were organized into collective farms that engaged in fishing and cutting hay in the summer, harvesting vegetables in the fall and raising fur animals in the winter.
The Itelmen traditionally lived in semi-subterranean houses in the winter and houses on stilts in the summer. They used sled dogs and later pack horses and later tractors for transport. They believed in a number of spirits and followed the raven cult. Their shaman were mainly elderly women. Many villages had a sacred area where sacrifices were hold. Seriously ill were sometimes taken from their house and placed in the tundra where they were left to die. Often they left themselves. Their bodies were neither cremated or buried. If someone died in a house that house had to be abandoned.
The Itelmen believed that volcanos were inhabited by gomuls—ghosts who roasted whales over huge bonfires, producing clouds of smoke and rivers of boiling fat.
Koryaks live on the west coast of the Kamchatka peninsula. Many retain their traditional methods of reindeer herding and fishing and hunting. Their language has largely been lost but their culture remains alive through storytelling, dance, mine and songs.
Anthropologist Waldemar Jochelson, who studied the Koryak in the 1890s described their homeland as "bogs, mountain torrents, rocky passes and thick forests." Of a Koryak village he wrote, "the odor of the blubber and the refuse is almost intolerable; and the inmates intoxicated with fly agaric [a psychedelic mushroom],...are infested with lice."
The Koryak language is similar to that of the Chukchis. Their culture is similar to that of Arctic people such as Eskimos. They have a long history of conflict with neighboring people such as the Even, Yukagir and Chukchi. The conflicts often involved reindeer herd raids and the taking of captives. They were usually defeated by the Even but held their own against the Yukadir. Most of their conflicts were resolved by the time the Russians arrived. They had some conflicts with the Russians and were devastated by smallpox.
Today there are around 9,000 Koryaks. They make up the majority of the native population of the Koryak Autonomous District of the Kamchatka Oblast. Their territorial capital is Palana. A small number live in Chukotka. The Kereks are an ethnic group with less than 500 members that live in the Chukotka Region. Many regard them as relatives of the Koryaks.
Koryak Life and Culture
There are two main Koryak groups: the Chavchuvens (reindeer herders) and Nymylan (settled fishermen and sea mammal hunters). They traditionally used reindeer and dogs sledges to get around in the winter. To travel in rivers the used canoes dug out from tree logs. On the sea they used sealskin kayaks.
Settled Koryaks lived in semi-subterranean houses in the winter and huts on stilts in the summer. Their communities revolved around hunting parties that hunted together, often in a single boat. During the summer Koryak fisherman hunt 300-kilogram bearded seals to provide them with winter meat and oil. Inland Koryak of Northern Kamchatka chase reindeer with lariats and dispatch them with spears.
Koryak reindeer herders herded reindeer, which provided them with meat and skins, caught seemingly limitless supplies of salmon, and hunted bears, foxes and sables whose furs that kept them warm. They lived in portable frame houses that were covered in reindeer hides, One can not underestimate the importance of reindeers. Between 1987 and 1997 the number of reindeer in one Koryak village declined from 19,000 to less than 2,500. During the same period suicides and murders soared and the birthrate declined.
Koryak art includes whale-shaped wooden dishes that held holy water for the gods and funeral coats made with the white fur of reindeer fawns. Sometimes these were made by women who sewed them together while men played cards on the body.
Koryak use dance to tell stories about myths and legends and contemporary stories about fixing snowmobiles. During important Koryak festivals women perform sinuous dances inspired by whale hunts and reindeer migrations, beat deerskin drums while under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms and daub reindeer blood on their children's faces.∞
Koryak Religion and Families
Koryaks have traditionally lived in extended family households and communities. Not only were marriage between cousins common sometimes marriages between brothers and sisters occurred. The wedding process often includes bride service by the groom to the bride’s family that lasted from several weeks to several years. The central act of the wedding ceremony was “grabbing the bride” in which the groom tried to grab the bride’s genitals while here relatives tried to prevent him from doing so.
The cult of the Raven has traditionally been very strong. Sacrifices were made to both benevolent and evil spirits. Dogs were regarded as the ideal sacrifices. Ancestors were regarded as benevolent spirits. Sometimes families carried out sacrifices themselves. Other times they called in a shaman. Shamans could be men or women who inherited the ability from a relative or ancestor.
The Koryak have several methods of burial: cremation, burial in the ground or at sea or placement in a rock cleft. The methods is often determined by the way in which a person dies. Those who die of natural causes are cremated. Objects they needed in the next life were placed on the funeral pyre. Those who committed suicide were left unburied.
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016