Russian Arctic is a 5.2 million-square-kilometer (2 million-square-mile) expanse covered by snow, ice, glaciers, rocks, mountains, bogs, lakes and tundra and underlain by permafrost. More than a dozen ethnic groups call it home. Tsarist Russia began making its presence known in the region in the late 1600s. Indigenous people felt the impact of the Soviet Union, which insisted they become educated and appropriated their land to gain access to natural resources—with cost being their traditional ways of life.

The Russian Arctic region is sometimes called The Extreme North or Far North. It is a large part of Russia located mainly north of the Arctic Circle and boasting enormous mineral and natural resources. Formally, the regions of the Extreme North comprise the whole of Yakutia, Magadan Oblast, Kamchatka Oblast and Murmansk Oblast, as well as certain parts and cities of Arkhangelsk Oblast, Komi Republic, Tyumen Oblast, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Irkutsk Oblast, Sakhalin Oblast, Khabarovsk Krai, as well as all islands of the Arctic Ocean, its seas, the Bering Sea, and the Sea of Okhotsk. The Largest cities are Murmansk (pop. 302 468), Yakutsk (286 456), Norilsk (175,365), Novy Urengoi (116 450) and Magadan (95 048). [Source: Wikipedia]

Bering Sea is a body of water between Siberia and Alaska. It is a rich fishery filled with king crab, halibut, sockeye salmon and pollack (the source of fish sticks and fake crab). Located in the North Pacific and comprising less than two percent of the Pacific, it is located mostly in United States territorial waters with a large chunk in Russian water and a small "donut hole" of international waters in the middle. It is also home to fur seals, polar bears, walruses and whales.

Provideniya is the small town on the Bering Strait that is serviced by an Alaskan Airways flights from Nome and Anchorage. In 1988 when the first the planes arrived the town had only two paved streets and the airport only had a gravel runway. The town is larger and better off now, with a multi-ethnic population of Russians, Chukchi, Koryaki and Siberian Inuits. Tours include visits to the homes of these groups as well as dance performances. Founded in 1933 by European Soviets is was a supply point for settlements in the region which included Eskimo settlements and Stalinist labor camps.


The Arctic is defined as the area north of the Arctic Circle (66° 30' latitude), which is 2.655 kilometers (1650 miles) south of the North Pole, or an area in the northern hemisphere (excluding high mountains), where the warmest month has mean temperature of less than 50°F. The coldest part of the Arctic, the "polar segment," is where the warmest month has a mean temperature of less than freezing (32°F). Areas where the mean temperature of the warmest month is between freezing and 50°F are sometimes called the "subarctic."

The Arctic is colder than the equator because the slant of the earth in the Arctic region means that it gets less direct sunlight than the equator where the earth directly faces the sun. In the winter parts of the Arctic doesn't receive any sunlight at all because the earth’s tilt causes the Arctic regions to situated beyond the sun’s rays.

Around the Arctic Circle are forests as dense as those in the south. The further north you go the smaller the trees get until they give way to tundra. There are lots of lakes in the Arctic but they are generally smaller and more widely scattered than those in the south. You can also find wild rivers, hills called fells that are unique to the region and miles and miles of undisturbed wilderness. Wild animals like lynx, moose, wolverines, bears and wolves still roam around.

In the summer of 2007, Russian scientists plunged through the ice pack at the North Pole and planted their flag on the bottom of the ocean. Upon surfacing, the explorers declared that the feat had strengthened Moscow claims to nearly half the Arctic seabed.

Northeast Passage Through the Russian Arctic

The Northeast Passage is the fabled route across the northern Russia from Norway to the Bering Sea that today can traversed aboard Russian icebreaker in 22 days. The price of the trip is around $10,000 without airfare. The trip begins in the Spitsbergen Islands, famous for its glacier carved mountains, polar bears and strange circular natural circle stones.

The first major Russian stop is Cape Novaya Zemlya Island where the explorer William Barents spent a winter in the 16th century. A few bones and timbers is all that remains. Helicopters aboard the icebreaker allow tourists to see the island’s huge ice cap. From here the vessel sets off for Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point in Europe. The is a lot of pack ice in between which means there is a chance of spotting polar bears.

The second week starts in Severnaya Zemlya which is made up of three ice packed islands and numerous smaller ones. There is abundance of birds here, including the rare Ross gull and large numbers of white whales known as belugas. Two days late the icebreaker arrives in the New Siberian Islands where travelers disembark to explore the tundra on foot. The region is covered with fingoes, strange heaps of earth pushed up by frost action. Many mammoth tusks have been found here. Using zodiacs visitors explore the nearby small islands which abound with approachable walruses.

Wrangel Island is the highlight of Russian Arctic trips. It is one of the great wildlife areas of the Arctic, and the largest denning area for polar bears in the world. During August when this journey is done most of the bears are out on the ice-pack hunting and a helicopter is used to locate them. Near Cape Dezhnev, the easternmost point in Siberia, large numbers of whales are spotted including grey, humpback and minke whales. Before heading to Alaska the vessel stops at Arakamchechen and Yttygran Islands. For more information about this trip contact Zegrhm Expeditions (☎ 1-800-628-8747).

Yttygran Island is known locally as "Whale Bone Alley" is an archeological site littered with walrus and whale bones which have been used over the centuries for tent supports. Yttygran Island also features Eskimo whale bone houses and colorful Arctic flowers. There are 60 massive bowhead whale skulls arranged geometrically. Huge whale jawbones stand upright like sentries. The shrine is believed to have been built in 13th and 14th centuries. There is also an amphitheater and 120 stone meat lockers, some of which still contain mummified whale meat.


The Chukotka Peninsula—or Chukchi Peninsula or Chukotski Peninsula—is a sparsely populated region about twice the size of Germany. Most of the people are reindeer herders, fishermen or miners. Chukotka is rich in minerals but many of them lie deep under the ice or the permafrost and are expensive to extract. In the Soviet era, the economy was propped up. Even basic goods were flown in from Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the bottom fell out of the Chukotka economy and life became a matter of simple survival. Food was in short supply and many people didn’t have heat in the long winters. Things improved when the oligarch Roman Abramovich was elected governor in 2000.

Chukotka Autonomous Okrug occupies the far northeast corner of Russia. It has a population of 50,526 (2010 Census) and covers an area of 737,700 square kilometers (284,800 sq mi). Since the sale of Alaska to the United States, it has been the only part of Russia lying partially in the Western Hemisphere (east of the 180th meridian). Elgygytgyn Lake, an impact crater lake, is located in Chukotka, as is the village of Uelen, the closest substantial Russian settlement to the United States. [Source: Wikipedia]

Chukotka has large reserves of oil, natural gas, coal, gold, and tungsten, which are slowly being exploited, but much of the rural population survives on subsistence reindeer herding, whale hunting, and fishing. The urban population is employed in mining, administration, construction, cultural work, education, medicine, and other occupations. Chukotka is mostly roadless and air travel is the main mode of passenger transport. There are local permanent roads between some settlements, for example Egvekinot-Iultin (200 km). When cold enough, winter roads are constructed on the frozen rivers to connect region settlements in a uniform network. The main airport is Ugolny Airport near Anadyr. Coastal shipping also takes place, but the ice situation is too severe for at least half the year

Anadyr is the capital of Chukotka. It has a new Turkish-built supermarket, cinema and indoor skating rink and new housing built to replace the Soviet apartment blocks. The 10,500 residents are kept warm through a system of pipes that carry hot water.

Long Arctic Nights and Days

Above the Arctic Circle, the sun shines for only two hours a day in mid winter. In the winter there is an eery twilight that runs from midmorning until about two in the afternoon. In the extreme north the sun doesn't rise for months. This is because in the winter some parts of the Arctic don't receive any sunlight at all because the earth is tilted so the Arctic regions are beyond the suns rays.

In many Russian cities there is only four hours of sunlight during winter. At 10:00am it is still dark and by 3:30pm its dark again. The four hours of light are little more that dusky twilight. The night lasts from about 4:00pm to 9:30am. On average, there is only 19 hours of sunlight in Moscow in the entire month of December, which works out to about 40 minutes day.

During the Arctic winter streetlight are always on and people always drive with their headlights on. Cross country skiers have to use headlights. Describing a November day in a far northern city, Michael Specter wrote in the New Yorker, "The day was sleeting and dark, and remained that way for at least two hour—until the sun began to vaguely skirt the horizon. By noon, waiters were putting candles on the tables of the city's lunch spots. Shortly after that complete darkness returned." One resident of Murmansk told the Washington Post, "The only thing everyone talks about is when the polar night begins is how to survive it."

During the white nights of summer the situation is reversed. In the northern reaches of Russia the sun never sets between May 12 and August 1. During the long summer days near the North Pole the sun never sets and goes in a circle completely around the horizon. In Moscow, the sun doesn't set until 11:30 and the sky never gets completely dark. The horizon-hugging Arctic sun produces wonderful light. The long periods of sunlight in the summer often allows plants to grow very quickly.

Arctic Weather

The coldest Arctic temperatures are not around the North Pole; they are in Siberia. This is because the oceans around the North Pole absorb heat during the summer and release it in winter, even through snow and ice. The coldest place in the Northern hemisphere is Verkhoyansk, Siberia, which has a mean January temperature of -59°F. It is far inland and is considerable colder than the North Pole because there is no ocean water to warm it.

The Arctic is less inhospitable than people think. Within the Arctic Circle there is little wind. Blizzards and storms usually only occur when major air masses push through. The winter air is extremely dry and generally less snow falls at the North Pole than in New York City or Chicago. In the Arctic tundra temperatures average 23 degreesF throughout the year and can drop as low -76 degrees F.

In the past the Arctic was quite balmy and rich in plant life as evidenced by the significant amounts of oil that lie beneath the Arctic seabed (oil and fossil fuels are created from dinosaur-age or older plants). Based on drilling of seabed sediments, the most carbon-rich period was around 55 million years to 49 million years ago, when scientist believe that warming greenhouse gases were trapped even more than today. The warmth was caused by the release of massive amounts submarine deposits of methane. Around 49 millions ago when the climate was cooling there was a huge release of fresh water into the Arctic, which allowed thick layers of Duckweed-like Szol ferns to cover the sea’s surface.

A high pressure system over the Arctic is very important for weather and climate in the Northen hemisphere. If the system where to shift it could result in the relatively balmy winters in the Arctic and Europe becoming much colder, affecting agriculture, tourism and energy use there.

Yakutsk and Oymyakon

Yakutsk (on the Lena River) in the Russian Far North is a foggy, smoggy, city of 200,000 built around some of the world's largest reserves of diamonds, gold and oil. It is the capital of Sakha and only large city in the world built on top of permafrost. Building built on stilts bored 10 meters in the ground stand upright. Those on concrete foundations, which melts the permafrost, tilt and sag.

Oymyakon (600 kilometers miles northeast of Yakutsk) is the world's coldest inhabited palace. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it has unofficially recorded temperatures as low as -98 degrees F. It officially recorded -90 degrees F in 1933 and -96 degrees F in 1964.During the winter the mercury hits -50 degrees F nearly every day and routinely drops to -80 degrees F. But even in these temperatures reindeer herders in the region camp outside in tents and herd their animals.

It is surprising that Oymyakon is so cold because it isn't even above the Arctic Circle. Towns further north are not as cold because they are near the sea. Even the a frozen over Arctic Ocean has a warming influence on the land. Oymyakan on the other hand is hundreds of kilometers away from the ocean and mountains surround the town which prevents the wind from blowing away the thick layer of frigid air.


Much of land in the Arctic is frozen permanently into what is called permafrost. Permafrost is essentially a bog frozen hard a brick. Sometimes the permafrost is several feet under the ground. Sometimes it lies under ice and snow at the surface. Melting permafrost creates bogs and pools of stagnant water and swamps filled with lichens, mosses and berries..

In some places the permafrost is over 1,400 feet thick. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the deepest recorded permafrost (more than 4,500 feet deep) was recorded near the Viluy River, Siberia.

In most places not covered by ice permafrost lies between two to six feet below the surface. In the summer when the earth above it melts the land becomes swampy because the permafrost prevents water from draining into the soil (in non-Arctic regions water percolates through the ground but in the Arctic it can't do that because the permafrost ground is frozen).

Permafrost also serves as a great preserver. Chocolate, bread, oatmeal, canned meat, preserved cabbage and food left by explorers in a permafrost cache in 1900 was found in 1976 and later eaten. An explorer who tried the food told the Times of London, “Although everybody was afraid to try it, the canned soup with meat proved to be very tasty.” This got the Russian government thinking. Some officials began making plans to set up a kind of strategic reserve for food in te permafrost.

Moss is critical to the permafrost. It insulates the soil, keeps it at subfreezing temperatures and helps it preserve ice throughout the summer. Melting of permafrost turns flat ground into rippled, undulating ground and creats “drunken forest” made of trees tilting this way and that.

Living and Working in the Super Cold

Cars in Omyakon and Yakutsk often last only a couple of years. The windshields have double panes with air between them to keep them from becoming opaque with ice. Sometimes it is so cold tires split open and brittle metal cracks when you hit it. People often drive in groups. One man got a flat tire and while he trying to change it his hand froze to the wheel. He tried to chew his hand off but before he could finish he froze to death.

At -35 degrees C (-31 degrees F)the strength of steel is compromised and steel structures can become brittle and collapse When it is -62 degrees C (-80 degrees F) spit freezes before it touches the ground, expensive down parkas break like glass and frostbite can ravage an uncovered nose in minutes. Journalist Dean Conger was walking the streets of Yakutsk when somebody stopped him and told him to rub his nose because it was white. He laughed and said, "But I've only been out of my hotel for five minutes." Then he notices his nostrils were clogged with ice and every breath caused a stinging in his chest. He took up the advise and starting rubbing.

Everything is expensive because it has to be brought in from outside. Nothing grows locally. The only locally produced meat comes from hunted animals such as reindeer, moose and rabbits. It takes seven truckloads of wood, costing $1,650, to heat house in the winter. Many people have been forced to leave because with the lose of government subsidies they can no longer afford it.

Work goes on in the cold temperatures of Siberia. Mortar is heated so bricks can be laid when it is -45 degrees C (-50 degrees F). When the temperature drops to -51 degrees C (-60 degrees F) cranes don't work properly. To construct a house steaming hot water is used to melt the permafrost so that piles can be sunk seven meters down. When the soil refreezes the piles are is anchored firmly in the ground at a depth that won't melt in the summer. Houses that don't have such piles sink and shift in the permafrost during the summer.

Mining gold in the permafrost is a two year operation. The first year the surface is melted. The area is then flooded with water which freezes down to about two meters. Insulated by this top layer of ice, the subsurface water continues thawing during the early winter. The next spring dredgers break through the ice and mining begins.

Tundra and Arctic Plants

Much of the Arctic is too cold for trees to grow. Much of the landscape is covered by a treeless carpet of plants called tundra that often spreads for miles and is undisturbed except for streaks of snow, pools of water and rock piles called dank tarn. Most tundra areas lie within the Arctic Circle.

Tundra regions sometimes receive less rain than a desert, but because there is hardly any evaporation and seepage is inhibited by the permafrost the land is spongy and soggy. And even though the growing season is very short plants can grow for 24 hours a day under the midnight sun.

Sedges, grasses, scrub willows, birch, juniper, cloudberries, cranberries, blueberries, lichens, mosses and fungi are the plants best adapted for growing in the tundra. These provide enough food to support large numbers of hares, mice, squirrels, voles, waterfowl, migratory birds—and yes, insects, including lots and lots of mosquitos. The main large animals living in the tundra are reindeer, musk oxen and bears. Trees that grow in the tunda are stunted dwarfs. The permafrost doesn’t allow trees to send down deep roots.

Arctic plants include stunted heather, willows, saxifrages, cotton grass and poppies. During the short Arctic summers there are ample supplies of sun, liquid warmth and sun warmth—which all plants need to survive. Dirt and minerals, which plants also need, are in short supply because rocks are not usually weathered into soil. The richest source of nutrients comes from animals and plants that die in the Arctic. Often large groups of plants can be found growing from the remains of a dead musk ox or fox.

Plants can not grow without light. Plants and animals that live in the Arctic are able to do so by reducing their life processes to a minimum in the winter and concentrating most of their activity in the short summer months, often 24 hours day. Because there so few seed- and pollen-carrying insects and small birds, many Arctic plants rely on the wind to disperse their pollens and seeds.

People of Siberia, Arctic and the Far East

There are 40 or so indigenous ethnic groups in Siberia, the Far East and the Arctic. Most have traditionally been shamanist, nomadic animal herders. They have traditionally lived a basic life in hash conditions in areas with few people and migrated over long distances. Those in the south herded sheep, horses and cattle. Those in north herded reindeer. Some were also fishermen, trappers and hunters. Few had written languages.

The people of Siberia, the Far East and the Arctic speak dozens of Uralic, Turko-Tatar and Paleosiberain language and many more dialects, with Russian serving as the lingua franca.

Siberia is defined by four main ecocultural areas: 1) western Siberia, a lowland agricultural area and home to relatively Russified groups such as the Nenets, Komi, Mansi and Khanty; 2) southern Siberia with its large industrial and mining operations; 3) the east-central area, home to traditional horse people like the Buryats, Tuven and Yakut; and 4) the Far East, with the northernmost people in Eurasia, Eskimos, Chukchi and Nivkh.

The Siberian region is shaped very much by the interact between Russians and other Slavs with indigenous Siberia groups. There has traditionally been a high degree of intermarrying between the different groups of the region among themselves and with Russians. Indigenous group are most well represented in rural areas and the wilderness while Russians and other Slavs dominate the large cities.

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."

Books: A History of the People of Siberia by James Forsyth (Cambridge, 1994), Forgotten People of Siberia by Fred Mayer (Scalo, 1993)

People Living in the Arctic

The Far North is known for its extremely harsh climate. People who work there, other than indigenous populations involved in traditional occupations and inmates of labor camps, used to receive an extra grade of payment, referred to as the "Northern Bonus", as well as other benefits, including extra vacation, extra disability benefits, extra retirement benefits, and housing benefits.

The Arctic is unsuitable for growing vegetables and grains and there are few materials for building houses. Even so a number of ethnic groups, including the Sami (Lapps) of Scandinavia, the Nenets of Russia and the Inuit (Eskimos) of North America, are quite comfortable in the Arctic. These people live off fish, other sea animals, reindeer and other animals they hunt. They have traditionally lived in homes made from ice, turf or animal skins.

Scientist from non-Arctic regions have a harder time living in the Arctic. Once, a Norwegian meteorologist stepped outside of his station during a winter storm to read his instruments. In the spring his body was found blown several miles away. But Arctic people suffer in their own way. Many boreal people of the Arctic suffer from “arctic hysteria,” a kind of brief tantrum. Shaman are still called in to treat it.

Living on Permafrost

Houses on the permafrost are anchored to pilings driven into the permafrost. Building are built on stilts bored 10 meters in the ground. Buildings on concrete foundations, which melts the permafrost, tilt ands sag. Under the pressure from wheels, railroad tracks and foundations, permafrost turns to mud. To keep them from sinking road beds have to be insulated and buildings erected in logs.

During the summer, the permafrost prevents drainage, turning the landscape into a swamp, filled with ponds, lakes and pools. When permafrost melts it creates a smell like rotting vegetation.

Great care has to be taken when placing buildings on permafrost. In some cases the non-permafrost ground is removed and layers of gravel and other materials are placed over the permafrost. In other cases special refrigeration equipment is installed to keep the ground frozen in the summer.

Permafrost is incredibly hard and almost impossible to dig by hand. Pick axes bounce right off it. It takes three days to dig a grave in the permafrost' and houses sometimes snap in two when the ice beneath them shifts a little. Miners use explosive, high-powered pressure water hoses that rip away permafrost layer at surprising speed but also at great expense. These hoses can eject 32,000 liters of water per minute from 100 meters away at pressures reaching 300 pounds per square inch.

Global Warming and Arctic People

The loss of Arctic ice is bad news for animals such as seals, walruses and polar bears that rely on summer ice for hunting and feeding and places to get out of the water. The loss also affects Arctic people such as the Inuit that depend on these animals to maintain their traditional way of life.

Global warming and the melting of Arctic ice could spell the end for the traditional way of life of the Arctic indigenous people. The melting of ice makes hunting difficult plus it reduces the populations of the animals the people hunt. Some hunters have drowned by falling through the ice.

People of the Arctic depend on the Arctic freezing over and the ice being thick enough to support a sled weighed down with a walrus, seal or even whale carcasses. If a hunter falls through the ice and he isn't cut from his clothes and placed in warm blankets he can die of hypothermia or lose limbs to frostbite.

Arctic indigenous people have urged the United States and other greenhouse-gas-producing nations to cut emissions.

Arctic Folk Sports

Folk Sports played by Arctic people include lasso throwing (using a style used to capture reindeer), standing triple jump, sledge jumping, skiing, axe hurling. There is even a decathlon-like championship for the person who do all thee sports well. Combatant sports are largely not practiced.

Sledge jumping is popular sport among Arctic ethnic groups. It is possible to receive a Master of Sport by clearing 75 sledges in a row on the ground and 30 sledges in a row in the snow without stopping.

Some people of the north also play a hockeylike game without skates, using frozen lumps of fat instead of a puck and walrus tusks. In big games there are no umpires. The players stick rigidly to the rules and resolve disputes among themselves.

There are regularly scheduled events that draw Nenent, Khanty and Komi and Russian competitors. Game dancing is practiced by some Siberia groups. These include song and dance competitions. Some are choreographed. Some are improvised. Common place are circle dances which start out with a few participants and pick up people as they progresses.

Image Sources:

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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