From guidebook 'The Russian Far East" by Erik Azulay, Allegra Harris Azulay. 1995.
"EHTO STRANNOE MESTO..." KAMCHATKA
Long a place shrouded in secrecy, Kamchatka was until recently known to Westerners only as a closed military region or as a name on the Risk game board. With the fall of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in 1990, the Kamchatka Peninsula was opened to the outside world. A land still being born (the peninsula has 160 volcanoes, 29 of them active), Kamchatka is a place of breathtaking beauty and unique wildlife, mixing a striking scenery of mountains, tundra, forests and rugged coastline to create a wonderland for the adventurous traveler. The volcanoes not only contribute to the area's great scenery, but are also responsible for the numerous thermal pools found in the area. Here one can ski down snow covered mountain slopes to bathe in volcanic hot springs, go river rafting and rock climbing, see salmon spawning, watch geysers erupt and photograph sea lions in their natural environment. Fishing, hunting and photo safaris are also popular tourist activities. The weather is wet and cool, and although snow stays on the ground until May, the winters are not harsh. There is a saying in Kamchatka which loosely translates as, "In the winter it's not too cold, but in the summer it's not very warm!"Kamchatka is also known for the amazing diversity and abundance of its wildlife. Sable, ermine, Siberian bighorn (or snow) sheep, the Kamchatka brown bear, crab and, of course, salmon are all found in large quantities, although some species have become endangered due to over-fishing and hunting. In the northern half of the peninsula, reindeer herds are kept by the Koryaks, one of the indigenous peoples of the area.They say that Kamchatka's industries can be divided into two categories: fishing and those that support fishing. Seafood is plentiful, with crab, salmon and caviar being the main exports. During the spawning season, smoked salmon and red caviar can be found in every market and store.A land unique not only in its scenery and wildlife, Kamchatka differs from the rest of Russia in its people and attitudes. Locals will tell you "Kamchatka, ehto strannoe mesto" (It's a strange place). Perhaps due to its distance from Moscow (11,000 km) or to the effect of living under the shadow of active volcanoes (volcanoes have erupted here as recently as 1994), one finds in Kamchatka a sense of the frontier and an independent spirit, fierce even by Far Eastern standards.
The existence of the Kamchatka Peninsula was known to Russia as far back as the 17th century. Famous Russian explorers such as Ivan Kamchatiy, Simon Dezhnev and the Cossack Ivan Rubetz all made exploratory trips to the area in the middle of the 17th century and spoke of an area rich in fish and fur. By the turn of the century interest in Kamchatka had increased and in 1697 Vladimir Atlasov, head of the Anadyr settlement}, headed a group of 65 Cossacks and 60 Yukaghir natives to fully explore the peninsula. Dividing his command in two, Atlasov sent the groups down the east and west coasts of the peninsula, bringing the lands under Russian control by force or by consent.
After this first successful expedition, Cossack settlements of Verkhne (upper) and Nizhne (lower) Kamchatsky were founded in 1704-1706. These Cossacks came to settle the land and collect fur tribute from the local tribes. These settlements, far from any supervision and government power, ruled the tribes with a heavy hand, extracting as much fur as possible while passing the minimum on to the government coffers. Excesses were such that the North West Administration in Yakutsk sent Atlasov with the authority (and the cannons) to restore government order, but it was too late. The local Cossacks had too much power in their own hands and in 1711 Atlasov was killed. From this time on, Kamchatka became a self-regulating region, with minimal interference from Yakutsk. By 1713 there were approximately 500 Cossacks living in the area. The cruelty and excesses of these Cossacks were widely known and first brought dissent, then open revolt from the local inhabitants. Uprisings were common, the largest being in 1731 when the settlement of Nizhne Kamchatsky was razed and its inhabitants massacred. The remaining Cossacks regrouped and, reinforced with firearms and cannons, were able to put down the rebellion. It is telling that at the beginning of the 18th century the local native population was estimated at 20,000 but by the 1750's only 8,000 were counted.Eager to colonize northwestern America which the French, Spanish and English had not yet claimed, in 1725 Peter the Great commissioned the famous captain Vitus Bering to lead an expedition to Kamchatka to explore the East Siberian lands and their relation to the American continent. For the next two years Bering sailed up and down the East Russian coastline, but due to bad weather was not able to find how or if the two continents of Asia and America were linked. Returning to St. Petersburg, Bering asked the current ruler, the Tsarina Anna, that a second, more extensive expedition be organized and in 1732 this was granted. The scope of this second expedition was much more ambitious than the first. In addition to charting the Siberian Arctic coastline and solving the Asia-America question, Bering was to initiate the development of Eastern Siberia and locate and map the American coastline. This expedition came to be known as the Great Northern Expedition.Bering left St. Petersburg in 1733, but it wasn't until 7 years later that he was equipped and ready to leave from Okhotsk. Bering built his ships there and set sail. In the autumn of 1740, the ships St. Peter and St. Paul sailed into Avachinskaya Bay, where Bering founded the town of Petropavlovsk, near an existing Itelmen settlement.The founding of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky began the "opening" of Kamchatka in earnest, helped by the fact that the government began to use the area as a place of exile.Trying to encourage settlers, the Russian government established a program similar to the Homestead Act in the early days of the United States, whereby all those who came to Kamchatka were given the land they settled upon, as well as seeds and supplies. Although it was a long way to come for free land, some did come, and along the peninsula Russian peasants settled, trying for a new life.
Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer, served for most of his life in the Russian Navy and is responsible for exploring Kamchatka and the strait between Asia and America that now bears his name.The first expedition of Bering was ordered by Peter the Great in 1725, just before he died. Peter told Bering to go to Kamchatka, and find out how the Siberian mainland was (or was not) connected to the American continent. Bering and his group traveled overland and by river from St. Petersburg to Okhotsk, a miserable small settlement on the Okhotsk Sea, across from Kamchatka. The arduous journey took Bering through forests, swamps and ice fields and by the time they reached Okhotsk the group's situation was desperate. Food had been rationed to the barest minimum, and they were forced to build a boat with the materials at hand, as the heavy boat-building materials had been left behind when their ship became icebound. No sturdy trees could grow in this windy northern area, and the nails had been abandoned during the journey, so they made a makeshift boat tied together with leather strips. Miraculously, this got them across the Sea of Okhotsk to Kamchatka, and from there the expedition traveled by dogsled over mountains to Nizhnekamchatsk on the Pacific coast. Here they set about constructing a new ship and frantically trying to stay alive under the harsh conditions, subsisting on fish, roots and berries. In the summer of 1728 they were finally able to begin exploration. Bering sailed north along the coast of Kamchatka and rounded the Chukchi Peninsula, unwittingly passing through what is now known as the Bering Strait. As they continued north and the coast they were following turned northwest, Bering felt that he had established that America was not connected to Russia, and since winter was coming on, turned the ship around and returned to Kamchatka.In the summer of 1729 Bering set out again, this time eastward. Again, he did not sight the coast of America, and, his task seemingly accomplished, he headed for Okhotsk and subsequently to St. Petersburg, submitting his report in 1730.In St. Petersburg interest in America and its relation to Siberia had not waned. Under the authority of Tsarina Anna, a second expedition was organized, called the Great Northern Expedition. This was a huge operation, which was to include a large party from the Academy of Sciences. The intention was not only to determine once and/or all the Asia-America connection, but also to map the Arctic coast and conduct geological and other scientific research throughout the north of Siberia. Bering, as head of this expedition, was also to map the American coastline until he reached a settlement of another European power.
KAMCHATKA'S INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
Itelmen Currently numbering around 1500, the Itelmen, or Kamchadals as they are called by the Russians, are one of the original inhabitants of Kamchatka, belonging to the Chukotsk-Koryak language group. In the past, the Itelmen lifestyle revolved around fishing, and they traded with their Koryak neighbors for deer skins and other supplies. The Itelmen practiced animism, with bears playing an especially important role (the rituals of the Itelmen Bear Cult are well known among ethnographers). Culturally, ritual dances and music play an important role in Itelmen life, as was noted by the first Russian explorers who came in contact with the tribe. Today the Itelmen are trying to revive their culture and history, and every year there is a colorful festival with performances of native dances, songs and rituals.The Koryaks inhabit the northern half of Kamchatka, called the Koryak Autonomous Okrug, with its capital in Palana. Koryaks are divided into two groups; the Nymylan, or sedentary Koryaks, and the Chavchuvens, or nomadic Koryaks. The Nymylan have settled along the east and west coasts of the peninsula and have a lifestyle centered around fishing and hunting. The early Russian explorers remarked on the developed hunting and fishing implements of these people as well as their well-constructed dog sleds. The nomadic reindeer-herding Koryaks call themselves the Chavchuvens, or "deer people." The males of the tribe, as soon as they come of age, move with their herds around the tundra from pasture to pasture, returning to their families for a brief time only in the fall, before starting off again. After the revolution the herders were organized into collectives, but not without great resistance. Today the Koryaks number around 7200.
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (pop. 273,000) grew up around the Avachinskaya Bay, with the Avacha and Koryaksky volcanoes brooding over the town. Due to the topography of the region, the city itself is long and thin, snaking around the bay and between the mountains. There are essentially two main areas in Petropavlovsk: one centered around Avachinskaya Bay and Lenin Square, the other a bus ride away near Komsomolskaya Square. Lenin Square is the administrative and cultural center of the city. The city and oblast administration offices are located on the square, and the drama theater, philharmonic, and various museums are nearby. However, most of the main hotels are located near 50 Let Oktyabrya Street. This is a more residential neighborhood, dominated by large standard Russian housing projects. Here you can find the central department store, as well as numerous smaller food and commercial stores. This area is more spread out and less scenic than around Lenin Square, and it takes various buses and lots of question-asking to find the places you are looking for.WALKING AROUND TOWNA good place to start is from Lenin Square, where there is a good view of the harbor and mountains in the distance. Built in 1978, the square used to witness May Day and military parades, but is pretty quiet lately.Facing up Leninskaya Street, on your left is a white building which houses the Regional Kamchatsky Administration. On your right is the city Drama Theater. Next to the Drama Theater is the Philharmonic concert hall which also serves as a voting center and holds church services and other functions requiring large spaces. Although theater tickets can be bought at the theater, for some reason concert tickets for the Philharmonic are sold at a booth by the Post Office.Facing the Philharmonic on the left hand side of Leninskaya is the Kamchatka movie theater. Even if you are not in the mood to see a movie, take a look inside, if only to see the strange electronic signboard announcing when the next showing is. Church services are held here on Sunday.Leaving the theater and continuing up Leninskaya, on your right you will see a path leading up to a small chapel flanked by crosses. This was the first monument erected to the defenders of Petropavlovsk in 1854. Facing the chapel, the Russian defenders are buried under the right cross (their cause being righteous), the fallen English and French attackers under the left one. For many years on August 24 (the date of the invasion), a church procession would start from this monument and wind its way up to Nikolskaya hill.Further up the street on the left at #54 is GUM, the state department store. Next to GUM is a large building built in a classical style. Previously housing the local Communist Party, the building now holds local justice departments and arbitration courts, but of more interest is the humble gray obelisk in front. One of the few foreign memorials in the Russian Far East, this obelisk was brought to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky from England in 1913 and marks the grave of Captain Charles Clerk. Clerk assumed command of the expedition of the famous Captain Cook after Cook was killed in Hawaii. Across the street is the monument to the "liberators" of the Kuril Islands. Although the islands are part of Sakhalinskaya Oblast, the attack was launched from the much closer land mass of Kamchatka. Four thousand soldiers died in an all-out assault to recapture these strategically located islands from the Japanese in the last days of the war (the islands were liberated from the 20-28th of August, 1945).Back on the right-hand side of Leninskaya, take a right onto Krasintsev street and follow it until you come to some large green cement gates. Follow this path up Nikolskaya Hill, where in 1854 the English-French landing was repulsed. From this vantage point, one has a beautiful view of the city and bay and can easily see why this hill was the focal point of the city's defense. Nearby stands another memorial to those fallen in that defense of Petropavlovsk. Constructed in 1879 in St. Petersburg and shipped to Kamchatka to commemorate the 25th anniversary of victory, this monument was erected with great ceremony, including a church procession, military salute and parade. Facing away from the city and on the lower left side of the hill you can see the monument erected in honor of the Third Battery. This battery of 5 guns heroically dueled with 6 English ships during the assault. Copies of the cannons are placed along the embankment and the monument itself is also topped by a cannon. On a clear spring or summer day, these hills are the perfect place to have a picnic lunch and watch the ships go by. This area is also known as "lovers' rock" due to the number of couples found here, seeking a secluded spot.