Chukotka

  • overview
  • geography
  • history
  • fauna & flora
  • further reading

OVERVIEW

Explore Russia's Chukotka with Heritage Expeditions
The Chukotsky Autonomous Okrug at 737,000sq km is about half the size of Alaska. The sixth largest administrative area of Russia, Chukotka has eight raions. The administrative centre is the colourful town of Anadyr.

Anadyr

Anadyr Features Brightly Coloured Housing

Heavily influenced by the two great oceans that surround it, Chukotka’s weather is unstable with strong, cold northerly winds that can quickly shift to south-west storms. Cyclones occur frequently. Coastal areas have an average of 150 windy days per year. Precipitation averages between 200 and 400mm per year. Cape Navarin has the highest incidence of hurricanes and storms in Russia. Ice covers the surrounding seas most of the year. Chukotka averages between 80 and 100 growing days per year. January temperatures average between -15ºC and 35ºC, with July temperatures averaging between 5ºC and 14ºC. A region with very few roads, in the summer the sea is the best highway in this region making it the perfect location for a Russian Far East cruise.

Cape Dezhnev

Cape Dezhnev, Chukotka

Chukotka’s largest rivers, the Anadyr, Greater Anyui, Lesser Anyui and Omolon all flow from the mountainous western part of the peninsula where peaks reach 1,800m. The Anadyr River flows east, meandering through lowlands of marshes, plains and riparian forests before emptying into Anadyr Bay and the Bering Sea. The Lesser and Greater Anyui Rivers flow north, through another lowland of plains and marshes, and cross the border into the Republic of Sakha before merging and emptying into the great Kolyma River. The third major lowland area is just south of Chaun Inlet, where numerous small rivers and streams flow north into this bay. Mountains, though not quite as high as those found in the west, dominate much of central and eastern Chukotka providing a majestic backdrop for our various Russian Far East expeditions. 

The Bering Strait provides for the only exchange of water between the Pacific and Arctic Oceans in the northern hemisphere. The northerly flowing ocean current just south-east of Cape Navarin to Anadyr Bay and through the western portion of the strait carries rich nutrients that fuel the production of massive amounts of phytoplankton and zooplankton, making the region one of the most productive marine areas in the world.

Chukotka can be divided into four vegetation belts: Arctic tundra, subarctic tundra, tundra woodland and boreal forest. Arctic tundra, heavily influenced by the cold Arctic Ocean, includes Wrangel Island and nearby islands and a strip of coastline between the Oklyma River and Kolyuchinskaya Bay in the east. Vegetation similar to Western Alaska (primarily mosses, lichens and small shrubs) covers about half the region. Wrangel Island has especially diverse flora with many endemic, American and steppe species. Subarctic tundra, with areas of tall shrubs and lichen grasslands, grows throughout much of Chukotka. It gradually turns into tundra woodland toward the south-west and includes the extensive riparian forests of the Anadyr basin. This terrain provides an ideal environment to see wild bears and also many marine mammals including various species of whales and Walrus.

Experience this destination by expedition cruising with Heritage Expeditions on the following departures:

GEOGRAPHY

Geographical Information

The District is over 1400km wide. Its western edge is the Kolyma River in Siberia and its eastern extremity is the Bering Strait. The northern coastline looks out over the Arctic Ocean while the Southern border is in the Koryak Highlands.

Area: 

The total area of this district is 737,700 sq km’s

Maximum Altitude: 

The highest peak is Mt Dvukh Tsirkov (two Cirques) at 1,853 meters.

Physical Features: 

Chukotka is mountainous. The Kolyma-Chukchi mountain range includes the Aniuy Uplands and the northern part of the Chukchi Uplands. The Aniuy Mountians is in the Greater Aniuy river basin – the only area in the region where you can see recently formed volcanoes.  The Okhotsk-Chukchi range includes the Anadyr Mountains and the southern part of the Chukchi Uplands. Alpine style mountains gradually give way to foothills and plains. Typical altitudes are about 1,600 – 1,800 meters. The Anadyr-Koryak range is in Chukotka’s south –east. A significant part is occupied by the Koryak Range, with ridges divided by depressions, altitudes are around 1,500m.

Chukotka Mountains

Chukotka Mountains

The Anuiy Lowlands, extending over the lower reaches of the rivers  Greater Anuiy and Lesser Aniuy, the Khetagen and the Yarovaya, constitute gently rolling plains and wetlands. There are many lakes of various sizes with well –developed system of gullies. The Chaun lowlands constitute a gently sloping plain with altitudes around 200 meters with typical patchwork Tundra. The Anadyr lowlands consist of wetlands overlarge areas with numerous lakes.

HISTORY

The first inhabitants were Paleo-Siberian hunters who came to Chukotka from Central and East Asia. The area was then part of the Beringia land bridge that is believed to have enabled human migration to the Americas. Traditionally Chukotka was the home of the native Chukchi people, Siberian Yupiks, Koryaks, Chuvans, Evens/Lamuts, Yukaghirs and Russian Old Settlers. After the Russians conquered the Kazan and Astrakhan Khanates in the 16th century, the trade routes to the Urals, Siberia, and Central Asia opened for travel and traders and Cossacks moved eastwards. The Cossacks built forts in strategic locations and subjected the indigenous people to the Tsar.

During the first half of the 17th century, Russians reached the far north-east. In 1641, the first reference to Chukchi people was made by the Cossacks. In 1649, Russian explorer Semyon Dezhnyov explored the far north-eastern coast and established winter quarters on the upstream portion of the Anadyr River that became the fortified settlement of Anadyrsk. Dezhnyov tried to subjugate the Chukchi and exact tribute during the next ten years, but was mostly unsuccessful. Eventually the fort was abandoned because of the harsh northern conditions and lack of game animals for food.

At the end of the 17th century, the fort regained some importance when the sea route from Anadyrsk to Kamchatka was discovered. It was used as the staging base for expeditions to Kamchatka and all other forts and settlements were made subject to Anadyrsk. When the wealth of Kamchatka's natural resources was discovered, the Russian government started to give the far north-eastern region more serious attention. In 1725, Tsar Peter the Great ordered Vitus Bering to explore Kamchatka and Afanasy Shestakov to lead a military expedition to subjugate the Chukchi. This expedition failed when the fleet suffered shipwreck and the survivors, including Shestakov, were killed by the Chukchi.

In 1731, Dimitry Pavlutsky tried again, aided by Cossacks, Yukaghirs and Koryaks (indigenous Siberian tribes that were subjugated earlier). Pavlutsky sailed up the Anadyr River and destroyed the Chukchi garrison on the Arctic Ocean. His ruthless methods had some limited success in forcing tribute from some Chukchi. But in 1747 the Chukchi defeated the Russian regiment and killed Pavlutsky.

Realizing that the Chukchi could not easily be subjugated by military means, the Russians changed tactics and offered the Chukchi citizenship in the Russian Emprire. A peace treaty was concluded in 1778 in which the Chukchi were exempted from paying "yaksak" or fur tribute.

That same year, British Captain James Cook made an exploration of Cape North (now Cape Schmidt) and Providence Bay. Anxious that European powers would occupy the area, Tsar Catherine II ordered a mapping of the area. Starting in 1785, an expedition led by Joseph Billings and Gavril Sarychev mapped the Chukchi Peninsula, the west coast of Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands. Then from 1821 to 1825, Ferdinanc von Wrangel and Fyodor Matyushkin led expeditions along the coast of the East Siberian Sea and explored the Kolyma, Great Anyuy and Little Anyuy Rivers.

Chukotka remained mostly outside the control of the Russian Empire and consequently other foreign powers (American, British, Norwegian) and began to hunt and trade in the area from about 1820 onwards. After the sale of Alaska to the United States, American whalers and traders especially extended their activities into Chukotka and foreign influence reached its peak. By 1880, the Russians reacted by setting up coastal patrols to stop American ships and confiscate their property. Then in 1888, the administrative region of Anadyr was created. Yet Russian control diminished again and around 1900 a large stream of foreigners entered Chukotka, lured to the region by the Yukon Gold Rush in 1898.

Chukotka Heritage

Chukchi Dancers

In 1909, in order to keep the region within Russian control, two districts were created within the Anadyr Region: the districts of Anadyr and Chukotka. The Russian government granted concessions to foreign companies such as the Hudson's Bay Company and the US Northeast Siberia Company, which was granted gold, iron, and graphite mining rights between 1902 and 1912.

Wrangel Island in particular was subject to claims by the United States and Canada. In 1916 the Russians officially claimed the uninhabited island. But in 1921, Canadian Vilhjalmur Stefansson made a serious attempt to claim it for Canada by populating it and building a small settlement. Another contingent arrived in 1923 but a year later, the Soviets permanently conquered the island, removing the remaining inhabitants, and thereby ending all foreign influence.

From 1919 onwards, the region was subject to collectivization and resettlement of the indigenous people. When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, everything was done to start tin production as quickly as possible in Chukotka. Mining rapidly developed, and this industry would become its economic base. Also during the war, geologists discovered large reserves of gold that would be mined in the 1950s. In 1977, Chukotka became administratively subordinated to Magadan Oblast.

In 1991, Chukotka declared its separation to become a subject of the Russian Federation in its own right, a move that was confirmed by the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation in 1993. From 2001 to 2008, Roman Abramovich was the Governor of Chukotka. He invested billions of roubles, including his own money, into the Chukotka economy by developing its infrastructure, schools, and housing. This helped to double the GDP of the region and to more than triple the income of its residents.

 

FAUNA & FLORA

Flora and Vegetation: 

Monkshood

Monkshood in Flower

The vast arctic and sub arctic areas in Chukotka form a unique region for vegetation. The vast majority of the region belongs to the western part of Beringa – the land bridge that used to connect Asia and America.  This region became a cradle of many species and a whole range of plants which spread around the earth’s tundra and taiga zones. Today there are over 900 species of plants, about 400 mosses and 400 lichens in Chukotka.  The Beringia area has the greatest diversity of species. Tundra plants including dwarf birch, Labrador tea, crowberry, blueberry, cowberry, Andromeda, sedges and cotton grasses, mosses and lichens. Forests grow only in the floodplains (willow and poplar groves)and terracesabove them (alderand white birch). Three are many medicinal herbs know to the native peoples. The same for berries.  Edible mushrooms are plentiful.

Mammals:

There are a surprising number of mammals, many of them marine mammals that either visit or make Chukotka their home.

Reindeer

Reindeer Herd

These include Polar Bear, brown bear, reindeer, snow sheep, sable, lynx, wolf and fox.  Marine Mammals include grey, bowhead (both these species are hunted by the indigenous people under quota from the International whaling community) humpback fin, blue, beluga, sperm  and killer whale.  Walrus occur in large numbers around the coast and are also hunted under quota by the indigenous peoples.

Walrus on Ice

Pacific Walrus

 

Birding Highlights: 

Sparse population and lack of access help preserve a remarkable diversity of fauna.  There are about 220 species of birds recoded from the region.  They mainly belong to the “Arctic complex” and the regions fauna has much more in common with Alaska than with anywhere else.  In this regard it is rather unique  as many species can be found here and not in any other part of the country.  A number species are endangered including the yellow-biled loon and spoonbiled sandpiper.  Very few species  winter here , the majority are migratory.  Chukotka’s coastal waters are an important habitat. There is a wide varity of species including Brunnich’s guillemot, horned and tufted puffins, little, parakeet, lesser and crested auks.  Native peoples collect a large number of eggs from these colonies each year.

Horned Puffin

Horned Puffin

FURTHER READING

Niven, Jennifer: The Ice Master - the doomed 1913 voyage of the Karluk.  Macmillian Books 2000.

Gray, Patty A: The Predicament of Chukotka's Indigenous Movement: Post-Soviet Activism in the Russian Far North
Cambridge University Press, 2005 - Political Science - 276 pages

Kasten, Erich: People and the Land: Pathways to Reform in Post-Soviet Siberia
Reimer, 2002 - Social Science - 257 pages

Ziker, John Peter: Peoples of the Tundra: Northern Siberians in the Post-Communist Transition
Waveland PressInc, 2002 - Social Science - 197 pages

 

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