Kamchatka: volcanoes, bears and reflections on Eurasia

SCMP September 23, 2002

By Philip Bowring

This column comes to you from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski. Where is that?, you may reasonably ask as you reach for your atlas. It is quite remote even by Russian standards of distance and isolation. But it happens to have the distinction of being the most easterly city of the whole Eurasian land mass and the easternmost outpost of European colonisation of the continent. So it makes a useful point for reflecting on the inter-actions of geography and history and the possible future of a strategically important part of northeast Asia.

Petropavlovsk's 250,000 mostly ethnic-Russian people are more than half the population of the vast Kamchatka Oblast, or province. This long (1,000km) narrow (average 200 km) peninsula of stretches from the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean and juts out toward the Kurile Islands -- the subject of much bitterness between Russia and Japan even before the Russians took advantage of Japan 1945 defeat to seize more of them.

It is known as the "land of fire and ice", on account both of its harsh climate and proliferation of volcanoes -- many of these are still active, including one which overlooks Petropavlovsk, and one further north on the peninsula which at 4,750 metres is the highest active volcano in the world. The reality and the image is of a wild and snow covered land. Yet Petropavlovsk itself is on the same latitude as London - which is a reminder of how much colder Britain and Northwest Europe would be without warming Gulf Stream currents to keep it temperate (and damp).

It is also a place which seems to play tricks with time and distance. Moscow is nine hours both in flying time and time zones away. Petropavlovsk is five hours east of Hongkong yet if one could fly direct it would be only some six hours away. Anchorage, Alaska, is only four hours flight which puts it only slightly further away than the nearest significant Russian cities, Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.

That little fact in itself is a reminder that Alaska was Russian till a bankrupt tsar sold it to the United States, Russia's first retreat after centuries of gradual expansion. Americans nearly got Kamchatka too. Lenin had so little use for it and the early Soviet government was so desperate for funds that it negotiated to lease it to an American company! The deal never went through and the province went on to become a front line in the cold war.

The region still bristles with missile and satellite tracking stations, radar installations, a submarine base and other naval facilities. For decades until the collapse of the Soviet Union it was closed to most Russians, let alone to foreigners. Unlike in other parts of the Russian Far East such as Vladivostok, Asian faces are a rarity - though all the cars are right hand drive second hand Japanese ones.

Today, the biggest US/Russia security issue here is now about fish. So perhaps it should not have been a surprise to find that a delegation of the US Coastguard was in town being wined and dined, given tours of volcanoes and baths in one the many hot springs which dot the countryside. Goodwill tours and prodigious quantities of vodka can help keep fishing disputes from getting out of hand.

But though its importance has declined drastically since the end of the cold war, Petropavlovsk's position at the edge of the continent is symbolically important. It is also have a magnificent harbour wide, deep and protected by grey granite cliffs and a valuable base for any power wanting control of the northerly reaches of the Pacific.

It was first established as a Russian settlement in 1741 by the Danish-born explorer Vitus Bering, who gave his name to Bering Sea. He came by sea not overland from European Russia. Here in 1779 came Captain Clerke, who was second in command of Captain James Cook's expedition and carried on his exploration work for two years after Cook was killed. Unfortunately Clerke caught a fever and died here.

Small and isolated though Petropavlovsk then was, the British and French thought it sufficiently important that in 1854, during the Crimean War, they sent an expedition to seize it. The effort failed ignominiously. The Japanese had more success. During Russo-Japanese war they destroyed much of the town but did not stay.

But all these events are a reminder that Russia's presence may not prove permanent. Russians pushed aside the indigenous inhabitants, the Koryaks and other tribes who lived who lived on hunting and fishing and are now a small minority on the fringe. But 300 years after the first Russians arrived in Kamchatka looking for furs, they are still thin in the ground, their presence seemingly half-hearted. They feel ignored by a Moscow so far away. The military activities which once sustained the economy are much reduced and fishing has been hurt by a decline in fish stocks, and the preference of Russian trawlers to sell their catch at sea to Korean and Japanese boats than land them for processing locally.

The immediate future may be brighter. Mining has good prospects. And Kamchatka is just beginning to develop its elite tourist potential. Its isolation for reasons of geography and politics have enhanced its already unique attractions - the volcanoes and hot springs, unequalled fishing for salmon etc, skiing in the winter. There is - at a price mostly only foreigners can afford - bear, sable and reindeer hunting. One can flight direct to Anchorage. Tokyo and Seoul are not so far away. One can even conceive of an occasional direct link to Hongkong as Petropavlovsk lies not far off the flight path between Hongkong and Vancouver.

But the bigger, long term question is whether the Russians can keep their hold on the peninsula. Will some other naval power arise in northeast Asia which eyes Petropavlovsk's strategic harbour and finds cause to seize it from a weak and Europe-oriented Russia?

Japan may now be a defensive power but still smarts from its loss of the Kuriles. Though Kamchatka is joined to the Asian mainland in the far north, in practical terms it is cut off by the Sea of Okhotsk. Its "ring of fire" geology links it more to the Kuriles and Japan than to Siberia. Alternatively Japan might want Petropavlovsk harbour. simply to strengthen its strategic position vis a vis China.

Or perhaps a re-united Korea would seek to use its own newly acquired economic and technological prowess to build a little empire. Koreans could claim that they share common racial and ural-altaic linguistic roots with the Koryaks and other indigneous peoples.

Alternatively China, which still regards the Russians as interlopers in Asia and may seek the oil and other vast mineral resources of the mainland Russian Far East. In that case Russia's hold on Kamchatka would become untenable and the peninsula would be up for grabs.

Whatever the future, Kamchatka bears an occasional thought, and maybe even a visit. ends


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