This remote north-eastern corner of Russia is an inhospitable land of fire, ice and earthquakes but the stunning scenery, hot springs and huge reserves of salmon suggest a seismic shift in fortunes could be about to happen.
As Muscovites tuck themselves up in bed, Kamchatkans tuck into breakfast. Nine time zones and a nine-hour flight from Moscow, the peninsula of Kamchatka is Russia’s forgotten frontier. Grim human habitations are dotted sparsely amid the stunning natural scenery. Even Russia’s pre-crisis economic boom, which spruced up towns from Murmansk to Vladivostok, didn’t make it this far. But some are confident that, in future, Kamchatka’s isolation from Moscow and proximity to Alaska and Japan can serve as a catalyst for growth rather than an excuse for stagnation.
Around 1,500km in length, Kamchatka juts southwards from the far north-eastern extremity of Russia, broadening in the middle before coming to a tip in the Pacific Ocean, a little over 1,000km north east of Japan’s Hokkaido. In area, Kamchatka is bigger than Austria and Germany combined, but it is home to just 345,000 people. The majority of residents live in the capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, with huge swathes of the peninsula entirely free of human habitation.
During Soviet times, Kamchatka was spared Gulag infrastructure that grew over so much of Siberia; instead scientists were dispatched to study the volcanoes that speckle the peninsula, and fishermen to work the rivers and seas that teemed with salmon. They joined the tiny populations of adventurers and indigenous peoples who had migrated to Kamchatka from Siberia in the 19th century. It was seen as a prestigious place to be posted, but as the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the subsidised transport and living, and the population has dropped by more than 100,000 in the past two decades.
Currently, Petropavlovsk is a depressing place. The summers are short and mild; the winters icy, windy and dark. A combination of harsh climate, shoddy construction, and zero maintenance work has left most of the Soviet-era buildings in an appalling state of disrepair, and by and large, the construction frenzy that erupted in most mainland Russian cities over the past few years of the oil boom has bypassed the peninsula. Everything in Petropavlovsk looks old and tired, save the Japanese cars that are imported second-hand and are ubiquitous on Kamchatka’s roads (less than 13 per cent of cars in Kamchatka are Russian-made).
The few restaurants are mostly empty, and begin their menus with pages of commands about what guests are forbidden to do, while the local paper prints municipal crime statistics on the front page, which include weekly counts for murder, suicide, rape and syphilis. Happy times.
Monocle visited Oksana Gerasimova, Kamchatka’s investment minister, to find out how things might change for the better. Her office is in the Soviet-era administration building on Lenin Square, overlooking the Avacha Bay – a natural feature which, it is claimed, is big enough to accommodate all the naval vessels of the world in its placid waters. An aide leads us into the room and says breezily: “She’ll tell you everything – she knows everything that we need.” Then, waving a hand vaguely in the direction of the city: “And as you can see, we need a lot. Except for nature, we have absolutely nothing.”
The region’s strategy is threefold, says Gerasimova, and focuses on fish, natural resources and tourism. Kamchatka has always been known for its fish, with more than one-fifth of all Pacific salmon spawning in its rivers. Fish account for 50 per cent of the region’s revenues and 90 per cent of its miserly export revenues, and the plan is to increase the volume exponentially in coming years.
Locals are fond of saying that every element of the periodic table can be found in abundance in Kamchatka. However, many deposits are located in hard-to-access areas. Suspected huge oil and gas reserves on the shelf of the Okhotsk Sea would be particularly expensive to harvest. Gold, silver and platinum are already mined on the peninsula.
“Natural resource extraction in this region is very expensive and relies on global prices for a particular commodity being high,” says Tatyana Mikhailova, the director of the Kamchatka League of Independent Experts, an NGO in Petropavlovsk. “If, halfway through the process, demand falls internationally, the whole enterprise can suddenly become unprofitable.” Nevertheless, in decades to come, when the world’s supplies of non-renewable fuels are depleted, Kamchatka could have a very important role to play.
At Petropavlovsk’s Institute of Volcanology & Seismology, scientists study the 29 active volcanoes on the peninsula and work to predict potentially lethal eruptions and quakes. Viktor Okrugin, a volcanologist who has worked at the institute since 1974, traces his finger along the far right-hand side of a yellowed map of the world in his office. The Kuril-Kamchatka oceanic trench, its depth – up to 10km – marked on the map by a deep blue, runs along the eastern side of Kamchatka, past the long string of the Kuril Islands, and along the east of Japan. This line, where two tectonic plates meet, has stronger seismic potential than anywhere else in the world, says Okrugin.
Kamchatka itself can expect a major quake about every 100 years, he says, and given that the last one was in 1904, there is cause for concern. Just how badly Petropavlovsk would be affected by a quake like this is unclear. “Since 1971, everything here has had to be built to standards that would ensure it could survive a nine-point earthquake,” says Okrugin, before smiling wryly and adding, “But then, this is Russia of course, so who knows?” Volcanoes are another worry, and of most serious concern are the Koryaksky and Avachinsky craters, both active and in close proximity to Petropavlovsk. The Koryaksky, at nearly 3,500m, provides a spectacular backdrop to the city, but, says Okrugin, there will be “huge casualties” if there was a major eruption.
As well as a threat, however, the volcanoes are also one of the many tourist draws the peninsula can boast. Kamchatka in 2008 attracted just 14,000 tourists from the West, and a paltry 4,500 from Russia itself. “The main problem is a lack of information about Kamchatka, both abroad and in Russia,” says Anna Dulina of the Regional Tourism Agency. For hunting, fishing and heli-skiing, the region has few parallels, while the spa resorts and hot springs could prove popular with Russian tourists, if flights and ground transport were made easier and more accessible.
“There aren’t many places in the world where you can ski down an active volcano with a view of the ocean,” says Martha Madsen, an Alaskan who moved to Kamchatka 15 years ago and now runs her own tourism company. It would be a four-hour journey to her home town of Homer, Alaska, if there was a direct flight. But there isn’t. The last time she did the journey, she was in the air for nearly 30 hours via Moscow, New York and Seattle to Anchorage. In the past, various airlines have attempted to start flights between the Russian far east and the United States, but there are currently none, meaning a long flight most of the way around the world for Madsen, and for teachers and students at the local university, which has an exchange programme with universities in Alaska.
Ground infrastructure on the peninsula is also poor and one company has a monopoly on helicopter flights, charging the tourist companies a whopping 87,000 roubles (nearly €2,000) per hour of flying time. But once on board, the experience is unforgettable, as the dilapidated, wheezing Mi-8 choppers fly around volcanoes, above seemingly endless and completely uninhabited lush valleys, and through mountain ranges. A week’s heli-skiing tour costs a minimum of €4,000, or a week of fishing or bear-watching around €2,000, but around 30 per cent of visitors come every year, says Madsen, so enchanted are they with the region.
According to Gerasimova, there are plans afoot to create ski resorts that would be accessible by ground transport instead of helicopter only, broadening the appeal for tourists as well as runs for professional skiers. “The international ski circuit moves round the world; from Europe, to China and then to the US, as the season and the snow changes. Given our geographical position, we think we’d be an excellent stopover point on this circuit.”
An Italian company has visited Petropavlovsk and plans to invest in the creation of three ski runs within close proximity of the city and all linked together. There are also plans to have two five-star hotels completed within the next three years. Currently, the best hotel in town is a drab two-star affair where the receptionists’ favourite words are “It’s impossible” and a garrulous babushka accosts male guests with repeated entreaties to try out the local prostitutes.
There is little manufacturing on the peninsula but one of the few thriving businesses is Malkinskaya, which extracts volcanic spring water from wells up to 640m deep. Its “drinking water” is quite delicious and the success of Fiji Natural Artesian Water suggests a well-designed label and clever marketing strategy, based on the water’s volcanic origins, could go a long way. The plant’s Austrian and Italian equipment is capable of producing 5,000 bottles an hour.
“We’ve just sent four containers’ worth to China; the first ever shipment,” says Vasily Galenko, Malkinskaya’s technical director. “We’re hoping it will take off there.” As well as a pretty backdrop and tasty water, the volcanoes also provide scope for the use of geothermal energy. Already the peninsula has two geothermal power stations, with one providing much of Petropavlovsk’s power.
Geothermal energy is also used to heat the water at Malki, a salmon hatchery two hours’ drive from Petropavlovsk. This month, 900,000 salmon eggs will be transferred into 150 giant green basins, which will be filled with bubbling naturally warm water, says employee Tatyana Volkova. By next May, when they weigh 10g each, the fish will be released into the river. The warm water means the time required for the eggs to reach 10g is nine months, instead of the usual two years. Some independent experts question the effectiveness of the system, but Volkova insists they are providing the seas with hundreds of thousands of fish, to replace those lost to poaching and to ensure Kamchatka in future can feed the whole of East Asia with high-quality salmon.
Forecasts for the future are mixed. Some hanker for the Soviet past, when the central government made it worth people’s while to come to far-flung outposts like Kamchatka. “When I came in the 1970s, I was given an apartment for free,” says Okrugin, the volcanologist. “My salary was higher than in Moscow and it was a prestigious place to be sent. Now there are no incentives for people to come here, and the young people want to leave. It’s a dead-end place.”
It takes someone who has spent their career studying Kamchatka’s history to have a really impressive vision of what could be done with a bit of thinking outside the box. “The future for us should be incredibly bright,” says Tatyana Vorobyova, dean of the history faculty at the Vitus Bering Kamchatka State University. “We’re situated between Japan, Korea and China on one side and the US on the other. The potential for transit trade, if we renovate our seaports and airports, is enormous. If we use our volcanoes as a cheap source of geothermal energy, we can reinvigorate the closed Soviet-era shipbuilding plants and Kamchatka should replace South Korea as the Pacific’s shipbuilding centre.”
Population density: 0.7 people per sq km
Average monthly salary: €346 (2007 data)
Distance from Moscow to Petropavlovsk: 6,771 km
Distance from Anchorage
to Petropavlovsk: 3,142 km
The 1700s: Vitus Bering was a Dane who joined the Russian Navy and set out eastwards on two missions to see what might lie east of Russia’s domains. He reached Kamchatka in 1728, a whole three years after setting out from St Petersburg, but was unable to find mainland any further east, and returned to St Petersburg. He founded Petropavlovsk on his second voyage in 1740, naming it after his two ships, the St Peter and St Paul.
The Soviet period: During the Soviet period, planes brought the journey time from Moscow to Petropavlovsk down to just nine hours, but as a heavily militarised area, with nuclear missiles hidden in its volcanic contours, Kamchatka was a closed region that even Soviet citizens needed special permission to visit.
Today: Anyone can visit – it’s now only one town, home to a nuclear submarine base, that is off-limits. But tickets for the nine-hour flight from Moscow can be outrageously expensive, especially in summer. Even though there are several direct flights a day, when Monocle visited, the flight from Moscow to Petropavlovsk was more expensive than tickets from Moscow to Los Angeles, Johannesburg or even Sydney. Flights are the only way onto the peninsula – there are no roads, and Soviet-era passenger ships to Magadan and Vladivostok were discontinued in the 1990s.
Kamchatka’s fertile rivers have been depleted by mass poaching in recent years. Experts say gangs gut the fish of their caviar and discard the flesh. “It’s a crisis situation and the state must intervene,” says Igor Goldfarb, of NGO Pacific Environment. There are also worries that natural resource extraction could harm the fish population. “We need to take a long-term view – the profit from salmon over centuries could well exceed the short-term bucks made by drilling for oil,” says Tatyana Mikhailova of the Kamchatka League of Independent Experts.