||The Arctic As
||Europeans came to the Arctic as part
of the process of their expansion in other parts of the world. During
their big expansion overseas in the 16th and 17th centuries, the
Far East became an important source of gems, spices and luxury cloth.
Huge profits could be made by trading and when the usual routes
round Africa and through the Middle East were seen as too long or
dangerous, merchants starting seeking a northwest passage to the
Far East through the islands of the Canadian North. At the same
time, Russian navigators were exploring the northern coast of Siberia
in search of a northeast passage to Asia via the Bering Strait.
||During the 17th century, Russian adventurers
swept across Siberia, conquering the small groups of peoples who
they met on the way. They reached the Pacific coast, a distance
of several thousand miles, in only 60 years. They forced the indigenous
peoples to trap the smaller species of animals for the fur trade
on a scale which soon almost wiped these animals out.
Monument to Polish political prisoners.
|There were other kinds of plundering.
From the 17th to the end of the 19th centuries, Europe was supplied
with soap and lubricating oil made from whales. Thousands of whales
were killed annually in various parts of the Arctic seas, mostly
by the British and the Norwegians. At some periods the annual kill
was higher than the total number of whales living in these areas
today. Siberia became a 'Wild East', a place of exile, crime and
violence. The imperial government in St Petersburg used it in the
19th century to exile their opponents, while in the 20th century
the communist government, by then in Moscow, used the area for the
world's largest-ever chain of prison camps called the Gulag.
||In the 1890s there were gold rushes
in Alaska and the neighbouring Yukon district of Canada. 100,000
rushed north to Yukon alone and Dawson City, still famous in films,
sprang up instantly with a population of 30,000. Since the second
world war, there has been an increase in the number and size of
modern industrial towns in every country throughout the North, based
on the extraction of minerals. All of these uses have been extremely
damaging for peoples already living there.
||The indigenous population lived off
the land at an extremely low population density. When the Europeans
first arrived, they often had to rely on local people just to teach
them how to survive.
|But the Europeans lived largely by
trading and as they began to settle more or less permanently they
brought with them their own habit of living in concentrated settlements,
that is, in towns. Now they are often paid large extra bonuses to
come and work there. Some of these towns, like Noril'sk in Siberia,
have grown into large cities. The huge distances mean that these
settlements depend on air transport and extensive logistic support,
since there are almost no roads or railways and they cannot be supported
from the land around them.
Noril'sk, Leninsky Prospect. City's anniversary celebration
|These newcomers cannot cope with the
all-meat diet which the land provides and they need a lot of support
from the outside world to keep them healthy and happy, in the form
of special food and comforts. Naturally, a few of these people have
adapted to the Arctic and even live off the land, just as there
are some indigenous people who depend entirely on food and supplies
which have been flown in from the south and sold in the village
|The very reason for these settlements'
existence is to exploit the region's resources in order to take
them down south again. A high proportion of the newcomers stay in
these towns for only a limited time before returning, perhaps much
richer, to the south. In the Soviet Union, especially from the 1960s
to the 1980s, a white person would receive double or treble wages
for working in the North and could also jump the queue for scarce
housing when they got home to Moscow or other cities in the western
part of the country.