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Magadan: Life in the Russian North

Magadan: Life in the Russian North

Friday 6 December 2013 - Saturday 15 February 2014

Exploring the stories, culture and history of the Russian Northeastern territory, this exhibition looks at the region of Magadan from its communist past to its vibrant present, combining photographs from two Russian photographers, Pavel Zhdanov and Andrey Osipov, and artefacts collected by Professor Lawrence H. Khlinovski Rockhill and Dr Elena Khlinovskaya Rockhill.

Magadan cityscape

MAGADAN: the place

Located in the Russian Northeast, Magadan is a coastal city on the Sea of Okhotsk, situated between two bays, Nagayeva and Gertnera. It has the largest port in north-eastern Russia and is the administrative centre of the Magadan Oblast, within the Kolyma Region, covering some 462,500 km2. Magadan's population grew from a few hundred in the 1920s until it reached a peak of 391,687 in 1989. Central to this success were government subsidies for industry and transport, and benefits for workers. Magadan became a bustling modern town with a network of educational facilities; medical clinics and hospitals; research institutes; theatres, cinemas and sports facilities. A well-developed transportation network connected Magadan with regional communities, both by road and air.

In 1986, the effects of perestroika were severe. As the Soviet system began to dissolve, the state withdrew its financial support, which led to the loss of benefits and industry closures. Since 1991, with unemployment rising, nearly 60% of the inhabitants have moved elsewhere, leaving a population of around 163,000. Present-day Magadan is a modern northern city in a resource-rich land, caught in the complexities of post-Soviet economic, social and political change but mining and fisheries now provide increasing opportunities for prosperity.

Mining rig Dsc_4426


The modern history of the Magadan Region began in 1931, when gold was discovered in the 2,600km Okhotsk-Chukotka belt. The Soviet state set up an organisation called Dal'stroi, the State Trust for Road and Industrial Construction. Its main purpose was the mining of precious metals and minerals, such as gold, tin, silver, zinc, lead, copper and coal that were necessary for Joseph Stalin's industrialisation plan.

Dal'stroi, at one time part of the GULag system administering the forced labour camps, was also responsible for all regional development, including the construction of roads, schools and hospitals. Between 1931 and 1953, the state used both forced and free labour in Magadan, but from the 1960s onwards people willingly came to work, lured by substantial state benefits.

Today, Magadan's workers are confronted by the harsh realities and potential rewards of the market economy. Fishing is an increasingly profitable industry and there are many public and private farms. Gold mines, food manufacture and distillery form the city's industrial base.

The GULag, Butugychag DSC_0429

The GULag

The GULag was the government agency that administered the Soviet forced labour camp systems during the Stalin era, from the 1930s through the 1950s. The former Soviet Union condemned millions of political dissidents and criminals – and many who were neither – to slave labour in the GULag system of prisons, forests, mines and factories. According to Magadan historian Alexander Kozlov, between 1932 and 1957 over 800,000 prisoners went through the Kolyma Northeastern Corrective Labour Camp (Sevvostlag), which consisted of 581 labour camps situated in the Kolyma Region. 150,000 died of extreme hardship or were shot. All prisoners were on limited rations and worked up to 16 hours days even during the harsh winters.


Kolyma landscape Dsc_7859_85The Kolyma region is a very large wilderness area covering parts of the Sakha Republic, the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and the Magadan Oblast. It is an area of intense natural beauty in both summer and winter. The Kolyma River runs a distance of 2,129 km through this region. The green of the larch trees dominates the lower areas of the river valley. In the autumn in the Kolyma, the tamarack trees turn the mountain slopes and valleys into a sea of orange. In September, cooling temperatures arrive and often bring the first snowfall or 'termination dust' to the tops of the low rolling mountains. The climate of the province is severe, with winter lasting at least six months. The average annual temperature is below zero throughout the region. Over half of the territory is bordered by the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean.

The people

Eveen woman in beaded headdressNative peoples have occupied this area for centuries. Traditionally, they led a semi-nomadic subsistence life, herding reindeer, fishing, hunting on land and at sea, and collecting wild berries, edible roots and leaves, depending on their location and ethnicity. For example, the Even people were nomadic reindeer herders, the Siberian Yupik (close relatives of Alaskan, Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit) were sea mammal hunters, and the Chukchi hunted at sea as well as inland, as nomadic hunter-gatherers and reindeer herders.

The Russian colonisation started in the mid-17th century with the first fur traders, along with Cossacks and priests moving east of the Ural Mountains. The massive influx of non-Native people began in the 1930s. This development involved the Sovietisation of all aspects of Native people's lives. Like everywhere else in the Soviet Union, they were collectivised into kolkhozy (collective farms) and subject to ukrupneniye, the process of closing down traditional communities considered to be 'without a viable future' and relocation of people into towns which had developed infrastructures. This economic restructuring made the familiar way of life difficult or even impossible. People were moved from their traditional dwellings to contemporary houses.

The current population of the Magadan Region is predominantly white: in 2010, out of 163,000 people only 5,746 were indigenous (3.5%) and 20% of them lived in the city of Magadan. There are 11 Native groups living in the region.

The most numerous are the Even ethnic group that also lives in the neighbouring Sakha Republic. 46.9% of the population are Even, while Koryak comprise 16.5% and Itel'men 11.9%. Both urban and rural populations are shrinking, but the latter is doing so at a much faster pace: 64,000 people lived outside towns in Magadan Oblast in 1989, but by 2002 the number had dropped to 14,000. Entire villages are disappearing as the countryside empties.

The genesis of the exhibition

Professor Lawrence H. Khlinovski Rockhill is an Emeritus Associate of the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. His interest in Russia and the Soviet Union began in the 1950s during the Cold War. He later found himself teaching history in Soldotna, Alaska, when he realized that the history of Alaska was the history of Russia. He thinks of Magadan as his Russian 'home town' and he has visited almost annually since 1991. He considers it to be a great privilege to have been the first Alaskan American to live and teach in Magadan when it was a closed Soviet city; even to Soviet citizens. These were the most interesting years of his teaching career.

In 2010, he and his wife Dr Elena Khlinovskaya Rockhill, also an Institute Associate, worked with Magadan's Okhotnik Publishing House and their professional photographers Pavel Zhdanov and Andrey Osipov to organise the first Magadan: The People and the Place exhibition at the Canadian Circumpolar Institute, University of Alberta. Since then, the display has toured to Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, the Library of the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Center for Volga German Studies, Concordia University, Portland, Oregon.

The artists

Pavel ZhdanovPavel Zhdanov was born in a town near Tula in Central Russia. In 1963 he moved with his parents to Northeastern Russia. In 1981 he graduated from the Magadan State Pedagogical Institute, where he studied in the Department of Russian Language and Literature. After graduation he held various teaching positions in communities in the Kolyma and Chukotka. His first publications appeared in 1978, but it wasn't until the year 2000 that he chose publishing as his career. He was the editor-in-chief of Magadan Airlines' in-flight magazine Sputnik, and in 2001 he became the director of the publishing house Okhotnik. Pavel's writings and photographs have appeared in numerous photographic albums, books and booklets, as well as in local and Russian Far East magazines and newspapers, such as The World of the North, Magadanskaya Pravda, Far Eastern Capital and others. Over the past nine years, Okhotnik has produced numerous books and photo albums. He works together with Moscow and Far Eastern publishing houses. He has been practicing photography since he was 12 years old.

Andrey OsipovAndrey Osipov was born in Magadan. At the age of 12 he was enrolled in the Art and Computer Department of the Magadan Children's Art School. He graduated from the Northeastern State University in Magadan with a degree in Management. In 2004 he began working as the art director of the publishing house Okhotnik. His work takes him all over the Magadan Region. His books, booklets and brochures can be found at the Scott Polar Research Institute Library, the Russian State Library in Moscow and the Magadan Pushkin Scientific Library. Every year his work wins prizes at the Far Eastern Book Fair, and his photographs are published in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kaluga, Khabarovsk and Magadan. He has been practicing photography since he was 17.

All images © The artists