Ilinsky volcano in Kamchatka

The Wild, Wild, East

By Rocky Barker

PETROPAVLOVSK, Russia -- Idahoans like to say their state is ``what America was,'' and in many ways it's true.

Its craggy peaks, mountain meadows and thousands of square miles of untrammeled wilderness take us back to an America that was untamed, with frontiers to explore.

But it's an illusion. The frontier is gone, and if you really want a glimpse of what the Pacific Northwest looked like the place to go is Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, the easternmost part of Siberia.

Steaming valleys of roaring fumaroles, sputtering mud pots and multi-colored hot springs fill your nostrils with the burning smell of sulfur fumes. Deep, crystalline lakes, with shores painted red by sockeye salmon are guarded by the towering volcanoes that run like a spine down the 800-mile long peninsula. Giant brown bears command the desolate landscape, feasting on the salmon that choke the unbridled rivers and on the berries that blanket the tundra.

For the first time in 40 years, in 1990 this mysterious wilderness province in Russia's Far East was opened to Westerners. A major port for the Soviet Pacific Fleet, Petropavlovsk, the regional capital, was closed even to most Russians until Mikhail Gorbachev eased the strict travel restrictions five years ago. The Soviet Union so xenophopically guarded Kamchatka that it shot down Korean Airline Flight 007 in 1983, killing 269 passengers, when the airliner strayed into Russian airspace. But xenophobia and a policy of tightly guarded isolation served to protect more than nuclear missile submarines. Kamchatka's pristine beauty and wild character are relatively untouched. Its land lies undeveloped, with a frontier as virginal as the Pacific Northwest was in the 1860s. Fewer than 500,000 people live in Kamchatka, which is about the same size and shape as California, jutting south from the eastern tip of Siberia toward Japan. Four-hundred thousand of them live in or around Petropavlovsk, leaving most of the rugged, mountainous terrain uninhabited.

In 1992, nine scientists, environmentalists and journalists came to visit from Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. The scientific exchange, organized through the Kamchatka Institute of Ecology and the Environment, was designed to forge ties between Yellowstone and Kamchatka experts. Like 49ers rushing into the latest boom town, our group was eager almost frantic to explore Russia's wild Far East. Through the air terminus city of Kharbarovsk, Siberia 30 miles north of the Chinese border, we entered post-perestroika Russia, an unpainted, dreary patchwork of rust and depression, yet tinged with hope. Like San Francisco 150 years ago, Khabarovsk is the jumping-off point for modern prospectors who are hunting for more than just gold. Korean, Japanese, European and American businessmen are stampeding through this city that once was the end of the line for exiled political prisoners on the Siberian Railway. They come to Khabarovsk to lay their claim to the vast resources of Russia's Far East. Minerals, oil, furs, fish, and timber lie waiting for capital exploitation. Perestroika has unleashed many forces into Russian Far East society, both good and bad. The transition from state-run communism to free-market capitalism already is a messy affair. The bureaucracy that ran Russia's economy is crumbling along with its infrastructure of roads, bridges, water delivery, sewage treatment, fuel supply and transportation. Our 24-hour layover in Siberia turned into 36 hours when the Aeroflot jetliner we were to take was grounded in Petropavlovsk for lack of fuel. It wasn't the last time we were grounded during our two-week visit. To get on our connecting flight from Kamachatka to Khabarosk, we had to negotiate with Aeroflot officials and the pilot. This was after our luggage had been thrown off the plane and our tickets denied. In the city, we stayed in roach-infested flats. In the country, our tents blew down in a mountain storm. Several times we raced to airports to meet planes that would then be delayed.

Our group returned from a week in the country to find the entire water system in Petropavlovsk turned off for two days. A local official tried to shake us down for money for visiting his valley. But our problems were nothing compared to the daily reality of life for Far East Russians. Prices have risen 20 times in the last year while wages have only about doubled. Senior citizens on pensions have been hit even harder. The ample geothermal steam available supports thousands of hot houses in and around the city where tomatoes, strawberries, cabbages and other vegetables are raised well into the winter. Private markets, set up throughout Petropavlovsk are filled with vegetables, fruits, dried fish, clothing, beer, and crafts. But most Kamchatkans can't afford much. Bread, which was 2 rubles a year ago, now costs 20 rubles. With salaries ranging from $10 to $30 a month, many find it impossible to make ends meet. Workers in Kamchatka are paid higher wages for the hardship of living so far away from western Russia and Ukraine. But inflation has whittled away the advantage, and many workers are leaving.

Those Kamchatkans who are succeeding, most likely former government officials with access to equipment, property or goods, are forming joint ventures with foreign companies, selling goods and services to Russians and the growing number of visitors. Despite their overwhelming problems, Kamchatkans were zealously hospitable, sharing with us their food, their homes and whatever gifts we would take. Even the village official who attempted to collect a tribute, presented me with a book about Kamchatka in exchange for advice about instituting a visitors tax.The downfall of Soviet domination has left the land and its resources under the control of a myriad of sometimes competing authorities, bureaucrats, emerging private businesses and monopolies. Moscow, nine time zones and 6,000 miles away, still controls the area, especially Petropavlovsk, where the military retains a strong presence. But Moscow's bureaucratic government has pressing problems closer to home, and the Far East gets only a fraction of the funding it needs to provide the services its citizens still depend on for survival.

Located less than 1,000 miles west of Alaska's Aleutian Islands, in the past Kamchatka was tied to America as much as it was to Moscow. Petropavlovsk was established in 1740 by Vitus Bering as a base for his explorations of the Northern Pacific. A year later, he left Kamchatka and landed in Alaska, claiming it for Russia, whose territory it remained until the 1860s.George Kennan, a distant relative of the Cold War diplomat George F.Kennan, arrived in Kamachatka in 1865 hoping to build a telegraph line connecting Europe with the United States. Though the telegraph line was never built Kennan left a vivid account of his adventures and of life in Kamchatka in the book ``Tent Life in Siberia.'' He wrote: ``Never had I seen a picture of such primitive loneliness... Smoking volcanoes and snow-covered mountains, yet green as the vale of Tempe, teeming with animal and vegetable life, yet solitary, unihabited by man, and apparently unknown.'' We saw a Kamchatka that remains much as it was when Kennan visited 127 years ago. Even today, to most of the world this mysterious land is still unknown.