At the far end of Russia, in a place few have ever seen or heard of, is the remarkable untouched region known as Kolyma. It’s there that I travelled in late July of this summer.
The river Kolyma gave its name to the whole region – formally called Magadanskaya Oblast. The oblast is located in Russia’s Far East, on the coast of the Okhotsk Sea.
A modern airliner will deliver you from Moscow to Magadan within eight hours. This port city is the center of the region. In July, summer temperatures have already peaked at +14 celsius. Meanwhile the mist and wind by the sea coast will refresh your spirit and calm your mood.
Magadan is assumed to have been built in 1929. That year Nagaevskaya Bay saw the first Soviet romantics – geologists who believed the region might be rich in gold. As it turns out, they were not mistaken, and gold mining is still one of the most developed industries here.
Another one seems to be fishery. Fish is more popular than meat among all ages – and cheaper. The average grocery bill in Magadan is higher than in Moscow, but the universal favorite – salmon roe – is definitely more affordable.
Despite there being a state program to help Russians and CIS citizens come and settle in Kolyma, the density of the population is very low (0,31 per km2). Around 145,500 people live in Magadan oblast. But it’s not surprising – we’re hardly talking about Miami beach. Because of the permafrost, architects cannot build skyscrapers. It affects nature as well. Trees are not tall and grow very, very slowly.
You could hardly get lost in Magadan. The most useful point for orienting yourself in any weather is Holy Trinity Cathedral. Its domes are clearly visible throughout the city, rain or shine.
Lenin street slightly reminded me of Yalta, Crimea’s most famous seaside locale. It probably has something to do with the huge number of seagulls, who clearly feel that they are the real owners of Magadan. Sometimes it is not easy to fall asleep, as the seagulls settle on the all buildings’ roofs. They vividly and loudly express make themselves known. Should you want to gaze at the city from above like the seagulls, you may take a ride on the Ferris wheel.
Magadan Ferris wheel affords tourists a glance at one of the bays – Nagaev Bay. This is the place from where the city started. 1.5 thousand demobilized Red Army soldiers from the Far East Army under V. Blyukher’s command began to develop the wild land of Kolyma in the early thirties. The ships loaded with equipment and foodstuffs could not come close to the shore (there was no dock or port). So the men offloaded supplies to build the first settlement, waist-deep in cold water.
In 1932 the infamous Magadan prison camp was established, and the prisoners helped demobilized Red Army men to build a road to the gold mines and develop the infrastructure of Kolyma. Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny memorialized the hardships and sacrifice of the political prisoners with a fifteen meter high monument.
The Mask of Sorrow is located on a hill above the city and serves as a good viewing site. So far it is not often visited by the locals, seeing that bears have got into the habit of visiting it themselves. People keep feeding the foxes despite warnings not to do it. It wasn’t long before the bears too found an easy source of food.
There is also Vadim Kozin’s museum. The famous Soviet singer and composer was sent to Magadan as a prisoner, and after his release he decided to stay.
Natural history is also remarkable in Magadan. A prehistoric baby mammoth was discovered in 1977 when geologists were looking for gold. The mammoth’s body was fully preserved due to the permafrost. He was called Dima and put on display for museum visitors. Another Dima, a monument, was made of scrap metal. His rusty figure weighs six tons.
Famous Soviet singer-songwriter, poet, and actor Vladimir Vysotsky visited Magadan once in his life, for just one day. But it was enough excuse for the locals to erect his monument in Magadan. Vysotsky stands on the Okhotsk sea and looks out into the distance.
The city’s TV tower is considered to be a local landmark. By New Year’s Eve it is decorated with garlands and lights. And then Magadan’s citizens love what they call their freezing “Paris” even more.
Leisure facilities are also nearby. I would recommend going to the ski center. In the summer it looks a bit deserted, but it’s a great place to enjoy flowering plants and the singing of grasshoppers.
Magadan is a place few people would ever think to visit. But that’s exactly what makes it worthwhile. Its people live a challenging life, but are proud of their city – with all its sufferings and achievements. And it’s a fitting gateway to the wild, beautiful, and untapped Kolyma region.
Magadan by A. Biryukov; Magadan book publisher; 1996