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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Siberian Mining

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

Since the seventeenth century, mineral resources have helped stimulate economic development and settlement beyond the Ural Mountains. Iron and copper ores were discovered in the Urals in 1630 and N. Demidov, a gunsmith from Tula, began the first major mining operation there in 1696. By the 1730s the southeast Urals was the largest mining and metallurgical region of the Russian Empire.

Mining operations in Siberia proper also began in the early eighteenth century, first in the northern foothills of the Altai Mountains (iron, copper, lead, zinc) and the silver mines near Nerchinsk east of Lake Baikal. Then gold was discovered in the Yenisey River basin in 1838-39, starting the Siberian gold rush. Up to 1876 the Yenisey basin had the largest goldfields in the empire, producing more than 20 percent of Russia's gold. After that year, the Lena River goldfields predominated, by 1908 employing some thirty thousand people.

Siberian mines relied on the labor of drifting exiles, peasants, and Chinese coolies. Conditions in the silver and gold mines could be miserable, especially in those used as forced-labor camps for political prisoners. This practice continued in the twentieth century. Gold was discovered along the Kolyma River in 1910, but the rich fields were only developed during the Stalin period when the Kolyma mines became the most notorious part of the gulag system.

As in the American West, Siberian mining rushes stimulated regional trade and local agricultural production and helped to create bustling metropolises, like Barnaul, the hub of the Altai mining region, and Ekaterinburg, the metallurgical center of the Urals.