Live Free or Die
The Chukchis have lived in Chukotka for maybe thousands of years but since they didn’t write anything down, it’s hard to prove. In 1642, a Cossack named Ivan Yerastov showed up and before long a fortified settlement called Anadyr came to be there. As usual, the Russians tried to conquer the Chukchis. These were a tough people and they defended themselves as well as any native people could. If they were captured, they would kill each other to avoid becoming slaves. After about 150 years of expensive conquering, the Russians tried offering a peace treaty with the Chukchis. Under the treaty, the Russians had to stop the forcible gathering of tribute. If the Russians had not yielded, probably all the wayward Chukchis would have crossed over to the American side of the Straits.
Post No Bills
The Russians abandoned the fortified settlement of Anadyr. The Chukchis cooled off and gradually began trading with the Russians. Here’s an idea of how it was with the Russian Empire. They wanted everybody who passed by in ships to know that they were in charge of Chukotka. So they sent these huge imperial coats-of-arms from St. Petersburg and said they had to put them on trees all along the coast. But this is tundra which means there were no trees along the coast. What they did with all those markers, I don’t know. They probably sent a letter back to St. Pete saying they had put them up and hoped not one came to check.
Giving up on conquering didn’t mean the Russians gave up on controlling the Chukchi. Now they used trade to do it. They began organizing fairs in Anyui, supposedly to carry on the old traditions of barter trade. Using gifts, vodka and outright bribery, the Russians got the Chukchis to almost voluntarily cough up the tributes desired by the Empire. As you may know, native people have little if any biological resistance to alcohol, and fondness can rapidly lead to addiction. So the Russians pretty much had them where they wanted them in the end.
Everyone Loves Fur
Chukchis were nomadic reindeer herders. Everyone loves fur so the Chukchis were able to trade with all the other groups like the Eskimos, Itelmens, and even the Evens. You can only do so much with reindeer before you need other stuff so the Chukchis were always trading with other people groups.
Russian Try Again – Soviet Style
The Soviets tried to organize the Chukchis into co-operatives. If Soviet collectivism was lousy for farmers, it was worse for nomadic reindeer herders. The Chukchis even put up armed resistance but the Soviets insisted on ‘civilizing the Chukchis’ by giving them a written language, education, medical treatment and new technology. The Soviet policies were a disaster and then it got worse. As rich mineral resources were discovered in Chukotka, in came Russian mining. There was coal, gold, tungsten, lead and mercury there. The Soviet Union took a lot of gold out of Chukotka. Chukotka got pretty much nothing out of all this except pollution. The high pay for mining brought in a big Russian workforce. They had no regard for the locals or the local environment. The fish left the rivers and the sensitive tundra became no good as pastures for the reindeer.
Same Sad Story
You might want to stop reading now since it gets worse from here. Nomads don’t adapt well to modern life. Chukchis mostly ended up with low paying jobs that nobody else wanted. The store-bought food did not provide the necessary vitamins and minerals like reindeer, seal and walrus meat, fresh fish and the hardy tundra plants. Remember this is a harsh environment. Arctic people need a lot more from their food that those living in hospitable climates. Chukchis are not doing well, healthwise. Now add nearby nuclear testing and you have the dismal story. Vodka drinking does not help all this except maybe temporarily.
There is some hope these days. The problems can be discussed openly now. Chukchis who were in total apathy are beginning to have some hope for change.