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The Arctic As A Homeland
by Piers Vitebsky
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The Arctic As A Frontier
  Europeans came to the Arctic as part of the process of their expansion in other parts of the world. During their big expansion overseas in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Far East became an important source of gems, spices and luxury cloth. Huge profits could be made by trading and when the usual routes round Africa and through the Middle East were seen as too long or dangerous, merchants starting seeking a northwest passage to the Far East through the islands of the Canadian North. At the same time, Russian navigators were exploring the northern coast of Siberia in search of a northeast passage to Asia via the Bering Strait.
  During the 17th century, Russian adventurers swept across Siberia, conquering the small groups of peoples who they met on the way. They reached the Pacific coast, a distance of several thousand miles, in only 60 years. They forced the indigenous peoples to trap the smaller species of animals for the fur trade on a scale which soon almost wiped these animals out.
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Monument to Polish political prisoners.
There were other kinds of plundering. From the 17th to the end of the 19th centuries, Europe was supplied with soap and lubricating oil made from whales. Thousands of whales were killed annually in various parts of the Arctic seas, mostly by the British and the Norwegians. At some periods the annual kill was higher than the total number of whales living in these areas today. Siberia became a 'Wild East', a place of exile, crime and violence. The imperial government in St Petersburg used it in the 19th century to exile their opponents, while in the 20th century the communist government, by then in Moscow, used the area for the world's largest-ever chain of prison camps called the Gulag.
  In the 1890s there were gold rushes in Alaska and the neighbouring Yukon district of Canada. 100,000 rushed north to Yukon alone and Dawson City, still famous in films, sprang up instantly with a population of 30,000. Since the second world war, there has been an increase in the number and size of modern industrial towns in every country throughout the North, based on the extraction of minerals. All of these uses have been extremely damaging for peoples already living there.
  The indigenous population lived off the land at an extremely low population density. When the Europeans first arrived, they often had to rely on local people just to teach them how to survive.
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Copper plant.
But the Europeans lived largely by trading and as they began to settle more or less permanently they brought with them their own habit of living in concentrated settlements, that is, in towns. Now they are often paid large extra bonuses to come and work there. Some of these towns, like Noril'sk in Siberia, have grown into large cities. The huge distances mean that these settlements depend on air transport and extensive logistic support, since there are almost no roads or railways and they cannot be supported from the land around them.
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Noril'sk, Leninsky Prospect. City's anniversary celebration
These newcomers cannot cope with the all-meat diet which the land provides and they need a lot of support from the outside world to keep them healthy and happy, in the form of special food and comforts. Naturally, a few of these people have adapted to the Arctic and even live off the land, just as there are some indigenous people who depend entirely on food and supplies which have been flown in from the south and sold in the village shop.
The very reason for these settlements' existence is to exploit the region's resources in order to take them down south again. A high proportion of the newcomers stay in these towns for only a limited time before returning, perhaps much richer, to the south. In the Soviet Union, especially from the 1960s to the 1980s, a white person would receive double or treble wages for working in the North and could also jump the queue for scarce housing when they got home to Moscow or other cities in the western part of the country.
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The Arctic is a Homeland, by Piers Vitebsky.
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