Magadan


Magadan is a port city on the Sea of Okhotsk and gateway to the Kolyma region. It is the administrative center of Magadan Oblast (since 1953), in the Russian Far East. Founded in 1933 on the site of an earlier settlement from the 1920s, it was granted the status of a city in 1939. It lies in Nagaevo Bay in the Gulf of Tauisk. Population: 107,500 at 2006 Census; 99,399 (2002 Census). Ship building and fishing are the major industries. The city has a seaport (fully navigable from May to December) and a small international airport, Sokol Airport. There is also a small airport close to town, Magadan 13. The unpaved Kolyma Highway leads from Magadan to the rich gold-mining region of the upper Kolyma River and then on to Yakutsk. Magadan was created in 1933 by Eduard Berzin, the first head of Dalstroy, to serve as a port for exporting gold and other metals mined in the Kolyma region. Its size and population grew quickly as facilities were rapidly developed for the expanding mining activities in the area.

During the Stalin era, Magadan was a major transit center for prisoners sent to labor camps. The operations of Dalstroy, a vast and brutal forced-labor gold-mining concern, were the main economic driver of the city for many decades during Soviet times.

Of the 12,000 Poles sent to Magadan and environs between 1940 and 1941, most POWs, only 583 men returned back, released in 1942 to join the Polish free force of Polish II Corps under General Wladyslaw Anders. WWII survivors became residents of U.S., Britain, and other countries.

In May, 1944, U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace's official visit failed to understand the true nature of Magadan. He took an instant liking to his secret policeman host, admired handiwork done by prisoners, and later glowingly pronounced the city "a combination TVA and Hudson's Bay Company".

Magadan is very isolated. The nearest major city is Yakutsk, 2000 km away via an unpaved road which is best used in the winter, especially since there is no bridge over the Lena River at Yakutsk (the choices are: ferry from Nizhny Bestyakh in the summer, when rest of the road may not be passable due to standing water, or over the ice in the dead of winter). The principal sources of income for the local economy are gold mining and fisheries. Recently, gold production has declined although future prospects look good. Fishing production, although improving from year to year, is still well below the allocated quotas, apparently as a result of an ageing fleet. Other local industries include pasta and sausage plants and a distillery. Although farming is difficult owing to the harsh climate, there are many public and private farming enterprises.

Conditions in Magadan have deteriorated since the 1970s when gold mining provided high levels of investment and employment. In recent years, many factories and mining interests have closed resulting in high levels of unemployment and alcoholism and huge declines in the local population. Furthermore, foreign investment has suffered from disputes of ownership despite very attractive prospects for mining gold, tin, silver and coal, not to mention petroleum and natural gas resources in the region.

The severe climate and poorly developed infrastructure are partly to blame but the difficult transition from Soviet times has led to the collapse of a number of companies with the result that many inhabitants have left the region. Recently, there do seem to have been renewed efforts to encourage foreign investment which could lead to improvements in the economy. Indeed, on a visit to Magadan in November 2005, President Putin supported the extension of special tax advantages for the region in order to encourage gold exploitation.

The city has a number of cultural institutions including the Regional Museum of Anthropology, a geological museum a regional library, and a university. The city has the enormous new Orthodox Cathedral Church of the Trinity, a recently completed Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity and the Mask of Sorrow memorial, a huge sculpture in memory of Stalin's victims, designed by Ernst Neizvestny.

Magadan was the focal point of the Long Way Round motorcycle journey made by Ewan McGregor, Charley Boorman and their team. Although their ultimate destination was New York, they frequently noted how reaching the Russian city was the ultimate measure of success or failure for their adventure. Despite encountering swollen rivers, broken bridges and virtually impassable roads as they travelled through Siberia, they were ultimately able to ride the Kolyma Highway into Magadan, and flew from there to Anchorage, Alaska from where they continued to New York. Recalling his final day in Magadan before leaving for America, McGregor wrote: "Magadan, Siberia. The place that had been in my thoughts and dreams for two years, like a mythical city forever beyond my reach. I wanted to capture it, somehow hold on to it and take a part of it with me when we began the long journey home."

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