There was one special characteristic of this land, which made Kolyma exceptional among the many northern regions of Siberia. This particular feature was its rich deposits of gold, or gold placers, as geologists call them. After the discovery of gold and its mining potential, the land became subject to extensive exploitation in which the hands of political prisoners became the basic tools in the state-run operation. Millions of so called "enemies of the people" perished in the gold mines of the cold North when used as slave labor. There was a dual purpose to this system; the exploitation of human resources and the simultaneous destruction of people opposed to the system. Nature and Stalin made Kolyma the land of gold and death.
Long before this once-ignored corner of Siberia gained its questionable prominence as the "White Crematorium" and "The Land of White Death"; Russian explorers, hunters and adventurers had already recorded its existence. In the 16th and 17th century, this land of peaceful northern people like Chukchis, Ewenis, Tungusis, and Yakutis fell without a fight into Tsarist hands, during the period of Russian expansion into the political vacuum of Siberia. From a historical perspective it was a spectacular expansion. In the course of only three decades the Russian military, followed by settlers, advanced 3000 miles and by 1639 had reached the western shores of the Pacific Ocean.
As early as 1648 an adventurous Cossack, Semen Dehznev, made the first trip North by boat, following the River Kolyma, to reach the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Strait (at the time not known as such). His expedition, though well documented in writing and deposited in the Irkutsk archives, got lost in human oblivion and lay dormant for almost 150 years. The land was not abandoned altogether - it was exploited for fur trade but rather on limited scale. The first traders set up their posts in the region of today's Nihznyi Kolymsk, though this was abandoned later for several years.
There were two basic elements that kept Russian pioneers away from this Siberian land's end - severe climate and geographical isolation. These elements combined together created a solid barrier that postponed Kolyma's re-discovery until the beginning of the present century.
The severity of the climate can only be explained in terms of the elements of Nature that affected the region and its geographical set-up, in relation to these elements. The whole process begins in the warm Pacific current which on its way North passes the coast of Alaska, warming it up as it goes by. After picking up cold waters in the Bering Strait the current runs south, cooling the coast of Kamchatka, Kolyma and Sakhalin. Kolyma's mainland is therefore isolated from the warming influence of the Pacific Ocean and the connecting seas, like the Sea of Japan and the Okhotsk Sea.
The other basic factor is the combined effect of the severe arctic air current and the mountain ranges along the east coast of Kolyma. The cold winter winds, having no outlet to the sea, circle around, creating natural refrigeration. This results in Kolyma having one of the lowest recorded temperatures in the world. In some places it was read as low as 98 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.
The northern people, named earlier, who lived there for generations, recognized the short summers and long cold winters as the natural turn of seasonal events. But the Russians, who first explored the land, though they were used to the cold Siberian climate, found Kolyma's climatic conditions to harsh for their liking. Stalin's prisoners had no choice; they had to bear with it as long as their strength endured. These unfortunate people vented their frustration with climate in the following short phrase which epitomized the coldness of the land and which became known all over Siberia. The little sarcasm therein carried a touch of bitter humor, although nothing in Kolyma added to a jovial mood. And the phrase is as follows:
The inaccessibility of the land to Russian explorers and pioneers could be attributed to the two fore-mentioned factors of geography and climate. Each in its own way - or both combined - closed the two available routes by land and sea totally or partially throughout the major part of the year. The land route, from the south, blocked by massive snowfalls in winter, was also a problem in the short summer. After the snow melted, the passages in the mountains and the taiga turned into marshlands were difficult to cross. As a result of this, even at the peak of gold mining, the Soviets did not undertake any plans to connect by land route the mainland of Siberia with Kolyma. A road was eventually built after World War II and is presently known as Kolyma Road, connecting Vladivostok and Magadan, the capital of Kolyma. Apparently it remains in operation all year round.
The alternative connection was the sea route from the eastern port of Vladivostok to the small primitive ports of Magadan (Nagayevo), Kamchatka and the Arctic Sea port of Ambartchik. Centered on these, the only feasible means of communication with the North, the Russians created a whole fleet of vessels operating as cargo ships and carriers of gold on the return trip.