Boreas: MOVE


Moved by the State and Left Behind: Histories of village relocations in Chukotka, Russia

Nuniamo relocated in the 1970s

Tobias Holzlehner

The Sovietization and industrialization of Russia’s northern regions was a large scale engineering endeavor that fundamentally changed a wide range of communities in diverse geographical regions, from the dense taiga at the Finnish border to the tundra expanses along the Bering Sea. The project “Moved by the State and Left Behind: Histories of village relocations in Chukotka, Russia” is part of a larger, NSF sponsored project titled “Histories and Futures of Relocations in Alaska and Rural Chukotka” and focuses on a case study of forced relocation on the Chukchi Peninsula in northeastern Russia.

From the 1930s to the 1970s the inhabitants of mainly native coastal villages had been subjected to relocalization policies of the Soviet state that left dozens of settlements deserted. Since the beginning of the 1930s, coastal villages predominantly inhabited by native Chukchi and Siberian Yupik were officially deemed unprofitable, subsequently closed and their inhabitants relocated to newly founded settlement centers. These state-enforced relocations of native communities, which peaked during the 1950s and 1960s, led to a creeping depopulation of a coastline, whose intricate settlement history traces back for thousands of years. Between 1937 and 1953 the total number of villages on the Chukchi Peninsula was reduced from 90 to 31. At the beginning of the 21st century, 12 villages remained (Figure 1&2).

The maritime landscape of the Chukchi Peninsula is a coast gone lonesome. Voluntary abandonments and state induced resettlements of native villages in the 20th century have drastically reduced the inhabited sites along the Bering and Chukchi seacoast. The collapse of the Soviet Union has further depopulated and isolated the region. In the ruin, history has physically merged into the landscape. Prehistoric villages, abandoned border guard stations, blind lighthouses, former Soviet whale processing plants, and contemporary hunting camps in old settlements remain along the coast.

The native coastal population of Chukotka was subjected to a twofold loss in the 20th century: the large-scale, state induced closures of many native villages, the subsequent, resettlement of the population to centralized villages, and the following collapse of the Soviet economy and infrastructure. This research project has thoroughly documented how voluntary abandonment, state-induced and -enforced resettlements of native villages in the 20th century have drastically reduced the inhabited sites along the Bering and Chukchi seacoast.

The Sovietization of the Russian North and the corresponding village relocations in Chukotka led to a collision of different forms of spatial practices, wherein a Soviet spatial logic was implanted on the traditional space usage of native sea mammal hunters and reindeer herders. In Chukotka, where native coastal settlements were located close to preferred subsistence sites, maximum access to subsistence resources, like drinking water, sea mammal migration routes, salmon runs, or plant gathering sites, was traditionally key in choosing the optimal site for a settlement. The Soviet era brought a diametrically opposed spatial logic to the region. For the Soviet economic planners and engineers, maximum infrastructural access to villages and state enterprises was one of the prime motivators for the concentration of the native population in centralized villages.

The traumatic loss of their homeland and the vanishing of the socio-economic structures that had replaced traditional ways of living sent devastating ripples through the socio-cultural fabric of native communities. Personal accounts of the relocations in Chukotka offer insight into the dramatic effects on traditional culture and individual lives. Some of the relocations were executed in such a hasty manner that most of the household items had to be left behind. In the majority of the cases, the host communities were not prepared for the influx of dozens of families. In the majority of the relocation cases, the new sites were inferior in terms of hunting possibilities and most of the hunters had to forfeit their profession for work in the state collective farms. The loss of language, cultural expressions, and hunting grounds was exaggerated by the unfamiliar living conditions in the new villages, where the predicaments of shift work, insufficient living space, and alcoholism exerted a heavy toll on the indigenous population.

The village relocations can be seen as a large-scale experiment of social engineering with often devastating results on native cultures and settlement patters. Yet, the ruins of former settlements are not only places of the Soviet past, but now play a role in present-day lives as some individuals have moved back into the formerly abandoned villages and actively use these sites for a variety of subsistence activities. Embedded in the landscape and local ecology, these reoccupied sites allow for some people to escape the shattered utopia of Soviet modernization. The peculiar topography and ecology of those places – they are exclusively located on bluffs or small cliffs at the end of capes where ice breaks up early in the season, sea mammal migration routes pass by closely, and from which walruses and whales can be easily spotted by the hunters – combined with the desire to flee the village and its intrinsic problems (violence, alcoholism, and unemployment) make them attractive places with distinct qualities.

Revitalization of old hunting technologies, subsistence camps, and traditional forms of cooperation allow for alternative life concepts that are diametrically opposed to the realities in the villages, for instance, hunting camps are dry places in respect to alcohol and traditional hunting and butchering technologies are actively passed on to a younger generation. After the failed experiment of large-scale social and cultural engineering, the depopulated coastal landscape with its abandoned settlements thus represents new points of anchorage for a partial re-settlement and revitalization movements.

The revitalization of traditional hunting technologies and the resettlement of formerly abandoned native villages is only one aspect of the current realities. Creative re-usage of industrial remains, from building materials to shipping container architecture, gave rise to new forms of habitation in the ruins of a volatile past. Access to gasoline has turned into a key asset, underscoring the essential role of fuel in hunting communities across the circumpolar North. Work for western scientists, involvement in international organizations, e.g. International Whaling Commission, or export of fur pelts to central Russia has empowered individual hunters who have transformed into influential players and brokers in their native communities. Thus, this project also examined the intricate and contemporary relationship between industrial technology, individual brokers and subsistence hunt in a contemporary northern community after catastrophic collapse.  

During its two fieldwork seasons in 2008 and 2009, the project utilized an original research methodology that incorporated oral history, archaeological records, and the geographic and ecological aspects of relocation events. Interviews with former inhabitants at abandoned village sites combined with an archaeological documentation of those sites add a social science perspective to the growing field of industrial archaeology by infusing ‘life’ data into ‘static’ records. The active use of archaeological and geographic maps during in-depth interviews has proven to be a productive strategy not only as a focal point for discussions but also as a way to ‘calibrate’ archaeological and geographic data.

Extensive boat travel and documentation of abandoned sites and landscape use along the coast serve as a basis for exploring a changing economic and ecological setting. Conversations, observations and encounters while traveling provide an entrance points into the intricate history of abandonment and village relocations. This spatial exploration and evocation outlines an ethnography on the move, which is at the same time an ethnography of movements along a changing maritime landscape.    

The project’s spatial and narrative approach combines site mapping and oral history, thus incorporating data and utilizing methodologies from the disciplines of archaeology and geography. The inclusion of ecological data, e.g. sea mammal migration routes and specific landscape features, adds to a holistic perspective on the spatial and ecological dimension of various relocation moments.

Google Earth is used as a platform and tool in the project to graphically represent and visualize the preliminary results of research into relocations in Alaska and Chukotka. The Google Earth based mapping project illustrates the spatial and temporal dimensions of village relocations on both sides of the Bering Strait. As a geo-referenced data base on abandoned and contemporary villages, this platform allows to add seamlessly new information to existing data sets and at the same time quickly share those additions with others members of the project as well as a wider public.



Contact: Dr. Tobias Holzlehner –

Contemporary hunting camp of Nuniamo, 2008
Historic settlements on the Chukchi Peninsula, 1900-1970
Contemporary settlements on the Chukchi Peninsula