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Articles Blog

Petropavlovsk, Russia

Karyn Planett

Kamchatka’s Hub 

“This is a city without style since it didn’t expect visitors.”

–Butterflybubbles, 2004 Journal.

Well, that makes sense if you know the city’s history as well as its geography. Historically, PK (as it’s called) had been shut off from the outside world especially during the Soviet Era when it housed Russia’s largest nuclear submarine base for their Pacific Fleet plus important military radar installations. PK’s Avacha Bay and Rybachiy Base were absolutely off limits to virtually all Russians and to definitely all foreigners throughout the Cold War. Truth be known, it’s only been open to outsiders since 1991. 

Geographically, PK is also shut off. As part of the Russian Far East, it’s nine time zones away from Moscow. Nine. And you know the old saying, “out of sight, out of mind.” In 1923, it had just three streets and 1,500 residents. But consider this... Petropavlovsk, though the Kamchatka Peninsula’s largest settlement, is today not even connected to the outside world by roads. That’s right. In fact, it’s the world’s second largest isolated city after Iquitos, Peru. 

In 1989, the population was 268,747. In 2002, only 198,028. But tourism is on the rise thanks to the fact that 1/3 of the peninsula has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing five nature reserves. The fishing industry flourishes. One-third of the entire catch is sold to Japan and fishing rights have been sold to other nations. Trekkers and fishermen come for sport. And an occasional cruise ship or two happens by. 

Bering and the Brown Bears 

Vitus Bering founded Petropavlovsk city. This Danish-born Russian explorer sailed into Avacha Bay July 10th, 1740 and proudly named this spot after his two sailing ships the Svyatoy Pyotr (St. Peter) and the Svyatoy Pavel (St. Paul). The Russian translation of “Peter and Paul” is Petropavlovsk. The following summer, Bering’s men set sail again with the task of discovering the Alaskan coastline. This historic journey took him to the Aleutian Islands and onto the Commander Islands where he sadly succumbed to the scourge of the seas, scurvy, in December 1741. The Bering Straits, that 53-mile-wide gap in the sea between Asia and North America, today still bears his name, a tribute to his great accomplishments.           

The Kamchatka Peninsula is home to the world’s densest population of brown bears. The first westerners to visit were stunned at both the bears’ size and their numbers. A mature male stands 9 feet tall and weighs a whopping 800 pounds. And, on a scale of relative nastiness, these brown bears are comparatively unferocious. Not friendly, mind you, but comparatively unferocious. Having said that, visitors should always heed all caution warnings and follow all rules set down by the local authorities when hiking, fishing, etc. 

Today, the bears are hunted for their fur plus their gallbladders, which fetch a pretty Yen in Asia. And, they, like us enjoy salmon as a source of fat for their long winter’s nap. The indigenous peoples of Kamchatka did hunt bears for food though they were of little interest to the Cossacks so their populations grew almost unchecked.  

The Ring Of Fire 

Kamchatka is the land of fire and ice. The two most active volcanoes nearby are Avachinskiy and Koryakskiy. There are a total of 68 active volcanoes on the Kamchatka Peninsula meaning over 10% of the world’s total land volcanoes are right here on this peninsula. The surrounding landscape is also dotted with hot springs and geysers. Mountains and volcanoes ring the city so that the horizon isn’t visible from any point in town. 

Local lore tells us about gomuls. They’re the mountain spirits who hunt whales and cook them at night, hence the visible sparks from the mountaintops. The indigenous people were so frightened of these spirits that they never scaled the volcanoes to determine for themselves if this tale was true. But, good always comes with the bad. Concrete blocks made of cinders from a nasty 1945 eruption of the Avachinskiy volcano now form the buildings of Petropavlovsk.

Mucking About, Literally

It rains often here, so visitors should dress accordingly. Ploshad Lenina (Lenin Square) is central to the city and worthy of a look. Like many cities across this vast nation, the names are often changed but this square is still known as Ploshad Lenina. Another place of interest is the small grey Chapel honoring the dead from the 1854 Crimean War. Though modest, it’s an important landmark. So, too, the Russian Orthodox Church and the local market where fish and produce are sold. Souvenir items include fur hats (sable, mink and fox), matrioshka nesting dolls, and hand-painted lacquer boxes. 

And, if you’re hungry, sample some borsch (beet soup) and blinis (pancakes) with jam. Of course, the salmon is fabulous as is the local beer, if you’re a fan, claimed to be so delicious due to the pure Kamchatka waters. Hot tea is available for all others. Maybe take a thermos up to Petrovskaya Hill for a nice view of the city below.