The New Yorker:
In the winter of 1919, the settlement of Anadyr, just below the Arctic circle, was a cluster of cabins: storehouses of fox, bear, and wolverine pelts; the offices of a few fur companies; and the imperial Russian administrator’s post. Anadyr was built on extracting animals from Chukotka, the peninsula that nearly touches North America at the Bering Strait. The wealth that resulted from those animals often did not go, as maps would indicate, to the Russian Empire; four thousand miles from Moscow, practical jurisdiction of Chukotka was elusive. Much of the profit derived from fox pelts and walrus went to traders from Alaska, just a few hundred miles east. This made Anadyr a village built by a “capitalist system,” Mikhail Mandrikov, a young Bolshevik from central Russia, argued, which would “never free workers from capitalist slavery.” Anadyr’s workers were mostly indigenous to Chukotka’s tundra and rocky coastline. For almost a century, they had sold pelts and tusks to Americans. Mandrikov and his colleague Avgust Berzin had come north to preach liberation, to impart a vision for a world where “every person . . . has an equal share of all the value in the world created by work.”
The Bolshevik Revolution was two years old when Mandrikov and Berzin took control of the regional administration, seized fur storehouses, and proclaimed the establishment of the first Soviet revolutionary committee, or Revkom, in Chukotka. Six weeks later, most members of the Revkom were dead, executed by merchants with little sympathy for revolution. It was 1923 before the Red Army declared Chukotka liberated from “White [Army] bandits and foreign predators and plundering armies,” and part “of a new world, a new life of fraternity, equality, and freedom.” It was the beginning of a grand experiment in the Arctic, as the Soviet Union brought its theories of collective production, Party participation, and Marxist social transformation to Chukotka. Walruses and reindeer, and the indigenous societies that made a living from their flesh, were about to join the workers’ revolution.
For the Bolsheviks, Chukotka was a particular challenge. Its people—nomadic Chukchi reindeer herders, on the tundra, and Yupik walrus hunters, on the coast—were all potential Soviets. But in Marxist terms they lived on the first rung of history’s ladder, before the rise of agriculture and industry, let alone socialism. In 1924, a group of Bolshevik faithful—many of them ethnographers experienced with “backward peoples”—formed the Committee of the North. From Murmansk to Chukotka, the committee sent “missionaries of the new culture and the new Soviet state,” as one member put it, “ready to take to the North the burning fire of their enthusiasm born of the Revolution.”
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