Depopulation of Magadan

Oct 7, 2014 by

[A reader commented in response to the previous post that the high concentration of ethnic Ukrainians in certain areas of Russian Federation may be due not to deportations of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, but to later migrations to areas rich in natural resources, where incomes were higher. While this may be true of some Ukrainian migrants, such a theory does not explain why nearly one in 10 residents in the Magadan oblast’ is an ethnic Ukrainian. Below is a post originally published in April 2012, depicting the sorry state of Magadan’s demographics and economy. Many thanks to Vitaliy Rayz for his help in working on the original post!]

Magadan_population_chartWhile the population of Siberia and the Far East is shrinking, some areas have experienced a worse-than-average depopulation. The Magadan Oblast in the Far Eastern Federal District stands out among all Russian federal subjects. Its population, numbering over half a million in 1989, decreased to just over 150,000 in 2010. The most precipitous drop occurred in 1991-1996, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (see the chart I created on the left), with the departure of the most mobile segment of the population, originally attracted to the area by a higher earning potential. But the process has continued relentlessly ever since.

Magadan_Oblast_mapThis depopulation trend affects different segments of the population at varying rates. While both urban and rural populations are shrinking, the latter is doing so at a much faster pace: according to Tomasz Wites, 64,000 people lived outside towns in Magadan Oblast in 1989, but by 2002 the number dropped to 14,000. Entire villages are disappearing as the countryside empties out. The rural population of Yagodninsky District dropped from 13,843 in 1991 to 445 in 2007. Omsukchansky District saw its rural population shrink from 1,301 to 79. Even more extreme is the example of Susumansky District in the northwest, where the rural population plummeted from 9,764 in 1991 to just 116 in 2007. In general, the male population is shrinking faster than the female (56% and 51% decrease, respectively). As a result, the sex-ratio of Magadan Oblast changed from being male-biased 1.06 (that is, 106 men per 100 women) to female-biased (0.96). As will be discussed in a forthcoming GeoCurrents post, sex ratios are, to a degree, a self-exciting phenomenon; a lower sex ratio often generates a vicious circle, which is extremely difficult to break. Another changing trend concerns age groups: while the number of working-age adults decreased by 51%, the number of children shrunk even more, by 69%. In contrast, the number of older adults, those past working age, has actually grown by 15%. Such figures are a clear indicator of population decrease due to emigration.

Other worrisome demographic figures from Magadan include lower marriage rates and higher divorce rates: 34,488 marriages and 33,481 divorces have been registered in the oblast between 1990 and 2006.* The health situation is also grim: instances of cardio-vascular disease, cancer, and other serious health problems are on the rise. Abortion rates are high and growing, as are suicide rates. But perhaps the most troubling of all is the elevated infant mortality rate: the rural infant mortality rate of 34.8 per 1,000 births, recorded in Magadan in 2007, is the highest in Russia. The oblast’s overall death rate – over 13 per 1,000 persons – is also high, well above the birth rate, which barely exceeds 10 per 1,000. Thus, natural decrease in population, alongside emigration, generates population decline. In the rest of this post, we shall focus on the causes of emigration, but before taking on this issue, a short overview of the history of the Magadan Oblast is in order.

Gulag_mapThe first Soviet census of 1926 recorded only seven thousand people in the Magadan region, but by 1939 the population had reached 152,000. This sharp growth was due to an influx of prisoners into the ever-growing Gulag system of forced labor camps, which “like a cancer of the most deadly sort, … metastasized across the Soviet Union” (W. Bruce Lincoln, The Conquest of a Continent, p. 335). In the early Soviet period, the entire territory of the present-day Magadan Oblast was one vast labor camp, an NKVD colony. Magadan was the most popular destination for those deemed objectionable by the Stalinist regime, so much so that the words Kolyma and Magadan became synonymous with the penal system itself. Along with people imprisoned for armed robbery, burglary, smuggling, desertion, profiteering, theft of state property, and other crimes were those incarcerated merely for uttering an anti-collective-farm joke or ditty. Many camp inmates had been convicted of hooliganism or breaking the passport laws or labor regulations. Over time, more and more of the prisoners were “politicals” of various persuasions: members of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, Trotskyites, and other “anti-Soviet elements”. Many among the prisoners were technical specialists accused of sabotage and treason against the USSR. Arrested under the formal charge of “wrecking” (in Russian, vreditel’skaia deiatel’nost’), most of these people had committed no crime other than possessing technical knowledge needed for establishing an industrial foundation for the Gulag. Varlam Shalamov, who survived 14 years as a political prisoner in “the land of white death”, evocatively described both the harsh, inhuman conditions in the Gulag camps and the nature of the political persecution in his series of short stories Kolyma Tales:

“Arrests of 1930s were arrests of random people. These were victims of false and chilling theory about kindling class warfare at the strengthening of socialism. Professors, party officials, military men, engineers, peasants, factory workers, who filled the prisons of that era to the fullest, … were neither enemies of the government, nor state criminals, and dying they still did not understand why they had to die. … Isolated, they died in the white Kolyma desert, from hunger, cold, many hours of work, beatings, and illness.” (from “The Last Battle of Major Pugachev”; translation mine)


The town of Magadan was founded in 1939 as a transit point for prisoners being transported to the Kolyma camps. It soon became the center of activities of Dalstroy, an organization set up in 1931 by the Soviet NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB) to manage road construction and gold mining. According to David Nordlander’s “Magadan and the Economic History of Dalstroy in the 1930s”, the region’s minerals crucially “provided the Soviet government with an irreplaceable commodity for foreign exchange and further economic development”, essentially serving as the main source of financing for Stalin’s crash industrialization and militarization program. Over the years, Dalstroy came to administer more than 130 camp facilities in a territory covering nearly 3 million square kilometers (nearly 1.2 million square miles), stretching to the tip of the Bering Strait. Encompassing the northern right bank of the Lena River, the Indigirka and Kolyma Rivers, the Chukotka Peninsula, and a section of northern Kamchatka, this region formed a landmass bigger than that of Western Europe (see map). Though officially a construction trust, Dalstroy administered virtually all aspects of the region: territorial administration, economic activities, and labor camps. Its activities included geological surveying, motorized transport, management of secondary economies, road administration, steamship navigation on the River Kolyma, and port and terminal management. Through tundra bogs and mosquito-ridden swamps, emaciated prisoners condemned to hard labor built roads and houses in the taiga wilderness and worked the newly opened gold mines. Though the productivity of forced labor was low, Dalstroy produced economic returns far above projected values, making A. P. Serebrovskii, an industrial commissar, excitedly but erroneously rhapsodize: “Never, in the most feverish years of the capitalist gold rush that included all the metal taken out of Alaska, did a territory give as much gold as that produced this year by the new Kolyma region” (cited in Nordlander, p. 107).


In the summer of 1932, the personnel registry of Dalstroy included a mere 1,014 workers, of whom only 196 worked at the gold-washing sites. But from the start, the ranks of the so‑called “freely hired personnel” were supplemented by prisoners. They were brought to Vladivostok by train, spending anywhere between 28 and 42 days in unheated freight cars.  The last leg of the journey was made on penal ships, “ghostly successors to those sailing vessels that had once carried cargoes of captive Africans from the Gulf of Guinea coast to the auction blocks of the New World” (W. Bruce Lincoln, The Conquest of a Continent, p. 337). By the end of 1932, nearly ten thousand prisoners were brought to different camp enterprises. The graph on the left illustrates the sharp rise in the number of people employed by Dalstroy: the blue line represents the total number of Dalstroy workers, the red line shows  the number employed in gold-washing, the purple line indicates the number of prisoners, and the green line represents the number of the “freely hired personnel”. As can be seen from this graph, Dalstroy – and consequently the population of the region – experienced a significant growth in the immediate pre-war period, from the Great Purges of 1937 to the beginning of the Great Patriotic War (as the Russians refer to their participation in World War II) in June 1941.

In the early days of Dalstroy history, virtually all workers were prisoners in the forced labor camps, most of them common criminals, but in 1940-1941 the situation changed. The number of people employed by Dalstroy decreased during the war years because many of the workers were sent to fight on Russia’s western front. This necessitated more heavily mechanized gold-washing operations, eventually driving the need for labor down. But ironically, as mechanization proceeded, slave labor became more expendable, ceasing to be the vital resource that it had previously been. A greater proportion of the workers were now the so-called “freely hired personnel”, though they were hardly free in the common sense of the word. For the most part, they were former prisoners who were formally released from the confines of labor camps “for free settlement” before their term expiration. Others in this category were people who had served their full terms, but remained restricted in their choice of residence. Some former prisoners were joined by their families. Other categories of “freely hired personnel” included exiled persons from a range of categories, including special settlement (in Russian, spetsposelenie), special resettlement (in Russian, spetspereselenie), and administrative exile (in Russian, administrativnaja vysylka, a term which refers to extrajudicial exiles). Among both prisoners and “freely hired personnel” were, with growing frequency, victims of political and religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, deportations from border territories, and in the later war years, also prisoners of war, both enemy POWs and Soviet POWs who had survived the German camps. Varlamov’s “The Last Battle of Major Pugachev”, tells a story of an attempted escape from a Kolyma camp by the title character, a former POW who fled a Nazi camp only to be condemned to twenty-five years in a Soviet camp:

“… after the war steamboat after steamboat brought those repatriated – from Italy, France, Germany – straight to the extreme northeast. Among them were many people with different skills, with habits acquired during the war, with the courage, ability to risk, believing only in the power of the arms. Officers and soldiers, pilots and scouts…”

The horrors that those POWs suffered matched those of the Nazi camps. The inhumane treatment of German POWs is documented in As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me, a 2001 German film about Clemens Forell’s escape from a Gulag camp in Chukotka back to Germany; the film is loosely based on the true story of Cornelius Rost. Ironically, Soviet POWs suffered from equally brutal treatments in the Magadan camps.

Only upon Stalin’s death in 1953, Dalstroy was disbanded, and Magadan Oblast was established in the former Kolyma area. From then on, paid labor, attracted by the region’s rapid economic expansion fueled by gold-mining, replaced most of the forced labor. Today’s economy of the Magadan region, one of the world’s richest mining areas, is still centered on gold, silver, tin, tungsten, mercury, and copper. Nearly 2000 placer gold deposits, 100 gold ore deposits, and 48 silver ore deposits are found in the territory. The city of Magadan is the only large industrial center in the oblast. It is also one of the main processing centers for the fishing industry in the Sea of Okhotsk, which produces pollock, herring, cod, flounder, and various kinds of salmon. In recent years, interest has increased in exploiting the region’s coal, petroleum, and natural gas resources, but the future of these projects remains uncertain. Despite the rich natural resources, Magadan’s economy has not prospered as much as one might have expected. The severe climate, poor infrastructure, and the difficult transition from Soviet times are typically blamed for the near-collapse of local economy, and as we shall see below, for the associated depopulation of the region.

Socio-economic statistics pertaining to unemployment, cost of living, and crime rates make Magadan seem like a rather uninviting place too. The official unemployment rate in the oblast is around 12%, but the official rate is likely higher because many people living in remote areas, especially members of indigenous groups, have no opportunity to register as unemployed. Some sources suggest that the jobless rate in such areas may be as high as 20%. While reindeer herding is no longer feasible in many places, and fishing quotas are nearly impossible to get, the fraction of indigenous workers in industry and mining is negligible. Since agriculture remains virtually non-existent and fishing is the only substantial food sector in the Magadan Oblast, most food products must be supplied from outside by ships. Unsurprisingly, the price of a “consumer basket” in the oblast is 39% higher than the Russian average, and 5% higher than the Far East average. Although salaries in Magadan Oblast are still higher than those elsewhere in Russia, they have not increased despite recent sudden and often sharp increases in rent (up to 30%), food prices (up to 15%), and utility bills. Not infrequently salaries are delayed or not paid at all, especially in the public sector. Crime statistics are likewise worse than elsewhere in Russia, with the illegal drug trade experiencing striking growth in recent years: in the five years between 2001 and 2006 the proportion of drug-related criminal activities rose from 6% to 14%. According to Tomasz Wites’ survey, the surge in crime is perceived as the most palpable change for the worse since the fall of the Soviet Union, with three out of four respondents indicating a perception of a “significant increase” in the crime rate. One reason for the growing crime is the rise in alcohol consumption, as is true elsewhere in Russia. However, the Magadan Oblast has its own reason for the high rate of criminalization: even after closing down of labor camps, prisons were maintained in this area, and people released from incarceration not infrequently decided to stay in the region.

Recently, renewed efforts have been made to encourage foreign investment, which could lead to improvements in the economy. Indeed, on a visit to Magadan in November 2005, President Vladimir Putin supported the extension of special tax advantages to encourage gold exploitation. However, the inaccessibility of the region, the lack of railways connected with central Russia, the rigorous climate with long, frigid winters, and the difficult topography are driving away investors, foreign and domestic alike. In an attempt to stall depopulation, the leader of Russia’s LDPR party Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has called on the Japanese, in the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, to leave “the dangerous islands” and move to the Magadan Oblast. (Just how ridiculous Zhirinovsky’s ideas can be is shown by the invitation he extended around the same time to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, whom he offered permanent residence in Moscow.)

The description above paints a dismal picture of the socio-economic situation in the Magadan Oblast and goes a long way in explaining why people are leaving in droves. For nearly three out of four respondents to the survey conducted by Tomasz Wites, the decision to leave or to stay is contingent upon having housing and a job. But it must also be pointed out that the depopulation process is a self-perpetuating phenomenon: the more people leave, the worse the situation becomes for those staying, and the more remaining inhabitants are compelled to leave. In part, this is because the per-capita cost of maintaining infrastructure that is not fully used increases. But people in Magadan are also used to relying on each other: according to Wites’s survey, when asked “On which authorities can you count in the largest degree when you need assistance?”, 67.5% of respondents answered “none”, and quite a few remarked that the most helpful are not authorities but parents or friends (in a typical Russian fashion, state authorities were indicated as the most helpful, and local authorities the least). Similarly, when asked “With whom would you like to leave?”, three out of four respondents replied that they would leave only with the whole family, again indicating strong domestic ties. Since nearly half the respondents in this survey witnessed their friends leaving, 30% had seen their neighbors depart, and nearly one in four had lost relatives, it is unsurprising that 65% , when asked “Do you want to leave?” said “yes”.



*Evoking Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, it is the “apartment question”, that is the need for the young couple to live with the in-laws, that is often blamed for the high divorce rate.


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