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The Russian Gold Mining Before The Revolution Of 1917

In 1895 a popular Russian marinist writer Konstantin Stanyukovich (1843-1903) – a naval cadet in his youth - published a novel “Three years in Korshoun” based on recollections about his three years long seafaring adventure in 186-1863. The novel contains a short story told him by a Swedish seaman – an ex-gold miner – who had come to California to try his luck in gold prospecting during the Gold Rush Era. The young Russian sailor was, apparently, fascinated by the stories about life in the goldfields:

    The stories told by the Swede breathed with something fantastic and at the same time, terrifying and brutal… What a horrible society was it! Any kind of personalities could be found amongst the gold-diggers starting from a impoverished aristocrat and ending with an escaped convict! Willingly or unwillingly, this motley community, occupying a chaotically scattered mining camp, worked out its own severe legislation… It would have been enough to enter another man’s tent with no permission from the host to be shot dead by the latter. A petty theft was punished by hanging. No one would stay apart from his revolver under no circumstances. As the Swede was telling, only this kind of law, borne to life by the gold miners themselves, was capable of maintaining a certain kind of order, and there was no high crime rate. But the life itself was full of excitement. After a day full of work gold diggers spent nights in saloons and gamble away all gold mined out over this day…

    Whilst a young cadet might have been impressed by this story in the early 1860-ties, the ageing Russian writer was supposed to know that the life in Russian goldfileds was more than typical of the “Wild West” customs and traditions.

    But first a bit of history – how come that the Russian Empire became a major player on the gold-mining world scene? This story remains almost unknown in the West…

    The Russian goldfields spread over huge expanses of the Ural mountains and Siberia starting from the second quarter of the XIX century when the first wave of the Siberian Gold Rush, by no means a less significant and dramatic event than gold rushes in California, Australia and Alaska, began its tremendous eastward roll. Commencement of gold mining and exploration in Russia, as well as many other industrial innovations, was related to the Peter the Great’s rein. When travelling in Western Europe this great statesman became acquainted with fundamentals of mineralogy, mining and metallurgy and being confident in mineral potential of Russia did his best to organize geological exploration in then a backward country. Invitation of skilled professionals from the most advanced European countries (England, Germany, and Holland) was a very important step forward. The results did not make wait for too long. In 1702 the first silver deposit was discovered in Transbaikalia (Nerchinsky Mine) and first Russian silver was produced shortly after that. In 1714 one of then very few Russian chemists Ivan Makeev managed to detect gold in predominantly silver ore of the Nerchinsky Mine and in 1719 the first gold bullion was produced.

    Another vital innovation of Peter the Greatís was a legal document named "The Mining Privilegeî" and issued in 1719. This act stimulated private initiative in exploration and mining and gave a great boost to the Russian quest for gold. A series of discoveries followed the act. In 1737 gold was on the northern coast of the White Sea, then, in 1733-35, in the Altay mountains (as a by-product in silver ores). In 1745 a simple peasant Erofey Markov found gold on the eastern slope of the Ural Range. It took two years to verify his find and in 1748 the first Russian purely gold mine was set up. Why was it so slow and did not ignite a major gold rush? The answer is simple: gold mining than remained the state’s monopoly and the vast majority of the Russian population (both peasants and industrial workers) were serfs attached to numerous landlords or few industrialists, and nearly no free hands were available for large scale gold mining.

A horse driven skipping machine.

Water lift (fume) - a typical unit of many Russian gold mines in the XIX century.

    Nevertheless, by the end of the XVII century about 140 hard rock gold occurrences had been found in the Urals and several new gold mines were put into production.

    In 1803 the first gold deposit was found on the western slope of the Ural Range. New discoveries finally inspired the Russian Government to unchain the private initiative. In May 1812 the Senate issued an Act on the provision to all Russian subjects a right to search and mine gold and silver ores with payment of royalties to the Kazna (National State’s Bank). Since that moment numerous private enterprises of the Urals region began to put into production one gold mine after another. The gold output of the country began to grow. It is noteworthy that the whole lot of mining remained hard rock and predominantly underground. The total output of gold in the Russian Empire between 1719 and 1800 made up 22,491.1 kg. The silver producing mines in the Altay Mountains made up approximately 70% of this figure but their share clearly showed signs of decline against the background of quick growth of the gold production in the Urals in the last two decades of the XVIII century.

Amazingly the famous Russian gold placers were yet to be found. Actually presence of gold in river sediments was known but nobody possessed skills to extract it! For example on some mines they tried to process alluvial gravel as hard rock ore. Needless to say, crushing and grinding only led to dilution of paydirt and kept making it uneconomic. Sadly, it took the Russians more than 100 years to capitalize on the task given by Peter the Great: "LOOK FOR SANDY GOLD!"

    In 1813 a little girl Katerina Bogdanova found a gold nugget in the basin of the Neiva River (Mid-Urals) and brought it to a local official. Instead of an award she received a punishment (whipping) and was ordered to keep her mouth shut. Probably, the local authorities did not want any social disturbance and feared of igniting an uncontrolled gold rush in the area populated by serfs (as well as the Australian authorities in the first half of the XIX century did not want to let the largely convict population know about presence of gold in New South Wales). Nearly at the same time a hunter who lived next to the Berezovsky gold diggings (modern area of the City of Ekaterinburg) found a nugget when digging a trap for a deer and failed to keep silent. Somebody reported to the authorities, the hunter was then severely whipped and died shortly after that having taken the mystery of the locality of his find to grave.

    But a talented mining foreman Lev Brusnitsyn got interested in this story and convinced the manager of a local mine to send a party to explore the probable gold occurrence. The party had been stubbornly test-pitting the toe of a slope of a river valley for several months until Brusnitsyn chanced to place several pits in the river bed. Then he tested the dirt in different portions of a hard rock metallurgical circuit and found that sluicing was good enough to extract payable gold! Thus the first Russian alluvial gold deposit was found.

A horse driven train for ore carting. In the background - shaft headgear.

Open cut alluvial gold mining in the Lenski district from a deeply (25m) buried placer.

    Brusnitsyn discovered several alluvial deposits in the vicinity of the Berezovsky hard rock diggings and in 1823 there were already about 200 alluvial operations in the Urals. Privately owned operations produced twice more than the state owned ones. 11500 workers were employed by them and the annual output from them totaled at about 1600kg (2000kg with hard rock operations). Due to the alluvial gold the output of this metal in the Urals grew up to 8.2t in 1870, 9.8t in 1880 and reached its peak in 1892 - 12.8t. Later with depletion of the richest placers it began to decline and in 1913 made up 8.2t. Many famous nuggets were found in the alluvial deposits of the Urals in the XIX century. The biggest one (36.02kg) nowadays may be seen in the Russian Diamond Fund in Moscow, Kremlin.

    The newly grown Russian gold mining business began to look at the vast Siberian territories already in the mid-twenties of the XIX century. In 1826 the Crown granted the first permissions to search for gold to several entrepreneurs and in early 1830-s a wave of gold rush inundated mountainous areas of the Southern Siberia. The main method of prospecting was digging of test pits. Private companies did not bother about employment of educated professionals and many placers were discovered by simple prospectors who had never read a book on geology or mining in their lives. Those were prospectors (staratels) Masharov (nicknamed for his bush craft and luck The Napoleon of Taiga (Siberian bush), Ivanov, Shipalin, Zhmayev, Familtsev and many others who could recognize quartz, greenstones, ironstone and were able to see mineralized lineaments and knew basics of geomorphology.

    A few discoveries were made by State owned parties led by experienced mining engineers. Hundreds of alluvial deposits were found in late 20-s and 30-s of the XIX century in the mountains of Altay, Sayan, Eniseysky Kriazh. The discoveries and newly opened diggings attracted dozens if not hundreds of thousands of people many of which were former serfs who had run away from their landlords and factory owners. Most of them were the first free people out of many generations of those who belonged to the “hosts”. The quest for freedom and gold went together! It was a gold rush not smaller than any of those glorious ones which would occur a bit later in California, Australia, Alaska or South Africa.

A Russian gold prospector. Note that the Russian gold pan is actually a tray carved from a large piece of wood.

A gold mine in Central Siberia. Water supply line on the left hand side, in the center (background) - trommel. Pay dirt is moved by horse-power.

    The gold output in the south of Western and Central Siberia grew up from 4.8 t in 1842 up to 17.4 in 1855 (absolute record) and then began to decline (9.2t in 1875 and 6.3t in 1913). It put Russia to the first place amongst the gold mining nations for more than a decade before discoveries of gold in Victoria (Australia) and California.

    Up until year 1860 the alluvial gold mining was conducted very unprofessionally by numerous open cuts targeted at the riche pods and paystreaks. Human muscles and horses predominantly did earthmoving and the paydirt was washed on primitive sluices. After 1861, with the abolition of serfdom and rapid industrial development, the gold mining became more and more advanced and mechanized. It was in the 1860-s when disintegration and screening bowls and trommels were introduced. But horsepower remained the main earthmoving force till the end of the XIX century when dredging was successfully introduced with assistance of the Western professionals.


    The presence of gold colors in the basin of the Amur River was first discovered in 1850-1851 by an expedition led by a mining engineer Metlitsky. Several years later an expedition, specialized in gold prospecting and headed by a mining engineer Anosov, was sent to the Amur region. In the winter of 1857-58 the expedition struck gold in the basin of the Maya river. The next several years of extensive search brought numerous discoveries. From 1870 to 1899 the Government bodies registered 2955 mining claims, and 790 alluvial operations were put into production.

    The year 1891 became known due to the first discovery of hard rock gold deposit called “the Gold Hill” (Zolotaya Gora). It was quickly put into production and during the first 4 years about 1.6t of gold was produced from the oxide zone. The deposit has been intermittently mined since then till recently.

    The major gold district of the Amur region - the Zeyski - yielded 66.8t of gold from 1876 to 1900. Several dozen more tons were also produced in other districts of the province. The annual output of the province in 1868-1891 had been making up to 5t of gold. The first Russian dredge was introduced into mining practice in the Amur region by the Verkhne-Amurskaya company in 1894. The dredge was built in Holland. Its on-site construction (which took a year) and launch into production was supervised by a Dutch engineer A. de Haas who kept looking after it for 4 years. The management of the operation was conducted by an engineer A.A. Perre who had previously visited Australia and New Zealand in order to get familiarized with gold mining in these countries.

Loading horse driven carts by pay dirt from a ditch.

Test pitting in Siberia. The pit is equipped by a windlass and a bucket the diggers are unloading.

    The operation proved to be successful and in a year another dredge was ordered by another company from the same producer. In 3 years one more dredge was put into production in the Krasnoyarsky Krai (Eniseyski Kriazh) and from 1902 construction of domestic dredges began in Russia. In 1908 for the first time in the Russian history a mining complex consisting of a digger (made in St-Petersburg) and a washing plant mounted on a train, moving over a 1.5km long railroad, was put into production in the Amur province. In 1910-12, much later than in other countries, several successful hydraulic operations commenced here. In 1902-1915 about 96 t of gold were produced in the province. A considerable figure of mined out gold was recorded even in 1916-1920 during the years of the Civil War. The dynamics of officially recorded gold production in the province are shown in the following table:





166 t

96 t

16 t

3 t

    It is noteworthy that in 1910-1918 the officially registered operations produced 33.7t of gold whereas in reality its amount in bullion made up 111.2t! Needless to say the surplus of gold was achieved due to unregistered illegal mining. Meanwhile only in 1910-1918 more than 9 t of gold were smuggled into China. That is why some historians believe that the real gold output in the province before 1922 made up 940 t, and it doesn’t seem to be unrealistic!


    This country (Primorie - Seaside Land) encompassing a considerable part of the Low Amur basin became known as a gold producer in 1871, although small groups of Russian and Chinese prospectors and miners operated here since 1856. It produced about 58t of gold between 1871 and 1918. This province may be depicted as less advanced in terms of introduction of new techniques of gold mining compared to the Upper and Mid Amur province what was caused by isolation and poor accessibility of many operations. In 1914 (just before the outbreak of WWI) out of 52 registered operations only 9 were mechanized: there were 4 dredges, 2 diggers, 3 trommels. It is noteworthy that these operations yielded 41.2% of annual output of the province (1066.1kg out of 2584kg). The rest of the diggings were then still being driven by human muscles and horsepower. Needless to say a considerable amount of gold, probably, dozens of tons, was smuggled into nearby China in 1871-1918.


    The mountains of these lands adjacent to the coast of the Okhotskoye sea were known of alluvial gold since 1856. But their isolation, severe climate and poor accessibility remained an obstacle for explorers and miners till the end of the XIX century. Moreover it is still a puzzle why the Russians tended to explore and develop the Pacific coast of Alaska instead of Priokhotie where they had established their first fort Okhotsk already in 1688! However, the first alluvial operations commenced production in its southern portion only in 1899. By the year 1912 gold mining had extended up north. It is noteworthy that the foreign investors (Americans, British, and French) played a significant role in gold exploration and opening of new mines. During the pre-Soviet period the province produced not less than 55-60 tons of gold.


    This district being only a part of a major gold province named Zabaikalie (Transbaikalia or land beyond the Baikal Lake) still remains a jewel in the crown of the Russian gold mining industry. First strikes of alluvial gold occurred in this area in 1843 but they were minor compared to finds in other parts of Southern Siberia and failed to ignite a gold rush. Three years later two exploration parties organized by a merchant Constantin Trapeznikov and headed by a peasant Peter Kornilov and a suburban Nikolay Okulovsky discovered two enormously rich placers in the basin of the Khomolkho River. A series of new discoveries followed over the next 5-8 years and how rich they were! Many rivers yielded up to several tons of gold from each kilometer of their length. Some operations encompassing 2-3 river valleys produced dozens of tons of gold. In 1868 famous placers of the Bodaibo River basin were discovered. The pay layers of these placers were mostly deeply (25-60m) buried in palaeochannels under younger barren sediments of alluvial, lacustrine and glacial genesis. They became an arena of large scale underground mining.

    The complicated geological and mining conditions caused introduction of new methods of alluvial mining. Since 1868 large boulders and bulges of bedrock were blasted with application of gun powder, and after 1885 the dynamite was introduced. Permafrost was melted by boulders white-heated on fires or merely by burning of firewood in front of or over mining faces.

    Due to their enormous wealth the operations of the Lenа Goldfields are known as “the first” in terms of many technical innovations. In 1876 the first steam-powered water pumps were introduced for drying of underground workings. In 1880 the first horse-powered rail road was built on the Blagoveshensky mine, and in 1883 the first steam powered mine ventilation system was introduced. In 1889 the first in Russia hydraulic operation was put into production on the Pavlovsky mine but it was an ill-famed attempt as the engineers failed to handle very high pressure which burst the pipelines. Hydraulic mining was successfully introduced into mine practice only after 1917. In 1896 the first in Russia electric powered rail road was built on one of the mines in basin of the Nygry River. It was successfully used for transportation of stripped waste and tailings. In 1899 electric power was first used for skipping in a shaft. The dredging came to the district later then in the Amur province only in 1914 (again it was a dredge built in Holland). The total amount of alluvial mines operating in the district made up its peak in 1914 - 140. In 1915 the peak of annual output was reached and made up 14.5t. It is noteworthy that the mining in the district was extremely highly monopolized and 94% of all gold were produced by the reigning operator - the “Lenzoloto” company. During the pre-Soviet period of its history the district produced about 660tons of alluvial gold what had made 23% of the whole Russian output since the beginning of gold mining in this country. Again, in reality this figure must have been by 15-40% higher as nobody knows how much gold was mined illegally and smuggled across the Chinese border...

    Before the WWI Russia remained one of the major gold producers. Its annual output (64 tons) followed South Africa (264t), USA (145t) and Australia (99t). Years of revolt and major upheavals in the life of the Russian and then Soviet Empire were to come. The Russian quest for gold, however, stayed alive. New provinces and greatest deposits were discovered after 1917 and many tragic and glorious pages of the history of the Russian gold mining were written. After the WWII the USSR became the second gold producer in the world and remained on this placed until 1991 when one third of the Soviet gold production was taken over by several newly independent states of the Central Asia.


    The Russian archives and libraries are not short of documents and fictional books depicting life in the goldfields between the middle of the XIX century up until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It is not hard to conclude that the atmosphere was highly criminogenic. First of all, Siberia for dozens of years was a land of convicts or exiled people, and ex-convicts and deportees comprised up to 15-20% of manpower at hundreds of mining operations of various size. Needless to say, there were many ways to strip gold miners, prospectors and bounty hunters of their fortunes. In the 186-1860-ties returning of gold miners from remote diggings and shows was extremely dangerous as they were stalked and often robbed and killed by bushrangers of various kinds. This is why local authorities had to organize the returning miners into groups of 30-100 men and guard them by Cossack units. Small unprotected groups of workers often disappeared in the bush with no trace. For example, a search in a hut of one bushranger discovered presence of up to 50 (!) coats with bullet holes!

    Life in the goldfields was typical of presence of so-called spirits-carriers. These men, fully aware that for an average miner alcohol was the only means to make their work and life in terrible conditions a bit more comfortable, carried spirits along bush trails and swapped it for gold stolen by desperate miners. Significant amount of gold “extracted” this way was then smuggled to China.

    Coming of gold diggers and prospectors back to the towns and villages was accompanied by debauchery, brawling and murder. Money was often simply “pissed” against the wall: champagne was spilled on the roads just for fun, hundreds of meters of satin were used to carpet town streets, banknotes were burned…  

    Vitim – one of the mining centers of the Lena Goldfields was described by a Siberian journalist I. Angarskiy the following way in 1889:

    It was an extremely specific town which existence due to gold-mining debauchery, smuggling of spirits and gold theft: gold and blood streamed here mixing together, and shaped up Vitim as it is now: specific and avaricious. It is assigned to be a huge kabak (bar, saloon), a home of lechery and a den of murder – hidden and open, a tremendous gambling house wherein there is nothing sacred or coveted. Huge masses of people with money come here, exhausted by bush life, missing all, having bashed their way to freedom and wildly looking for bunging and full of mad desires. A human life here is worth nothing. The Lena River carried corpses from here by dozens…

    A well-known Russian author V.Ya. Shishkov (1873-1945) in his novel Ugryum-Reka (The Gloomy River) left a colorful description of an autumn day when gold miners and prospectors were coming back from the bush eager to enjoy life and drink their hard-earned money:

    An autumn night descended, dark, furious and terrifying. Drunken streets wailed with wolf-like howling, overlapping each other and with the woods on the other side of the river with barking of concertinas, loose singing, death-rattling of people being killed and weird cries: “Help! Save me!”… There is no police, policemen hid somewhere. Freedom for wild rampage, whoring, knife fights… In the morning 18 fresh corpses were found by police in the streets and in the bushes. 8 badly maimed people were in hospital, 33 locked behind the bars…

    Needless to say, local population preferred to live on easy money stripped from people desperate for fun, vodka and women, and this setup for local economy did not contribute to development of high morale standards in the goldfields…


    Gold played a major role in development of Siberia and attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the previously very sparsely populated provinces. Several cities which grew up due to the gold (and fur) trade – Krasnoyarsk, Minusinsk, Irkutsk, Khabarovsk, Blagoveshchensk, and one still can see in them beautiful buildings and churches erected during the Siberian Gold Rush era. Siberian gold played significant role in quick development of the Russian economy after the abolition of serfdom (1861) and well into the XX century. It became a part of the worldwide process of bank system formation and industrial development.    

Vladimir Kroupnik, born in Moscow, Russia in 1959. In 1981 graduated from the Moscow University and in 1981-1992 worked in alluvial gold exploration in the Ural mountains, Arctic coast of Siberia and in the Sayan mountains (Southern Siberia). In 1992 moved to Western Australia and since then has worked in hard rock gold exploration and mining in Western Australia, Victoria and overseas (Kazakhstan).


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