Sept/Oct 2011

Historical Metallurgy

Gold in Sibera: a historical essay

By F. Habashi

Serfs and political prisoners on their way to exploit the gold mines in Siberia belonging to the tsar (from George F. Kennan, 1891)


In 1717, Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Britain’s Master of the Mint, set the value of currency at three pounds, 17 shillings and 10.5 pence (based on one ounce of gold). In 1844, the Bank of England established the Gold Standard by which all notes were fully backed by gold. After the gold rushes of the 1840s and the increased supply of gold, the price for the precious metal stabilized.

With the expansion of industry and commerce in the late 19th century, there was an increased demand for gold and silver as currency. Gold also became the basis for the credit and banking systems, which were involved in financing important new projects overseas. Furthermore, new demands for both metals arose during this period due to the invention of plating and its application to inexpensive silverware and jewelry, for which very large markets quickly developed.

Gold mining in Russia

Russia was one of the major gold producers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many Russian counts and tsars sent men out on expeditions to prospect for gold, silver and base metals in the outskirts of the great empire. However, the earlier attempts failed due to lack of experience. When travelling in Western Europe, Peter the Great (1672–1725) familiarized himself with the fundamentals of mineralogy, mining and metallurgy. Confident in the mineral potential of his country, he invited skilled explorers from England, Germany and Holland on geological expeditions in Russia.

A series of gold discoveries followed: on the northern coast of the White Sea in 1737; in the Altay Mountains in 1733-1735; and by a peasant on the eastern slope of the Ural Mountains in 1745. It took two years to verify the latter find and, in 1748, the first Russian gold mine was set up. However, a gold rush did not ensue as the vast majority of the Russian population was comprised of serfs and political prisoners bonded to numerous noble landlords or a few industrialists. This was well-documented by American engineer George F. Kennan (1845-1924) in his book Siberia and the Exile System, first published in 1891. Kennan was employed in 1864 by the Russian American Telegraph Company to survey a route for a proposed overland telegraph line through Siberia and across the Bering Strait. In May 1885, Kennan began another voyage, this time across Siberia beginning in Europe.

Exploration in Siberia began in 1826 when the Crown began granting authorizations to several entrepreneurs to search for gold. As a result, a wave of gold rushes inundated southern Siberia in the early 1830s. Hundreds of alluvial deposits were found in the mountains of Altay, Sayan and Eniseysky Kriazh. The gold output in the southern part of western and central Siberia grew to 17.4 tonnes in 1855, however, began to decline in 1913. At the time, gold was primarily mined by hand, put through Chilean mills and then amalgamated.

In the early 19th century, Irkutsk was flourishing as a trading and administrative centre as it was near the border of China and on the Angara River. It was perfectly positioned along the ancient river trading route running from the Arctic Ocean and the Yenisei River via the Angara to Lake Baikhal. Irkutsk further benefitted from the opening of the Siberian Trakt – a direct road from Moscow. Although a rough route to travel, it was used to transport goods, and accommodations were available along the way. Exiles, traders, industrialists and travellers began arriving in Irkutsk. Soon it was established as the capital city and the seat of the governor general of eastern Siberia.

After the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and with rapid industrial development, gold mining techniques became more advanced and operations were further mechanized. However, horsepower remained the main earthmoving force until the end of the 19th century when, with the assistance of Western professionals, dredging was introduced. Gold was first discovered in the Amur River basin in 1850, and in the winter of 1857-1858, an expedition found gold in the Maya River basin. The next several years were marked by numerous discoveries. Zeyski, a major gold district in the Amur region, yielded 66.8 tonnes of gold between 1876 and 1900. The first dredger, which was built in Holland, was introduced in Amur in 1894. The operation was so successful that another dredge was ordered a year later. From 1902 to 1915, about 96 tonnes of gold were produced in the province.

The Lensky Gold District was part of Transbaikalia, a major gold province. The first finds of alluvial gold in this area occurred in 1843, but they were minor compared to those in other parts of southern Siberia. Three years later, two exploration parties discovered two enormously rich placers in the Khomolkho River basin. A series of new discoveries followed over the next five to eight years. In 1868, placers were discovered in the Bodaibo River basin. Dredging began in the district in 1914.

Exploitation of gold deposits in the Urals led to the founding of Ekaterinburg and in 1901, to the inauguration of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Before World War I, Russia maintained its status as one of the world’s major gold producers, with an annual output of about 64 tonnes.

The Russian Revolution

Gold mining was interrupted during the Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War that followed. When the Soviets took over the government, the philosophy at that time, as formulated by Karl Marx (1818–1883), was that gold will eventually lose its value when Communism prevails, that this explains the diminishing interest in exploring for gold, and why all efforts were to be directed to iron and steel. However, Joseph Stalin, who came to power in 1922, was very impressed by the California Gold Rush after reading a number of books on the subject. Fearing Japanese imperialism would occupy the sparsely populated eastern provinces, he opened the region up to miners to explore for gold in hopes of recreating the California rush in the area. In 1927, Stalin sent Alexander Pavlovitch Serebrovsky (1884-1938), director of Azerbaijan Central Oil Administration and a professor at the Moscow School of Mines, to study gold mining in the United States.

Serebrovsky, a native of Ufa, hired John D. Littlepage (1894–?), an American mining engineer working in the gold mines in Alaska, to develop Russia’s gold industry. A Gold Trust was being established for this purpose; miners from Germany and other countries were hired and mining equipment was purchased. Prospectors and miners were encouraged to search for gold, which kicked off a gold rush. Several hundred thousand men and women were working under the control of the Gold Trust. Remarkably, the rush was well organized and the miners were well behaved. However, due to the policy to liquidate the kulaks and the use of forced labour, the industry suffered a setback resulting in numerous acts of sabotage, which led to the purges of 1933. Russia’s main mines were located near the city of Bodaybo in central Siberia, at Magadan on Siberia’s east coast, and on the Chukotskiy Peninsula on the Bering Strait. After World War II, the USSR became the second largest gold producer in the world.

Alexander Serebrovsky, a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, studied at St. Petersburg Institute of Technology, graduated from the Higher Technical School in Brussels, and was the deputy of People’s Commissar for Heavy Industry of the USSR. He was arrested on September 23, 1937, and on February 8, 1938, was convicted of “counter revolutionary activities” by the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court. He was shot in on February 10, 1938. Many heads of industry in the USSR were subjected to repressive measures in 1937-1938, however, they were rehabilitated in the 1960s after the Stalin era.


The comments of Professor Igor Petrov of Moscow are gratefully acknowledged.

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