The Intriguing Kolguyev Island

Kolguyev Island is located in the south-eastern Barents Sea, approximately 72 kilometers off the mainland of Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia. The roughly circular-shaped island has a landmass of 4,968 square kilometers. The highest point of Kolguyev Island is 50 meters.

The island of Kolguyev in Russia mainly consists of wetland, with bogs and morainic hills. A morainic hill is formed by an accumulation of debris which can occur in currently, or formerly, glaciated regions, and is common in areas affected by a past ice age. The typically angular debris that forms the morainic hill could have been lifted up off the valley by an advancing glacier, or it may have fallen off valley walls as a consequence of frost wedging. The vegetation is characteristic of the tundra – an ecosystem dominated by mosses, lichens, grasses and woody plants. Oil and gas reserves are present on Kolguyev Island.

The only inhabited settlement on the island is Bugrino, located on the southeast coast. The population is made up principally of Nenets. Their main economic activities include fishing, trapping and reindeer farming – activities that have been part of these indigenous people’s lives for generations. It is believed that the Nenets split from the Finno-Ugric speaking groups in about 3000 BC, migrating east and mixing with Turkic and Altaic speaking peoples. Some remained in Europe and came under Russian jurisdiction around 200 BC and others who lived further east came under Russian control in the 14th century. By the early 17th century all Nenets were ruled by Russians. The Samoyed dog (also known in Europe as a Bjelkier) was bred by the Nenets to help them with herding reindeer and to pull sleds. The dogs also kept their owners warm at night by sleeping on top of them.

British naturalist Aubyn B.R.Trevor-Battye, together with his assistant, visited the island in June 1894. His intention at the time was to spend a month on the island to study the wildlife, particularly the birds. Instead of a month, Trevor-Battye and his assistant were stranded on the island for 12 weeks, due to mechanical problems with their vessel. He took advantage of the situation by studying the topography and natural history of Kolguyev Island. Trevor-Battye published his findings in 1895 in the book entitled “Ice-bound on Kolguev”. The book provides insight on the Nenets (referred to as Samoyed in his book) who spent the summer on the island which provided grazing for their reindeer. They also trapped geese for trade in Russia. Trevor-Battye finally left Kolguyev Island with the Nenet reindeer herders in September 1894.

The distinctive Kolguyev Island and its inhabitants have a long and interesting history that is worth taking note of.


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