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Monday, April 4, 2011

Imperial Russian Gold

Although it was little known in the western world there were great gold rushes in Russia at about the same time. Historically there was little gold that was mined in Russia until the 17th century; most of the gold that appeared in Russia was imported from other countries. However by the end of the 17th century there were about 140 hard rock gold deposits that were known in the country. Many of the Tsars and other nobles sent expeditions to search for gold, silver and other metals in the outskirts of their vast empire, but because they lacked sufficient knowledge about gold mining most of their efforts ended in failure.

This is a map of the Kolyma Basin in the Far East of Russia

Most of the knowledge about mining in Russia came from the efforts of Peter the Great who came to power in June 1685. Among the people with whom he spoke on his expedition to the West were some Austrian miners from whom he learned a certain amount of Western mining techniques. To give Peter credit he tried to organize geological exploration in Russia that was then a very backward nation. He also attracted experts from Western Europe that was a very important factor in the discovery of gold.

Gravel Banks along a river in Russia

The first deposit of precious metals was discovered on the eastern side of Lake Baikal where the Russians opened the Nerchinsky Mine for the production of silver in 1702. It was 10 years later when a Russian chemist named Ivan Makeev discovered the presence of gold in the silver ore.  It was 17 years later in 1719 when this mine produced the first gold bullion. It was also in 1719 when Peter the Great produced a legal document called, “The Mining Privileges” that stimulated gold exploration in Russia.

By the year 1737 gold was discovered in several places in the Russian Empire, one of these places was on the north shore of the White Sea. It was in 1745 the gold was discovered on the eastern flank of the Ural Mountains in Siberia.  It took two years to verify that gold was actually discovered before they were able to open the first Russian gold mine.  At the time gold was still a state monopoly, and the majority of the Russian population was still being held in serfdom by the nobles which greatly curtailed exploration efforts.

Map of Russia

It wasn't until 1803 before the first gold deposit was found on the western slope of the Ural Mountains to finally convince the Russian government they should unchain the serfs for prospecting for gold that was then open to anyone with royalties payable to the State Bank.

This unchained the Russian population and it wasn't too long before Russia became a force to be reckoned with in the production of gold. The total production of gold in Russia between 1719 and 1800 totaled 22,491.1 kg. Most of the gold that was produced in Russia came from hard rock mines rather than placer deposits. When placer deposits were first discovered in Russia the miners treated them the same way as they did lode gold that unfortunately for the miners was not viable even though the presence of gold was known in river sediments for almost a century. It would be another hundred years before the Russian miners discovered how to separate this gold.

It was during this period of exploration for gold that a young girl discovered a gold nugget in the basin of the Nerva River, and when she told authorities about the discovery instead of receiving a reward she was giving a severe whipping told to keep her mouth shut. There were other examples of people finding gold who received the same treatment, and at least one of them died as a result. It was later when a talented mining engineer named, Lev Brusnitsyn discovered that this gold could be recovered in a sluice box. The Russians also invented their version of a gold pan that looks like a large wooden dish.

It was right after the Russian Revolution in 1917 with a Russian geologist named Yuri Bilibin discovered the vast gold deposits in the Far East section of Russia in the Kolyma Basin that eventually became the infamous Gulag's of the mid-20th century. This is the place where many political and war prisoners were worked to death mining gold.

Bilibin was also one of the founders of the Theory of Metalogeny and Global Tectonics that codified the modern method of finding gold and other minerals in specific geological settings. Today most gold was discovered in the so-called suture zones where one tectonic plate has collided with another forming a mountain range.

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