Skip to main content

Kolyma Gold Discoverer’s Story

© Общественное достояние, Юрий Билибин в экспедиции

When Yuri Bilibin was convincing officials that there were large reserves of placer gold in the country's northeast, members of the commission expressed disbelief. They wanted even to re-certify him as a mining engineer. The expedition was nevertheless organised. The participants lost provisions and part of their equipment while rafting, almost dying of cold, but the nuggets they found on the banks of the Kolyma tributaries changed the whole of gold mining in Russia.

Such a phenomenon as the 'gold rush' has inspired many filmmakers and writers to create exciting adventure works. Their heroes were not geologists and miners but desperate adventurers dreaming of getting fabulously rich in the mines. The most frequent examples of the contagion of this "incurable disease" are associated with the vastness of America. Thus, the most widespread in history was Brazilian fever. More than 400 thousand miners from Portugal and half a million slaves from Africa were involved, and the most known – the California Gold Rush.

Золотая лихорадка
© Реклама тура в Калифорнию — к местам, охваченным золотой лихорадкой, 1850-е годы

For a long time, deposits of yellow metal could not be found on the territory of our country, which forced the Russian Empire to buy it abroad. However, when the yellow metal was found in Russia, the Senate adopted a decree in 1812 "granting all Russian subjects the right to prospect and exploit gold and silver ores and paying a levy into the treasury. The state gave all the right to dig gold to private individuals for a modest fee – the reason for that being the scarcity of the finds and doubts in the industry's potential.

The number of miners grew. They exploited the wealthiest placers in a predatory manner; areas with a lower gold content were filled with barren rock, and poor sand washing techniques resulted in the loss of almost a third of the precious metal in them. The enthusiasts' lack of the slightest knowledge of prospecting undoubtedly impacted the result.

© Промывка золотоносного песка. Фотография Прокудина-Горского, начала 20 века

However, by this time, the government realised the need to change the way the precious metal is mined and circulated. The first specialised organisations appeared in Siberia and Yakutia. The authorities had already received information about Kolyma's gold-bearing capacity, but no targeted exploration work had been carried out in the region. There was no information about its potential. It was a blank spot on the map of the country, the least studied region.

It was not until a sunny morning of July 4, 1928, when the First Kolyma Expedition led by its initiator, Yuri Bilibin, landed from an old Japanese cargo ship, the Daiboshi-Maru, at the village of Ola on the Okhotsk Coast. He claimed that it was in that region that lay the "buckle" of the "golden belt" stretching from the Amur to California. The expedition was different from all previous prospecting parties because skilled mining engineers were on board this time.

Yuri Alexandrovich was born in Rostov in 1901 into an old noble family. His studies at the Smolensk Real School were followed by service in the Red Army. In 1921 he enrolled at the Leningrad Mining Institute, the centre of mining education in the country. At the time, Russia's primary state geological institution (Geolkom), the best mineralogical museum, and the most substantial scientific school were located in Petrograd. The most up-to-date reports on all investigations carried out on the state's territory were sent here. Even students who had access to the materials and scientific articles of the pioneers were involved in assessing the prospects of exploration of particular lands and actively participated in expeditions.

While still a student, Bilibin became interested in Russia's eastern frontiers - he led the Eastern Siberian section of the geological circle. Members of it planned to devote their careers to studying the structure and composition of the lands stretching from the Yenisei in the west to the Pacific Ocean itself.

© Участники экспедиции по Алдану (Билибин в центре)

From 1926 to 1928, Yuri Alexandrovich worked as a geologist at Aldanzoloto, a newly founded enterprise in Yakutia. By the way, it is successfully developing today, but in the first half of the 20th century, it was just taking its first steps. And Bilibin was the man who laid the foundations for exploration work amidst the confusion that the miners created. He drew the first geological map of the Aldan district, discovered the first ore gold deposit, recruited and trained a team of local geologists. However, the most important result of his stay in the Republic of Sakha was the beginning of the exploration of placer geology.

In the course of the Institute of Non-Ferrous Metals expedition across Yakutia, the young specialist gave the most accurate forecast of the gold-bearing capacity of local rivers. This would not have happened if not for the new methodology he created for prospecting minerals, particularly gold, based on metallogeny.

This science studies the geological regularities of the formation and location of deposits in space and time. The analysis of the evolutionary development of territories, geodynamic reconstructions and the deep structure of large blocks of the Earth's crust makes it possible to predict the occurrence of ore minerals. Bilibin was engaged in this discipline throughout his career, thus becoming its founder in the USSR and Russia.

For example, he coined such a term as "metallogenic belts". It is planetary ore-bearing areas coinciding with the enormous geotectonic belts of the globe. A regular distribution of mineralisation characterises them due to the geological aspects, development and magmatism peculiar to these belts. Put, the accumulations of deposits form linear structures that extend for hundreds or thousands of kilometres. The most prominent examples are the Pacific and Mediterranean belts; smaller ones are the Urals and Scandinavian belts.


Bilibin compared areas where gold had already been found on different continents and drew a corresponding map. He also took into account anecdotal evidence from prospectors and explorers who had explored the rivers and subsoil of Kolyma before him. After all this, he confidently declared the necessity to search for the precious metal there.

Why was the 27-year-old specialist entrusted with the First Kolyma Expedition? Well, firstly, he was burning with the idea and convinced of its perspective. And secondly, 1928 was the beginning of the first five-year plan of the USSR. An incredibly ambitious economic plan envisaged the country's transformation from an agrarian to a developed industrial power. The outcome of World War I demonstrated the weakness of our industrial base and level of armaments. There were plans to build 1,500 factories to implement all the ideas, which meant purchasing foreign technology and equipment. Hard currency was needed, and exporting timber, oil, and fur could not solve the problem. The frantic search for its sources began.

Bilibin was, as they say, in the right place at the right time. His expedition did not require any extraordinary expenses and could benefit the country. He invited Valentin Tsaregradsky, a young geologist who had just graduated from the Mining Institute, several experienced prospectors from Aldan, a doctor and 15 workers. The road from the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk to Kolyma was not an easy one. Unable to find enough horses or reindeer, the group split up.

© Участники Первой Колымской экспедиции на берегу Охотского моря, 1928 год

The first party, led by Yuri Aleksandrovich, set off for Srednekan, where prospectors were already finding traces of gold. They travelled 500 km through the taiga, mountain trails and rivers. In time for the summer, they decided on the fastest way to get there: rafting down the rapids of local turbulent rivers, which their guide said were impassable. The plan succeeded, the geologists made it to the site, but they drowned most of their food. In Srednekan, they had to work in the most challenging conditions. The frost reached -56 degrees, and the exhausted workers switched to dogs and fallen horses because of starvation.

Bilibin headed the newly established Soyuzzoloto mining office, which began registering local miners, undertook the organisation of a gold collection point and oversaw the allocation of plots. For the first time, a new order was established in the local mines whereby the metal was transferred to the state treasury rather than into the pockets of private joint adventures. Thus, the year 1928 is considered to be the beginning of purposeful prospecting works and the year of formation of the gold mining industry on Kolyma.

© Перевалочная база Колымской геологоразведочной экспедиции

In spring, all the expedition members reunited, and active prospecting began, which was successful rather quickly. At first, a large deposit of placer gold was found in one of the tributaries of Kolyma (Utinaya River). Then geologists began to discover more and more mines.

Based on the received data Bilibin has made the forecast of gold content of Northeast territory in which claimed that on Kolyma and Yakutia, it is possible to assume about 200 thousand square kilometres of the gold-bearing areas with the reserve up to 1000 t of placer gold. And that's not counting the massive ore deposits. The geologist wrote that Kolyma was a new metallogenic province stretching over one thousand kilometres, which, with appropriate investment in exploration, would provide placer gold reserves amounting to four times the gold production of the entire Union.

© Anton Tulskiy, Википедия

Mining housing estates quickly began to appear there, and the once sparsely populated region began to settle down. The systematic development of the territories and their subsoil began, and with it, the flow of gold into the vaults of the USSR State Bank increased.

In 1931 the government trust for road and industrial construction in the Upper Kolyma basin (Dalstroy) was established, and Bilibin was appointed its chief engineer and geologist.

The mined metal went to the industrialisation of the country, as planned. Five years later, between 1936 and 1937, the amount of gold mined in the Soviet Union exceeded 130 tonnes, and the country came to occupy second place in the world. Kolyma played a significant role in this success: at the gold mines of Dalstroy were produced 66.7 tonnes in 1939 and 80 tonnes in 1940.

Месторождения золота
© Золотоносные месторождения России

Today, Russia ranks third in gold mining after China and Australia, extracting about 250 tonnes annually for the past five years. Moreover, according to experts, we are consistently in first place in the extraction of placer gold, on which Yuri Alexandrovich specialised.

"Golden Mozart", as geologists still call Bilibin, returned to Leningrad in 1935 and began to teach a course in gold and platinum placers at his alma mater. He defended his doctoral thesis, wrote 60 scientific papers and received the Stalin Prize. As the man who discovered Kolyma gold.