The AMIQ Institute


The Commander Islands (Komandorskiye Ostrova)

Helen D. Corbett

The Commander Islands are geographically located at the end of the Aleutian Islands, like the hand on an outstretched arm. Four islands comprise the group: Bering and Medny, and the islets Ari Kamen and Toporkov. Bering, the larger of the islands (55 x 25 miles) has the only remaining village, Nikolskoye. Medny, (35 x 5) is a spectacular mountainous island with a small military station. The Commanders are located about 110 miles from the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The islands were discovered and named for Commander Vitus Bering after his packet boat, St. Peter, wrecked there in 1741. Bering and one-third of the crew died on the island. Georg Wilhelm Steller, the ship's physician, botanist and mineralogist, survived the over-wintering and left scientific descriptions of the fur seal, sea otter, eagle, sea lion and sea cow, all of which bear his name. The discovery of large populations of northern fur seals and sea otters around the islands brought decades of exploitation by Russian fur traders. The islands were the last home of the Steller's sea cow, which was hunted to extinction by 1769, only 27 years after its discovery.

The Commander Islands were linked to the Pribilof Islands by the Russian fur trade. Aleuts were brought to work in the seal harvest and permanent villages were established by the mid-1920s. Provisions and Aleut hunters continued to move between the Pribilof and Commander islands even after the sale of Alaska to the United States. Communication with Alaska became more difficult with the arrival of the Soviet regime in 1923, and ceased completely by the Stalinist era.

The Commander Aleuts fared little better than other Siberian indigenous peoples during the Soviet regime. Settlers from central Russia, along with forced collectivization, rendered Aleuts a powerless minority in their lands. Villages were closed on Medny and consolidated to Nikolskoye, Bering Island. Fur farms were started in the late 1950s, and fur seals were killed to feed caged mink. Military surveillance and scientific monitoring sustained the islands during the last decades of the Soviet regime.

Glasnost arrived belatedly in the 1990s, briefly raising the hopes of islanders before harsh economic realities set in. The Commander Aleuts have no regional development corporations or any particular rights over their land. The designation of two-thirds of the islands as a national park curtailed Aleut subsistence and economic activities in much of their territories. There are 315 Aleuts in Nikolskoye today, a minority in a village of over 800 people. The Russian Aleut culture is threatened by poverty, health problems and alcoholism. Aleuts are working to strengthen their economic and political capacity through the Arctic Council and the Russian Association of Aboriginal Peoples of the North. A small group of Russian Aleuts is working to revive elements of the culture through the school and village museum.