Russian hunting in Svalbard began early in the 18th century. The hunt coincided with a general boom in north Russian trade and seafaring. The boom was controlled by the Tsar and the central powers who wished for an increase in seafaring, trade and hunting in the north. The Pomors became supreme at arctic hunting in Svalbard during this period.

Russian hunting station. From J. Lamont, 1876

English and Dutch businessmen had traded in the White Sea from the end of the 16th century. We believe that they gave the Russian merchants in Archangel knowledge of whaling near Svalbard.

Peter the Great became Tsar of Russia in 1689. In the years 1697 and 1698 he was on a study tour of The Netherlands and England. There he was told about whaling near Svalbard. Peter the Great wished to make Russia into a European superpower and he was the driving force behind the development of arctic hunting, trade and seafaring in northern Russia. He visited Archangel several times and encouraged the merchants and shipbuilders to concentrate on arctic hunting and whaling.

The Russian state passed a law whereby private trading companies under the protection of the state operated arctic hunting. In 1703 and 1704 a monopoly was set up for the development of whaling, arctic hunting and the fisheries in the north. The aim was to create a solid economic foundation for the risky whaling operation. Arctic hunting would be a tool to develop whaling, which in turn would lead to increased foreign trade. Whaling fared badly, but the arctic hunting fared much better. The Russian overwintering in Svalbard from 1704 to the 1840’s were an important part of the arctic hunt.

Arctic hunting and the Pomor trade were also connected with the Russian fisheries off the coast of Finnmark. The Pomor trade was an exchange of fish for corn. When the trade monopoly was revoked the Pomor trade became more and more legal towards the end of the 18th century. It appears that Russian arctic hunting in Svalbard developed in league with the general upturn in Russian seafaring of which Pomor trade was a part.


Remains from walrus slaughtering. Photo: Svalbard Museum

The walrus hunt took place mostly on land, but also on the sea ice. The hunting spots became bloody slaughter places where a large proportion of the herds were massacred. Walruses are large thick-skinned animals, which are difficult to kill.

Walruses were killed mainly on land where they lay in herds in their regular resting areas. They lay on the shore, on beaches and low promontories near deep water, where it was easy to quickly get into or out of the sea. The walruses lay close together and partly on top of each other. The Russians would quietly and carefully approach the herds in small boats. Then they would quickly attack and kill those animals nearest the sea. This then created a mound of dead animals that cut off the rest of the herd from the sea. Walruses move slowly on land and the Russians could kill their prey at leisure.

The wooden clubs the Russians used for killing seals could not be used on the larger walrus. Unless one struck the forehead or the temple even the guns of the 18th century were incapable of killing or wounding a walrus. The hunting tools, therefore, were sharpened lances, harpoons and iron spikes. These were up to 0.7m long and attached to 2-3m long wooden shafts. The walrus would die quickest if struck in the heart or the kidneys. Walruses have thick skin with several folds. The hunters, therefore, aimed for tight skin. They would get the walruses to lift and turn their heads to expose the smooth skin of the throat.

Walruses were also hunted on the drift ice. The Russians used several small boats with 2-3 hunters in each to find the herds. Then they would row or drag the boats over the ice towards the animals, keeping upwind. Those walruses that made it into the sea were killed with lances with a hook like a boathook. The harpoon rope was either tied to the boat or to a spear stuck into the ice. In such a way the prey were not lost.

By Per Kyrre Reymert/Christian Lydersen/Kit Kovacs