The Kamchatka Peninsula (Russian: полуо́стров Камча́тка, poluostrov Kamchatka) is a 1,250-kilometre (780 mi) peninsula in the Russian Far East, with an area of about 270,000 km2 (100,000 sq mi). It lies between the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Sea of Okhotsk to the west. Immediately offshore along the Pacific coast of the peninsula runs the 10,500-metre (34,400 ft) deep Kuril-Kamchatka Trench.
The Kamchatka Peninsula, the Commander Islands, and Karaginsky Island constitute the Kamchatka Krai of the Russian Federation. The vast majority of the 322,079 inhabitants are Russians, but there are also about 8,743 Koryaks (2002). More than half of the population lives in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (179,526 people in 2010) and nearby Yelizovo (38,980).
The Kamchatka peninsula contains the volcanoes of Kamchatka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kamchatka receives up to 2,700 mm (110 in) of precipitation per year. The summers are moderately cool, and the winters tend to be rather stormy though rarely producing lightning.
When Russian explorer Ivan Moskvitin reached the Sea of Okhotsk in 1639, further exploration was impeded by the lack of skills and equipment to build sea-going ships and by the harsh land to the northeast inhabited by the warlike Koryak people. Kamchatka was, consequently, entered from the north. In 1651, after having assisted in the foundation of the Anadyrsk ostrog, explorer Mikhail Stadukhin went south and followed the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk from Penzhina Bay to Okhotsk. From about 1667 there were reports of a Kamchatka River to the south. Some time before 1700 a group of Russians were stranded and died on Kamchatka.
In 1695 explorer Vladimir Atlasov was made commander of Anadyrsk. In 1696 he sent the Cossack Luka Morozko south. Morozko got as far as the Tigil River and returned with reports and some mysterious writings, probably Japanese. In 1697-1699 Atlasov explored nearly the whole of the peninsula. He built an ostrog at Verkhny-Kamchatsk and rescued or captured a Japanese castaway and went to Moscow to report. In 1699 the Russians at Verkhny-Kamchatsk were killed by the Koryaks on their way back to Anadyrsk. The 1700 punitive expedition destroyed a Koryak village and founded Nizhne-Kamchatsk on the lower river. Bolskeretsk was founded in 1703. From about 1705 there was a breakdown of order. There were numerous mutinies and native wars all over the peninsula and north to the Koryak country of the Penzhina River and Olyutorsky Gulf. Several people were sent out to restore order, including Atlasov who was murdered in 1711. Some degree of order was restored by Vasily Merlin in 1733-39. There was no significant resistance after 1756. A major smallpox epidemic that hit in 1768-69 quickly decimated the native population; the roughly 2,500 Itelmens present in 1773 were reduced to 1,900 in 1820, from an original population of 12–25,000. Those who survived adopted Russian customs and there was a great deal of intermarriage so that «Kamchadal», the original Russian name for the Itelmens, came to mean any Russian or part-Russian born on the peninsula.
In 1713 Peter the Great sent shipbuilders to Okhotsk. A fifty-four-foot boat was built and sailed to the Tegil River in June 1716. This one week journey, later shifted to Okhotsk-Bolseretsk, became the standard route to Kamchatka. In 1720 Kamchatka and the Kurils were mapped by Ivan Yevreinov. Danish explorer Vitus Bering left Nezhe-Kamchatsk for his first voyage in 1728 and, as part of his second voyage, he founded Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in 1740.
Vitus Bering’s Second Kamchatka Expedition, in the service of the Russian Navy, began the final «opening» of Kamchatka, helped by the fact that the government began to use the area to exile people. In 1755, Stepan Krasheninnikov published the first detailed description of the peninsula, An Account of the Land of Kamchatka. The Russian government encouraged the commercial activities of the Russian-American Company by granting land to newcomers on the peninsula. By 1812, the indigenous population had fallen to less than 3,200, while the Russian population had risen to 2,500.
In 1854, the French and British, who were battling Russian forces on the Crimean Peninsula, attacked Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. During the Siege of Petropavlovsk, 988 men with a mere 68 guns managed to defend the outpost against 6 ships with 206 guns and 2,540 French and British soldiers. Despite the heroic defense, Petropavlovsk was abandoned as a strategic liability after the French and British forces withdrew. The next year when a second enemy force came to attack the port, they found it deserted. Frustrated, the ships bombarded the city and withdrew.
The next fifty years were lean ones for Kamchatka. The naval port was moved to Ust-Amur and in 1867 Alaska was sold to the United States, making Petropavlovsk obsolete as a transit point for traders and explorers on their way to the American territories. In 1860, a Primorsky (Maritime) Region was established and Kamchatka was placed under its jurisdiction. In 1875, the Kuril Islands were ceded to Japan in return for Russian sovereignty over Sakhalin island. The Russian population of Kamchatka stayed around 2,500 until the turn of the century, while the native population increased to 5,000.
World War II hardly affected Kamchatka except for its service as a launch site for the invasion of the Kurils in late 1945. After the war, Kamchatka was declared a military zone. Kamchatka remained closed to Russians until 1989 and to foreigners until 1990.