Polar Explorers

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From its earliest days, Russia was concerned with Arctic settlement and development. Actual exploration began during the eighteenth century and continued, although Russia took little part in the classic race for the North and South poles. Interest heightened after 1920, as the USSR transformed itself into a key player in North polar exploration. After 1956, the USSR became an important force in Antarctic research.

Russian migration to the Arctic coast began during the eleventh century. Further settlement was tied to the foundation of religious communities (such as the Solovetsky Monastery, built in 1435); demand for furs and precious metals; the search for the Northeast Passage (in Russian, the Northern Sea Route); the establishment of ports such as Arkhangelsk (1584); and Russia's eastward expansion into Siberia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Scientific and exploratory work got underway during the 1700s and 1800s. On behalf of the Russian government, Danish captain Vitus Bering, with Alexei Chirikov as his second-in-command, launched his Kamchatka (17281730) and Great Northern (17331749) expeditions. Afterward, the Admiralty and Academy of Sciences sponsored many voyages and expeditions, surveying or exploring Spitsbergen, Novaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, Wrangel Island, and Franz Josef Land. The colonization of Alaska and incorporation of the Russian-American Company (1799) necessitated greater familiarity with the Arctic. Key figures from this period include Fyodor Rozmyslov (d.1771), Vasily Chichagov (17261809), Matvei Gedenshtrom (17801843), Academy of Sciences president Fyodor Litke (17971882), and Alexander Sibiryakov (18441893). The latter sponsored the first successful crossing of the Northeast Passage: Adolf Erik Nordenskjold's 18781879 voyage in the Vega.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, as international audiences thrilled to the daring exploits of explorers like Peary and Scott, Russian polar work focused on scientific, commercial, and military concerns. Admiral Stepan Makarov formed a Russian icebreaker fleet, while naval officer Alexander Kolchak, later famous as a White commander during the Russian civil war, explored the Arctic. Early twentieth-century expeditions under Ernst Toll, Vladimir Rusanov, Georgy Brusilov, and Georgy Sedov ended in tragedy. By contrast, in 1914, Yan Nagursky became the first pilot successfully to fly an airplane above the Arctic Circle. In 19141915, Boris Vilkitsky completed the second traversal of the Northeast Passage.

Under the Soviet regime, polar exploration and development fell to agencies such as the All-Union Arctic Institute (VAI) and, after 1932, the Main Administration of the Northern Sea Route (GUSMP). Prominent Arctic scientists included Vladimir Vize, Georgy Ushakov, and Rudolf Samoilovich of the VAI, as well as Otto Shmidt, head of GUSMP. The USSR made impressive headway during the 1920s and 1930s in building an economic and transportational infrastructure in the polar regions. This was also an era of spectacular public triumphs, including the rescue of Umberto Nobile and the crew of the dirigible Italia (1928); participation in the Arctic flight of the airship Graf Zeppelin (1931); the Sibiryakov' s first single-season crossing of the Northeast Passage (1932); the airlift of the Chelyuskin' s crew and passengers, who survived two months on the Arctic ice after their ship sank (19331934); the flights of Valery Chkalov and Mikhail Gromov over the North Pole on their way to the United States (1937); the first airplane landing at the North Pole (1937); and the establishment of the first research outpost at the North Pole, the SP-1, under the leadership of Ivan Papanin (19371938). In 1941 the Soviets also accomplished the first airplane landing at the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility. There was, of course, an ugly underside to Soviet achievement in the Arctic: Not only was much Soviet polar work characterized by inefficiency and periodic mishaps, both major and minor, but it was closely linked to the steady expansion of forced labor in the GULAG system.

Soviet polar exploration resumed after World War II. A new generation of researchers, including A.A. Afanasyev, Vasily Burkhanov, Mikhail Somov, Alexei Treshnikov, Boris Koshechkin, and others, came to the forefront. A second North Pole outpost (SP-2) was established in 1950, and until the late 1980s, the USSR operated at least two SP stations at any given time. In 1977, the atomic icebreaker Arktika became the first surface vessel to reach the North Pole.

As for the Antarctic, Russian mariners Fabian Bellingshausen (17701852) became, in 1820, one of the first three explorers knowingly to sight the Antarctic continent (the first person to sight Antarctica remains a matter of debate). The USSR did not engage in serious exploration of the Antarctic until 1956. During the International Geophysical Year of 19571958, the USSR was one of twelve nations to establish stations in Antarctica. In 1959, the USSR signed the Antarctic Treaty, which went into effect in 1961. As with the Arctic, the collapse of the USSR in 1991 made it difficult for the Russians to continue Antarctic research, although Russia still maintains stations there year-round.

See also: bering, vitus jonassen; chirikov, alexeiilich


Armstrong, Terence. (1958). The Russians in the Arctic. London: Methuen.

Armstrong, Terence. (1965). Russian Settlement in the North. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McCannon, John. (1998). Red Arctic: Polar Exploration and the Myth of the North in the Soviet Union, 19321939. New York: Oxford University Press.

Taracouzio, T. A. (1938). Soviets in the Arctic. New York: Macmillan.

John McCannon