Russian students cleaning up Soviet mess in the Arctic

16 students from Northwest Russia spent their summer holiday cleaning the Russian Arctic.

Students from Northwest-Russia spent two months on the Arctic archipelago Franz Josef Land, clearing away barrels and scrap metal from the Cold War era.


“We worked for hours,” says 21 year old Igor Belousov to BarnetsObserver in a phone interview. He is a student at the Faculty of energy and transportation at the Arkhangelsk-based Northern Arctic Federal University. “Each day some more garbage from the Soviet period was cleared away.”   

This summer Igor spent two months of his vacation at Franz Josef Land. The archipelago lies in the Arctic Ocean north of Novaya Zemlya and east of Svalbard. It consists of 191 ice-covered islands.   

“It really is a rare opportunity for me as a student to be able to live in the Arctic for such a long time,” says Belousov. “I saw eight polar bears during my stay there, but the weather was much warmer then I`d expected.”    

Military hot spot
Igor`s basecamp was situated at Alexandra Land, the westernmost island of Franz Josef Land. Today this is an uninhabited island, but during the Cold War this was a key strategic buffer zone between NATO and the Soviet Union. The island was used as military base when training missions were carried out between the archipelago, Novaya Zemlya and the mainland.  

It is mainly abandoned leftover equipment from this period that is littering the archipelago today. Airplanes, tanks, scrap metal and barrels with oil waste are polluting the Arctic terrains.  

“The students were facing a tremendous task. Not only should they dig the garbage up from the frozen soil, but also make sure it looked as pure as before the Soviet conquering of the Arctic archipelago began,” says Gregori Kovalev, Coordinator of the Russian students groups in Arkhangelsk.

Building the empire
The idea of sending students thousands of kilometers away from their home cities to do a job they never did before dates back to the Soviet Union. Back then millions of students made such journeys every year in order to build the Soviet Empire.  Today, over 200,000 students make similar journeys in Russia. 

Last year the governor of Arkhangelsk Oblast, the county administering the archipelago of Franz Josef Land, suggested that the student organizations could conduct environmental work in the remote and harsh Russian Arctic, far away from modern civilization.   

“It was crucial to find the right people, who would manage to live close together for two months and carry out the heavy task of cleaning up 150 tons of garbage,” says Kovalev.   

Eventually, the students were accompanied by Arctic specialist from the Northern Arctic Federal University, Russian Arctic National Park and the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Arkhangelsk Oblast.    

Twice as much as planned
After eight weeks at the island, the change was highly visible. Instead of cleaning up 150 ton garbage, the crew managed to remove 265 ton. 

“In retrospect, it feels good to have contributed to such an important task as cleaning the Arctic is,” says Igor Belousov. “I believe the whole crew would like to go back someday, finishing off the work we started.”