Barents to Bering: Dream becomes Reality

2014 looks set to be the busiest year ever on the Northern Sea Route. This week marks the 75th anniversary of a significant moment in the development of the Northern Sea Route, so Barents Observer invited Nicky Gardner to reflect on the historical context of current efforts to maintain the Northern Sea Route as an operational waterway.

With traffic on the Northern Sea Route looking set to beat all records in the coming season, a cherished dream is being turned into reality. Global warming is giving a boost to some unfinished business from the 1930s. For the Soviet Union, the treasured prize in that period was to transform the Northern Sea Route (from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait) from an adventurous navigational possibility into an operational reality.

The man charged with making this happen was Otto Schmidt (1891-1956), who headed Glavsevmorput, the Soviet agency responsible for developing the Northern Sea Route. His resignation from that position on 4 March 1939 marked the end of a seven-year spell when the Northern Sea Route was regularly in the Soviet limelight.

The Sibiryakov Success

Otto Schmidt had returned triumphantly from the Far East to Moscow in December 1932, having in September completed the first ever single-season crossing of the Northern Sea Route in just ten weeks.   

Only three previous expeditions had completed the voyage around the north of the Eurasian land mass, but all three endured an ice-fast winter along the way. Schmidt’s 1932 voyage on the Sibiryakov was thus a remarkable achievement and Stalin rewarded the pioneering scientist and explorer with a plum job as chief of the newly created Glavsevmorput agency.

Over the following six years, Glavsevmorput became into a major player in the development of the Russian North, along the way conveniently providing a fulsome supply of legendary heroes who helped fuel the Soviet appetite for success. 

The Chelyuskin Episode

Yet Otto Schmidt also presided over some celebrated disasters. Instead of busily working towards targets laid down in the pyatiletka (Five Year Plan), eighty years ago (in March 1934) Schmidt was sitting on an ice floe in the Chukchi Sea waiting to be rescued.

Flushed by his success with the Sibiryakov in 1932, Schmidt had attempted another west to east passage of the Northern Sea Route in 1933, this time on the Chelyuskin. The vessel became trapped in winter ice. In February 1934, her hull was breached, and she quickly sunk. Schmidt and his crew of over 100 spent an unhappy few weeks on the ice until they were rescued by Glavsevmorput aviators who perfected the art of landing small aircraft on Arctic ice - a skill which was to underpin later successes by Schmidt’s agency, most particularly the 1937 North Pole floating ice station expedition (NP-1).

The Hero of the Soviet Union medal was created in 1934 to reward the aviators who rescued Schmidt and the Chelyuskin crew.  Schmidt had the knack of ensuring that even Glavsevmorput failures were turned into successes. But the agency failed to meet its targets with respect to the development of the Northern Sea Route.

Rethinking the North

On 4 March 1939, Otto Schmidt - then aged 47 - gathered up a few papers from his office desk and left Glavsevmorput for the last time. Over three centuries earlier, Mercator had postulated that “the passage to Cathay by the Northeast…. is without doubt short and easy.”  But not so short and easy that Otto Schmidt could turn it into a day-to-day transport reality. His resignation marked a turning point in the Soviet Union’s relationship with the North. The constellation of heroes who had sustained a national narrative of polar success faded from the news.

But there is a new impetus in the North these days, driven more by a pragmatic need to extract hydrocarbons than by a search for heroes. And Nature has changed her tune. Arctic ice is receding. In 2010, just four vessels traversed the entire Northern Sea Route. Last year, that number was up to 71. This year, it could well top one hundred. No longer is the use of the Northern Sea Route merely a Russian prerogative. Over a third of the vessels using the route in 2013 were flagged by nations other than Russia.  Last year also saw the first vessel of over 100,000 tonnes GRT using the route. That was the Marshall Island flagged Arctic Aurora which in 2013 made two Northern Sea Route passages.

Stalin charged Otto Schmidt with the difficult task of turning the Northern Sea Route into a reliable long-distance waterway. Seventy-five years after Schmidt’s resignation from Glavsevmorput, the vision that the Soviet Union once had for the North is now being realised.