On a sunny day in late April 2003 at a site about 150 km from the North Pole, Artur Chilingarov, famed polar explorer and member of the Russian parliament, straightened his arm into the air, fired his pistol, and declared: "This is our Arctic, this is the Russian Arctic, and the Russian flag should be here."
Huddled together for warmth, a dozen Russian explorers had just raised their national colors, ceremoniously opening the first Russian polar research station in the Arctic since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Known as North Pole-32, it was the thirty-second drift monitoring station Russians had set up on the Arctic ice since 1937. As the ice flowed and moved, the scientists stayed at the outpost until March 2004, when the ice destabilized, shooting up huge ridges, destroying the camp, and requiring a rescue evacuation. Before disaster struck, they conducted wide-ranging scientific research on weather, ice, temperature, Arctic biology, and navigation.
Though the world largely ignored Chilingarov's words and actions at North Pole-32, he would again publicize Russia's claims to the Arctic in 2007. This time, everyone took notice.
Miles below the site of his previous declaration, a MIR submersible carried Chilingarov and two others to the Arctic seabed, the first time humans had done so at the North Pole.
There, 14,000 feet (2.5 miles) below the ice, the submersible collected rock samples and planted a titanium Russian flag.
The international response was immediate:
Canadian Foreign Minister Peter McKay exploded. "This is posturing. This is the true north strong and free, and they're fooling themselves if they think dropping a flag on the ocean floor is going to change anything. There is no question over Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. We've made that very clear. We've established—a long time ago—that these are Canadian waters and this is Canadian property. You can't go around the world these days dropping a flag somewhere. This isn't the 14th or 15th century."
John B. Bellinger III, legal adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State, remarked: "We knew they were going to the North Pole, but we didn't know they were going to plant the flag. It was a provocative action, and took us aback."
The western press echoed the outrage: a "stunt fueled by a return to czarist impulses;" a "Kremlin-sponsored act of bravado aimed at boosting national pride."
Russian President Vladimir Putin sounded a note of conciliation: "Don't worry. Everything will be all right. I was surprised by a somewhat nervous reaction from our Canadian colleagues. Americans, at one time, planted a flag on the moon. So what? Why didn't you worry so much? The moon did not pass into the United States' ownership."
Chilingarov, by contrast, wasn't above fanning the flames of nationalism in public. "It's only natural that our dive had great patriotic impact, and of course we planted the flag, as Americans would do in a similar case. I don't understand why there is all this noise in the international community. If anyone wants to plant a flag down there, they're welcome to. There's plenty of room."
In Moscow, he told a group of well-wishers, "I don't give a damn what all these foreign politicians … are saying about this. If someone doesn't like this, let them go down themselves and try to put something there. Russia must win. Russia has what it takes to win. The Arctic has always been Russian."
Putin's successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, put to rest any lingering doubts over Russia's aspirations in the Arctic in a 2009 speech to Russia's Security Council: "This is our responsibility, and simply our direct duty, to our descendants. We must surely, and for the long-term future, secure Russia's interests in the Arctic."
The New Race for the Arctic Waters
While McKay and others might see Chilingarov's flag as anachronistic, they cannot ignore the competition now underway for control of the Arctic.
Arctic land regions were divided among state powers centuries ago. The current race is for dominion over the waters and ice of the Arctic, especially the resources that might lie beneath the ocean floor. The Arctic Ocean is "the last piece of non-jurisdictional real estate on the planet," as one journalist wrote.
The scramble for the Arctic involves five nations that have a claim to the Arctic Ocean through the UN Law of the Sea, now known as the A-5: Russia, Canada, the U.S., Denmark (via Greenland), and Norway.
Three other countries, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, have territory in the Arctic Circle but with no Arctic Ocean coastline, they have no treaty claim to the ocean. The A-5 plus these three form the core of the Arctic Council.
Most have made recent moves to shore up or enhance their interests in the Arctic and to delineate international boundaries of control. But Canada and especially Russia have been the most active and thoughtful. The United States, by contrast, has been slowest off the blocks.
Canada held its largest ever military exercises in its northern regions in 2011, is investing in Arctic patrol ships, and has announced plans for a new deep-water port at Nanisivik. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has led a public relations campaign to remind the world of Canada's historic and current interests in the Arctic, carrying out regular summer trips to the north.
Norwegian oil companies have been rapidly expanding their drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean, and Norway too has significantly boosted its military presence in the Arctic. In 2008, it took part in a NATO training exercise in which a fictional country called "Northland" seized offshore oil rigs in the Arctic. Russia was not amused.
Denmark has expanded its military budget for the Arctic and worries that this race will accelerate demands for independence from Greenland. In 2009, the U.S. Coast Guard began to speak of a policy shift from "scientific research" to "security and sovereignty" in the area.
Three recent events have accelerated interest in the Arctic region on the part of all of these countries: global climate change in the Arctic region and the melting of sea ice; the promise of extraordinary economic gain from ocean-floor resources such as fossil fuels and minerals and from global shipping across open Arctic waters; and finally, the regulations of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS; also known as LOST, for Law of the Sea Treaty).
The relative response of the five different participants to these three processes—and particularly Russia's assertive actions in the region—has a lot to do with each country's historic relationship to the Arctic region.
Since at least the fifteenth century, Russia (much like Canada) has been an active, self-consciously Arctic nation. The current competition is reawakening a profound Russian connection to the Arctic.
As the historian John McCannon has written, "for as long as Russia has existed as a country, and particularly during the twentieth century, the Arctic has occupied a place of prominence in its national development."
Arctic territory makes up in the range of 25% of the Russian landmass, holds a disproportionately large part of the country's natural resources, and was strategically important during the Cold War, when the Arctic space represented the closest point between the U.S. and the USSR.
But it is in the cultural realm that the Arctic has come to capture the Russian imagination. Polar explorers—especially the Soviet-era pioneers from the 1930s, who led the world in Arctic exploration—hold a fame and popularity unmatched elsewhere in the world.
Chilingarov, in his recent exploits, harkens back to the days when Russians were path breakers in Arctic exploration, development, and derring-do. With similar pride and patriotism, today's Russian Arctic specialists aspire to lead the world into the Arctic era of the twenty-first century, with its resource wealth and strategic advantage.
Heroes of the Arctic: A Russian Love Story
Despite the many contemporary incentives in staking an Arctic claim, Russia's forward policy in its northern waters is not solely the result of recent events. Its long and deep connection to the frozen north helps to explain why Russia has exhibited a much greater vigor than the other countries in the race, despite the benefits at stake for all involved.
Before the space race and the race under the oceans, there was the race to explore the far extremes of the planet, from its frozen poles to its highest peaks. The Russians who explored (and explore) the Arctic reached an enduring celebrity status, especially during the Soviet period and even when the expeditions ended in disaster.
Russia's Great Northern Expedition of the early 18th century was the greatest scientific expedition in scope and size that the world had seen to that time and the first illustrious chapter in the story of formal Russian Arctic exploration. One contingent mapped and explored the navigability of the Arctic shoreline, with trade and strategic goals in mind, others gathered volumes of scientific data, and others still went in search of the North American continent (making Vitus Bering a household name).
But in the 1920s and 1930s, the cult of the Arctic and the Arctic hero took off. It was personified in Otto Shmidt—whose resume was filled with seminal achievements, honors, and global renown—and also the Soviet Union's Arctic pilots. For their record-breaking flights over the Arctic region, they received international acclaim and, in the Soviet Union, rose to a level of stardom only enjoyed by the likes of Charles Lindbergh in the United States.
For Shmidt, his rapid rise to Arctic superstardom began with the 1932 expedition of the shipSibiryakov that proved the single-season navigability of the Northeast Passage—or, as the Russians call it, the Northern Sea Route (NSR).
Dreams of the Northeast and Northwest passages (the latter across Canada's north coast) to transport goods from Europe to Asia through the Arctic Ocean had tantalized European leaders and adventurers for centuries, and led many explorers unsuccessfully into the unforgiving frozen north.
Since the 17th century, Russian explorers set out to navigate their northern shores only to see their shallow, small wood vessels crushed into kindling by the moving ice.
With the advent of steam and steel, Swede Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld first crossed the Northeast Passage in 1878, but required more than one sailing season to make it across.
Finally in 1932, during a relatively ice-free summer, Russian sailors aboard the Sibiryakov, led by Shmidt and Captain Vladimir Voronin, made it across the NSR in a single sailing season for the first time in recorded history.
The Cheliuskin Rescue
Following the success of the Sibiryakov, Shmidt then led the Cheliuskin mission, which was to traverse the same route with the goal of further substantiating the economic viability of the NSR. The Cheliuskin voyage remains today one of the most dramatic rescue missions in Russia's history.
For reasons that remain unknown, the ship was of decidedly un-Arctic design. Not an icebreaker, it had a wide, thin, square hull. It was probably used because the vessel was large and inexpensive, but it was a huge gamble for the savings.
Despite the substantial shortcomings of the vessel, the voyagers embarked on July 12, 1933. By mid-October, the ship was trapped in ice. Although they considered leaving the vessel and travelling over the ice to safety, the crew decided to remain aboard. Anxious leaders in Moscow hoped that the ice would eventually flow out to the open Pacific Ocean and free the ship.
By February 1934, the ice imprisoning the vessel began to crush its hull. The crew practiced evacuation drills, and their preparation paid off. During the two hours or so it took the ship to sink, all the gear the explorers would need to survive in the Arctic was unloaded. Though one crew member perished in the sinking, the remaining 104 people were left stranded on the Arctic ice.
Time was of the essence if the survivors were to be rescued, and the authorities chose to attempt a never-before air rescue in the Arctic.
In March, aviator Alexander Liapidevsky touched down at Camp Shmidt—as the settlement was christened—on a primitive airstrip made on the ice by the stranded crew. By April 13, Shmidt flew out with the last of those on board.
The Cheliuskin rescue made the Arctic explorers and pilots into national heroes and global celebrities, and deeply embedded the Russian fascination with the Arctic. The fanfare in the press turned a brave and ambitious, but otherwise unspectacular and ill-fated, mission into a tale of national triumph.
They became symbols of the excellence of the Soviet Union, and they were highly decorated with medals and honors. On May Day, pictures of them were held up alongside of likenesses of Lenin, Stalin, and Mikhail Kalinin. Even in the U.S., the New York Timesdescribed the events as a "brilliant chapter in the history of human struggles against Far Northern elements."
Shmidt travelled through the U.S., speaking on national radio networks and meeting with eminent figures including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
North Pole-1: Technical Achievement and National Competition
In the wake of Cheliuskin, Shmidt and his fellow Arctic explorers and scientists embarked on a series of daring and groundbreaking Arctic projects. These included the establishment of the world's first research base on the Arctic ice, North Pole-1—from which recent North Pole stations are direct descendants—and a program of "first" trans-polar flights by the Soviet Union's daring pilots.
The technical and scientific achievements of the Soviet Union's Arctic endeavors in the 1930s fed the national fascination with the Arctic. Their exploits and scientific triumphs became a yardstick of the Soviet Union's eminence under the Stalinist regime, just as they are in today's Russia.
Conceived by Shmidt, the idea for North-Pole-1, was, from its inception, about unique, technological brilliance.
By the time the mission was underway in 1937, the race to reach the pole had been over for decades, at least outside of Soviet borders. The last trip to the pole occurred in 1909, when the American Robert Peary claimed to have been the first to reach it.
North-Pole-1 would have a decidedly different focus. If the explorers could not be the first to travel to the North Pole, they would be the ones to do it in the grandest technological and scientific fashion.
Their mission was two-tiered. First, Shmidt would arrive at the pole by way of aircraft. Though the feat of flying over the pole had been achieved, the prospect of landing an aircraft there had yet to be attempted.
Second, the mission would establish the first research station at the North Pole. The station would start operation at the North Pole but as the ice moved over time, it would gradually drift towards the Atlantic, where the scientists would be retrieved by boat.
In May 1937, Shmidt and his crew landed at the North Pole as planned and began constructing their weather-monitoring station.
The mission was immediately given worldwide media attention. A contemporary New York Times article covering the event emphasized the speed and foresight with which the Soviets had set up their base for research, their breaking of records, and their "great contribution to world science."
Soviet sources were also quick to draw comparison to their successful employment of technology for science and peace. Their air flights to the North Pole stood in stark contrast to the Nazi German employment of warplanes to demolish Spanish cities. The disastrous case of the Hindenburg was also contrasted against the North-Pole-1 victory.
With the Cheliuskin rescue and the landing at the North Pole, the miracle of flight was already becoming a central component of the Soviet Arctic epic. Trans-polar flights from Russia to America further transformed the Soviet Union's stable of brave pilots—including Valery Chkalov, Sigismund Levanevsky, and Mikhail Gromov—into national and worldwide celebrities.
On June 8, 1937, Chkalov became the first to transverse the pole, flying more than 5,288 miles over a period of 63 hours from Moscow to Vancouver, Washington. In doing so, he had set a world record and completed the first trans-polar flight between Russia and America in human history.