Researching Soviet Arctic Activities

by Nadia Ostreicher

I had the opportunity to be in charge of my own research project this summer. I studied the Soviet arctic activities, which included those public and secret. I was able to satisfy my own curiosities and interests, combining my majors of geoscience and Russian studies. I was mostly focused on activities in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as any projects that took place above the arctic circle at 65 degrees North.

Much of my research focused on learning the history of Russia in the North to further understand their current claims to land in the Arctic. My career goals are to work in the public sector of climate science as a liaison between the countries that sit on the Arctic Council (Canada, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Greenland, and Russia) and the United States. This research project was also an opportunity to hone my translation skills. I found a bulletin from arctic ships and researchers, entirely in Russian. I spent a few weeks translating sections I felt were most important. Many stories I came across were surprising but not exciting, as the time period I focused on was until the tense totalitarian fist of Stalin.

A story that I came across was of the ship, Chelyuskin. The ship was not an icebreaker, but was sent through the North East Passage—a route entirely in the Arctic ocean. The ship, as expected, could not make it through the sea ice clogged passage and sank in the Kara Sea. The United States offered help to the Soviets, offering them search pilots from Alaska. But the Soviet government replied “Soviets should save Soviets.” They took some of the help and sent Russian pilots off from Alaska to look for the stranded crew. The probable reason they did not take the help was not extreme nationalism, but to hide the other ship stranded in the ocean. The Dzhurma was stranded, frozen, in the Arctic ocean. It was a prisoner ship carrying 12000, not including crew. The Soviets let them freeze.

I was surprised at the concentration of authorship in the area of Soviet Arctic studies, every secondary source I seemed to find referenced the same five or six primary sources, all of which required special access to government libraries in Moscow. I hope to expand that authorship and to incorporate indigenous voices from the Siberian Arctic into my work. This summer taught me that the work I do in climate science, or in any field, requires a massive amount of empathy. Stalin himself knew that the power of human empathy is a force to be reckoned with. If we do not work to better the lives of our fellow human beings, to better the lives of future generations, then we work for nothing.