Arctic Siberia: Its Discovery and Development

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  • Arctic Siberia: Its Discovery and DevelopmentAuthor(s): H. P. SmolkaSource: The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 16, No. 46 (Jul., 1937), pp. 60-70Published by: the Modern Humanities Research Association and University College London, School ofSlavonic and East European StudiesStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4203318 .Accessed: 15/06/2014 07:46

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  • ARCTIC SIBERIA ITS DISCOVERY AND DEVELOPMENT

    ARCTIC Siberia is one of those parts of the world which have been almost despaired of by civilised countries. Although very little has been known until recently of the land and its inhabitants-or rather because of that lack of knowledge itself-it has always been regarded as one of the less creditable parts of the globe, as one of the blind spots of the earth's surface. Men casting their glance over the whole world, in search, it may be, of colonies, trade-routes or exploitable land, have hardly given it a thought. Or, if they have allowed themselves to form any impression of it at all, it has been one of a vast desolate waste, unknown and not worth knowing. Its very situation on the northernmost fringe of a continent has pre- vented it from being anything more than a vague idea hovering on the fringe of men's minds.

    Even in the expansive days of the i6th century, when merchants and mariners alike were straining their eyes for new lands to explore, Northern Siberia was considered, not as possessing any importance in itself, but as coastland to be passed on a possible route to " Cathay." As has happened with so many other countries, it was discovered in the search for something else. It was the English and the Dutch, their ambitions thwarted by the maritime powers of Spain and Portugal, who were the first to consider seriously this " north-east passage " along the Siberian coast. During the reign of Henry VIII, a Bristol merchant of the name of Robert Thorne drew up a long petition to the King, urging him to further the work. Not until Edward VI's time, however, was the passage actually attempted. Then an expedition of three ships was sent out by Sebastian Cabot's "Company of Merchant Adventurers." The expedition, sailing under the command of Sir Hugh Willoughby, resulted in the arrival of Richard Chancellor at Archangel, and his welcome by Ivan the Terrible in Moscow. Its outcome was the trade agreement between the Muscovite Tsar and the sovereigns of England.

    With the destruction of the Invincible Armada, there was less need for English merchants to seek a route to China on which their ships would remain unmolested by Spanish galleons. The next step towards the opening up of Arctic Siberia was taken by a Russian. Peter the Great conceived an interest in the actual extent of his dominions, and ordered its whole coast-line to be mapped. In this way, part of the country was explored from the interior.

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  • ARCTIC SIBERIA.

    The project of a north-east passage came again to the fore during the period of imperialist expansion at the close of the last century. The greater part of the burden was borne by Englishmen and Scandinavians, the Russian Government itself not participating.

    Captain Wiggins, an Englishman, visited the mouths of the two great rivers, the Obi and the Yenisey, which flow northward through Siberia into the Arctic Ocean. Wiggins was financed largely by a public subscription organised through the columns of The Times. The next explorer, Nordenskjl1d, was backed by Sibiryakov and the Swedish financier Baron Dickson. Nordenskjold brought off a considerable feat by sailing all along the Siberian coast in the course of one winter. This was in 1876.

    In the first years of this century, a Norwegian company organised and managed by Mr. Jonas Lied, elaborated a plan for obtaining concessions of timber from the Russian Government and, after floating the timber down the Obi and the Yenisey, transporting it to Europe. In 19I3 Fridtjof Nansen made a journey on one of the company's steamers and in his book Siberia, the Land of the Future expressed his conviction that commercial navigation in the western half of the Arctic Ocean was quite feasible.

    The Soviet Government, once in power, decided to organise the enterprise on a much larger scale than ever before. In place of lonely explorers braving the northern seas, with little "moral support " and even less financial assistance, there was formed, after earlier efforts on a smaller scale, two years ago an organisation called the "Central Administration of the Northern Sea Route." This organisation was given an exclusive charter to explore and develop not only the route itself, but also that part of the mainland lying above lat. 62. The territory thus covered is over thirty times the size of Great Britain. " The Central Administration of the Northern Sea Route " is the agency through which all the developments which I am to describe were effected, and today it has forty thousand men and women in its employ.

    For some little time it has been common knowledge that the Soviets were working out a comprehensive scheme of development for Arctic Siberia. It was believed to include not only the organisa- tion of a sea-route and an air-route, but the modernisation of the inhabitants' economic conditions as well. First-hand facts, however, were hard to come by.

    The head of the "Central Administration," Professor Otto Schmidt (the leader of the flying expedition which quite recently made a successful landing near the North Pole, and commander of

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  • THE SLAVONIC REVIEW.

    the "Chelyuskin" when it was marooned on an ice-floe off the Siberian coast in the winter of 1933-34) came to London early over a year ago to explain the achievements of his organisation. I was among those who heard him speak. He gave what seemed to me an astonishing, I might almost say fantastic, account of the extent to which modernisation of the Arctic had gone. I expressed doubts to him as to whether an unbiassed non-Communist, like myself, would see the same picture. The upshot was, that Schmidt invited me to pay a visit to Arctic Siberia myself, so that I might see the work being done there with my own eyes. After some little trouble, he succeeded in getting me permission to travel and take photographs in complete freedom. I made the journey last summer.

    It is obvious, from what has been said, that Arctic Siberia had been visited by foreigners before; but I can safely claim to be the first non-Soviet traveller to have seen what the Russians are doing in its most outlying centres. My account of what I saw may be made easier to follow if I give a short description of the route I took.

    From Moscow I travelled by train to Krasnoyarsk, in Eastern Siberia. From there I went by aeroplane, following the course of the Yenisey down to Port Igarka, a town lying right in the centre of the Arctic zone and only recently erected. I then took another aeroplane across the Taimir Peninsula (which juts out from the north- ern coast of Siberia) to Nordvik, returning east to Norilsk and Dudinka. The next part of my journey was undertaken in a British tramp steamer carrying timber to Dickson Island. Dickson Island is the central radio exchange and polar station in the Kara Sea, and from it I made a few expeditions on board an ice-breaker engaged in blasting a route for a fleet of cargo steamers through the Vilkitsky Straits. I returned on a Russian tank-steamer through the Kara Sea, the Matoshkin Straits of Novaya Zemlya, the Barents Sea, and so to Murmansk. From there I came down by rail on the " Polar Arrow " to Leningrad, flying home from Moscow to London in one day.

    I made this journey, as I have said, in summer. When any attempt at navigating these northern seas is considered, there is one fact of unescapable importance to which all projects have to conform. It is this: for all but three months of the year the seas that wash Siberia's northern coast are frozen over. For nine months great waterways like the Obi and the Yenisey flow into an ice-bound Arctic Ocean.

    Nevertheless, the Soviet Government has spent considerable sums of money in organising transport on these rivers, in building ports at

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