Arctic Scientist, Gulag Survivor: The Biography of Mikhail Mikhailovich Ermolaev, 1905-1991

By Dobson, Miriam | Canadian Slavonic Papers, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Arctic Scientist, Gulag Survivor: The Biography of Mikhail Mikhailovich Ermolaev, 1905-1991


Dobson, Miriam, Canadian Slavonic Papers


A. M. Ermolaev and V. D. Dibner. Arctic Scientist, Gulag Survivor: The Biography of Mikhail Mikhailovich Ermolaev, 1905-1991. William Barr, trans, and ed. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2009. xiv, 591 pp. Glossaries. Illustrations. Maps. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. $44.95, paper.

This biography of Mikhail Mikhailovich Ermolaev is an affectionate tribute to a man who lived a fascinating and eventful life. Written jointly by his son, A. M. Ermolaev, and a close friend, V. D. Dibner, it tells the story of an "arctic scientist" who made a major contribution to various important fields (geology, physics, and oceanography) and helped Soviet exploitation of the country's northern territories (particularly the Novosibirskie O strova, No vaia Zemlia, and the Onega region). The book also recounts his personal fate: awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour at a ceremony presided over by Stalin in January 1934, Ermolaev was arrested in 1938 and spent the war years inside Stalin's Gulag.

Born in 1905 into a family of eminent military engineers, Ermolaev was influenced in his chosen career path by his sister's husband, R. L. Samoilovich, himself the leader of the Northern Scientific/Commercial Expedition in Leningrad (later the Institute for the Study of the North), who hired the young Ermolaev as a lab assistant and took him on his first polar voyage in 1925. Soon Ermolaev was establishing his own reputation and went on several more trips over the coming years, including the ill-fated 1937 trip in which the vessel Sadko, under the leadership of Samoilovich, ran out of coal and fresh water and, along with two other ice-breakers, was grounded over the winter. It was this fiasco which led to the immediate arrest of both Ermolaev and his mentor.

During the Second World War, this veteran of arctic expeditions found himself once more in northern wilderness, this time as a prisoner. His value to Soviet science was such that after a year of forced labour, Ermolaev joined one of the "sharashki" working on plans to extend the Vorkuta railway line. His post-war life was particularly curious: released as early as 1944, although not rehabilitated until 1954, Ermolaev was nonetheless able to reestablish an academic career, working for almost a decade at the Northern Geological Administration in Arkhangelsk. His fate shows some of the absurdities of the Stalin era: in Arkhangelsk, the family had a three-room apartment and Ermolaev held the position of "chief geologist," but each time he travelled to Moscow or Leningrad, even if it was for a meeting with a Minister, he did so illegally as restrictions on his place of residence were still in place (pp. …

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