The Soviet Arctic

The Soviet Arctic

The Soviet Arctic

The Soviet Arctic


The Soviet Arctic is the first book to consider Soviet policy in this area from an historian's point of view. Horensma assesses the importance of historic legacies to current Soviet Arctic policy and their consequences on an international level. The book also discusses the significance of historic precedents in the determination of polar sovereignty.


Polar exploration is much more important to the Soviet mind than it is to the West Some of the Soviet Union's greatest successes have been achieved in the Arctic. For example, the sailing of the Northeast Passage was realized in less than a generation-a feat that for centuries had been considered impossible. Even today observers admire the frequent shipping along that passage, called the Northern Sea Route by the Russians. What to many had been a cold and empty area has been changed by icebreaker expeditions and polar stations into a miraculous empire, in which heroic battles were fought and records achieved. Polar exploration has been used as propaganda, with newspapers balancing stories about spies and sabotage with accounts of successful polar voyages. For example, the conviction of Bukharin was put in the shade by the last-minute rescue of I.D. Papanin and his three comrades, after their hazardous drifting voyage of seven months on an icefloe. Polar exploration has held, and to some extent still holds, the same fascination as space voyages did before an American spacecraft landed on the moon.

Now we know only too well that the glamour of the Soviet empire in the Arctic hid the horrible misery of the Kolyma camps, that the achievements of aviation in 1937 were paid for with costly and dangerous winterings of ships, because everything that could fly was needed for record flights and little remained for guiding icebreakers. These horror stories slowly trickled through to the West, by survivors of the camps who returned and by chance remarks in Soviet publications. Nevertheless, much remains unknown, since the Soviet Arctic is first of all a secret empire, to which foreigners only seldom have access. and while everybody knows the names of Fridtjof Nansen or Robert Scott, there are not very many people who can name even one Russian polar explorer.

Some authors such as the American historian R. Conquest in his book Kolyma; the Arctic Death Camps, have tried to break the spell of the Arctic. However, the Arctic camps initially were not meant to be extermination camps, which is shown by the sad story of one of the gravediggers in a camp on the Kolyma, quoted by Conquest, who relates that until 1936 or 1937 his job had been one of the best, with little work and next to no supervision. Only later hundreds of bodies had to be buried (Conquest 1978:174).

At first, the camps were not meant to kill; they were part of a certain policy,

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