Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2008/20 posted by hidden europe on

Not so many St Petersburg visitors make it over to Vasilievsky Island which sits fair and square in the Neva delta. Those that do stick in the main to the eastern end of the island with the old St Petersburg stock exchange. This is a building of delicate beauty, constructed two hundred years ago in Greek revival style. This one building alone, flanked by two distinctive rostral columns in deep terracotta hues, warrants the trip over to Vasilievsky. But there is something else. Head on beyond the stock exchange for a real piece of travel history.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Not so many St Petersburg visitors make it over to Vasilievsky Island which sits fair and square in the Neva delta. Those that do stick in the main to the eastern end of the island with the old St Petersburg stock exchange. This is a building of delicate beauty, constructed two hundred years ago in Greek revival style. This one building alone, flanked by two distinctive rostral columns in deep terracotta hues, warrants the trip over to Vasilievsky. But there is something else. Head on beyond the stock exchange for a real piece of travel history.

It is a pleasant walk along the south embankment of the island. There are a number of gracefully imposing university buildings, then the Church of the Assumption, once used as an indoor ice rink, but now happily returned to the local Orthodox community. And then the Krassin icebreaker. Perhaps you have never heard of the Krassin. Built in Britain just before the Russian Revolution, the Krassin became a Soviet flagship undertaking an important series of Arctic voyages over a span of more than half a century. Today the Krassin is a floating museum, with a series of exhibits documenting the various exploits of the ship during its working life.

Spitsbergen and the Italia rescue

The Krassin's finest hour was undoubtedly eighty years ago today when she steamed into the harbour at King's Bay, the small mining community in northwest Spitsbergen known today as Ny Ålesund. One week earlier, the Krassin had rescued members of the crew of the Italia airship. The Italia, captained by Umberto Nobile, had crashed onto the Arctic ice northeast of Spitsbergen after successfully reaching the North Pole. The crash was on 25 May, so the survivors rescued by the Krassin on 12 July had been stranded on the ice for seven weeks. The early summer of 1928 thus saw the most comprehensive international rescue effort ever mounted in the history of Arctic exploration. Many were the rescuers who perished during their efforts to save the crew of the Italia - among them the veteran polar explorer Roald Amundsen who died, along with five others, when their plane ditched in the seas north of Norway.

Of the Italia's sixteen crew members, seven perished in the airship's crash, and Finn Malmgren died on the ice in the weeks thereafter. Some two dozen small aircraft, sixteen ships and more than a thousand men were involved in the rescue of the Italia survivors. Many stayed on in the Arctic long after General Nobile and his crew had been rescued to search for Amundsen and his team, but no wreckage or bodies were ever recovered.

The arrival of the Krassin back at King's Bay on 19 July 1928 was, for the eight Italia survivors, the first leg in a long journey home. But it also opened the floodgates for all manner of recriminations as to the wisdom of the entire Italia mission.

Happily, the Russian scientific and exploration community has held a number of special events on the Krassin over the past days, commemorating the Arctic spring and summer when the ship ploughed its way for weeks through pack ice to rescue a small group of foreign adventurers. If you would like to find out more about those memorable days of eighty years ago, have a look at our day-by-day diary of the Italia expedition on the hidden europe website. You will find a useful map showing the Italia route here.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.