Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/1 posted by hidden europe on

As Russian families gather today to celebrate Christmas (which in Orthodox Europe falls later than in the Roman calendar), they will be inclined - like families everywhere in the world - to look back to Christmas tales from yesteryear. There is barely a Russian alive - of any age - who cannot recount a heroic tale or two about the bravery of the crew and passengers of the Chelyuskin, who 80 years ago endured an ice-bound Christmas in the Chukchi Sea.

article summary —

The news from Antarctica these past days has showcased the plight of a Russian expedition ship trapped in ice. And now the Chinese ice-breaker which went to assist the Russian vessel is ice-bound. The incident is a reminder that travel in high latitudes still has its dangers. With two ships stuck fast, Uncle Sam wants a slice of the action. The US ice-breaker Polar Star is steaming south to help. Whether Russia and China want that help is quite another question. Russians will watch developments with interest. But it is another polar epic which is distracting Russians early in 2014, as they mark the 80th anniversary of the Chelyuskin wreck and rescue.

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Dear fellow travellers

Happy New Year! As Russian families gather today to celebrate Christmas (which in Orthodox Europe falls later than in the Roman calendar), they will be inclined - like families everywhere in the world - to look back to Christmas tales from yesteryear. In Russia, history comes with a challenge, for few Russians of any age can conjure up any dreamy nostalgia for the Stalinist period. Yet there is one area of endeavour where the Soviet Union excelled in the nineteen thirties. And that was in the exploration of the Russian Arctic. There is barely a Russian alive - of any age - who cannot recount a heroic tale or two about the bravery of the crew and passengers of the Chelyuskin, who 80 years ago endured an ice-bound Christmas in the Chukchi Sea.

In 1932 the Russian ship Sibiryakov had completed the first-ever single-season transit of the Northern Sea Route, sailing from the White Sea to the Bering Strait in just ten weeks. The voyage of the Chelyuskin in 1933 was a chance to prove that the Sibiryakov's success was not just a one-off. Moscow wanted to demonstrate that the Northern Sea Route was a navigable waterway, albeit one that could only be used for a few weeks each year - in late summer and early autumn when the polar ice was at its thinnest.

The Chelyuskin set sail on 12 July 1933, and initially made good progress - at least as far as the Kara Sea. But east of the Lena Delta, she encountered more difficult conditions. By the time the ship reached the East Siberian Sea, heavy ice was overshadowing the entire venture. But the crew persisted and the ship passed Wrangel Island to reach the Chukchi Sea where in November the Chelyuskin was trapped in fast-moving polar ice floes. By all accounts, those aboard celebrated Christmas with some flair. It was only what happened next that propelled that Christmas afloat into the annals of Soviet history.

On 13 February 1934, the hull of the Chelyuskin was fractured by ice and within an hour or two the ship was sinking. The 104 people aboard (including one infant who had been born on the voyage) scrambled onto the ice where a makeshift camp was home for two months.

The rescue of the hapless castaways was a keen demonstration of Soviet prowess in the Arctic. The fact that the Chelyuskin expedition was ill-conceived was neatly overlooked by the media and public. Unlike the Sibiryakov used in 1932, the Chelyuskin was not designed with heavy ice in mind. The fate of the Chelyuskin team became the news story of the season, one that became better by the day as Soviet aviators devised a rescue plan.

Accounts of life on the ice were predictably all very positive. There were nightly lectures on the finer points of Communist theory and there was a camp newspaper with the rousing title We Shall Not Surrender! Thus Soviet people were struggling against the Arctic, and there was little doubt from the outset which side would triumph in this fearsome duel.

This was heroic stuff, and heroes deserve medals. The honour that in time became the highest distinction in the USSR, the Hero of the Soviet Union, was first designed expressly to reward the seven pilots who led the successful search and rescue mission after the sinking of the Chelyuskin. The castaways from the ship were feted as heroes upon their return to civilisation - a return that was artificially postponed to ensure that Moscow was ready to accord the welcome that the Chelyuskin team deserved.

Every aspect of the voyage of the Chelyuskin and its icy aftermath became part of the fabled folklore of the Soviet North. Poems were penned in homage to the castaways and their rescuers, biographies were written, and the epic inspired a flood of stories for children. This was a highpoint of Soviet achievement - yet its very human dimension has ensured its longevity and its continuing appeal today.

Russians still speak in tones of reverence of the bravery of the Chelyuskin expedition members. Come April this year, Russia will recall the eightieth anniversary of the heroic rescue of 104 polar adventurers.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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.