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An Arctic outpost: Victoria Island

by Nicky Gardner


The story of Victoria Island, a tiny fleck of land in the European Arctic midway between Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, is a reminder that there are better ways of conducting international diplomacy than leaving a message in a bottle.

Seven men arrived on the island just after four in the morning. By eight they had left. They had less than four hours on Victoria Island, but it was sufficient time to explore the northern portion of the island — that being the only part of the small island not covered by an ice cap. They built a small cairn from boulders found on the beach, raised the Norwegian flag and left a message in a bottle tucked into the cairn. The gist of the message was that Victoria Island was hereby being claimed for Norway.

The crew of the Bratvaag left planks, hammers and nails on Victoria Island, perhaps intending to return at some stage to build a cabin on this little fleck of Norwegian territory in the Arctic. They never did.

On 18 August 1932 Nikolay Zubov and his crew left Murmansk in MV Knipovich, a small Norwegian-built wooden vessel which handled well in drift ice and polar seas. Zubov worked with the Oceanographical Institute of the USSR, and neither he, nor his masters in Moscow, were accustomed to conducting diplomacy through messages left in bottles. During a circumnavigation of Franz Josef Land, Zubov’s team made landfall on Victoria Island and planted the red Soviet flag. As soon as the news of Zubov’s success reached the Kremlin, the Russians made clear that they had annexed the island which has ever since been known as Ostrov Viktoriya.

Thus did Victoria Island become one of only two Soviet islands named after British monarchs, though in nearby Franz Josef Land they had an entire archipelago named after a Habsburg emperor. Despite the name, the British evidently never coveted Victoria Island although some members of the British Arctic Expedition in 1925 certainly landed briefly on the island.

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