The road which has created Russia

History of the Science in Siberia

International Polar Year

Northern Sea Route: history of development

Tyumen North: the history of development

Salekhard - a town on the Polar Circle

George Steller in Siberia

The 100th anniversary of P.I. Melnikov





Northern Sea Route: history of development

Discovery of the Northern Sea Route is one of the most outstanding pages of Russian North development. The Northern Sea Route became not only the shortest waterway between the European part of Russia and the Far East, but also a unique transcontinental route representing important interest for the economy of many countries of the world. The length of the Northern Sea Route from the Kara Strait to the Providence Bay is about 5600 km. It is a big advantage compared to waterways passing through widely used the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal. Thus the distance from Saint-Petersburg to Vladivostok via Northern Sea Route is 14 280 km, via the Suez Canal 23 200 km, around Cape of Good Hope - 29 400 km. The Northern Sea Route may serve as the shortest way between Western Europe and Asia-Pacific Region, thus it is possible that it should play an important part in global processes of economic development. The Northern Sea Route is of great strategic importance for Russia due to possibility to transport hydrocarbons and minerals from the Far North areas and supply the Far North areas with equipment and foodstuffs. A network of unique observation stations is situated all along the Northern Sea Route. This network serves Russian and foreign scientific communities to study natural and climatic peculiar features of the Far North.

Discovery of the Northern Sea Route has centuries-long prehistory. At early stages of Siberia colonization Novgorod people and later the White Sea coast-dwellers were sailing along the western areas of the Route. These brave explorers possessed unique practical skills of sailing on fragile boats in harsh climatic conditions of the North. In the XIth century Russian seafarers put to seas of the Arctic ocean, and in the XIIXIIIth centuries they discovered the islands of Vaigach and Novaya Zemlya, and in the end of the XVth century the islands of Svalbard and Medvezhy. In the XVI-XVIIth centuries the section from the Northern Dvina River to the Taz Bay was explored and developed (so-called Mangazeiya seaway).

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It is accepted that in 1525 the Russian diplomat Dmitry Gerasimov was the first to suggest using the North-Eastern passageway (the name of the Northern Sea Route before the beginning of the XXth century) for marine communication between Russia and China. At the same time following his description the Italian cartographer Battista Agnese made one the first Moscovy maps showing some parts of the basin of the Arctic Ocean.

In the second half of the XVth century English and Dutch seafarers made several attempts to pass to the East by the North Eastern passageway. A specific society of explorers was created in England. The society raised money for several expeditions to the basin of the Arctic Ocean with the goal to discover a new trade route to China. Richard Chancellor and Hugh Willoughby (15531554), as well as by Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman (1580) were in charge of the most famous expeditions. Expedition participants just managed to reach the estuary of the Northern Dvina River, Murmansk coast and the Island of Novaya Zemlya.

The Dutch seafarer Willem Barentsz made three cruises in the north in 1594-1596. His ships tried passing further to the East turning around the Island of Novaya Zemlya from north to south. During the third voyage Barentsz managed to turn around the Cape of Wish but he had to spend winter in the Ice Harbour. In spring 1597 on the way back to the continent Barentsz died.

In the end of the XVIth century Russian seafarers were making regular voyages to the estuary of the Ob River and later managed to reach the basin of the Yenisei River. Soon after Ermak campaign the towns of Berezovo and Obdorsk (Salekhard), and later Mangazeya burg on the Taz River, were built. For a long time these towns served as ports for furs transportation to Arkhangelsk. In the beginning of the XVIIth century Russian seafarers often reached the estuary of the Yenisei and the Pyasina River. In 16221623 a troop commanded by the explorer Penda followed up-stream of the Nizhnyaya Tunguska River from the Yenisei, crossed the watershed and reached the Lena. In 1632 officer Petr Beketov founded the burg giving start to the town of Yakutsk. Ten years later Cossack troops went down to the estuary of the Lena. From this point Ivan Rebrov made a voyage to the West and reached the Olenek River; Ilya Perfiliev made a voyage to the East and reached the Yana River. Soon the boats of explorers managed to reach the Anabar River and the Indigirka River in the East. In 1644 Nizhne-Kolymsky burg was founded in the estuary of the Kolyma River.

 Discovery of the last section of the North Eastern passageway to the Pacific Ocean is connected with the names of Semen Dezhnev and Fedot Popov. In 1648 they made a trade voyage on small boats and proved existence of a strait between Asia and America. They made detailed description of Chukotka and founded Anadyr burg.

Thus, Russian pioneers investigated the entire northern coast of Eurasia and the seas washing its shores. Their contribution into the chronicles of the greatest geographic discoveries had in fact solved the problem of the North Eastern passage to the Eastern countries. Quite naturally Dezhnevs voyage and discovery of a strait between Asia and America was compared with the feat of Christopher Columbus.

 In the XVIIIth century the Second Kamchatka Expedition made the most important contribution into studies of separate parts of the Northern Sea Route. Within 10 years the crew headed by Vitus Bering went through the Northern Sea Route from Arkhangelsk in the west to the Bolshoy Baranov Cape in the east. In 1742 Semen Chelyuskin reached the northern extremity of Asia the cape later named after him. Khariton Laptev investigated the coast from the Lena to the Khatanga and the Taimyr Peninsula. He mapped the Khatanga Bay, the Rivers of Pyasina and Khatanga; he discovered the Bolshoy Begichev and the Maly Begichev Islands and the central part of Byranga mountains. The crew following from Yakutsk to the Bering Strait studied the coast of the Arctic Ocean between the Lena and the Bolshoy Baranov Cape. This crew also surveyed the rivers Yana, Indigirka, Khroma, Kolyma, Bolshoy Anyui and Anadyr. Other crew headed by Martyn Shpanberg investigated the Kuril Islands and discovered the seaway to Japan. The crew headed by Vitus Bering managed to make outstanding discoveries of the strait between Asia and America and to describe the northern shores of Kamchatka, north-western coast of America and to discover many islands.

Taking into account the results of the first northern expeditions of the Russian Academy of Sciences Mikhail Lomonosov put forward and proved the idea of integrated study of polar seas and countries for development of trade seafaring and for protection of Russian territories in the Far East.
Russian seafarers F.P. Wrangel and F.F. Matyushkin made a big contribution into studying of the eastern part of the Northern Sea Route. In 18201824 they investigated and mapped the coastline from the estuary of the Kolyma River to the Kolyuchinskaya Bay. In this area they were the first to make four tours on drifting ice.

From 1877 Kara expeditions were organised from time to time to bring Siberian agricultural products and minerals to the world market through the Kara Sea. Seventy-five out of one hundred and twenty-two Kara voyages were successful in the period from 1877 to 1919. The total amount of cargo was 55 thousand tons. Failures of Kara expeditions were explained by the absence of proper navigation equipment, ports and icebreakers.

In 1899 the first powerful icebreaker in the world ERMAK was built in England upon initiative of Admiral S.O. Makarov. The icebreaker was supposed to ensure regular navigation in the Kara Sea between the rivers Ob and Yenisei.


In 1878-79 outstanding Swedish scientist Nils Nordenskiöld proved the possibility of Northern Sea Route use for transit. He made a voyage on Vega schooner from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean with one stop for winter.

In 1875 Nordenskiöld made a voyage in the direction of the Yugorsky Shar Strait. The sealer Preven passed the strait and stopped in a cosy harbour on an island in the Yenisei Bay. He called the harbour Port Dickson. At present the entire island is called Dickson.

In spite of the fact that Nordenskiöld reach the Yenisei safely and rapidly, he considered that the voyage on a sailing vessel was slow due to calm. He thought that a steam vessel would allow saving one month. Russian people were inclined to underestimate the significance of the trip ascribing it to an exception due to uncommon ice distribution in the Polar Sea. Wishing to prove the falsity of such opinion and to arrange trade communication between Europe and Siberia via the Northern Sea Route, Nordenskiöld made the second voyage on a steam vessel Imer in 1876. This time he managed not only to enter the estuary of the Yenisei but also to go up-stream till Yakovleva village where he discharged the cargo. Nordenskiöld named the island discovered in the Yenisei Bay the Sibiryakov Island after Irkutsk merchant A.M. Sibiryakov who financed the greater part of the expedition budget. Success of Nordenskiöld's voyages made irrefutably evident the fact that the western part of the North Eastern passageway could be used as a trade route. All this inspired Nordenskiöld to undertake a through voyage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean by the Arctic Ocean along the shores of Europe and Asia. Another task of the new campaign was to check possibility of safe navigation from Scandinavia to the Bering Strait. The secondary task was to collect information on poorly studied Siberian shores and waters. Nordenskiöld wrote that the expedition should have explored the Arctic Sea to the east from the estuary of the Yenisei possibly till the Bering Strait from the point of view of geography, hydrogeography and natural science.

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Nordenskiöld was provided with Vega steam vessel made of oak with displacement of 357 tons. The steam-engine power was 60 horsepower. The vessel was equipped with sails; its velocity was 6-7 knots. The officer staff and crew (totally 30 persons) were represented by experienced sailors of Swedish Navy and seal hunters. Apart from Nordenskiöld the research staff of the expedition included zoologist A. Stuksberg, botanist F. Chelman, geophysicist A. Hovgard (Dane), hydrograph D. Bove (Italian) and doctor E. Almquist. Considering that the expedition was of high interest for the country, Russian Geographical Society sent Guards lieutenant Oscar Nordquist to join the crew. He took active part in zoological observations and other studies. He was crew interpreter during stay for winter in chuckchi settlement.


On the 1st of August Vega passed the Yugorsky Shar Strait to the Kara Sea and in five days arrived to Dickson harbour without any difficulties. On the 10th of August the vessel moved on to the Chelyuskin Cape and regardless of fears this part of the way was successfully passed. On the 24th of August Vega reached the estuary of Lena. Vega passed through the first blocks of ice and successfully reached the Kolyuchin Bay on the 27th of September. Fighting with ice the vessel doubled the cape situated on the eastern extremity of the bay. Not far from the Bering Strait the vessel cast aground at Pitlekay jammed by the ice. The crew had to stay for winter at 222 kilometres from the principal goal. During wintering the staff collected data particularly valuable due to the fact that the area under study had never been investigated from research point of view. Only on the 18th of July the expedition continued the voyage and in two days Vega entered the Bering Strait. After that the vessel went to Japan, around Asia and Europe overseas the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean and returned to Sweden overseas the Atlantic Ocean. Thus the task to go through North Eastern passageway was accomplished.


Admiral A.V. Kolchak placed high emphasis on development of the Northern Sea Route. Active sea route from Arkhangelsk to the estuary of the Ob River and the Yenisei River allowed solving two important strategic tasks for the White Army: to establish secure connection between northern and eastern battle-fronts and to provide Kolchaks Army with the arms, ammunition and other arming coming from England and France, and on the way back to take goods produced by Siberian cooperative societies including, first of all, foodstuffs for Arkhangelsk. On the 21st of May 1919 Provisional Government of the Northern region adopted a resolution On Founding of Inter-Departmental Commission for Marine Expedition to Siberia. Bolsheviks also recognized the necessity of northern seaways development. On the 2nd of July 1918 Lenin signed a resolution of the Council of Peoples Commissars on allocation of one million roubles for development of the Arctic Ocean.

On the 10th of March 1921 Lenin signed a decree on creation of Floating Sea Research Institute to study the Arctic Ocean with its seas and river estuaries, islands and the Arctic coasts of RSFSR. From 1923 nineteen radio meteorology stations were built within 10 years. The notion Northern Sea Route completely displaced the previous name North Eastern passageway in scientific and everyday use.

The expedition of O. Shmidt on steam icebreaker Alexander Sibiryakov in 1932 was the starting point for opening regular traffic along the Northern Sea Route.

 In 1929 Otto Shmidt, a prominent scientist and editor-in-chief of Big Soviet Encyclopaedia, was appointed the chief of expedition to the Franz Josef Land. The aim of the expedition was to secure USSR sovereignty in this territory. This expedition as well as several subsequent polar expeditions on Sedov icebreaker allowed O. Shmidt to evaluate the meaning of polar investigations and navigation possibilities in those latitudes.

In 1932 the first expedition on steamship Sibiryakov under direction of O. Shmidt and captain V. Voronin managed to go over the Northern Sea Route within one navigation season.


The steamship Sibiryakov with displacement of 3200 tons put to sea from Arkhangelsk on the 28th of July 1932 and reached port Dickson on the 3rd of August 1932. On the 11th of August the ship refilled coal reserves and continued to the Severnaya Zemlya Island through the Sidorov Island. Then Sibiryakov passed from the Kara Sea to the Laptev Sea and reached the Tiksi Bay. Near the Chaun Bay the expedition was blocked by pack ice. Passing slowly the ship reached the Kolyuchin Island on the 10th of September. In harsh ice conditions the four propeller blades of Sibiryakov were broken down. Blades replacement took six days. The crew continued in the direction of the Bering Strait, but in two days the blade roller was cut off by a block of ice. For ten days the ship drifted in different directions. As soon as the ice conditions improved 11 sails were set. Slowly the ship reached the northern passage to the Bering Strait. Thus the way from the estuary of the Northern Dvina to the Bering Strait took two months and three days. Usuriets trawler towed Sibiryakov to Petropavlovsk and then to Yokohama for repairs. The ship returned to Arkhangelsk passing by the Suez Canal. (Studies on history of geographical discoveries, 1986, p. 46-47).


Successful expedition of Otto Shmidt proved the possibility of active development of the Arctic. GLAVSEVMORPUT (Northern Sea Route General Office) was established to put the idea of Arctic development to practice. Otto Shmidt was appointed the Chief of GLAVSEVMORPUT. The principal goals of this organisation included Northern Sea Route developing and fitting with technical means, studying of subsurface reserves in polar territories and starting research studies on regular basis. The scope of activity included construction of weather stations along the coast, development of radio communication and polar aviation, construction of icebreakers and ships for navigation in Arctic conditions.

In order to check navigation possibilities for carriers in the Arctic Ocean in 1933 the steamship Chelyuskin followed the route of the steamship Sibiryakov. O. Shmidt and V. Voronin headed the crew of researchers in different fields of knowledge. There was a group of winterers with families on board the ship. The winterers and carpenters were supposed to disembark on the Wrangel Island. In harsh conditions Chelyuskin reached the Bering Strait but the ship did not manage to pass through to the Pacific Ocean due to wind and current. It was inevitable to stay for the winter. On the 13th of February 1934 ice broke the shipboard and within two hours the ship sank. 104 people including 10 women and 2 children with emergency supplies found themselves on a block of ice. The stay of Chelyuskin team in a camp and rescue by pilots is known in the world as heroical deed of Soviet explorers of the Arctic.


In 1934 the ice-cutter Litke made the voyage from Vladivostok to Murmansk without failure by the Northern Sea Route. Litke captain was N.M. Nikolaev, research manager V.Yu. Vize. In 1935 four cargo motor ships passed through the Route during a single navigation season. In 1936 warships of the Baltic Fleet successfully arrived to the Far East, and in 1939 Stalin icebreaker made a double trip within one navigation period.

The Soviet Union was the first and the only country actively using drift-ice research stations. Such stations represented a number of houses equipped for habitation and research. The idea of drift-ice research stations belonged to Vladimir Vize, a researcher of Scientific Research Institute of the Arctic and the Antarctic. This was an efficient and low-cost research solution proposed in 1929. Thanks to drift-ice stations it was possible to study the Arctic all the year round.

In spring 1937 the team of the first drift-ice research station arrived on site. Members of the first team were I.D. Papanin (the Chief), E.T. Krenkel (radio operator), E.K. Fedorov (geophysicist) and P.P. Shirshov (oceanographer). During 274 days North Pole station made 2050 kilometres. In February 1938 the icebreakers Taimyr and Murman evacuated the station.

Before the Great Patriotic War the Soviet Union gained big experience of carriers navigation in the Arctic. The ports of Dickson, Dudinka, Tiksi, Pevek and Provideniya were under construction. During the war apart from supply of the Arctic construction sites and research stations it was necessary to ensure supply of garrisons and warships and to receive goods delivered from the USA and Canada.

The most outstanding voyages along the Northern Sea Route in the 1940-1970s included transportation of manufactured products and foodstuffs from the Pacific coast of Yakutia and the eastern part of the Soviet Arctic, delivery of warships from the Far East to the Barents Sea during the Great Patriotic War, navigation of river boats from European ports to Siberian rivers (from 1948), navigation of fishing boats to the Far East (from 1951), double cargo voyages of diesel-powered motor ships Lena and Yenisei (from 1954) and autumn voyages of atomic-powered vessel Lenin (1970-71). The Northern Sea Route is an integral part of the economy. It is vital for the regions of the Extreme North and the Far East. It ensures supply of remote areas with fuel, foodstuffs and essential goods and supply of the continent with natural resources.

Dissolution of the Soviet Union followed by social and economic crisis of the post-Soviet space in the early 1990s had a negative influence upon the condition of the Northern Sea Route. The supply system was destroyed due to dissolution of centralized maintenance supply of the Russian North. Due to price liberalization and credit system reconstruction most enterprises in the framework of the Northern Sea Route operation were in a difficult financial state. In the first place it concerned icebreakers and other ships of the Arctic fleet, ports, polar research stations and some settlements whose economy developed around servicing the Northern Sea Route. By 2003 the volume of freight decreased 5 times (1,7 million tons) in comparison with the golden age of the Soviet era. At that time the biggest freight volume belonged to Norilsk Nickel company (up to 65%).

At present practical steps are made in Russia to overcome the crisis and to continue development of the Northern Sea Route. This proves high strategic significance of this unique Arctic itinerary. In the first place this high importance is connected with forthcoming development of immense Arctic offshore oil and gas fields. Transit functions of the Northern Sea Route are also of high importance, mainly for development of regions located in the Extreme North and the Far East. Nowadays, many countries of the world are interested in cargo transportation by the Northern Sea Route. This is mainly due to the growing commodity turnover between Europe and the countries of Asian and Pacific regions. Possibly the XXIst century may become an era of intensive development of the Northern Sea Route as of an important arctic transportation passage of national and international importance.

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