THE search for the Northeast Passage to Cathay, which for four centuries stirred the imagination of European mariners, has at last ended in triumph. We seem at the beginning of a new phase of man's relations with the North.

In this great polar saga are three historic dates. The first to seek the short-cut route from the Atlantic to the Pacific was Sir Hugh Willoughby, who in 1553 perished with all hands on the Murman coast. In the ensuing centuries navigators of many of the seafaring nations resumed the search. Some turned back before being caught; others were lured eastward to their doom in the ice. In 1878-79, A. E. Nordenskiöld made the first through-passage by "freezing in" for the winter. The only other expeditions subsequently to pass -- those of Vil'kitsky, Amundsen on the Maud, Toll, and Nansen on the celebrated Fram -- pursued the same method. It remained for the Soviet ice-breaker, Sibiryakov, sailing from Arkhangelsk to Vladivostok in 1932, to complete the through-passage in a single navigating season -- the first time in history.

This feat was not an accident of Soviet exploration. It was preceded by years of Arctic studies, especially of the movement and behavior of ice. In the sequel are matters of high potential importance. Discovery of the through-passage has given impetus to vast Soviet schemes for the exploitation of northern Asia hitherto remote; for populating regions never trod by civilized man, nor even by savages; and for developing the Arctic as a normal artery of sea and air commerce. The program introduces new factors into the politics of the Pacific Ocean which America, as close neighbor of the Soviets in the Arctic, cannot afford to ignore.

While the details of Soviet achievements in the Arctic are not yet available, the following facts may be gleaned from recent Russian materials. Soviet scientific studies began with the creation of the Commission for Study of the North in 1919. The first stage in opening the passage was the Kara Sea expedition of 1921, consisting of a fleet of ten ships sent to the mouth of the Ob River to bring Siberian wheat to the famine areas of European Russia. These trading expeditions became an annual feature, widening into the large scale operations of today. Geological surveys were undertaken on Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, etc., during which uncharted islands were discovered, and the horizon of the known gradually pushed eastward and north, beyond the barriers of ice. In 1926, a group of "winterers" colonized Wrangel Island in order to warn off possible contestants to the Soviet claim of possession. Then, the ice-breaker Krassin, returning from the rescue of the ill-fated dirigible crew in 1928, touched at Franz Josef Land, north of 80°, where the first permanent polar station was subsequently set up.

Two years later the All-Union Arctic Institute was created to coördinate the work of developing the "Soviet Sector of the Arctic." The Institute laid out a five-year program of research, meanwhile training Arctic specialists in five main branches: hydrology, geophysics, geodesy, geology, and "bio-industry." Seamen with experience in northern waters were recruited from other work and schooled as polar navigators. The first public notice of the new program of development was the appearance in 1930 of sailing instructions and a chart of the Kara Sea. The work is now proceeding further east. Information is being collected about the sea floor, the currents, the formation and movement of ice, the salinity at various depths, the declinations of the compass, as well as the migration of fish and other matter of economic significance. The discovery of the through-passage by the Sibiryakov in 1932 made apparent the possibilities of tapping the rich regions of Yakutia and Central Siberia from the north. Scientific work in the Arctic was transformed almost over night into a great national objective of the Soviet Union -- the conquest of Russia's frozen domain. A chain of radio and meterological stations was rushed into existence. And by decree of December 17, 1932, the Central Administration of the Northern Sea Route ("Glavsevmorput") was founded, attached to the Council of Peoples Commissars, but actually wielding the powers of an independent commissariat. One of the assistant-chiefs of this organization is appointed by the Commissar of the Army and Navy, who likewise has two representatives on its Collegium. The importance for defense is obvious.

With this last step began the systematic conquest of the Arctic, as a result of which the Soviets may rightly claim preëminence in modern polar science.

The Northern Sea Route is divided into a western section, from the Baltic-White Sea Canal or Murmansk through the Kara Sea (formerly considered an "ice-bound mantrap") to the Enisei delta; and an eastern section, from Pacific ports through Bering Strait to the Khatanga River. The middle section, around Cape Cheliuskin, is as yet less developed. There are actually four routes in the west: 1, through Yugor Strait south of Vaigach Island; 2, through Kara Strait north of that island; 3, through Matochkin Strait, which bisects Novaya Zemlya (the shortest route for through-passage); and 4, around Cape Zhelaniya in the open sea north of Novaya Zemlya, used when the other routes are blocked by ice. Airplanes fly the route, reporting and predicting the movements of ice to radio stations and ships, thus enabling expedition commanders to sail the route most feasible at the moment, with ice-breakers clearing the way if necessary.

The Second Five Year Plan (1933-37) made an allocation of 250,000,000 rubles to the Northern Sea Route Administration. The navigation season is short. In the Kara Sea it averages 100 days. Farther east the conditions are less favorable. However, the season has been systematically lengthened year by year. At Novy Port, on the Ob, it was 16 days in 1927, 40 in 1929, 46 in 1932, and 54 in 1934. The latest reports indicate that over a hundred ships used the Northern Sea Route during the 1935 season, operating from both ends, with two ships each way making the complete through-passage. The ice-breakers are now stationed in four zones, being responsible for convoy only in the zones to which they are assigned. The ports, which have sprung up like mushrooms, are for the most part situated at the mouths of the great Siberian rivers where fuel and supplies are stored. At these points river craft, operating from deep Siberia, exchange products of the interior for the manufactured goods and industrial equipment brought by sea. One striking exception is the deep water port of Igarka, 725 kilometers up the Enisei, which in five years has been converted from frozen waste into a town of 14,000 inhabitants, possessing the largest timber combine between the Urals and the Pacific. Igarka, now that it is visited by ocean vessels, seems destined to become the metropolis of the strange world within the Arctic Circle.

The most obvious economic significance of the Northern Sea Route is the development made possible of Yakutia and other regions in high latitudes which are rich in natural resources and which are not yet reached by the railroads. Yakutia, called the "big bottle with a narrow neck," has hitherto had to rely solely on the long connection by trail with Irkutsk. But the coast-land itself is also expected to yield profits. The geological chart prepared by the Arctic Institute in 1934 reveals valuable mineral deposits at 228 points: coal at 73 points, peat in fair quantity, also graphite, gold (at 26 points on the Chutkotsk peninsula), and various non-ferrous-metals (lead and zinc on Vaigach Island, copper on Novaya Zemlya), as well as sulphites and iron. Coal and oil have been found on the Pechora, Enisei and Lena Rivers in sufficient quantities to justify the expectation that the fuel needs of Arctic commerce will be met by local supplies. With experience gained in the Murman area, the Soviet agricultural experts have established Arctic farms, the northern-most in the world, which lengthen the growing season by artificial thawing of the frozen soil. Garden crops are being successfully produced. To insure local food supply, the three trusts of the Northern Sea Route Administration are operating factories for preserving fish and game, the chief exports, as well as developing the oil, salt and fur industries. These trusts are also occupied with building up the river fleets and maintaining the supply of fuel.

In the matter of recruitment for service in the North, the Soviet Government has relied largely on volunteers, granting them special rewards and privileges. By decree of July 7, 1933, members of one family may work together in the Arctic; wages and pensions are on the relatively high scale given to miners; disabilities are rated as those of professional labor; and, quite important, the rations are those served to the Red Army. The personnel of the polar radio stations, three or four persons per station, are supplied with food for a whole year, and are relieved at the end of that period. By decree of July 21, 1935, the Northern Sea Route Administration assumed control of all economic and cultural functions in the North. It thus becomes a political agency, with considerable power in Soviet affairs.

In keeping with this "Arctic fever," it is natural that the Soviet Government should raise the question of possible future claims to what has been considered terra nullius.[i] On November 4, 1924, the Commissar for Foreign Affairs (repeating claims set forth in a similar note by the Tsarist Government in 1916) notified all governments that the islands between the Russian coast and the North Pole belong to the territory of the U. S. S. R. And on April 15, 1926, the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee decreed that "all lands already discovered, as well as those which are to be discovered in the future . . . north of the coast of the U. S. S. R. up to the North Pole, within the limits of 32°4′35″ east from Greenwich . . . and 168°49′32″ west from Greenwich" come under Soviet jurisdiction. Further, the Soviet experts in international law [ii] declare that the doctrine of "discovery, effective occupation, and notification" as the basis of territorial claim must be superseded by the doctrine of "region of attraction," by which newly discovered land ipso facto becomes the polar territory of the subjacent state. The "Soviet Sector of the Arctic" thus carries certain political connotations. Within the area defined above, Soviet sovereignty is presumed to exist not only over lands which may yet be discovered, but also over the "more or less immovable ice formations." Floating ice may be considered as part of the high seas. Further peculiarity arises from the Soviet contention that each subjacent state (U. S. S. R., United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Finland) "exercises sovereignty over the aerial space above the whole region of attraction of its sector." The North Pole, however, does not belong to any state, and may be represented as an "hexahedral frontier post on the sides of which might be painted the national colors of the state of the corresponding sector." As a matter of fact, the "post" really should probably be five-sided, as the Finnish sector ends at Spitzbergen, and does not reach to the North Pole.

In the larger sense, this victory of man over the ice which has crushed him in the past may be viewed as part of the large general scheme for the redistribution of the productive forces of the Soviet Union. Soviet construction moves up to the polar frontier. One may doubt the feasibility of making a permanent habitation north of the earth's "Pole of Cold" (Verkhoyansk). Still, economic objectives are within reach, the opening of new markets for European goods, relief of the strain on Siberian railways, etc. And whether or not the Northern Sea Route becomes a "normal" artery of safe navigation for commerce, its strategic importance leaps to meet the eye.

In the summer of 1935, Soviet scientists on the ice-breakers Sadko and Krassin, accompanied by airplanes, sought to determine the influence of the Gulf Stream in polar seas north of 82°. They reported a warm current 650 feet wide near Franz Josef Land, and one far to the east, north of Wrangel Island. It is presumed that these are part of a warm current which supposedly flows from the Atlantic to the northern entrance of the Pacific. If these expectations are substantiated, the Northern Sea Route may play a world rôle, especially in connection with the shortcut to European ports via the Baltic-White Sea Canal.

The air service has an especially important function along the Northern Sea Route: reporting ice movements, maintaining communication with isolated polar stations, and conducting photographic surveys of all the main river systems from the southern bases to the northern ports. In addition to the trans-continental lines from the European centers, there is now regular air service along the Ob River from Tyumen to Obdorsk and Novy Port; along the Enisei River from Krasnoyarsk through Igarka and Dudinka to Dickson Island; and along the Lena River from Yakutsk to Tiksi Bay. Other air lines, which began operations only in 1935, include the important ones in the Far Eastern zone, the Khabarovsk-Anadyr-Cape Schmidt-Wrangel Island line, and the Kamchatka lines connecting Petropavlovsk with Bolsheretsk, and with Ust, Kamchatsk, and Zhupanovo. Soviet planes regularly fly along the coast of Bering Sea. A main coastal line for the Northern Sea Route from Murmansk and Archangel to Vladivostok, is planned for operation next year, with a time schedule of 60 flying hours for the entire length. This last winter, a new type of Arctic airplane, equipped with wheels and skis on floats, made possible regular year-round connections with the polar stations for the first time. The mail and parcel air service to such stations was given special stamps, "Per Airplane to the Arctic," which appeals to the Russian sense of the dramatic.

Aerial communications across the Arctic are beset with difficulties, but their establishment may be less remote in point of time than we are wont to suppose. Preparations are already well advanced for the flight over the North Pole, from Moscow to San Francisco, in the summer of 1936.

In 1817 the United States and Canada permanently demilitarized their common frontier. The Soviet water and air approach to the Pacific is a reminder that America also has an Arctic frontier. It may prove expedient for the United States to enter into an agreement with Soviet Russia for the demilitarization of Bering Strait, so that no matter what happens in the wider reaches of the Pacific the possibility of war shall be excluded from the Arctic and Alaska.

[i]Cf. David Hunter Miller: "Political Rights in the Arctic," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, October 1925.

[ii] See W. L. Lakhtine, "Prava na Severnye Polyarnye Prostranstva," NKID, 1928.

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  • BRUCE HOPPER, Assistant Professor of Government in Harvard University; author of "Pan-Sovietism" and other works
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