Heroic Epic


In late 1933 the Soviet ship S.S. Cheliuskin was caught in pack ice near the Bering Strait, an emergency that sparked a famous effort to save the crew. Geroicheskaia epopeia (Heroic epic) records this incident. The Cheliuskin had been built in Denmark as a standard ocean-going vessel. It was not an icebreaker; in fact it set out to prove the navigability of the Northern Sea Route (the historical Northeast Passage, north of Arctic Russia) for routine steamships. Otto Shmidt (also seen as Schmidt, 1891‒1956), a noted Soviet scientist of Baltic German origin, was well qualified to lead the expedition after years of geophysical and astronomical research. Among other posts, Shmidt served as the chief editor of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, head of the Arctic Institute, and chief of the Main Administration for the Northern Sea Route. The ship was commanded by Vladimir Voronin, an experienced Arctic captain. The Cheliuskin left Leningrad for Vladivostok on July 12, 1933. Very shortly after, trouble with the engine forced a stop in Copenhagen where the ship was built, and then the Cheliuskin continued to Murmansk for a brief rest. It sailed nearly to the entrance of the Bering Strait before getting caught in the ice in November of that year. The ship then drifted for three months in the pack ice of the Chukchi Sea, before the ice buckled the hull and it sank near Kolyuchin Island in February 1934. One person died in the sudden evacuation, and 104 people survived on the ice. The women and children were rescued by plane on March 5, and the rest in April and then flown to Vankarem on the Soviet mainland (apart from Shmidt, then seriously ill, who was evacuated to Alaska). The rescue effort included some aircraft that were staged from Alaska, highly unusual for the time, and it was assisted by two American air mechanics. The Soviet pilots subsequently became legendary in the USSR and were the first to receive the new title of “Hero of the Soviet Union,” the highest honor in the Stalin era. Aside from including a wide selection of photographs of the voyage, crew, and Arctic scenes, this volume presents Soviet newspaper headlines and letters by the crew to Stalin and the ruling Politburo as well as photographs of the heroic reception accorded the Cheliuskin survivors in Moscow. The USSR had begun to expand activities in the Arctic in the early Stalin era and this otherwise catastrophic voyage was re-spun as a propaganda tale for the Soviet media. The Soviet theme of conquering nature was turned into a drama of rescue in the frozen North. The text reflects the typical cant, bravado, and misinformation of the period and the illustrations and images are invariably selective and in some instances apparently doctored. The work is a mirror of its times, when the Soviet Union could not accept a public failure during a deepening period of political repression and thus had to turn the narrative into one of suspenseful rescue in a highly nationalistic manner. The book highlights the abiding importance of the Arctic to Soviet policymakers and the particular need to accentuate the conquest of nature and the arc of progress in the Stalin era.

Last updated: December 11, 2017