On May 21, 1937, the famous polar ‘drifting’ expedition led by Ivan Papanin kicked off, captivating the Soviet public for the next nine months
On May 21, 1937, a large red-orange ANT-6 aircraft landed on an ice floe not far from the North Pole. Thirteen men piled out of the plane, pulled out a bottle of cognac, poured the contents into aluminum mugs, gulped it down in one shot subsequently shouting ‘Hooray!’ and then promptly began unloading the equipment.
That was the start of the famous polar ‘drifting’ expedition led by Ivan Papanin, which kept making headlines in the Soviet press for the next nine months.
The idea of the drifting ice station belongs to Otto Schmidt, a legendary Soviet polar explorer and hero of two Arctic expeditions, including the voyage of the steamship Chelyuskin. Having spent many months on an ice floe after the Soviet steamship’s sinking, Schmidt decided to build a drifting ice station in the Arctic.
The expedition had crucial scientific and propaganda goals. Research work in the Arctic had remained frozen since the 1896 expedition led by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen onboard the Fram ship.
The mid-1930s marked the beginning of the era of glorifying polar explorers and pilots in the USSR. After the rescue of the Chelyuskin crew in 1934, seven pilots who took part in the rescue operation were made Heroes of the Soviet Union.
Arctic historian Ramiz Aliyev said the country had found their official heroes for the first time after the Civil War.
“Even in the 1930s, plane flights were not an everyday occurrence and were regarded as something fantastic,” Aliyev said. “The supernatural ability of Bolsheviks to fly in the sky served as a proof of the power of the Soviet system.”
He said the public viewed the Arctic in the 1930s the way we currently see outer space. Therefore, Papanin’s expedition, which required heroism both from pilots and polar explorers, had major significance for the Soviet government.
Otto Schmidt brought on board pilot Mikhail Vodopyanov in drafting the plan for the expedition. Vodopyanov who took part in the rescue operation of the Chelyuskin crew, was supposed to practice landing heavy aircraft on an ice floe that would not break under its weight.
In February 1936, the Kremlin gave the green light to the expedition plan. Schmidt was supposed to be the team leader of the polar explorers and Papanin was not on the list.
Who is Mr. Papanin?
Ivan Papanin was born in Sevastopol into a sailor’s family. He took part in the Civil War on the side of the Bolsheviks and was later deployed to Crimea to fight against the Whites. In 1934-1935 he was posted to command a polar station on Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point of mainland Russia. He was put in charge of the first drifting expedition after medics rejected the candidacy of 50-year old polar explorer Vladimir Vize, deputy head of the All-Union Arctic Institute.
Preparations for the expedition lasted for another year. The plane carrying its members, Ivan Papanin, hydrobiologist Pyotr Shirshov, geophysicist Yevgeny Fyodorov and radioman Ernst Krenkel, departed from Moscow on March 22, 1937.
The expedition, which also included Vesely the Dog, eventually landed on an ice floe some 20 kilometers from the North Pole two months later. The delay was caused by bad weather. The air delivery of all equipment and foodstuffs to the drifting station lasted for ten days. Papanin tried to take as much food as possible to the ice floe. He even brought salted herrings wrapped in a pillow case.
Papanin’s team had enough food to live on the ice floe for about a year. However, many polar explorers believed that it was possible to survive in the Arctic without major food supplies.
Back in 1918, Norwegian explorer Storker Storkerson and his team of seven traveled on dogsleds to the Beaufort Sea to set up a research station. They had food that would suffice for 100 days and their drifting lasted for 238 days. They had to hunt seals and polar bears and Storkerson later said that surviving on the ice for eight years would have been as easy as eight months.
All members of the expedition documented their everyday life on the North Pole in their diaries. Here are some entries.
June 6. Papanin. All residents of the ice floe gathered today for a rally at 2 pm. Otto Schmidt announced the opening of a new drifting polar station, dubbing it the North Pole, and I hoisted the Soviet Union’s flag. At 3:40 pm everyone departed for Rudolf Island and the four of us were left alone.
June 7. Fyodorov. We got some sleep and started working. First of all, we measured the depth. The cable reached the bottom at the mark of 4,290 meters.
June 10. Papanin. We received an important message from Moscow to provide weather forecasts and radio communications for Valery Chkalov’s flight to America via the North Pole.
June 16. Papanin. Ernst Krenkel received a funny radiogram from the town of Staraya Russa, “Close up the North Pole, it’s gotten cold on the mainland.”
Research work took up the most time during Papanin’s expedition. They were conducting meteorological observations and taking samples of the Arctic Ocean’s water. In January 1938, the ice floe’s drift accelerated and it had started approaching the warm waters of the Atlantic. On February 2, it split and the station was destroyed.
The polar explorers had to wait for help for about two weeks and there were several reasons for that. The crew of Soviet pilot Sigizmund Levanevsky went missing during a North Pole flight in August 1937. Twenty-six ships were sent on a search and rescue operation but got stuck in the Arctic ice due to bad weather. Among them were practically the whole fleet of Soviet icebreakers.
The Soviet government decided to send an airship to evacuate Papanin’s team. The largest V-6 airship with three power engines took off from Moscow on February 5 but crashed into a mountain on the Kola peninsula. Only six out of 19 crew members survived the crash.
On February 19, 1938, the Soviet ice breakers Taimyr and Murman took four polar explorers and their equipment off the ice floe. They later boarded on the Yermal icebreaker, which brought them to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on March 15.
The research work of Papanin’s team yielded many interesting results. Moreover, the expedition solidified the Soviet Union’s status as the first Arctic power.
All expedition members were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. As for their dog Vesely, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin took him to one of his summer residences.