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The View from Anadyr

Author: Nicky Gardner

May/June 2014
Page 41   (10 pages)

Summary: Russia’s renewed interest in the Northern Sea Route is enabled by global warming and mirrors efforts of a century ago.


Eighty years ago this spring the Soviet Central Executive Committee created the distinction Hero of the Soviet Union. The earliest recipients of the accolade all showed exceptional service to the state in the Russian Arctic where, in the 1930s, a major program was initiated to transform the Northern Sea Route* from a theoretical navigational possibility
into an operational waterway.

On a bright Tuesday morning in September 2008, the president's Ilyushin jet descended over the waters of the Anadyr Estuary for a perfect landing at the airport on the north side of the bay. For Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (pictured above), a one-day visit to the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug was a chance to address several agendas at once. Anadyr is Russia's easternmost city, and the Chukotka region has a shared maritime frontier with the state of Alaska.

Medvedev's day out to Chukotka came just as then Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin was being mercilessly parodied by Tina Fey, who mimicked Palin and said Alaskans knew exactly where Chukotka was: they could see it in the West as they gazed out their kitchen windows. While fanciful, it nonetheless put Alaskans one step ahead of Muscovites, for even today many residents of the Russian capital would be hard pressed to identify Chukotka as anything other than the source of many good jokes.

Medvedev made a helicopter tour with a ground stop to meet Chukchi reindeer herders on the tundra at Kancalan. They posed in front of a traditional yaranga for a group photo with Medvedev and then Chukotka region governor Roman Abramovich, whose business interests span the globe and include the London-based Premier League soccer team Chelsea.

In Anadyr, a community of five-story khrushchyovki painted in bright primary colors, Medvedev met kids wearing Chelsea caps, listened politely to Chukchi folk songs, and made an upbeat speech reminding the world that “Our biggest task is to turn the Arctic into Russia's resource base for the twenty-first century.”

In the space of one day, Medvedev thus deftly played the eastern card, the northern card and the indigenous peoples card, while reaffirming Moscow's commitment to northern development. In the two years that followed, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became a regular commuter to the Russian North, his travels taking him to Nagurskoye, a Russian military outpost on Franz Josef Land archipelago (where he came face to face with a sedated polar bear), and to Khatanga, on the remote Taymyr Peninsula, where his plane had to make an unscheduled landing in bad weather while en route to the northern Siberian mining community of Norilsk.

moscow is rediscovering its northern dream. Medvedev's remarks in Anadyr echoed Stalin's in 1932: “The Arctic and our northern regions contain colossal wealth. We must create a Soviet organization that can, in the shortest period possible, include this wealth in the general resources of our socialist economic structure.”

Eighty years after the Soviet Union tried to enliven the northern economy by creating a viable waterway along Russia's Arctic coast, that prospect is becoming a reality. Speaking in Arkhangelsk in September 2011, Putin was optimistic: “We shall turn the Northern Sea Route into a key transport artery of global importance.”

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