Northern Sea Route

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Related to Northern Sea Route: Northwest Passage, Northeast Passage

Northern Sea Route,

Russia: see Northeast PassageNortheast Passage,
water route along the northern coast of Europe and Asia, between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Beginning in the 15th cent., efforts were made to find a new all-water route to India and China.
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Northern Sea Route


(also Northeast Passage), a major navigation route along the northern coast of the USSR. The chief Soviet artery in the arctic, it passes through the seas of the Arctic Ocean (the Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, Chukchi, and Bering seas), linking the ports of the European part of the USSR and the Soviet Far East and the mouths of navigable Siberian rivers and forming a unified nationwide transportation system.

The Northern Sea Route is little more than half as long as the other sea routes from Europe to the Far East. The distance between Leningrad and Vladivostok by way of the Northern Sea Route is 14,280 km, while through the Suez Canal it is 23,200 km, and around the Cape of Good Hope 29,400 km.

The principal ice-encumbered path of the Northern Sea Route, from the straits of Novaia Zemlia to the port of Provi-deniia, is 5,610 km long; the navigable river routes with access to the Northern Sea Route have a total length of approximately 37,000 km. Long, severe winters and short, cold summers, however, make the arctic seas icebound and render ship passage difficult over considerable segments of the route. The most difficult conditions for navigation occur near such regions as the Taimyr Peninsula and Aion Island, where large accumulations of thick ice never completely break up, even in the warmest months. Only with icebreakers can ships pass through these areas. Special services and facilities have been established along the route, including steamship lines, seaports, river ports, airports, hydrographic and industrial transportation enterprises, scientific institutes, and a network of polar hydrometeoro-logical stations.

The latter-day Northern Sea Route has been developed largely by various state projects, yet it owes much to centuries of exploration of the northern frontiers of Russia. The history of the Northern Sea Route, known until the 20th century as the Northeast Passage, begins with the first voyages of the Pomory between the 11th and the 13th century. However, it was the Russian diplomat D. Gerasimov who, in 1525, first proposed putting the route to practical use. Siberian cossacks and hunters and trappers navigated through arctic seas and along the entire Siberian coastline in sailing ships (kochi). In the summer of 1648 a voyage by the Yakut cossack Semen Dezhnev and his comrades from the mouth of the Kolyma to the Anadyr’ River proved that Eurasia and America were separate and that a sea passage existed from the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific. M. V. Lo-monosov made a substantial contribution to the study of the polar seas by conjecturing that there was a general drift of ice in the Arctic Basin from east to west, by developing a classification of ice, quite similar to the modern system, and working on problems related to the study of the Arctic Ocean.

Important explorations of the arctic included two expeditions to Kamchatka headed by V. Bering, a high-latitude expedition headed by V. Chichagov, a northeastern expedition by I. Billings and G. Sarychev, expeditions to Ust’-Iansk and Kolyma lead by P. Anjou and F. Wrangel, and expeditions to Novaia Zemlia by F. Litke, P. Pakhtusov, and A. Tsivol’ko. These explorations proved that it was possible to navigate the Northern Sea Route.

Beginning in 1877, expeditions were undertaken on occasion to the Kara Sea for the purpose of shipping Siberian agricultural products and minerals by way of the sea to the world market. By 1919 there had been 122 voyages by the Kara Sea; but only 75 of them succeeded, and only 55,000 tons of various cargo were shipped. The failure of these expeditions was due to the lack of proper navigation equipment, ports, and icebreakers in the northern seas and to opposition by the tsarist government and capitalist merchants. In 1878–79 a Swedish expedition led by N. A. E. Nordenskjöld on the schooner Vega made the first complete voyage along the Northern Sea Route, wintering on the coast of the Chukchi Peninsula. The Vega’s success, however, failed to encourage financial support on the part of the capitalists of Europe or the tsarist government of Russia, both of which refused to invest major capital to open up northern shipping. Beginning in 1911, one steamship made annual trips from Vladivostok to the Kolyma River, but even these were discontinued, since supply was unavailable along the route.

Many outstanding scientific expeditions were undertaken during this period. Important Russian explorations included an expedition commanded by S. O. Makarov on the Ermak, the first icebreaker to cover a regular route; the polar expedition on the schooner Zaria, led by E. V. Toll’; G. L. Brusilov’s expedition on the Northern Sea Route on the schooner Sviataia Anna; V. A. Rusanov’s expedition along the Northern Sea Route on the Gerkules; and G. Ia. Sedov’s polar expedition on the schooner Sviatoi Foka. Hydrographic expeditions led by B. A. Vil’kitskii on the icebreakers Taimyr and Vaigach discovered Severnaia Zemlia in 1913 and completed a voyage from east to west in 1914–15, wintering en route.

Foreign explorations included an American expedition led by De Long on the schooner Jeannette, a Norwegian expedition led by F. Nansen to study the Arctic Basin on the Fram, and a Norwegian expedition led by R. Amundsen on the Maud, which traveled the entire Northern Sea Route from west to east, stopping to winter on the coasts of the Taimyr and Chukchi peninsulas. With the appearance of steamships, radios, and icebreakers, the development of the Northern Sea Route entered a new phase, marked by more thorough research and exploration.

After the October Revolution of 1917, planned development of the Northern Sea Route became a pressing national economic challenge. V. I. Lenin devoted much attention to the development of arctic navigation and scientific research in the Soviet North. Beginning in 1921, successful Soviet expeditions were mounted to the Kara Sea; voyages to the Kolyma, begun in 1923, have helped open up navigation along the entire Northern Sea Route. In 1932 an expedition led by O. Iu. Shmidt on the steam-propelled icebreaker A. Sibiriakov for the first time traveled from Arkhangel’sk to the Bering Strait without stopping to winter, proving that it was indeed possible to make use of the Northern Sea Route. The voyages of the Cheliuskin (1933) and the Litke (1934) demonstrated again that the Northern Sea Route was ready for cargo runs, and cargo runs did begin in 1935.

In 1932 the main Northern Sea Route Administration (Glavsevmorputi) was founded and was commissioned to continue the Northern Sea Route from the White Sea to the Bering Strait, and to condition and maintain this new route for safe navigation. In the following years, Glavsevmorputi worked to establish a special fleet of icebreakers and freight carriers, provide facilities for ships and airplanes in the arctic, carry on geological, hydrological, meteorological, and geographic research, and establish centers of socialist industry in the Soviet North. Several arctic ports, including Igarka, Dikson, Pevek, and Pro-vindeniia, were built in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Many factors were important for opening up the Northern Sea Route. Hydrographic expeditions studied the conditions of the route and gathered information for navigation maps and piloting manuals. Important explorations were undertaken by the Sadko on an expedition in a high latitude (1935) and by the Georgii Sedov, which drifted through the arctic, collecting data (1937–40). In 1937–38 the first Severnyi Polius (North Pole) research station, SP-1, began operations under the direction of I. D. Papanin. Transarctic flights were first chartered from Moscow to the United States in 1937, and patrols to observe ice conditions were begun in 1938. An air expedition to the pole of relative inaccessibility was carried out in 1941. After World War II, expeditions were carried out on the icebreaker Severnyi Polius to the northeastern seas (1946), on the Litke to the Kara Sea (1948) and the Greenland Sea (1955), and on the diesel-electric ship Ob’ to the Greenland Sea (1956). Since 1948, high-latitude air expeditions have been carried out under the project name Sever (North). Stations operating on ice floes have served as bases for long-term scientific observations. The second arctic drifting research station, SP-2, conducted work in 1950–51. There have been two Soviet drifting stations operating in the Arctic Basin each year since 1954. In 1974, SP-22 was stationed on an ice floe in the basin; SP-23 began operations in late 1975.

There have been many important voyages along the Northern Sea Route since 1935. In 1936 ships of the Baltic Fleet were guided along the route to the Far East, and in 1939 the icebreaker J. Stalin completed a round trip. During the Great Patriotic War (1941–45), the Northern Sea Route was used to ship food and industrial goods from the Pacific Ocean area to Yakutia and the eastern Soviet arctic region and to transfer warships from the Far East to the Barents Sea. Other major activities on the route include regular transfers of river ships from European ports to Siberian rivers (since 1948), regular transfers of fishing ships to the Far East (since 1951), round trips for shipping cargo by the diesel-electric ships Lena and Enisei (since 1954), and autumn voyages by the nuclear-powered ship Lenin (1970–71). Several powerful new icebreakers have been built, including the Moskva and the Leningrad, and two nuclear-powered icebreakers, the Lenin and the Arktika.

Important factors in the development of the Northern Sea Route include the supply of modern equipment to arctic ports, the expansion of the network of polar research stations, which now number more than 100, the construction of observatories, and the advancement of scientific knowledge. These accomplishments have all contributed to the attainment of the goal set forth in 1957 by the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Soviet government—to turn the Northern Sea Route into a major route for large-scale shipping of national economic cargo.

Since 1954, Glavsevmorputi has been part of the Ministry of the Maritime Fleet, and during the period 1954–64 several of its specialized subdivisions were put under the management of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, the Ministry of Geology, the Central Hydrometeorological Service, and other offices. In 1970 the Administration of the Northern Sea Route was established under auspices of the Ministry of the Maritime Fleet. Its main duties are to supervise use of the Northern Sea Route, organize arctic navigation, maintain safe conditions, and prevent water pollution.


Vize, V. Iu. Moria Sovetskoi Arktiki. Moscow-Leningrad, 1948.
Istoriia otkrytiia i osvoeniia Severnogo morskogoputi, vols. 1 and 3. Moscow-Leningrad, 1956–59.
Belov, M. I. Put’ cherez Ledovityi okean. Moscow, 1963.


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