Summary of Working Paper No. 84-1997

IV.1.1: Historical and Current Uses of the Northern Sea Route. Part IV: The Administration of the Northern Sea Route (1917-1991).

By Vladimir Bulatov, The Pomor International University, Arkhangelsk, Russia.

This paper is part 4 of project IV.1.1., covering the Soviet period. The main concern in Bulatov's report is the administrative aspects of the Northern Sea Route, the development of logistical support and ice reconnaissance. Even if the Kara Sea Route seemed to be ready for large-scale development before the October Revolution of 1917, the breakthrough for the route came only after the Revolution with the so-called Kara Barter Expeditions of the 1920s, organized by Russia's new Bolshevik Government - and during the 1930s the Northern Sea Route for the first time expanded further eastwards. Bulatov is of the opinion that the Soviet government's approach to the Arctic and the question of the Northern Sea Route was decisive, first of all its determination to make large-scale investment in infrastructure and allocate considerable funds for scientific research from the very beginning.

To carry through its programme of opening up the Northern Sea Route the Soviet government in 1932 established the Main Administration of the Northern Sea Route (GUSMP) with far-reaching powers to develop a sea route along the sparsely populated coast of Northern Siberia. The breakthrough came with navigations in 1932-34, when through traverses of the Northern Sea Route were carried through, for the first time in a single season. The author deals extensively with the development of logistical support, icebreakers, aviation and the hydrometeorological service. Heavy emphasis is put on the role of the Northern Sea Route during the Second World War, its strategic role as an alternative communication line between the Allies.

The strength of the Soviet system was one of the reasons for success, but Bulatov also points to its weaknesses, underlining the role of the great purges and forced labour in the development of the Northern Sea Route under Stalin. A new trend during the post-war period was the extension of the navigation season (from the 1970s). Increased productivity resulted both from winter navigation and new methods for unloading ships in the ice. At the same time we witness a gradual downgrading of the administration of the Northern Sea Route, which does not, however, indicate that the Northern Sea Route had been reduced in importance. On the contrary, it resulted from the fact that it was becoming an integral part of Soviet economy. When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, the Administration of the Northern Sea Route was transferred to the department of the Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation. Bulatov concludes that life in Russia is already unthinkable without the Northern Sea Route.