No. 4, 2003

Yury Zhukov, Dr. Sc. (History)


The territorial division of the Arctic in the early 1920s was of much geopolitical and economic importance for the future

The history of Arctic exploration always appears full of romance, heroism and tragedy. This was indeed the case with a number of ship expeditions - the Fram, the Maud, the Gjoa, the Chelyuskin - that went adrift in the Arctic Ocean. The same is true of the airships Norge, Italia, and LZ-127. But is it not possibly common knowledge that the famed polar explorers were followed by more prosaically occupied people, politicians and diplomats, who were out to recarve the map of the world.

Unwanted islands

The epoch of great geographical discoveries brought into being an unwritten rule. On stepping upon some hitherto unknown land a shipmaster or an expedition head would in the first place set up a flag of his country, thereby signaling the transition of an island, archipelago or coast to his monarch's sovereignty. That done, they established a firmer foothold by building a trading station, a fort, or just a military post, and, on coming back home, informed everyone about their discovery.

In February 1885, this five-centuries-old tradition took the form of an international treaty, which was signed by fourteen countries, the participants in the Berlin Conference that had completed the division of Africa. True enough, the legitimization of the old practice seemed at first a sheer formality: it was believed that the whole world had been divided by that moment and if there remained no man's lands, they were in the arctic, where no one needed them anyway.

Even the important discovery by Adolf Erik Nordenskiold, who found, as early as 1868, coal, the only contemporary ship fuel, on Spitsbergen and the Bear Island stuck midway between the archipelago and the Norwegian coast, for long changed nothing in the view about the absolute uselessness of the Arctic. It was only in 1896 that the diplomatic services of Russia and the Swedish-Norwegian Union started an exchange of letters, dispatches and notes in a bid to hammer out a mutually beneficial agreement on the fate of those arctic lands. But they were agreed in advance that these should retain their former status.

However, in an unexpected development a mere five years later a fight for the Arctic ensued. True enough, wars were not declared nor were battles fought; rather it was a flag-showing competition.

The Arctic crisis

A prominent skipper, Otto Sverdrup, was the man who unwittingly started the whole thing. The Second Norwegian Polar Expedition he headed discovered, in March 1900, several big islands a long distance to the west of Greenland - icebound like anything else in the Arctic and totally unfit for habitation. That notwithstanding, the expedition christened the islands Sverdrup Land and hoisted the Norwegian flag in a strategic point. In fall 1902, on coming back home, the skipper, as required by the centuries-old tradition, told a solemn ceremony that he had discovered some islands, which from then on were the domains of the Swedish-Norwegian King Oscar II.

The news reached Canada, where the authorities proved totally unwilling to put up even with a symbolic foreign presence near their coast. In 1904, they published a map of the dominion, which extended the northernmost land border points along the 60th and the 141st meridians up to the North Pole. Simultaneously they sent several expeditions to "their" Arctic territory, with an assignment to set up the Canadian flag on all without exception islands.

Denmark and newly independent Norway in 1905 started asking questions as to which of them owned hitherto legally no man's East Greenland.

It was only then that St. Petersburg thought back to the long-time Russian possessions in the Arctic Ocean. It became particularly alarmed - and by far not without reason - by the situation in connection with the Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea. It was the most far-lying, unpopulated and inaccessible piece of land. Following its discovery, in 1813, by Russia's Lieutenant Ferdinand Wrangel, ships managed to reach it only on two occasions.

Its jurisdiction seemed to be clear. Russia's border with the USA was established simultaneously with the sale of Alaska in 1867. Under the treaty it passed in the Bering Strait along the meridian "separating equidistantly Krusenstern Island, or Ignaluk, from Ratmanov Island, or Nunarbuk, and heads northward infinitely until it disappears completely in the Arctic Ocean." Consequently, Wrangel Island, which lies to the west of the border, is a lawful Russian possession.

But on August 12, 1881, a U.S. customs boat, the Corwin, reached the island after a difficult passage over the ice-bound sea. She landed sailors, who set up the American flag. The skipper, one Calvin L. Hooper, made an entry in the log about the accession of the "unknown" land to the United States.

The time of change

Bringing the islands back, if belatedly, to Russia's jurisdiction was the mission facing a Russian polar expedition organized by the Main Hydrographic Directorate of the Ministry of the Navy. Based on two icebreakers, the Taimyr and the Vaigach, it raised the State flag, on September 16, over the island, thus confirming Russia's original title to that polar land.

On September 3, 1913, the expedition, which was again headed by Captain 2nd Rank Boris Vilkitsky, had the honor of repeating the flag-raising ceremony, this time on one of the big islands of an archipelago it had discovered. Today it is designated on every map as Severnaya Zemlya.

But it was not the end of the Russian show of the flag in the Arctic. In summer 1914, the Main Hydrographic Directorate sent a schooner, the Gerta, to look for Senior Lieutenant Georgy Sedov and his companions, who had disappeared while traveling by sleigh to the North Pole. It was on the high seas that the crew learned about the start of a world war. So, when the Gerta reached Franz Josef Land, which was considered as an Austro-Hungarian territory, the expedition head, Captain 1st Rank Islyamov, took an unforeseen step, raising the Russian flag in token of the archipelago being annexed to the Russian possessions.

Only after this extensive show of the national flag by the sailors did the diplomats took over the initiative. On October 3, 1916, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia circulated an unusual note. It notified all nations concerned about the discoveries made by the Boris Vilkitsky expedition in the Arctic and confirmed "the inclusion of those lands in the territory of the Russian Empire."

The world war radically changed the situation in the Arctic.

The political map of the northern polar region began changing, taking the final shape. On February 9, 1920, the last day of the Paris Peace Conference, Norway obtained the transfer of Spitsbergen and Bear Island to its sovereignty. Almost simultaneously the victorious great powers satisfied Denmark by recognizing that Greenland was wholly under Copenhagen's control.

At the same time, while discussing recognition of the rights of some or other country to Arctic territories, a number of international lawyers came to attach most importance to the hitherto inessential principle of permanent presence. Allegedly, it was immaterial who had discovered an island or a land and raised the national flag there. The important thing was a continued presence, be it even in the shape of radio or weather stations. Thus they were prodding others to undertake arbitrary seizures outside of the international agreements.

This was what happened to Wrangel Island. It had no human population in 1921 and so the well-known Canadian polar explorer Viljalmur Stefansson sent five men to colonize it. They set foot on its shore on September 16 and put up the Union Jack.

But Soviet Russia was totally unwilling to give away even a patch of land in the Arctic. On getting news of the invasion in the Wrangel, the RSFSR People's Commissariat of Foreign Affairs sent to London, as early as May 4, 1922, a note of protest. It remained unanswered though, and the Commissariat reiterated it, this time on behalf of the USSR, on May 25 and August 21, 1923. It was only then that the Foreign Office offered Moscow some explanations, claiming that Stefansson's escapade was his own private affair. On August 6, 1924, the FO officially declared that Great Britain laid no claims to Wrangel Island.

However, not wishing to rely on the diplomats alone, Moscow resorted to a clearly strong-arm demonstration, sending to the Wrangel a gunboat, the Krasny Oktyabr', under Boris Davydov, quite recently a participant in the Vilnitsky expedition and therefore well familiar with the sailing conditions in the Chukchi Sea. On August 19, 1924, the gunboat managed to come close to the island and landed an armed squad. The next day it set up the USSR flag and escorted the hapless winterers aboard the ship.

The Arctic sectors

In the meantime the Canadian Parliament suggested a method of its own for defining the ownership of polar lands and islands. The North-West Territories Act it passed on May 27, 1925, established the Canadian sector in the Arctic: it had as its boundaries the 60th and the 141st meridians up to the point of their convergence on the North Pole. The sectoral division principle was right away backed by U.S. international lawyers.

The sectoral principle was not accidental. It was a product of the unprecedented advances in aeronautics and aviation, strengthened by the general belief that soon there would appear transpolar airlines capable of almost halving the travel time between Europe, America and Japan.

The successful air flights in May 1926 - Richard E. Byrd took his plane from Spitsbergen to the North Pole and back; Roald Amundsen, Lincoln Ellsworth and Umberto Nobile traveled aboard an airship, the Norge, from Spitsbergen across the North Pole to Nome, Alaska - were a significant proof to the effect that the Arctic was emerging as an important international transportation zone.

Notified in good time about the forthcoming Norge expedition, Moscow did not rule out a possibility of it discovering some as yet unknown lands, annexing these to Norway or the U.S., and using them as air bases. That was why Moscow, like Ottawa before it, was reluctant to see any foreign presence close to its coast. Accordingly, it prepared a "gift" of sorts for Amundsen and Ellsworth: on April 15, 1926, the very day, when the Norge arrived in Leningrad, the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee, the USSR's top legislative and executive body, passed the following decree:"This is to proclaim as the territory of the Soviet Union all the lands and islands, both discovered and likely to be discovered in the future, which do not constitute, as of the moment of publication of the present decree, the territory of any foreign States as recognized by the Government of the USSR, ones located in the Arctic Ocean to the north of the coast of the USSR up to the North Pole within the limits between the meridian of 32 hours 4 minutes 35 seconds east longitude of Greenwich, passing along the eastern side of Vaida-guba through the triangulation station mark on Mys Kekurskiy, and the meridian of 168 hours 49 minutes 30 seconds west longitude of Greenwich, passing in the middle of the strait dividing Ratmanov and Krusenstern islands of the Diomede Islands group in Bering Strait."

The Soviet Union did not restrict itself to using the polar sector principle alone, sending several specialized expeditions to the Arctic lands whose title was open to challenge in order both to set up the flag and organize permanent polar stations. The expeditions went to Wrangel Island in 1926, to Franz Josef Land in 1929, and to Severnaya Zemlya in 1930. On top of that, the USSR flag surged into the sky, on August 29, 1932, on the westernmost patch of land in the Soviet sector, Victoria Island.

Coming as the finale that once again confirmed the Soviet Union's rights to its Arctic sector was the raising, on May 21, 1937, of the State flag on the North Pole itself, which was accomplished by the Papanin expedition.

The territorial delimitation in the Arctic came to an end in spring 1933 - peacefully as before. In April 1929, Norway, meeting with no objections, announced its annexation of Jan Mayen Island; in August of next year it relinquished its claim to Sverdrup Land. On April 7, 1933, The Hague International Court confirmed Denmark's exclusive title to the whole of East Greenland, including Eric the Red's Land, which had been occupied by the Norwegians two years before.

All of that happened quite opportunely, stripping Nazi Germany, keen to establish an Arctic foothold of its own, of an opportunity to create there so much needed weather stations and air and naval bases. It also helped the Allies to win in the Northern Atlantic and facilitated the regular passage of convoys, which formed the firm link between the United States, Britain and the USSR during the World War II.

The generally recognized division of the Arctic has acquired even more importance in the last few decades after the start of oil and gas production on the northern coast of Alaska and in the Canadian archipelago. The long-standing territorial settlement proved a reliable basis for negotiations on shelf ownership, an issue of immense economic importance in our day and age.

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