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Failures, success and victories. How scientist rescues, preserves Arctic artefacts

Yevgeny Yermolov heads the historical and cultural heritage department at the Russian Arctic National Park

MOSCOW, June 30. /TASS/. Yevgeny Yermolov since childhood dreamed of the sea and ships. He was born in Arkhangelsk and lived near the port. He could watch ship sailing just a few dozen meters from the house. The boy dreamed to become a captain. Later on, he studied the fleet history, including the history of the Arctic fleet. Nowadays, he surveys and preserves historical objects on the Franz Josef Land and on the Novaya Zemlya. He heads the historical and cultural heritage department at the Russian Arctic National Park.

Ships near windows

When the boy realized formulas and figures were not his strong point, the decision was to study history. Not only engineers can work with ships, he thought.

- I cared for anything related to the history of Arkhangelsk, and specifically to the history of my district - Maymaksa. Any tiny detail can reflect general tendencies. I enjoyed watching how Maymaksa was developing together with the country. At the university, I studied the 1920s-1930s - a turning point for Arkhangelsk and for the entire region. I live next to Timber Mill 26. Such small plants brought currency for the country’s industrial development, and they absorbed people from across the country. My father still works there, and all my family have been working there. I can feel I belong to it somehow.

Dream job

When Yevgeny studied at the university, he worked as a guide on the Solovki Island. The Solovki Archipelago is a landmark, where the ancient history interlaces with the modern times, the history there has many layers, and the future historian told visiting tourists about them.

After the university, for a certain time he worked in the PR sphere, still considering work at a museum, or teaching, or even moving to the capital.

One day, on TV he saw news about the Russian Arctic National Park, which was being organized in the Arkhangelsk Region. In the news, young Director Roman Yershov told the audience they were flying to find Georgy Brusilov’s expedition proofs. It was a dream job, and Yevgeny went to an interview. That time, he was refused, but soon afterwards he did join the staff to work at the national park as a historian.

Yevgeny Yermolov Irina Skalina/TASS
Yevgeny Yermolov
© Irina Skalina/TASS

- I was full of excitement waiting for the first expedition - I could remember how I had been told I was no good for the sea, - he said, telling us how he was nervous at the first medical, and very strict, commission. The doctors Okayed the trip.

- I can remember - I wouldn’t leave the deck, was watching the sea. I was even happy to get into my first storm. Luckily, I am not seasick.

History from scratch

According to Yermolov, the park’s history activities have emerged from scratch. They did not have any exhibition funds or objects. At first, they put together a list of monuments, and the next task was to find out whether they exist at all and in what conditions. Later on, came listing, monitoring - those are ongoing procedures. Normally, they assess objects in summer, when it is possible to get to the archipelagoes. In the other seasons, they analyze the data, received during the field work.

Franz Josef Land Irina Skalina/TASS
Franz Josef Land
© Irina Skalina/TASS

- The biggest problem is the tough access. You may plan some work on an island, to analyze a monument, but the weather won’t let it. Imagine, you’ve been preparing for a year, but then you fail just because the ice melts away, or because of a storm, or because the ship had to change the route.

Here is the fog…

Some projects take years to get prepared. For example, for studies of Eveline Boldwin’s US-Norway expedition, the camp equipment, the diesel generators, fuel - all that was brought in 2017. That year, in summer the weather was wonderful, and work was to continue.

- In 2018, on Victory (the 50 Let Pobedy nuclear-powered icebreaker, in English - 50 Years of Victory), on the return voyage from the pole, here is the fog - no visibility, thick as a wall. We, being on the bridge couldn’t see the bow. So, here the expedition leader says: we are not going ashore in this weather.

Arctic floating university "Professor Molchanov" and nuclear icebreaker "50 Years of Victory" Irina Skalina/TASS
Arctic floating university "Professor Molchanov" and nuclear icebreaker "50 Years of Victory"
© Irina Skalina/TASS

Nevertheless, they managed to persuade him otherwise.

- As we stepped ashore, the fog disappeared and the visibility was ideal. We had a wonderful season, worked hard.

Story about Hitler’s bunker on North Pole

In 2016, quite unexpectedly, Yermolov’s studies became widely spoken about. The national park’s office received calls from the media in Russia, Germany, the UK, Italy, France and even China. That’s because in that warm summer the experts were lucky to find on the Alexandra Land Island a few objects in the location where used to be the former Treasure Hunter Nazi base, formed in 1943.

Over eight months, the station broadcasted more than 700 synoptic forecasts. In July, 1944, the staff was evacuated in emergency, as they got infected with Trichinosis after eating polar bear meat.

The Treasure Hunter station was secret, as during World War II the Soviet Union was unaware of it. The abandoned base was discovered in 1947. Many artefacts have been taken from there, but in 2016, as water retreated from the lake near the station, the expedition found even more objects.

- I can remember my strong impressions from how well the Germans were equipped. Everything they had was of high quality, a wide assortment of what not, though they were only ten people there. They had not just felt boots, but sewed felt boots, with leather strings. The biggest finding was a sack with Wehrmacht’s logo. Most likely, it was a sack for zinc, which was used to extract hydrogen to launch aerology probes.

Most media wrote about the base correctly, but some tabloids announced "Hitler’s secret bunker on the North Pole." Back then, Yevgeny said, everyone in the park was doing everything to prove that claim was wrong, and tried to inform the audience about the real finds.

- There were many interesting objects. "Snow bites protection cream", Berlin, every object was signed. And a crazy amount of tinned food. The tins have practically degraded, but still we managed to read - "Portuguese Sardines." Interestingly, the Portuguese sardines were made for the US market, but they were found on a German base in the Arctic, - he said.

As a historical monument, the base is of no value. Scientists had not worked there before the 2010s, and whatever objects, which got to the surface when ice melted away, were taken by ordinary people. Anyway, the scientist said, the base is a proof that the Nazi had been in the Arctic.

He also described a few Soviet fortifications on Cape Zhelaniya, the Novaya Zemlya’s northern part. On August 25, 1942, a German submarine approached the Cape Zhelaniya meteorology station and opened fire. Some buildings were destroyed, but the staff was firing back, and the submarine retreated. A line of outposts was built after that attack.

- One of the tasks the national park is facing is to tell people about the historical objects in the Arctic and about how they are preserved.

Heroes and heroism

We are telling the audience about expeditions, be they successful or not really, to the Franz Josef Land, which was discovered by Austria’s Karl Weyprecht and Julius Payer. We do, of course, remember Georgy Sedov.

- Take, for example, the history of Sedov. Why can’t it leave unmoved? Perhaps exactly because it was not quite successful. Any expedition is the character, the people, the collisions, conflicts, happiness, heroism. Sedov, surely, is a hero, because he, from a peasant family, grew to be a navy officer, he dreamed to get to the pole, and died. And it is so interesting to dive into these details, to pick them and to understand people’s motivations.

Polar explorer’s image

I told Yevgeny a joke that a polar explorer must have a gun and a beard. He agrees: there’s no being in the Arctic without a gun - a danger may be too close. As for the beard - it always has practical reasons. Yevgeny’s beard is elegant, not classical or wide: in the most severe conditions he still cares for the style.

- It’s just a matter of choice. That’s it. A glass of warm water, a razor, - he laughs. - I can remember, once I come to Tikhaya Bay and I was too lazy to shave. We were expecting a cruise vessel, and the station’s leader tells me: Yevgeny, get shaved… You see, when the beard is too big, I don’t really look too nice.

Yermolov’s lectures are breathtaking. He tells about historical events as if he has witnessed them. During the Floating University’s voyage, where most participants were Swiss students, Yermolov’s lectures were a full house. Interestingly, he delivered the lectures in Russian, which the Swiss students did not speak.

- The thing is - I have a very vivid imagination. Whenever reading something, I always can see those images.

PhD: the 1930-s

The historian has been working on a PhD. The paper focuses on his favorite historic period - the 1930s, and, surely, the Franz Josef Land. Back then, Eurasia’s northernmost archipelago became a Soviet territory.

A respective decree was adopted in 1926, but for a few more years Norway continued to claim the islands. The first Soviet polar station on the Hooker Island - that very Tikhaya Bay - was founded in 1929, literally competing with the neighbors: the ice has blocked Norway’s ship. Since 1930, for unclear reasons Norway has not made any new attempts. This is one of the questions, to which Yevgeny plans to find an answer during his studies.

The Tikhaya has been managed by famous Ivan Papanin, who in 1937 led the first ice drifting station - North Pole-1. The station’s base was the Rudolf Island - the Franz Josef Land’s northernmost island. In the 1930s, life on the archipelago was literally booming.

- The paper is my attempt to classify the work we have been doing at the national park. To me, it is a very interesting period, a complicated and dramatic period in this country’s history, a very hard period. At the same time, it was a growth period.

The Pomors

This year, Yermolov focuses on the Novaya Zemlya studies. During the Arctic Floating University’s expedition, which has kicked off recently, he plans to study the proofs of the Pomors activities on the archipelago. People, living by the White Sea, have been exploring those islands. They have built settlements on the coastline, erected navigation and thanksgiving crosses. Those objects must be described, studied and classified.

- For example, there’s a fishing camp near Cape Zhelaniya. There are 16 objects there. The hut is interesting, apparently it’s quite ancient. By now it is surrounded by a large blooming patch of mosses, inside which are remains of a kitchen, a bathhouse — it must have been a large complex. The blooming there can be explained by a version that it was a place where they butchered walrus carcasses, belugas. Thus everything is blooming there on the organic matter. It is complicated to attribute it, in terms of time. For example, last year we incidentally happened to be there and found cartridges from a Berdan rifle, which had an inscription "Tula Cartridge Factory 1891." Thus, for this monument we have some kind of a history border. Another object we found was a bottle of "Trekhgorny Brewery", a bottle from the 1920s, that is, the place was used also in the 1920s. This monument requires more work about it.

In 2016, the historians found on the Oransky Islands the Pomors’ ship, layered with fir branches. Yevgeny does not give up the hope to transport the ancient boat to the mainland.

To find Barents’ grave

Yermolov may be lucky to have a chance to search for a burial of famous Dutch navigator Willem Barents. In search of a route to the East Indies, he sailed to the Novaya Zemlya three times to stay there forever. After the winter season in 1596-1597 in the Ice Harbor Bay on the Kara coast, the expedition lost hope to free the vessel from ice captivity and sailed on two boats along the archipelago. Surprisingly, the Dutch managed to reach the Kildin Island and the Kola Peninsula, however without Barents, who had died on the route. He was buried on the Novaya Zemlya.

- Famous Arctic explorer Dmitry Kravchenko has worked a lot on the Novaya Zemlya. He writes that on Cape Vilkitsky they found a pile of stones that could indicate a burial place. The pile stands on the edge of a rectangular sinkhole about two by one-and-a-half meters, like a double grave. At the base, in the center of this sinkhole lies the skull of a polar bear, very old, and in his forehead there is a hole 2 cm in diameter, like from a musket bullet. The soil inside this grave is not like the soil at the edges. Kravchenko suggested that it could be the grave of Barents and the expedition doctor, who died at the same time and who was buried in the same grave. Back then he didn't dig the grave, because he was there without an archaeologist. That was the decision of a true researcher.

However, Kravchenko has never made it there again. In the 1990s, Dutch scientists worked on Cape Vilkitsky, but they did not find there anything similar. Kravchenko’s reports have the location’s drawing, but GPS was not available in the 1970s and the find’s coordinates could be very approximate. In work on the Novaya Zemlya - huge and hard-to-reach - the chance and the luck are still playing a huge role, Yevgeny said.

- Many factors may not allow our going ashore. But I still dream to find Barents’ grave.

Like the St. Anna - Georgy Brusilov’s expedition vessel, which got missing somewhere behind the Franz Josef Land in 1914.

- Where I enjoy working most? You know, it’s similar to a question which of your children you love most. All locations, monuments, islands are interesting. Whenever on Cape Zhelaniya - I enjoy the landscape, these monuments, which surround me, and this is interesting to me. Whenever in Tikhaya Bay - it’s something special, working is simply pleasure. Not to be coming and running away with tourists, but to work there to preserve some lodge. It’s a satisfaction from the history concentration in that location.


The Russian Arctic National Park is Eurasia’s northernmost and Russia’s biggest nature reserve on two polar archipelagoes in the Arkhangelsk Region: the Franz Josef Land and the Novaya Zemlya, which quite correctly may be dubbed ‘edge of the earth.