1633596220,

A MAN OF HIS EPOCH


: 07 2021
: Vyacheslav MARKIN
: LIBRARY.BY ( : BY-1633596220)
: ( )
: (c) Science in Russia, 3, 2012, C.75-82


by Vyacheslav MARKIN, Cand. Sc. (Geogr.), full member of the Russian Geographical Society

 

The book Otto Schmidt (M.: Veche Publishers, 2011) by Vladislav Koryakin, Dr. Sc. (Geogr.) is devoted to the life and activities of a person whose name actually resounded in the 1930s as one of the outstanding conquerors of the Arctic Regions.

 

Academician Otto Schmidt's biography (1891-1956) was written by Vladislav Koryakin, who worked on the Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, Spitsbergen and in Antarctica. He wrote scientific monographs on the arctic glaciers and biographies of famous pioneers of the Far North.

 

His book opens with a foreword by Academician Guriy Marchuk and closes with an afterword by the historian, professor Sigurd Schmidt (son of Otto Schmidt). The eleven chapters represent a complete biography of the

 

Otto Schmidt, Kiev University student. 1912.

 
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scientist starting from his childhood in the provincial town of Mogilev, where he was born into a large family from Livonia (Lithuania). His father was a descendant of the Germans, who had received Russian citizenship in the 18th century, and was a commercial agent. His income was insignificant, and the family council decided to educate only one child--Otto as the most talented one.

 

The young man graduated from grammar school with a gold medal and enrolled in the department of physics and mathematics of the St. Vladimir University in Kiev, where he attended seminars in algebra and a theory of numbers headed by the outstanding mathematician Prof. Alexander Grave. By the time of graduation he had already three original printed publications to his credit, and at the age of twenty-one he published the work on higher algebra The Abstract Theory of Groups, which received an exceptionally high appraisal in the mathematical community. He was elected privat-docent and delivered lectures in mathematics in his own alma mater.

 

Koryakin describes in detail the period of Schmidt's life when, carried away by the wind of the epoch, he got involved in the organizational and practical activities at the state level, making use, where possible, of his mathematical knowledge. Back in 1916 (the time of World War I with the participation of Russia), Schmidt set up a rationing system in Kiev. In the 1920s he worked at different Soviet institutions holding leading positions. For example, in the People's Commissariat for Food he headed the product exchange department and worked on the problem of cooperative business regeneration, in the People's Commissariat for Education he provided recommendations on the reorganization of higher school, and in the People's Commissariat for Finance he headed the tax department and the Institute of Economic Studies, and worked out a theory of money emission. In 1924, at the age of thirty-three, he was appointed editor-in-chief of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia (till 1942) and director of the State Publishing House.

 

The experience of administrative and economic work helped him in future, but meanwhile the bureaucratic system began to oppress him. He decided to change his life, which is described by Koryakin in the chapter "Escape to the Pamirs".

 

In 1928, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the former Soviet civil servant Otto Schmidt participated in the Soviet-German expedition designed to study the so-called "white spot of the Pamirs", a part of the mountainous territory of Central Asia. After the two-month training in the Austrian

 
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Alps, he joined a group of mountain-climbers headed by Nikolai Krylenko, the then Procurator General of the Russian Federation.

 

The expedition crossed several high-altitude passes and glaciers, approached the upper reaches of the grandiose (about 80 km long) Fedchenko glacier, where a hydrometeorological observatory was set up a bit later, and came to the foot of the peak of the Pamirs, i.e. the Peak of Communism (today the Ismoil Somoni Peak). Schmidt felt like a mountaineer and intended to mount the Lenin Peak on the Zaalaysky Ridge together with Krylenko next year. But these plans were never realized.

 

The point is that Nikolai Gorbunov, executive secretary of the Council of People's Commissars suggested him to head an expedition aboard the Georgi Sedov icebreaker to the uninhabited Franz Josef Land, and Schmidt consented. It was planned to construct a radio station and the northernmost polar station in the world to leave the first winterers there. Schmidt as a government commissar solemnly declared about joining of the archipelago to the polar possessions of the Soviet Union. Thus, we left behind the Norwegians, who were also bound for the archipelago for the same purpose despite the fact that back in 1916 the tsarist government had proclaimed Franz Josef Land a Russian territory.

 

While the polar station was under construction, the Georgi Sedov vessel visited the northern islands of the archipelago, and the scientists carried out complex hydrological observations in the Barents Sea. At that time Schmidt visited also the Novaya Zemlya, examined the Russian Harbor, a very convenient locality for deployment of ships and visited the giant Shokalsky glacier running into the harbor. When the icebreaker moved further eastward, it reached an unknown island in the Kara Sea, whose existence had been predicted earlier by the supervisor of studies of the expedition Vladimir Wiese (corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences from 1933) basing on the nature of sea currents. The island was named after Wiese, discovered by him "on the tip of the pen". The icebreaker failed to approach the Severnaya Zemlya Archipelago, and there was nothing but to debark its future researchers headed by Georgi Ushakov and Nikolai Urvantsev on a small nearby island--Domashny. A polar station was set up there. During two years of truly heroic labor four winterers examined the whole archipelago of almost 40,000 km2 area discovered by the Russian navigators in 1913.

 

Koryakin gives a detailed account of the history of the Northern Sea Route. Though this chapter includes more than 30 pages, they are quite opportune, as it was just

 
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Schmidt who outlined a plan of the north-eastern passage, as it was called at that time, to the Pacific Ocean within one shipping season and later on solved this age-old problem in reality.

 

The ice expeditions of the Alexander Sibiryakov (1932) and Chelyuskin (1933-1934) icebreakers are described in detail by the author. The name of Schmidt is not mentioned frequently in the book chapters devoted to these events, but the reader is aware that the whole ice route of these ships full of complications and dangers passed under constant guidance of the expedition head. And there was a lot of such complications and dangerous situations.

 

The Sibiryakov expedition was preceded by a secret resolution of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party on the creation of the Dalstroi complex of enterprises on the Kolyma with a view "to step up gold mining", subordinated directly to the Central Committee of the Party and transferred later on to the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs. The Special North-Eastern Expedition was set up headed by Prof. Nikolai Yevgenov. A whole fleet of different-type ships with the Litke icebreaker at the head departed from

 

Otto Schmidt on board the SIBIRYAKOV icebreaker. 1932.

 

Vladivostok and made way towards the Sibiryakov ship. At the same time, the Rusanov icebreaker (with Rudolf Samoylovich as the expedition head) operated in the Kara Sea. Its main mission was construction of a polar station on the northernmost Cape Chelyuskin in Eurasia. After it had passed the Matochkin Strait, the Sibiryakov met the Lenin icebreaker near the Novaya Zemlya, which led ships through the Kara Sea ice. There was a boatplane on the Lenin icebreaker, which was to be passed over to the Sibiryakov, the main hero of the 1932 navigation. Of course, it would have been highly opportune, but a tragic event happened when the boatplane was thrown into the waters of the strait by hurricane with a half-crew dead. It was a high-risk venture.

 

Meanwhile, the ship moved on towards the Bering Strait. The ice situation was favorable, and Schmidt, supported by Wiese and captain Voronin, decided to go round the Severnaya Zemlya from the north using the route, never used before. But the icebreaker faced heavy ice there, spreading from the central Arctic basin. It was not easy to force way through that ice. The initial plan of going round the New Siberian Islands from the north also had to be abandoned. Besides, the ship was to go to the Tiksi Bay for coal. Another radio meteorological station was constructed there by all--a new scientific outpost in the Arctic Ocean. It marked the first month of navigation. Meanwhile, the fate of the Special North-Eastern Expedition was found in the conditions of an extremely tight ice situation. Nevertheless, in the beginning of September an important meeting of the two expeditions coming from east and west of the Arctic Regions took place near the estuary of the Kolyma river.

 

The Sibiryakov icebreaker was to cover only 600 miles to reach the Bering Strait, but it took almost a month. The examination of the propeller revealed that one blade was missing and the other three were broken off. They could be replaced but only in a dry dock. Mathematician Schmidt made calculations to find a way out of the situation. It appeared that 400 t of the load should be moved from the ship's holds to the forecastle. All expedition members became dockers. It was necessary to hurry until the ice started to freeze. At the end of the third day of continuous work, one blade of the propeller was replaced, and the Sibiryakov moved ahead. But only 100 miles away from the Bering Strait, a terrific clack was heard, which could mean only one thing, i.e. the end of the propeller screw was broken off. It was a catastrophe, and nothing could help. The pack ice was all around, which made us think of a forced wintering. Suddenly the wind changed its direction, and there appeared patches of ice-free water. Wiese was the first to suggest hoisting of sails. Six corner tarpaulins and boat sails were hoisted on the masts. As a result, the icebreaker moved again eastward.

 
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A day later the Sibiryakov icebreaker was already near the Cape Dezhnev, and on October 1 it sailed into the strait, separating Asia and America. It was an unprecedented sight: the icebreaker with the sails black from coal dust! Near the Diomede Islands it was taken in tow by the Ussuriyets trawler and then for repair to Japan.

 

The ice expedition of the Sibiryakov was recognized as successful despite all hardships. As, according to Koryakin, "luck on all latitudes, contrary to all reasonable arguments and objective assessments, favors the unyielding. The experiment conceived in the office conditions was a success and demonstrated what can be expected of ice, ships and people in such navigation". Undoubtedly, the venture's success belongs to its chief organizer Otto Schmidt. The first-ever passing of the Northern Sea Route during one navigation made it possible to start a regular transportation of cargoes along the northern coastal area of Eurasia from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

 

In 1933, the Soviet government set up the Main Department of the Northern Sea Route (Glavsevmorput) headed by Otto Schmidt. According to Koryakin, he "aggregated all existent and widely used in the Arctic Regions", i.e. he actually was in charge of everything that took place beyond the Arctic Circle. He noted that in the Arctic Regions "the time of Schmidt set in". Moreover, it was natural for that difficult time in the history of our country, that he undertook the role of an executor of all decisions of the authorities. This made his mission especially difficult in many cases.

 

First of all, Schmidt organized a winter rescue expedition to Novaya Zemlya to render assistance to those who remained there for the forced wintering. Then preparations started for a next navigation along the route passed by the Sibiryakov. Therefore, the Lena cargo steamer of Danish make was used, which was promptly renamed to Chelyuskin after the name of the discoverer of the northernmost cape of the Asian continent. The navigation was successful and almost without delays up to the Chukchee Sea, but on September 23, 1933, the ship found itself in the ice captivity. The drift carried the ship away from the Cape Serdtse-Kamen, then backward, again forward and again backward..., nine times. In addition to such exhausting drift, the self-ignition of coal in one of the holds caused a fire, which was extinguished two days later due to the efforts of all expedition members. Together with the ice-floe, in which the Chelyuskin was frozen, the latter was carried to the Bering Strait and then brought again to the Arctic Ocean. The captain of the Litke icebreaker offered his help, but Schmidt refused to accept it, entertaining a hope that the Chelyuskin, carried northwards by the drift, could soon free itself from the ice grip.

 

Meanwhile, the ship was preparing for wintering, and "Schmidt's popular university" began to work. The expedition members delivered lectures on a very broad range of subjects to its other members. Otto Schmidt was the main and most popular lecturer. As the expedition head he took care to avoid spreading of uneasiness aboard in connection with anticipation of a catastrophe, which could happen at any moment. Moreover, he saw to that everything was ready for disembarkation in case of need. Schmidt and his deputies together with the captain Voronin worked out a detailed emergency response plan. The matter was saving of more than one hundred people, including women and children.

 

On February 13, 1934, the Chelyuskin crushed by ice sank in a matter of minutes. The expedition members managed to avoid panic and unload tents, sleeping bags, foodstuffs, radio equipment and instruments on the ice. There, where the ship had been a while ago, was seen a small town, which became known at once to the whole world as a "Schmidt's camp". It seemed that it was a defeat, but they found courage to persevere in the face of circumstances. Moreover, according to a eyewitness, "...nobody supervised or regulated the work, or gave any instructions..." The exceptional circumstances forced the people, who had survived the shipwreck and had been thrown out to a frosty polar night, to become self-organized.

 
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It should be noted here that Koryakin makes free use of a primary material and includes in the book extensive quotations from documents, newspaper reports and books of other authors, witnesses of those events and thus cuts his comments to a minimum. Sometimes it makes the book look like an almanac. On the other hand, who else except the immediate eyewitnesses can represent the actual situation best of all? It concerns especially the pages describing the Chelyuskin epic. Therefore, this stylistic device seems quite justified in this case, though the abundance of quotations in some chapters is somewhat tiresome...

 

Only after the radio operator Ernst Krenkel established communication with the continent and received information on the formation of a government commission to organize a rescue operation using aviation, Schmidt told the expedition members about immediate prospects. All efforts were made to hold out two or three months till the arrival of rescuers. Schmidt cut short all talks about possible passing from the ice-floe to the coast, situated at a distance of 150 km, and threatened to consider those who would try to leave the ice-floe to be deserters. But it was the only case when he used a menacing warning, as he usually gave even his orders in the form of a request.

 

"Schmidt's camp" started preparations to receive airplanes: primarily to level the 600 m long and at least 50 m wide take-off runway. The day came when the first plane landed, which took aboard the women and children. Soon after a wide crack formed, which passed immediately under the only barracks on the ice-floe. It was necessary to restore the airfield and constantly see to its safety. Shortly three more planes arrived. A departure priority list was compiled. Schmidt was last in it. True, due to a serious illness he had to evacuate earlier, though he did not agree to it for a long time. Nevertheless, he was taken to Nome on Alaska. For the next two days the rescue operation continued with the help of Soviet planes and also with the planes bought from the US. On April 12, 1934, the last inhabitants of "Schmidt's camp" left the ice-floe.

 

In conclusion of this interesting story about the Chelyuskin icebreaker based, as mentioned earlier, completely on evidence of eyewitnesses, Koryakin notes that Schmidt and Voronin were threatened with repressive measures for loss of the ship but successful wintering on the ice-floe and air operation saved them. It was admitted that the Chelyuskin experiment played a key role in the consequent development of the Northern Sea Route. For the first time in history a possibility of a long stay of a considerable number of people on a drifting ice was proved. This experiment was taken into account in preparation of future drifting polar stations. The first of them was entrusted also to Schmidt.

 

In the spring of 1936, in our country preparations started for the flight of Valery Chkalov's crew to America via the North Pole. To provide the flight with weather reports it was planned to set up a drifting radio meteorological station in the region of the North Pole. In the summer of the same year Schmidt headed a secret operation of piloting a group of warships from the Baltic Sea to the fareastern seas. But though the ice environment was favorable on the whole, to the east of the route it was necessary to enlist help of all available icebreakers. In this situation Schmidt did brilliantly as a leader capable of making

 
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decisions in very difficult circumstances. These qualities manifested themselves also in the organization of a drifting scientific station on the North Pole with landing (also for the first time in history) of four-engined planes on the polar ice in 1937.

 

It took almost a month to reach the Rudolph Island on Franz Josef Land, where an intermediate take-off base was prepared on the ice cupola. There they had to wait for flight weather for several days. From the plane piloted by Mikhail Vodopyanov, which landed 50 km away from the North Pole point, Schmidt was the first to alight after the cameraman. Then followed unloading of the equipment and construction of a scientific station. For several days Schmidt stayed on the ice-floe together with future winterers, who were soon named Papanin followers after the station head Ivan Papanin.

 

In 1937, Schmidt and Papanin were given the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, though such award could have been given to Schmidt earlier for the successful completion of "the Chelyuskin epic". But the authorities are unpredictable, and Schmidt also had an opportunity to learn this: officially called "the hero of the Arctic", he could not be sure of where he would find himself tomorrow. Therefore, he tried to be cautious and not to enter into a direct confrontation with the authorities in acute situations. This served as a basis for the creation of a myth of Schmidt's conformism. Koryakin shatters this myth and gives examples of how Schmidt tried to stand up for the polar researchers, who were unjustly subjected to repression, and faced accusations of inadequate vigilance and clogging up of the Glavsevmorput personnel with the so-called "alien elements", i.e. the former White Guards and saboteurs. This information was given in the so-called "political report" received by the NKVD secreet police in 1938. In the same year Schmidt had to give up his position to Ivan Papanin, who, according to the author of the book, made no secret of his dislike of Schmidt... "His innovative activity in a new sphere," notes Koryakin, "took place... in the conditions of a grand social and public experiment carried out... over the country and the people."

 

The authorities had serious claims to Schmidt in connection with the heavy ice situation during the navigation of 1937-1938, when 26 ships were forced to winter in ice. Responsibility for it fell on him. At the same time, appointed by Stalin as head of rescue operation of the Papanin followers, he was preoccupied with the situation formed in the region of the drifting station (unforeseeable acceleration of its drift created a serious danger to its existence). In early February, 1938, the rescue operations started when the ice-floe had already been split, and it was out of question to land a plane there. The winterers were taken aboard the Taimyr and Murman icebreakers and soon after by the Yermak icebreaker with Schmidt on board, who actually was already dismissed from the management of Glavsevmorput.

 

Schmidt got a new appointment, he became Vice-President of the USSR Academy of Sciences, where he faced many new difficulties sometimes of quite unscientific nature. Koryakin tells about them in detail basing on the archival documents in the last chapter "Sunset at the Academic Olympus". At the very beginning of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 Schmidt was appointed Commissioner of the Council for Evacuation of the Academy of Sciences and dealt with the organization of

 

Science in Russia, No.3, 2012

 
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relocation of the scientific institutions and their staff members to the eastern regions of the country. At the same time he worked on a plan of scientific works related to military subjects and also kept in mind the interests of the Arctic Regions subjected to a military attack of the Germans... However, Schmidt could not hold out long at the "Academic Olympus", and in 1942 in compliance with Stalin's decision he was dismissed from the office of Vice-President of the Academy of Sciences... It could mean a decline of his career, but not for such a person as Schmidt.

 

He was again preoccupied with new discoveries and soon was appointed director of the Institute of Theoretical Geophysics created by him. All his efforts were directed to handling the problem of the origin of the Earth and other planets of the Solar system, which he had contemplated, judging by some of his hand-written records, even during his expeditions to the Arctic Regions. Schmidt presented his original cosmogonic ideas in a series of reports delivered at the Mathematical and Astronomical Societies and at Moscow State University, whose professor he remained till the end of his life.

 

Otto Schmidt was a man of the epoch, in which he lived. It was not simple, especially in our country. As the historian Sigurd Schmidt stressed in his afterword, this personality "... is not ordinary against the background of his epoch or, more precisely, epochs of Soviet history... neither are his behavior and fate. Not only diversity of creative energy displayed by Schmidt and sum total of his talents are of interest for historians, but also the fact that such unusual personality for the Soviet system could make known himself so brightly at the time when subordination of everything to uniform standards, to guiding principles and unambiguous explanation were cultivated."

 

It must be admitted that in Koryakin's book the personality of Otto Schmidt as well as the circumstances in which he had to act are described without prejudice, in all their complexity and, sometimes, discrepancy.

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