How Franz Josef Land Became a Russian Territory

PHOTO by goinyk / Depositphotos
The story of the geographical discovery and the struggle for control of the archipelago

In 1926, Franz Josef Land was declared a territory of the Soviet Union. Although Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov first guessed at the existence of the archipelago in the 18th century, the actual discovery of the land was made during an Austro-Hungarian expedition more than a century later. At that time, Franz Josef Land was believed to extend to the North Pole.

Franz Josef Land comprises about two hundred islands including Rudolf Island, which is located less than 900 kilometres from the North Pole. Cape Fligely, situated on the northern shore of Rudolf Island, is the northernmost point of Russia. Only a few small islets of Franz Josef Land lie south of the 80th parallel. The climate is extraordinarily cold, with an annual average temperature of -12°C (10.4°F).

The summers are brief, with the thermometer never rising above +12°C (53.6°F). The vegetation consists primarily of mosses, lichens and polar willows. The harsh weather conditions and permafrost make it hard to survive on the archipelago without external support. This is part of the reason why Franz Josef Land was only discovered fairly recently.

Lomonosov predicted the existence of land to the east of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard Archipelago. Unfortunately, despite the many attempts of 18th-century Russian explorers, the territory was never reached due to severe ice conditions.

In 1865, a hundred years after Lomonosov's death, Nikolay Schilling, then a lieutenant in the navy and a future vice admiral, claimed that the ice drift between Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya suggested the presence of a large area of land east of Spitsbergen. The study attracted the attention of geographer and anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin, who volunteered to organise an expedition to the area and applied for government funding. Unfortunately, government officials rejected the proposal.

Franz josef russia arctic ussr 1
A satellite image of the archipelago

Foreign researchers were also interested in the Arctic. In the summer of 1872, Austro-Hungarian lieutenants Julius von Payer and Karl Weyprecht got stuck in pack ice near Novaya Zemlya while trying to find a northern passage from the Barents Sea to the Bering Sea on the steam schooner Admiral Tegethoff. Having drifted with the ship for a year, they discovered the archipelago on Aug. 30, 1873. They named the archipelago after Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary.

"We were brought here by accident," von Payer admitted. Together with Weyprecht, they explored the territories for two years and made the first map of the area. After being caught in pack ice again, the sailors decided to abandon their ship and instead try to return by smaller boats. When they reached Novaya Zemlya, the local Pomor people helped them back to Norway. Payer and Weyprecht were skeptical of the practical benefits of their discovery and never returned to the islands. They were also the first to claim that Franz Josef Land extended as far as the North Pole.

The Dutch landed on the archipelago in 1879, followed by a Scottish expedition in 1881. Frederick Jackson, an English explorer, first travelled to the islands in 1884. In 1895, Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen, who were heading for the North Pole, visited the archipelago. Later, an American expedition reached the Archipelago while trying to approach the northernmost point of the planet.

The earliest Russian expedition, led by Vice Admiral Stepan Makarov, reached the archipelago on board the Yermak, the first Russian icebreaker, and raised the Russian flag over the islands. In 1913, an unsuccessful attempt to reach Franz Josef Land was made by Georgy Sedov. A year later, Captain Iskhak Islyamov travelled to the archipelago in search of the Sedov expedition, and Islyamov also hoisted the Russian flag on one of the islands.

It was Islyamov who proclaimed Russian sovereignty over the archipelago, proposing to rename the islands after the Romanovs. However, after the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, the islands became the responsibility of the new Soviet government. On Apr. 15, 1926, following a decree by the Central Executive Committee, the islands off the Arctic coast of the country were declared to be part of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was still not recognised at that time though and Italy and Norway claimed the islands as well. The Scandinavians attempted an expedition to Franz Josef Land to establish a weather station but failed because of severe weather conditions. Four ships sent on an expedition in 1929 became trapped by ice and drifted helplessly until they were noticed by a Soviet polar expedition on the icebreaker Sedov.

Reproduction of "Icebreaker Yermak" painting by Georgy Chelak

A year later, the Norwegians repeated their attempt but were ordered by Soviet authorities to leave their territorial waters. Otto Schmidt, head of the Chief Directorate of the Northern Sea Route, or Glavsevmorput, travelled on board the Sedov to Yuri Kuchiev Island and hoisted the Soviet flag on Cape Flora. “By the authority vested in me, I now declare Franz Josef Land to be Soviet territory,” Schmidt said.

Any attempts at reclamation of Franz Josef Land require great effort and a continuous presence on the archipelago. A hundred years ago, very few countries could accomplish this. After the collapse of the USSR, Russia scaled down its activities in the archipelago. However, Franz Josef Land is still home to Arkhangelsk 163100, the world’s northernmost post office, and the Nagurskoye Frontier Post, as well as several polar stations and a geophysical observatory.

Author: Ksenia Kruger