The Heroic Epic (Героическая Эпопея)

This is probably one of the more interesting Stalinist propaganda books produced during the 1930s because it touches on a lot of themes that are still relevant today; spinning bad news, myth creation, the media construction of heroism, as well as the all consuming need of political leaders to associate themselves with success.

chelyuskin-coverFirstly, some context. As part of a broader strategy to conquer and exploit the arctic tundra, as well as showcasing the achievements of the new USSR to the rest of the world, great emphasis was placed on polar exploration during the 1930s. Here, the rational, scientific credentials of the new Soviet state would overcome the natural obstacles that had stymied previous endeavours by the old regime under the Tsar. Vast swathes of the Soviet Union (and Russia) were just blank spots on the map, sparsely populated by native peoples living upon subsistence agriculture and fishing. For a society that regarded itself as dynamic and revolutionary, with had a mission to change the world, these blank spaces within their own borders were completely unacceptable. Industry, new technology and human endeavour would turn these inhospitable wastelands into productive spaces to be exploited by man. This was the big idea. And the pursuit of this idea stimulated much of the scientific research and exploration on the part of the Soviet state throughout its existence. Indeed the possibilities opened up by global warming with the thawing of the arctic regions is still a seductive policy (albeit with short-term benefits) informing much Russian government and business thinking today. Crises produce opportunities which sociopathic leaders will exploit to their own advantage.

This policy tapped into a wider public fascination with polar exploration that had reached its peak during the end of the 19th and the early part of the twentieth century. All the dramatic elements needed to produce a heroic narrative were present in these stories of intrepid explorers risking life and limb in the vast frozen wastelands of North and South; an utterly alien environment of snow and ice, horrendous cold, unimaginable physical adversity, near escapes from disaster, extraordinary bravery, dogged determination to reach their goal, compassion for a sick comrade (or exemplary courage as they trudge on despite the pain), all while the shadow of death hangs over the group should they make a misstep. The end result is usually a feel-good moral fable in which the triumph-of-the-human-spirit overcomes adversity. Alternatively, the brave-but-doomed heroes meet their demise calmly, stoically and with dignified courage. In such cases, the narrative then becomes a guide for the reader, instructing them in the admirable characteristics they should emulate in the face of everyday hardship. This tale is no exception.


The ostensible purpose of the Chelyuskin’s voyage was to see if an ordinary cargo ship could sail around the Northern coast of Russia, through the Arctic Ocean. If you look at a map of Russia, the immense size of this country makes communication and travel immensely difficult. Essentially, Russia (and the Soviet Union) is a land power and that is the reason why it never developed a strong navy or shipping industry. It was simply not a priority for a huge country that only has a tiny usable coastline in Europe and Asia – the rest of the sea surrounding it being dangerous, frozen, ice-filled bleakness. Therefore, sailing from Murmansk (in the Baltic Sea) to Vladivostok (in the Pacific) was a very long and complicated voyage involving a long detour around the Suez Canal and up past China. Finding a route through the frozen Arctic sea above Russia (as you look at a traditional Mercator map) would have shortened this voyage considerably. But the problem was ice. Lots of ice. The unpredictable weather as well as the treacherous sea and ice conditions in this arctic sea could sink ships very easily. The quest for this Northern Sea Route around the top of Russia had been pursued for centuries without success. Should the new Soviet state succeed where others had failed previously, it would be a tremendous propaganda coup that would demonstrate the superiority of the new utopian society under construction.


So the Chelyuskin sets sail from Murmansk in July 1933 with 104 people on board (including one baby and another is born during the voyage itself!) into the ice-bound Northern Sea around the top of Russia. The whole set-up is a strange mix of macho polar expedition, geeky scientific exploration and what passes for a normal passenger cruise. The two main players are the expedition leader Otto Schmidt (the guy with the big beard in the photos) and Vladimir Voronin, the Chelyuskin’s captain, who had successfully managed the crossing a couple of years previously with a specialist icebreaking ship. Now they were trying to repeat the trip and show that an ordinary ship could do the job just as well. Everything goes well for much of the voyage until nature intervenes. Only a short distance away from the Pacific Ocean (varying from six to fifteen miles depending on the source), bad weather strikes and suddenly heavy ice builds up around the ship, trapping it completely. They were completely stuck and powerless as the ship drifted further and further northwards, away from land. Using their radio, the Chelyuskin contacted the outside world and made them aware of their plight. There was the possibility that they might break free from the ice and continue their voyage so all was not lost and Schmidt put a cheerful face on it.A contemporary account of the rescue from 1936 can be found here.


But after three months in the ice, the ship was finally crushed by the ice and sank on the 13 February 1934. Apart from one death, the rest of the crew managed to abandon ship and carry enough supplies of food and equipment with them to set up camp on the ice surrounding them. There they use the radios to alert the world that they were in dire trouble, trapped on the cracking, drifting ice with only 2 months worth of food and supplies left. Thus, the scene was set for an epic polar drama in which modern communications had alerted the rest of the world about the plight of these apparently doomed people. Anyway, our intrepid group of stranded pioneers set up camp on the ice waiting to be rescued. As part of the propaganda machine, an English language version of their exploits was published in 1935, The Voyage of the Chelyuskin, another collectively authored book in which members of the expedition narrate their stories. If you consider that their prospects were pretty grim, the tone of the book doesn’t really ring true. Basically, they were cast adrift on a floating lump of ice in the middle of the sea, completely at the mercy of the Arctic winter, little food, living in bodged-together shelters and completely dependent on a radio for some sort of lifeline to the outside world. Surely, anybody in that situation must have thought their chances of survival were low at best.


Certainly, the idea that everybody suddenly decided that this was a jolly good adventure and that the plucky survivors all pulled together to help each other out rings a little hollow. Even today, this would be an immensely traumatic experience. Such prolonged events usually bring out the worst in people, no matter how much goodwill exists at the beginning. Bitterness, bickering and petty squabbling over trivial matters takes hold as all the tension and suppressed fear that builds up in such a situation is released. But the people we are discussing were creatures of 1930s Soviet society, a place where violence, paranoia, uncertainty, back-biting and blaming others was the rule. Even if they were rescued, they must have been terrified about the possible consequences when they got back to the USSR. Stalin’s shadow hung over them all. I would imagine the reality of the experience was a lot more bleak and terrifying than the rosy narrative presented in the book. But of course this book is important in that it transforms a rather depressing story of failure, despair and death into an inspirational account of man’s triumph over nature. Central to this triumph is the application of Stalinist ideology to guide their decisions. So the Party organisation takes charge, builds a watch-tower, organises everybody to build a runway on the ice, proudly puts at least one snitch into each tent to keep an eye on what people are saying, holds meetings,  makes personal sacrifices of food and shelter for the greater good, and generally holds the line while they wait for Stalin to rescue them. All very commendable – but I just don’t buy it.


Luckily, Stalin decides to allow a rescue operation be organised. Once the decision is made, top Soviet pilots and their flying machines are mobilised and make a bee line to the region in order to be of assistance. Well known celebrity airmen who had set world records a few years previously all play their part in this adventure, pushing their aeroplanes to the limit in the face of horrendous conditions. There are numerous close shaves, a crash en-route and all sorts of problems locating the survivors. But through sheer determination, skill and heroism, the airmen make it through successfully and begin to shuttle the survivors off their icy prison. The successful use of aeroplanes to rescue the survivors sends a couple of messages to the outside world. Firstly, that the USSR is capable of mastering the latest technology (aircraft) and operating them in extreme conditions, something that was in itself quite impressive for the time. Secondly, even though man had failed to overcome nature in this instance (the ship sank), ultimately the faith that the Soviet Union placed in technology to surmount all obstacles was proven correct thanks to the combination of radio and aircraft. Thus, the central guiding idea of the USSR, that man could change the world through the rational use of technology, was maintained. But all of this is not to diminish their very real accomplishments; flying in arctic conditions using the latest, temperamental, aviation technology, where disaster lurked around every corner was no mean feat in itself. All the ups-and-downs of this drama in the arctic is followed by the world with bated breath as they see whether or not the plucky survivors will make it back alive. There is widespread jubilation at a job well done when everybody gets out alive and the group then make their way towards Moscow.  Parades and celebrations follow their progress through Russia as they travel towards a meeting with Stalin himself.


That’s the background. Let’s have a look at the book. Published by Pravda in 1935 and designed by Simon Telingater, amongst others, this is a grandiose Stalinist production. (By the way this book is not to be confused with a 3 volume editon of the same name that appeared in 1934.) They certainly spared no expense on this publication; photomontage, hand-tinted photographs, foldouts and small flags tipped are but a few of the design features that appear in this book. The photographs come from a number of individuals as there were a number of photographers and cinematographers on-board (the most prominent being P. Novitzki and A.M. Shafran). These do seem to have provided a steady stream of imagery that is incorporated within the book. 1930s ideas about the documentary authenticity of photography didn’t really apply in the USSR and there is a distinct possibility that some of the photographs may have been staged or recreated at a later date. This attitude towards photography can be found within the English language account The Voyage of the Chelyuskin which states that “our photographer Novitzki insisted on me repeating my handshake with Vodopyanov, as he had been too slow to register that “historic” act.” (p. 236) Furthermore, by deliberately mixing staged photographs with images that have a documentary aspect to them, the result is a blurring of the boundaries between truth and fiction. From the perspective of today’s Crewdsonesque constructions of reality this is not an issue – but back in the ‘30s people got really hot under the collar about faked photos of events.


The narrative structure of the book doesn’t deviate from the official myth promoted by the authorities. It can be broken down into sections depicting the Chelyuskin setting sail on a voyage of adventure, getting trapped in the ice, sinking, setting up camp, waiting for rescue, the arrival of the aeroplanes and then the triumphant welcome back home in the USSR. The sections dealing with the initial voyage and the camping on the ice are quite static – but I suppose that is understandable since there is very little in the way of action that can be shown. There is an interesting series of images when the crew try to cut a passage through the ice for the ship. But of course this attempt fails. Once they are trapped on the ice floe, the images change to depictions of rather pathetic looking tents and the immense scale of the mounds of ice surrounding them as they wait for rescue. But there are only so many ways you can take photographs of people sitting around waiting. The radio operator’s importance is emphasised in these images as he is the vital link to the outside world. But there are no signs of despair or hopelessness in these images – everybody looks determined and cheerful as they wait trapped on what is a giant ice cube floating in the sea. In many ways, the design helps to enliven this section of the book which is not so visually dramatic. A celluloid transparency showing a map of the camp and a fold-out of the hand-written newspaper produced by the eager communist party members in the camp provide some added details and interest to a rather static subject.


However, once the rescue gets underway the tempo changes and it becomes more cinematic in scope. A photomontage foldout depicts smiling portraits of the heroic pilots while a fleet of aircraft flies over the iconic lookout tower, topped by the red flag, that the stranded survivors built. Photographs show the pilots readying themselves back at base after being summoned to the rescue by the ever-concerned Stalin. Portraits of pilots wrapped up in their open cockpits, braving the freezing weather and horrendous conditions instantly demonstrate their unimpeachable heroism as they risk their lives for the sake of others. There is a real sense of urgency and energy in these images. Anticipation is conveyed by pairing photos of people looking to the sky with aeroplanes landing on the ice. That all adds to the drama of the event.


This is then followed by the triumphant return of the survivors to civilisation. Building on the excitement of rescue, there is a dynamism in these images that again contrasts with the rather static nature of the early sections of the book. Crowd scenes and trains are used to convey movement and energy as an expectant public comes out to greet their heroes. Aeroplanes make celebratory fly pasts, demonstrating again the Soviet state’s complete mastery of the new technology of the period, showing that they too could compete with the other big powers of the time. Flowers are handed out to our suitably modest heroes in provincial locations as the procession winds its way to the capital. Crowds throng the spaces where the survivors receive yet more flowers and make the predictable speeches attributing their survival to the glories of Communism and the genius of Stalin, without whom they would have met their demise.


Finally, our intrepid group arrives in Moscow where they receive a ticker-tape parade before being granted an audience with Stalin, where they hand him a banner from the ship. In the grand scheme of a rescue-narrative like this, the triumphant homecoming is usually only a peripheral aspect, used to provide a happy-ever-after bookend to the story. Yet, an inordinate amount of space is devoted to this train trip through Russia after all the excitement is over. Why? I think the answer may lie in the fact that in the USSR of the 1930s everything revolved around Stalin. Quite literally everything. The fact that the shipwrecked survivors had escaped relatively unscathed from an icy grave by the skin of their teeth thanks to a combination of luck, physical stamina and the advent of new technologies that made a rescue possible (radios and aircraft capable of flying in arctic conditions) all fade into the background. Stalin’s presence consumes all. All success is Stalin’s success. Everything they achieved was accomplished by strictly following his guiding principles and ideas. Thus, the entire narrative is transformed into a moral fable for others to emulate in Soviet society – place your trust in Stalin’s wisdom and you too can overcome adversity.