Historical and Current Uses of the Northern Sea Route. Part III: The Period 1855-1917

(By Jens Petter Nielsen ; INSROP Working Paper No. 61 – 1996, IV.1.1)


This paper is part III of project IV.1.1, covering the period 1855-1917. On the basis of part I (INSROP WP 28-1996) and II (to be published) it seems reasonable to conclude that up to the period of the Crimean War (1853-55) the Russian authorities were mainly occupied with charting the area of the Northern Sea Route in order to gain legal and political control over the Siberian Arctic region. However, the 1850s saw the emergence of the first economic motivation for developing the Northern Sea Route, as the possibility of moving freight westwards along this route from the Ob and Yenisey was now being seriously considered.

The first initiatives in this direction came "from below" - i.e. from Siberian merchants and industrialists who wanted to find a new and cheaper way of exporting raw materials from Siberia to Western Europe.

The opening up of the Northern Sea Route to the estuaries of Ob and Yenisey (the Kara Sea Route) in the middle of the 1870s resulted from both international cooperation and national rivalry, and the author tries to determine the relative importance of the Russian government, Siberian merchants, English and Scandinavian seafarers / businessmen respectively for the development of the sea route. A.E. Nordenskiцld's navigation through the whole stretch of the Northern Sea Route in 1878-79 was a milestone in the exploration of the Northern Sea Route, but it was not particularly important for the development of its commercial potentials. Prior to the Russian Revolution the conception of the Northern Sea Route was first and foremost attached to the Kara Sea Route. The author describes the work to make the Kara Sea Route a feasible sea route. A central question is whether the Kara Sea Route was made viable during the old Russian regime (despite the ambivalent position of the Russian government), as argued by Terence Armstrong, or the Soviet system was needed to develop it, a position held by the Soviet historian D.M. Pinkhenson. An indication that the route was indeed feasible was the successful use of it by the Siberian Steamship Manufacturing and Trading Company, led by the Norwegian businessman Jonas Lied (1913-1916).


    Jens Petter, 1996, Historical and Current Uses of the Northern Sea Route. Part III: The Period 1855-1917, INSROP.©