Antarctic circle: living with Russian scientists at the edge of the world

Antarctic circle: living with Russian scientists at the edge of the world

In 1995-6, Carol Devine volunteered on an environmental cleanup operation at a Russian scientific base in Antarctica. The experience changed her life forever, as she remembers here

14 January 2016
Text Carol Devine

What a ridiculous way to learn a language. Crash course: memorising 50 sentences.

Net, spasibo, ya mogu spat po polu. No thanks, I can sleep on the floor.

Never mind — I used that one twice.

The first time I was in the Soviet Union in 1990 with an odd and wonderful US international relations school. To do our “explorations of the old world changing”, we travelled by bus and train from East Germany to Georgia. Once in Kiev I offered to sleep on the floor and ended up on a couch. Our hostess Katarina showed us a poster on the back of her cupboard door. It was of Soviet leaders, several faces crossed with red pen. Ousted. When I think of Kiev I think of blue. The blue churches. The blue patterned wallpaper next to the couch. The generosity. No other westerner had slept over at her house before. They were heady times. With our Russian counterparts we sat on the rocky beach at Dagomys eating tinned vegetables from the local cafeteria. We discussed and debated politics and culture. I felt we were on the edge of another earth and was happy to be alive.

Beach at China’s Great Wall station, King George Island, 1996 (Image: Wendy Trusler)

The next time I practiced my memorised phrases it was five years later in a place that felt like the moon.

“Where did you learn Russian?” Sergey, the Russian base commander, asked.

Ya kolkhoznitsa,” I responded, joking. I’m a collective farm worker.

I was in his office at Bellingshausen, a scientific station on the Antarctic Peninsula. Outside, the icebergs in Maxwell Bay were shape-shifting.

I was leading the Canadian side of the Joint Russian Canadian Ecological Project in collaboration with the Russian Antarctic Expedition, which manages science programmes at its base on the vast continent. We were a group of 54 volunteers helping the Russians clean up over that austral summer season. All stations had to quickly adopt rigorous new ecological regulations under the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection, part of the Antarctic Treaty designating the continent a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”. When Wendy Trusler, our expedition cook, Lena Nikoaleva, the Russian liaison officer and I arrived on the shore, we were the first women to stay there in 26 years.

Bellingshausen, a scattering of solid rectangular paint-chipped buildings, was built in 1968 by the Soviet Antarctic Expedition. Our hosts were 18 men, including four Sashas and five Vladimirs: diesel mechanics, meteorologists, glaciologists and others, including of course, their cook. They pre-dated hipsters in their flannel shirts, wool pants and homemade-cake-crumb speckled moustaches. The station’s namesake was Fabien Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, Russian cartographer and explorer famed for first sighting Antarctica in 1820 while circumnavigating the continent in a pinewood ship, the Vostok. Bellingshausen never imagined anyone returning, saying “in these dark, harsh, climes it seems as if men’s hearts grow cold in sympathy with the surrounding objects.”

We would soon set up our sleeping quarters and Wendy’s kitchen in a building dedicated to our team, but I overheard Lena and Sergey discuss where we should sleep in the meantime. I offered to sleep on the floor. They laughed and said we should stay in the hospital. The white building’s Hospital sign, originally in red paint, was faded pink. Our narrow beds had thick brown blankets. We were warm while it was blustery outside.

If we got sick, our white-bearded doctor, Sasha, was nearby. He was asked to play Santa Claus at the next door neighbours’, the Chileans’, Christmas party, but declined. Fortunately there was no need for hospitalisations during our expedition but we’d heard about Dr Leonid Rogozov who removed his own appendix at Novolazarevskaya Station in 1961.

Antarctica was still a frontier in the 1950s when the Soviets and others investigated the continent’s physical environment. Several nations including the USSR collaborated during the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), which led to Antarctica being guaranteed as a place of continued collaboration and scientific exploration rather than one of domination and exploitation. The groundbreaking Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959, and it was in the spirit of the treaty that we civilians offered to humbly help support bases to protect the environment and improve waste disposal practices. For three months volunteers on their vacations, with the Russians’ assistance, picked up trash. We filled 30 barrels of mixed waste — paint chips, plastics, metal bits, nails — and cut and bundled hundreds of metres of abandoned fuel piping.

We had the honour of socialising sometimes with the Russians. Their “recreation” room, with a movie theatre and old pool table, was awesome. There must have been 50 circular tins holding Russian films. It was a retro man cave, cozy, smelling of 30 years of cigarette smoke mingled with the alluring wafts of fresh bread from Volodya’s kitchen. Wendy had them over for her brilliant food including her coveted honey oatmeal bread and borscht cooked with maple syrup.

One day Dima, the biologist, took us to somewhere he called “the magical place”. He was researching seal migration. There happened to be pups. We couldn’t go close but we got to hang out next to mountains, water and wildlife where few humans had been or should go.

I won’t forget the night I ran up the icy hill to see Vadim at the aerology hut. He spread the huge ivory balloon on a table and deftly fitted the neck over the gas outlet nozzle. Vadim sent the balloon up, the wind carrying it into the clouds where the sun still refused to set. He was making just one of many scientific enquiries to better understand our planet and ourselves.

Bellingshausen is one of the remaining active Russian Antarctic scientific stations, along with Vostok (where the earth’s coldest temperature was recorded), Mirny and Novolazarevskaya. Now I hear Bellingshausen has flatscreen TVs, wireless and even an Orthodox church. Scientists have done important ice core studies at Lake Vostok starting with Soviet drilling in the 1980s. Analysis of these and subsequent ice cores by several nations tells us about about previous glacial periods and climate history up to 420,000 years ago. We know Antarctic ice sheets and waters are warming as they are drastically in the Arctic. The past and present is warning us about the future.

The most famous (and best named) of the six defunct Russian bases is the Pole of Inaccessibility: Polyus nedostupnosti, the place on the continent furthest from any ocean. Short-lived as a base due to its harsh location, a small team did meteorological observations there for 12 days in December 1958.

At the end of last year there were a few news reports challenging the sanctity of Antarctica as a protected place for scientific pursuits and collaboration. China and Korea are ramping up krill fishing, Japan is whaling again, Russia is expanding its Glonass monitoring stations (its version of GPS) apparently to challenge American GPS dominance. Several countries are looking at the continent’s oil, mineral and gas potential though it’s still a remote, difficult place to dig and drill. I hope Antarctica stays the way it was established in 1959 by nations including Russia, who’ve seen, experienced and touched its enchanted preciousness and understood its importance to “the common heritage of humankind.”

I carry the lessons of that time at Bellingshausen with me: co-operate, respect science, nature and one another, clean up after yourselves and, as Sergey said, when it’s cold, wear a hat.

Carol Devine and Wendy Trusler’s The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning (HarperDesign, 2015) is available here.

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