"Brick" and a Titanium Key for Brezhnev: Vivid Stories from the Life of "Arktika"

Фото: wikipedia.org/RIA Novosti
Фото: wikipedia.org/RIA Novosti

For the bright orange color of the deckhouse, the polar explorers called it "brick". It was planned to make the second nuclear icebreaker in the history of mankind white, but captain Yuri Kuchiev managed to get the ship painted in a noticeable color, immediately eye-catching among the ice fields. The history of the ship was just as bright – it is a unique opportunity to be the first surface vessel to reach the North Pole. 50 years ago, on July 3, 1971, the "Arktika" nuclear-powered ship was laid down at "Baltic Shipyard" in Leningrad.

The official birthday of a vessel is the date of raising the state flag on it. For "Arktika" it is April 25, 1975. After commissioning, the icebreaker began work in the Northern Sea Route.

At the time, the ship seemed fantastic. It held record for the main power plant capacity of icebreakers – 75,000-horsepower; 148 meters in length; 30, in width with a draft of 11 meters. The height of the bridge was 21 meters. The crew, which consisted of a little more than a hundred people, lived in separate cabins. They had at their disposal a wardroom, a dining room, lounges, a library, a swimming pool, two saunas, a gym, a welfare service, a medical unit with a dental unit and an operating room. The deck had  a helicopter pad.

In terms of its "working" capabilities, the icebreaker also had no competitors. As the head of the Instrumentation and Automation Service of the "Arktika", Candidate of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, laureate of the State Prize, honorary polar explorer Anatoly Adrianov recalled, the ice tests were especially memorable.

“In May, when in the old days no one thought of breaking the strong Arctic ice that had not yet been touched by the warmth, we raced at a fast trot from Cape Zhelaniya to the port of Dikson. It was a sensation! Flushed with success, having picked up a trapped bear cub, "Arktika" went on to tackle our constant enemy – a dam in the Yenisei Gulf. In a matter of hours we cut a channel through the ice covered with deep snow," recalls Adrianov in the collection "People and Icebreakers".

Even the world's first nuclear-powered ship "Lenin" after modernization, in collaboration with other icebreakers spent at least a week laying a canal a month later, when the ice was softened by heat and already covered with water acting as a lubricant. "Arktika" did it in a few hours.

"A week of hard work with two icebreakers – and several hours for one ‘Arktika’! It was a triumph! Intoxicated by such success, Yuri Sergeevich Kuchiev tore open the ice surface with gusto, cutting parabolas along the length of the entire channel to facilitate the removal of ice from the bay into the sea. It was a promising victory over the forces of nature," recalls Adrianov.

After two years of navigation in the Northern Sea Route, the government of the USSR, in secrecy, decided to organize a voyage of the "Arktika" to the North Pole. The route was proposed and substantiated by the specialists from the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute. It looked like this: Novaya Zemlya - Severnaya Zemlya - Laptev Sea - North Pole. When choosing the path, the data of long-term observations of ice field behavior was taken into account.

The crew of the "Arktika" was reinforced with scientists – the employees of specialized institutes and enterprises. The scientific and practical experimental voyage was headed by the Minister of the USSR Navy Timofey Guzhenko. The expedition was supposed to take 29 days. On August 9, 1977, at 20:00 Moscow time, Captain Kuchiev headed from Murmansk to the Pole.

The goal was achieved on August 17, 1977, at 4:00 Moscow time. The "Arktika" became the first ship in the history of surface navigation to reach the point of the Earth from which all roads lead to the south. The stay at the "crown" of the planet lasted 15 hours. A ten-meter steel rod was installed in the ice, to which the flagpole of Georgy Sedov's expedition was attached. The flag of the Soviet Union was hoisted over the Pole, and a memorial sign with the coat of arms of the state and a capsule with the draft of the Constitution were also left there.


Копия герба СССР, оставленного "Арктикой" на полюсе. Фото: wikipedia.org
Копия герба СССР, оставленного "Арктикой" на полюсе. Фото: wikipedia.org

"By the way, we came to the Pole in secret, but the first congratulations came from American scientists," Adrianov notes.

Captain Alexander Barinov, who, later, for many years commanded the "Arktika", writes in his diaries that a banner was erected at a ceremonial meeting next to the flagpole on which the national flag had been raised. The inscription on it read: "We have come to you, Pole!" It specifically said "come" and not "conquered".

"A man has no power over nature, sometimes he is powerless before the elements. He can hide, wait, adapt, but he is unable to subjugate them. It would be good if a person understood this and always remembered. The Minister of the Navy of the USSR, the head of the expedition Guzhenko Timofey Borisovich, years later said that there had been different options, including 'conquered'. But it had been deliberately changed. A wise decision was made,” recalls Barinov.

On August 23, 1977, "Arktika" returned to the home port of Murmansk. For the successful fulfillment of the task of the party and the government, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the October Revolution, the icebreaker's deckhouse was decorated with the Order of the October Revolution, and all participants were awarded state awards. Four were awarded the title of Hero of Socialist Labor. The crew of the nuclear-powered ship responded in kind – a "key to the Pole" had been made for the Museum of the Revolution. It was made out of titanium files. According to Adrianov, the thing turned out to be very beautiful both in design and in execution – the "lunar" reflection of the metal gave it a noble color. Captain Kuchiev and Minister Guzhenko were delighted and instructed to make two more – for the leaders of the country. No objections, references to the fact that the stock of files had dried up, were not accepted, and it was not customary to discuss orders on the "Arktika". The mechanic Igor Domakhin came to the rescue by bringing an armful of files with the words, "All I can do to help you."

"Having polished the files, rubbed their palms to bloody calluses, the Instrumentation and Automation Service did not disgrace the Navy. When presenting the star of the Hero of Socialist Labor to Yuri Sergeevich Kuchiev, General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev with the words ‘let them know’ waved his key towards the West," recalls Adrianov in the collection "People and Icebreakers".


Почтовый блок СССР. Фото: wikipedia.org
Почтовый блок СССР. Фото: wikipedia.org

When the General Secretary of the CPSU died in 1982, the nuclear-powered ship was renamed to “Leonid Brezhnev”. It had this name for four years. In 1986, they decided to return the previous name. An interesting story is connected with this event.

"Arktika" is perhaps the most beautiful and accurate name for a vessel designed to operate in the Arctic. Proud and kind. And it was changed. When the original name was returned to the icebreaker, it was the end of September. There was no need to force the deck crew – they immediately hung out the bosun’s chairs. They managed to paint over the outdated name, but the frost on one side did not allow it to be completely removed. It was happening in the Laptev Sea; the summer was already over. The ship arrived in the port looking like that. There were only two letters on the starboard side ‘AR’. Someone joked, ‘The new ‘AR’ icebreaker has arrived.’ But everyone was happy," recalls Alexander Barinov.

 The crew of the nuclear-powered ship forever preserved the traditions of the heroic sailing of 1977. They were observed even more than 30 years later.

“Several people who participated in that voyage are still working on the icebreaker. That is why this day is revered and celebrated. For breakfast – a sandwich with caviar; for lunch – solyanka so thick that the ladle does not sink, the kind you will not find on the shore. The real deal.  The evening will not go without toasts, " recalled in his diaries in 2008 the then captain of "Arktika" Alexander Barinov.

Despite the fact that ships have been sailing to the North Pole for a long time practically "on schedule", polar explorers have long considered the schedule of the “Arktika", which was the example to be followed, very tough. However, in terms of severity, Anatoly Adrianov does not consider the trip to the "crown" of the Earth to be the most difficult work.

 "In August, the ice is devoid of winter toughness; on the surface it is covered with melt water. The air temperatures are positive even at the Pole. Air reconnaissance could find an easy way. It passed along the 133rd meridian: the polynya was rising high to the north. Why are northern latitudes attractive for navigation? There is no compression, no pressure ridges, the ice thickness does not exceed three meters (equilibrium thickness). True, we managed to get stuck in ice and had to wait for about four hours," Adrianov recalls.

But there was a much more heroic situation in the history of the nuclear-powered ship. During the trip to the Pole, no one had to be rescued. But in the fall of 1983, the situation in the eastern sector of the Arctic required a large-scale rescue operation. There, the ice gripped the caravans which were guiding diesel icebreakers. A large number of ships of the Far-Eastern Shipping Company fell into ice captivity in the De Long Strait.

The supply of food and fuel to the port of Pevek was in jeopardy. The government seriously considered the issue of evacuating people from the settlements of Chukotka.

"The captivity was cruel: huge ice blocks dragged ships like eggshells along fast ice or along each other. ‘Nina Sagaidak’ sank, and with it five tons of alcohol, transported to Pevek to ease the long polar nights. Many ships received hull damage," recalls Adrianov.

Now it's hard to believe, but then in the USSR there were opponents of the nuclear icebreaker fleet. They did not believe in the possibility of "Arktika" to save the caravans, reported to Moscow that the situation was hopeless and it was necessary to conserve the fleet. However, the head of the urgently created headquarters for the rescue of the ships, Boris Mainagashev, believed in the power of the atom. He was the one to put the "Arktika" to use.

"We were urgently dispatched. Earlier, the scientists cut one of the blades along the blade root (the most stressed part of the blade), placing strain gauge sensors in a circular groove (15*15 mm). It's like cutting across the glass with a diamond. Nine days, and we are in Pevek. In the first battle, we lost the clipped blade. We collected all the divers in the area and changed the blade in a day. And again into battle ... The situation was, frankly speaking, not for the faint of heart. This was not the early Yenisei Gulf and not conquering the Pole, where you didn’t need to rescue anyone. When a huge mass of ice starts to move, 75,000 ‘horses’ cannot do anything. But they did. Using the slightest loosening, in cooperation with the icebreaker ‘Admiral Makarov’, we took the ships out of a dangerous trap. And then, the best icebreaker in the world had arrived – the offshore wind – and all the ships delivered their cargo to Pevek and went east," recalls Adrianov.

With the “Arktika” coming to help, and then the nuclear-powered icebreakers “Lenin” and “Sibir”, despite the difficult conditions, all the cargo was delivered to its destination. The role of "Arktika" in the rescue operation was actually decisive. For this work, Captain Anatoly Alekseevich Lamekhov was awarded the title of Hero of Socialist Labor. Some crew members received state awards. This was the first and last visit of the nuclear-powered ship beyond Cape Dezhnev. The icebreaker "bathed" in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

The expected life of the icebreaker was 25years, but the "Arktika" worked longer. The nuclear-powered ship made its last voyage in 2008.

"Successful icebreaker, especially its ‘atomic heart’. Exceeded its expected life by third. To the envy of subsequent brothers who ‘have to constantly be repaired’, and some of whom are out of commission forever. Although the age takes its toll. There are some leaks, some rust, something constantly has to be repaired. It hasn’t really been spoiled with good factory repairs in recent years. The built-in margin of safety manifested even during design and construction. And the crew took care of it. They were trying. For many, their whole life has passed here, and they do not see it without the icebreaker. Without the beloved icebreaker," Captain Alexander Barinov writes in his diaries.

The nuclear-powered vessel’s documents of the Russian Maritime Register of Shipping expired on August 21, 2008.


Фото: wikipedia.org
Фото: wikipedia.org

"The technical and economic feasibility of the further operation of the old icebreaker is absent. Too expensive. The stock of nuclear fuel is running out, although with prudent use, there will still be enough for three or four months. If desired, it is possible to finish off these months with certain material and organizational costs and with the extension of the documents. However, there is no such desire from the ‘leaving’ management’s side, due to the impending transfer of icebreakers under the control of ‘Rosatom’. There are other icebreakers, younger. Therefore, the last one! The icebreaker must return to the port by this date. Nuclear fuel unloading and some dock work are pending. The ship will be dry-docked. It's sad, but everything that has its beginning has its end. You just have to be ready for this ... Surely there will be a moment for silent tears," writes Barinov.

On October 3, 2008, the atomic "heart" stopped. The nuclear-powered icebreaker "Arktika" was excluded from the Register of Ships on July 31, 2012. An attempt to make a museum out of the nuclear-powered ship was unsuccessful.

Alexander Zhirnov