Women in the Arctic: How Our Contemporary Women Live and Work at the Outer Reaches of the Earth

Рассвет на острове Вайгач. Фото: Александр Обоимов
Рассвет на острове Вайгач. Фото: Александр Обоимов

In the 1930s, a movement of women for mastering male professions began in the Soviet Union, and millions of the fair sex became a labor reserve for industrialization. Female polar explorers appeared among them. And although discussions about "male" and "female" professions have long sunk into oblivion, we still admire and marvel at the determination of our contemporaries, who preferred harsh romance to home comfort. We will talk about them in the article by our permanent author, the head of the meteorological station "Tiksi", a full member of the Russian Geographical Society Alexander Oboimov.

In 1930, Nina Ryabtseva-Demme, a member of the expedition on the icebreaker ship “G. Sedov”, was proclaimed the first polar explorer by the magazine “Rabotnitsa”. In an article by L. Mukhanov, she was described as follows: "The first woman polar explorer, a learned geographer, a proletarian, a Komsomol member."

In 1932, Nina Petrovna became the head of the polar station on Domashny Island (Severnaya Zemlya) and successfully managed it until 1934. In March 1938, she turned to Otto Schmidt with a request to send her back to work on Severnaya Zemlya.

That expedition did not take place. But the fact itself is striking – the readiness for selfless work in icy silence for several months. I want to talk about two of our contemporaries who are working today in the Arctic.

Natalya: love at the outer reaches of the earth

There are many male polar explorers, fewer women, and only a few female heads of island polar stations. Natalya Morozova is in charge of the Marine Hydrometeorological Station – MG-2 named after E.K. Fedorov on Vaygach Island.

It was I who, while still working at the Northern Department for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, recommended her for the demanding position. Some were against it. They would say, it was too early for her to be in charge – she was a little over 20 years old then. But I insisted, "Youth is a disadvantage that passes quickly!"


Наталья Морозова, начальник МГ-2 им. Е.К. Федорова. Фото: Александр Обоимов
Наталья Морозова, начальник МГ-2 им. Е.К. Федорова. Фото: Александр Обоимов

Natalya was born in the village of Khabary, in Altai Krai. After graduating from the local high school there was a fork in the road: the police school or customs administration.

“One time good friends came to visit my parents,” she recalls. “They had already worked at the station in Yakutia, they told a lot of interesting things about life at the station, about the life of polar explorers. These stories intrigued me. And I made my choice.”

The woman enrolled at Novosibirsk Vocational School No. 7 – the famous "seven". Now it is Siberian Geophysical College. After graduating, she went to work in Arkhangelsk, at the Northern Department for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring. And from there she got to the island of Vaygach, on the MG-2 named after E.K. Fedorov.

After two years of work at the station, Natalya went home on her first vacation. She told her relatives about an interesting and unusual life in the Arctic, showed her photographs. Parents were surprised: how can one live in such harsh conditions?


Блинчатый лед. Фото: Александр Обоимов

“Sister Yulia was at first distrustful of Arctic romance,” Natalya continues. “But then she became interested in the profession of a meteorologist and decided to come to work on our island. Having completed training under my ‘expert guidance’, in a couple of months she was already on duty on her own. And now she is delighted with our profession too...”

It should be noted that this station is almost a family one. Meteorologist Aleksey Abramchuk, who had previously spent the winter at the weather station on Weise Island, was about to quit. The Arctic had not enticed him. He comes from the Kola Peninsula, a fisherman and a hunter, and on a lifeless distant island, there was nothing except for bears and an occasional walrus.

I advised him not to quit, but to transfer to the MG-2 named after E.K. Fedorov, where fishing was no worse than in his small homeland. And also hinted that there was a young and pretty girl on Vaygach, the head of the station, not married. Aleksey immediately befriended her on social networks. After a short correspondence, he decided to get to know her in person and for this he agreed to transfer to Vaygach Island. Now he says that it was fate – Natalya and Aleksey have been together for six years.


Мыс Болванский Нос (о. Вайгач). Фото: Александр Обоимов

According to Natalya Morozova, a low-maintenance person who is completely devoted to their profession can survive in the conditions of the Far North. And they must also truly love the harsh North with its ice and the most severe cold, endless snowy landscapes.

“The most important principle at such hard-to-reach stations is not to teach others,” she says.  “If an adult feels that you are trying to change them, there will be a conflict. It is better to think well of people here. The atmosphere at the station can be seen immediately. When everything is fine and the head of the polar station has established relations with everyone and between everyone, people walk around and smile. You can be around a person and not notice them. And that's great. When the situation is tense, people are excitable, walk warily, look over their shoulder – it is very difficult to winter with such people.”

Now the polar station has the Internet and television, people working here no longer feel cut off from their relatives and friends.

“And the island has become our home, it accepted us, we feel it,” Natalia smiles. “As for work, there is such a saying, ‘Polar explorers are afraid of cold, hunger and work.’ But this is more of a joke. We are not afraid of work. Sometimes we do it in emergency mode and extreme conditions. And rest is a purely personal matter. All people are different. Someone likes to read; someone goes in for sports. We organize culinary competitions, everyone loves fishing. We also try to have fun celebrating birthdays and other holidays. But without fanaticism and consequences. What are we missing? You know, when a person leaves somewhere for a long time, they only miss home.”


Остров Вайгач. Фото: Александр Обоимов

There is an opinion that life at a polar station is similar in terms of conditions to the situation in space on the ISS. The same distance from people, a closed space and a limited group of colleagues...

“The first time in the Arctic is like going to the cinema for the first time,” Natalya notes. “At first it’s not easy for everyone. It is at this time that the polar explorer forms their attitude to the Arctic for the rest of their life. The situation is quite simple. You live, for example, for half a year at a polar station, you work, you communicate with your friends. You often face difficult conditions, physical and mental: beautiful, but wild nature, hiking, low temperatures and routine research. And in the end, you either start to like it or you don't. I got into it and don't regret my choice at all.”

Many polar explorers caught themselves feeling that they were at the edge of the world. Although who, if not them, knows that it is round and there is no edge. Nevertheless, Natalya admits that such a feeling does not leave her and her colleagues for a minute. And even more so if it is Vaygach – an unusual, sacred island, with its own legends and extraordinary nature.

“Sometimes you think that you are not only at the outer reaches, but in general on another planet,” says our heroine.


В гости к полярникам. Фото: Алексей Абрамчук

Another factor that cannot be ignored when working in the Arctic is the polar bear, a very beautiful and very dangerous animal, and there are many of them on Vaygach.

“It was harder for us before: there were no guarantees that you wouldn’t run into it when leaving the house,” Natalya confirms. “Now everything is different. A fence 400 meters long and three meters high has been built around our weather station to protect against polar bears. This work was done by the volunteers from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2019. A year earlier, video cameras were installed, communications and lighting were established. All this allowed us to calmly do our work, since the bears used to visit the weather station several times a week, because one of the migratory routes of polar bears runs between the Kara and Barents Seas.”

And here is something else exotic. Despite the fact that this is the Arctic, winters on the island are sometimes very mild, due to the proximity of the Gulf Stream. Natalya says that in summer the temperature often rises to +25.

We even go swimming – sometimes in the Kara Sea, sometimes in the Barents Sea. We can say that we have a meteorological station with polar resort features,” Natalia laughs ...

Victoria: mother of the youngest polar explorer in the world

By the way, another feature of the "seven" (Novosibirsk School) is that the graduates there often form couples and go to work as a family. At a distant location, where a helicopter arrives only once a year, it is easier to live with a loved one.

Victoria and Anton Zhuravlev studied in the same group, liked each other, started dating. At the end of their studies, they planned to go together to the TDS (hard-to-reach station). But they were told that only legal spouses would be sent together, so they got married before graduation. Vika dreamed of Kamchatka, but was assigned to the Northern Department for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring. Their "honeymoon" was held on the research expedition ship "Mikhail Somov". It took a month to get to the MG-2 Sterlegov station, which is located on the Taimyr Peninsula.


Виктория и Антон Журавлёвы. Фото из семейного архива

The head of the station, Vladimir Karabulin, greeted the young couple cordially and helped them get back to work as quickly as possible. He passed on all his knowledge and skills. Six months later, Vladimir Nikolaevich went on vacation, and Anton had to learn the basics of hydrology and the mechanics of diesel generators. There was simply no one else.

“In eight months we have experienced the polar school in all its glory,” says Victoria. “Two years without leaving. Of course, it was difficult at first, but then we got used to it. Moreover, Anton is a fisherman and a hunter, and there are no problems with this at Cape Sterlegov. We worked at this station for eight happy years. In 2014, I took a medical flight to give birth, and Anton transferred to Golomyanny Island, where the staff is larger, the salary is twice as high. In 2019, my son and I arrived on the island.”

Five-year-old Maksimka is perhaps the youngest polar explorer in the world. And he is everyone's favorite.


Полярник Журавлев-младший. Фото из семейного архива
Полярник Журавлев-младший. Фото из семейного архива

“The border guards from the neighboring outpost help us a lot – they bring the baby fruits, vegetables and various sweets from the mainland, pamper him,” says Victoria. “A nice boy is growing up: he is friends with dogs, calmly treats walruses and is wary of polar bears; he is used to the fact that the night lasts four months, and summer three weeks. But in winter he keeps wondering why we go for walks at night and why he keeps missing the sun all the time.”

Despite the difficulties inherent in this work, polar explorers say that now it has become easier to work. Supply is being established, little by little they began to overcome the 30-year devastation. It is not the places that grace men, but men the places — this common truth should be written in golden letters on the first pages of all long-term plans for the development of the Arctic.


Остров Голомянный. Фото: Александр Обоимов

The work of meteorologists in these places began in October 1930, when a polar station was established on the neighboring Domashny Island. In 1930-1932, four polar explorers led by Georgy Ushakov began conducting meteorological, marine hydrometeorological, magnetic and aerological observations there. In two years, the heroic four on dog sleds completed a detailed description of all the islands of Severnaya Zemlya. Among this brave four was a hunter-musher Sergey Zhuravlev, the namesake of our heroes. In 1954, the polar station was relocated from Domashny Island to Golomyanny Island. In 2015, MG-2 Ostrov Golomyanny was turned into the MG-2 named after G.A. Ushakov in honor of the famous polar explorer and scientist. In general, the place has "some history".

But don't the Zhuravlevs miss Taimyr?

“That doesn’t begin to cover it – Anton often even dreams of it,” Victoria admits.  “Fishing, geese, deer ... But if we return there, it will be without Maxim. We can always get out of here by helicopter in case of unforeseen situations, and from there – it’s a whole saga."


Антон Журавлёв с трофеем на мысе Стерлегова. Фото из семейного архива

The main problem of the polar station is staff shortage. Recently, the mechanic Anatoly Omelchenko, who worked here for 30 years and went over everything to the last screw, left the station. Once upon a time there were soldiers on this island. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they left, leaving the equipment. Anatoly collected it and made it operational. The "Ural" in the garage is like new.

“Our whole team now is Anton, who acts as the head of the station, a young employee from Irkutsk Technical School, and Max and me,” says Victoria. “There are meant to be twelve employees. You have to work for yourself, for that guy and his wife and mistress. But what else is there to do? No one will do the work for us...”