Expeditionsschiff WINDWARD der Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition bei Kap Flora

History of Franz Josef Land - Summary


The history of the islands can be divided into three periods: 
• discovery and pioneer days (until about 1929) 
• Soviet period (until about 1990 - isolation, military, research) 
• present (from about 1990 - temporarily open for foreigners) 
Scroll down to the relevant sections!

Digressions: Opens internal link in current window Possible earlier discoveries and climatic history, name confusion .

Chronology: Opens internal link in current window  Events, listed by individual years .

History of individual islands: About Opens internal link in current window  Islands.

Dog sledges, ponies and manpower - these were the most important means of moving on for the early pioneers within Franz Josef Land.


Discovery and Pioneer Days 

The issue of whether and when Franz Josef Land may have been visited by man already before the official discovery in 1873 by the Austro-Hungarian expedition TEGETTHOFF, is addressed on an extra subpage: Opens internal link in current window  Discoveries, climate change and name confusion
After the 1873/74 TEGETTHOFF expedition had discovered Franz Josef Land  by chance during their involuntary ice drift and partly explored it, it took the voyages of the WILLEM BARENTS and the EIRA, to see that the islands can be reached by boat in summer, though with difficulties, also without an uncalculable ice drift. But then, a kind of run started on the archipelago, triggered not least by the misconception of Payer (TEGETTHOFF), who wrongly took the coasts and islands charted by him all the way up to Opens internal link in current window  Rudolf Island only for outposts of a vast new land mass, which supposedly stretched much further north. To discover this expected huge new territory and to utilise it at the same as marching route to the North Pole, was the clear main objective of most of the following expeditions. Their North Pole ambitions failed more or less rapidly, but instead, the result was a relatively rapid mapping of the archipelago. No later than 1897, it was clear that this was rather a relatively limited group of islands than a new unknown land mass, and north of it was only drifting ice probably all the way to the pole.
Payer was not the only, however, who took optical illusions in the distance for distant land: north of Opens internal link in current window  Arthur Island, further alleged islands (Harmsworth Island, Albert Edward Island) remained on the maps of Franz Josef Land until the 1930s. It needed the use of aircraft and more systematic survey work in the Soviet period, and finally satellite images, for gradually improving the maps of these remote regions.

Hunting activity: While the contemporary public interest and media focussed mainly on the popular North Pole expeditions, thus leading also to a good documentation of their activities and results, the majority of visits to Franz Josef Land got only minimal attention: the many journeys of whalers and hunters. Some deliberately avoided public attention in order not to invite competitors, but in addition, valuable sources of information have als been lost: many northern Norwegian logbooks disappeared in an archive fire in the early 20th century, and World War II with the systematic devastation of Northern Norway played a role, too.
The Barents Sea all the way to Novaya Zemlya and up to the ice edge, had been a traditional hunting Russian, British, Norwegian and Dutch hunting ground already for centuries, though strongly influenced by the changing extension of the ice. In addition to the uncertain possible sighting of Franz Josef Land by the Norwegian SPIDSBERGEN in 1865, there are reports on commercial hunting expeditions to and into the archipelago latest from from 1886 onwards, with a clear dominance of Norwegian Arctic hunters, less often by British vessels, and from the early 20th century onwards, Russians and later in some cases even German, Italian and Spanish hobby and commercial hunters joined. But Norway clearly dominated for about 3 decades.

The pioneer period ended basically with the annexation of Franz Josef Land by the young Soviet Union, which took its time from first claims in 1926 to the annexation of Opens internal link in current window Victoria Island in 1932 as the last step, and under permanent opposition by Norway. Just like Norway, Russia had been very little involved in the initial exploration of the archipelago, and in addition, also the Russian economic activity in the archipelago had been minimal compared to Norway as a possible argument for an annexation. However, the Soviet Union had a significant practical advantage: they had several powerful icebreakers. During the crucial heavy ice year of 1929 and 1930, they were able to move relatively freely in the archipelago, while the small Norwegian vessels reached land only with difficulty, if at all., and every country points. In contrast to Norway, the Soviet Union was thereby able to establish permanent stations in the archipelago from 1929 onwards, first in Calm (Tikhaya) Bay on Opens internal link in current window Hooker Island . The subsequent closure of the archipelago for foreign vessels and the operation of permanent year-round stations mark the end of the international pioneer days in Franz-Joseph land.


With huge ANT-6 aircraft, russian pioneers managed to land on the North Pole in 1937 for establishing there a drifting research station on the ice - possibly they were the first humans ever to stand on the North Pole.

Soviet Period

The Soviet Union, isolating itself from the West, imposed a ban on visits of Franz Josef Land by western vessels. Violating this decree was sanctiones by arresting ships and crews, having to sign a declaration that they will not enter the territory again. Thereby, international exploration and hunting in the archipelago was more or less abruptly ended from 1930 onwards.
Smaller vessels, especially hunters, continued, however, with occasional secret entries into Franz Josef Land waters, as the Soviet Union was hardly able to maintain permanent control over the whole archipelago and in particular the stretch from easternmost Spitsbergen to Opens internal link in current window  Victoria is relatively short under favorable ice conditions.

From 1929, the Soviet Union maintained its first permanent station in Franz Josef Land in Calm (Tikhaya) Bay (Opens internal link in current window Hooker Island ) which was considerably expanded in the course of time until 1958 and which worked continuously even throughout World War II - then with a minimal crew. 
For the Soviet Union, its Arctic north coast soon gained importance as a transport route for developing the vast land mass of Siberia via its huge rivers, all of them ending in the Arctic Ocean, as natural supply routes. Accordingly, the development of appropriate technologies was accelerated. Hierzu zählte neben den Eisbrechern auch die polare Luftfahrt , in der die Sowjetunion in den 1930er Jahren eine führende Position gewann, die sich gleichzeitig auch für Prestigeprojekte eignete, um die Überlegenheit des Sowjetsystems zu beweisen.  Franz-Joseph-Land rückte hierbei aufgrund seiner extrem nördlichen Position erneut als vorgeschobene Basis für Aktivitäten in Richtung Nordpol ins Interesse. In addition to icebreakers, this included soon also polar aviation, where the Soviet Union of the 1930s gained a leading position, which at the same time was highly suitable for prestige projects aiming at proving Soviet superiority. Again, the extremely northern position of Franz Josef Land as a forward base for North Pole activities turned out to be of interest. On Opens internal link in current window  Rudolf Island, only 900 km away from the North Pole, a small research station had been established already as a Soviet contribution to the Second International Polar Year (1932/33), which continued to be the northernmost landbased manned all-year radio and weather station in the world for many years onward. In addition to this station, a suitable stretch of the the ice cap of the island was levelled into a short runway as a forward base for the first North Pole flight with a landing at the North Pole in 1937 and for the establishment and supply of Soviet North Pole drifting stations on large ice floes, which was started with this first landing on the North Pole. Supported from Franz Josef Land, the Soviet Union had a clear dominance in activities in the central Arctic during the 1930s, with its fleet of icebreakers and special polar aircrafts and as a result of these ressources also its tradition of drifting polar ice stations.

1941, in consequence of the German attack on the Soviet Union, activities in Franz Josef Land largely stopped and the stations were evacuated except of a small war crew continueing meteorological work in Tichaja station. Between the temporary German military weather station on Opens internal link in current window  Alexandra Land and the Soviet station on Opens internal link in current window Hooker Island no contacts whatsoever existed.

After the war, aviation technology had made such a leap forward, that there was no need anymore for reopening a forward aviation base again on Opens internal link in current window Rudolf Island as the northernmost possible land location, where conditions were difficult. Accordingly only a small new weather station was set up. At the same time,  Franz Josef Land gained importance for the Soviet Union as an unsinkable strategic Arctic aircraft carrier in the wake of the Cold War and nuclear deterrence - from here, it was not as far anymore across the north pole to America. From 1952 onwards, 3 strategic airforce bases were therefore established in the archipelago: Nagurskoye on the extensive flat tundra stretches of northern Opens internal link in current window  Alexandra Land as a strategic bomber airport, at Greem Bell on the wide lowlands of Opens internal link in current window  Graham Bell as a base for transport and fighter aircraft and helicopters, and on Opens internal link in current window  Hoffmann Island, where a kind of auxiliary and reserve base was prepared with a runway on its flat ice cap. With the increasing quality of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles, the importance of bombers sank as part of the strategic nuclear arms mix, however, from 1970s, and thus the importance of these bases in Franz Josef Land.
A military radio and weather station was installed on Opens internal link in current window  Victoria Island.

Despite a decline of military strategic importance, the archipelago remained to be a restricted strategic special zone, where along with the military only a few researchers had access. The Opens internal link in current window  Tikhaya Station was replaced on occasion of the International Geophysical Year 1956/57 by a new, more conveniently located station on Opens internal link in current window  Hayes Island where climatic conditions were more representative for the archipelago and where flat terrain allowed the levelling of a landing strip. Later, this station, named Krenkel, was equipped also with a launch pad for research rockets. In addition, also the Nagurskoe military station served partly as a base for Soviet research activities. Thus, there were up to 5 all-year stations in operation simultaneously in Franz Josef Land in the Soviet period: Rudolfa, Nagurskoe, Victoria, Krenkel/Tikhaya, and Graham Bell, plus the reserve air base on Hoffmann Island.

For foreigners, Franz Josef Land was mostly off limits during the Soviet era, even for citizens of the fraternal socialist countries - with few exceptions: the International Arctic Expedition of the airship GRAF ZEPPELIN, where also Soviet scientists were involved, and which watered on its long route in 1931 also in Calm Bay (Tikhaya) in front of the station. At the same time, Umberto Nobile was there on the Soviet icebreaker MALIGYN to search for traces of the lost members of his airship ITALIA expedition. Also in the 1930s, there was a German academic exchange visit in the Tikhaya Station and in the 1970s, French scientists were allowed for a project in the Krenkel Station, after France had withdrawn partly from NATO at that time. Furthermore, there were some illegal foreign visits of the archipelago and the island of Victoria by smaller foreign boats.



Since 1991, travel - though only limited - is possible again to Franz Josef Land.

Post-soviet Period

The end of communism was followed by a rapid opening of the high Russian Arctic from 1990 onwards. For several years, good international research cooperations were possible,including (apart from Russian institutes) partners from Norway, Poland, Germany, USA and Austria, starting with a norwegian-russian-austrian voyage on the PROFESSOR MOLCHANOV. Also in 1990, a first international tourist group payed a short visit to the archipelago aboard the nuclear icebreaker ROSSIYA on the first North Pole cruise. In 1991, the professional adventurer Arved Fuchs got permission to visit Franz Josef Land with his expedition vessel DAGMAR AAEN. Fairly quickly, a varied tourism, though in small numbers, developed, both on board of Russian arctic ships,and with helicopters, by which even combination tours to Franz Josef Land, Severnaya Zemlya and Novaya Zemlya were offered. Military bases both in Franz Josef Land and in the other parts of the country were suddenly open as a tourist bases and many regional civilian and military leaders took advantage of the hour.
This time of unlimited opportunities did not last for long, however: the cheap transport rates of the Soviet period disappeared quickly, while chaos in grabbed Russia and the Russian Arctic was depopulated quickly, sometimes almost in panic, because the old supply systems collapsed, and many bases and whole villages and towns had to be closed. From a touristic point of view, this meant the end of the long-range helicopter trips to Franz Josef Land, for which necessary bases disappeared, while the prices exploded.
Opens internal link in current window Greem Bell and the military station on  Opens internal link in current window Victoria Island were evacuated, followed in 1995 by the weather station on Opens internal link in current window Rudolf Island Insel, and in early 2001 Opens internal link in current window Krenkel research station, leaving Nagurskoe with about mit ca. 20 lonely soldiers as the only permanent base left in the archipelago, and even there, the decay could hardly be stopped for some years due to lack of support.
The attempt by the new Putin administration to halt the decline of Russia led in the late 1990s to a revival of proven methods: Franz Josef Land was almost abruptly closed, even for most Russian civil activities. Two tourist cruises, with approvals by Prime Minister Primakov personally, were prevented in Murmansk to head for the archipelago. Foreign research collaborations in Franz Josef Land Russians were stopped by the Russian authorities and again, even for Russian researchers, it was only possible in a few cases to work on the islands.
From 1999 onwards, international tourist visits were possible for a few years only as a brief stopover on the nuclear icebreaker trips to the North Pole. Then - with big fluctuations from year to year - cruises with several days within the archipelago became possible again, but often hampered by bureaucratic problems, especially regarding border entry controls.
Since 2010, tourism seems to have taken a more steady course again, with rapid increases, but still on a low level: in addition to the short calls of the nuclear icebreaker cruises, longer (4-7 days within the archipelago) visits had capacities of 100 berths in 2010 (1 vessel, 1 call), 300 berths in 2011 (3 vessels, 4 calls), 780 berths in 2012 (5 vessels, 7 calls), plus the 2-4 seasonal short visits of nuclear icebreakers in connection with their North Pole cruises (about 100 passengers per tour). Still, this is a far cry from tourism in neighbouring Spitsbergen with about 40000 visitors per year. See also Opens internal link in current window Travel opportunities .  
Also research in Franz Josef Land experienced humble new beginnings: in 2004, Opens internal link in current window Krenkel got a small set of new modern station buildings and is manned now again since 2005 by a small wintering team, with Arthur Chilengarov (vice president of Duma and famous Russian explorer) as a driving force behind new activities. Further projects for new activities Franz-Joseph-Land, also for reducing the masses of waste and pollution around the old stations were in preparation, but the financial crisis laid several plans at least temporarily on hold. In April 2010, prime minister Putin visited Opens internal link in current window Nagurskoe and criticised the old environmental sins of the past around the stations. The clean-up program, primarily aiming at the removal of thousands of rusting fuel and grease barrels began in the same year, but will probably need a number of years.
In April 2011, the new Russian Arctic National Park was officially opened, comprising both Franz Josef Land and the northern part of the North Island of Novaya Zemlya.

Last Modification: 23.12.2011