Arktika: Traveling
to the top of the world
The North Pole – the northernmost point on the Earth – has been attracting travelers from various nations for many centuries. Many people perished trying to reach it, expeditions went missing, and ships sank. The nuclear icebreaker Arktika was the first vessel to reach “the top of the world.”

On July 3, 1971, the Baltic Shipyard in Leningrad (today's St. Petersburg) laid down the lead ship of Project 10520: the largest USSR project to construct nuclear icebreakers for polar sea exploration. The vessel's main advantage was that it had no need to refuel regularly. This class of icebreakers features a double hull, can break ice while moving forward or backward, and has helipads.

In December 1972, one of these icebreakers, the Arktika, was launched and after three years of sea trials was accepted into service, with the state flag raised aboard

All of this was done to reach a single goal: to prove it was possible to navigate the shortest routes of the Arctic Ocean all year round and to transit the Northern Sea Route. In 1975, it was decided to organize an expedition: USSR Minister of the Maritime Fleet Timofei Guzhenko signed the list of organizational and maintenance measures to prepare the first surface vessel expedition to the North Pole. He headed the expedition himself, fully understanding the risk it carried, and was ready to bear the responsibility in case of failure.


The preparations for the expedition were held at the Murmansk Sea Shipping Company and headed by its director, Vladimir Ignatyuk, and head of the Northern Sea Route Administration Kirill Chubakov.

The itinerary was elaborated considering the data from many years of observing ice fields. The vessel's captain, Yury Kuchiyev, believed that navigating this ice could lead to a number of critical breakdowns, including the loss of a screw that could decrease the icebreaker's capacity by a third, so the crew would be stuck in the ice.

After the reactors' reloading and meticulous preparations, the nuclear icebreaker left Murmansk on August 9, 1977 and followed its course to the northern edge of the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago

The expedition included 150 ship crew members and 57 scientists and specialists, who were not only tasked with reaching the North Pole and exploring it, but also with testing the icebreaker's capacities, such as its resistance to constant encounters with ice.


Initially the plan was to go straight north from Murmansk, but during the journey polar explorer Valery Kupetsky insisted on changing the itinerary, noting that the ice between the Kara Sea and the North Pole was not as strong and this was the best way to storm the pole. He was supported by captains who used to take part in polar expeditions and representatives of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute. The new route won approval.

The Arktika turned north in the Laptev Sea after passing the Vilnitsky Strait. On August 14 the icebreaker entered permanent ice fields.

"We found some aggregations of perennial ice while navigating aboard the Lenin and the Arktika before this expedition, but it was our first encounter with ice fields several meters thick," Yury Kuchiyev recalls

During this part of the voyage, the captain always used the ice reconnaissance data and tried to go around the massive ice obstacles. However, the icebreaker ran into difficulties, ramming its way through the ice. Later head of the expedition Timofei Guzhenko called this part of the route a rock-crusher.


On August 16, 1977, the visibility worsened and the vessel came upon a heavy ice pack that had separated from the Canadian mass. The icebreaker got stuck twice while pushing through it (this means that a vessel cannot break through or back up at full speed), but the crew did not give in. At 4 am Moscow time the next day, August 17, the Arktika reached the geographic North Pole.

The icebreaker covered 3,852 nautical miles in eight days, including 1,200 miles of perennial ice

The expedition crew celebrated this event with a ceremony to raise the USSR state flag up a 10-meter-high steel mast installed on the ice. A 30-meter-wide circle was marked around the flagpole, and the crew walked along it thus carrying out the first symbolic circumnavigation and crossing all the meridians converging at the pole.

The icebreaker remained at the pole for 15 hours. During this time, the scientists carried out the planned research and observations, and divers checked the vessel's screws. At first, the crew did not trust the screws, but they worked well, and when the inspection was completed, the icebreaker was ready for its trip back to Murmansk.


The Arktika took a different return itinerary, heading to the west end of Franz Josef Land Archipelago. There were three military bases with antimissile units and polar stations conducting active research and large expeditions of hydrographers, geologists and geographers, so it was important to have the data for organizing regular trips to polar latitudes in the future.

The nuclear icebreaker Arktika was awarded the Order of the October Revolution for the first surface navigation to the North Pole in history, and the crew and a large group of specialists who prepared the expedition were presented with orders and medals

Captain Yury Kuchiyev, Chief Engineer Oleg Pashnin, Chief Engineer of the nuclear steam generating system Fidus Askhadullin and head of the expedition Timofei Guzhenko were awarded the title of Heroes of Socialist Labor.

It is noteworthy that for a long time the crew did not know where they were going and why. Georgy Zolotarevsky, a sailor that took part in the expedition, remembers they "were told it would be a trip to polar latitudes. But nobody knew we were going to the pole. There was no time to look around; the crew was simply doing their jobs. We were only told three days after, when we already reached the Kara Sea. Then we had a new feeling that we were going somewhere unknown."


On August 21, 2008, the icebreaker's documents in the Russian Maritime Register expired; there was no more technical or economic need to use the vessel.

In 2011, the Arktika's crew disembarked, and the vessel headed to the cold stack to wait for scrapping. The icebreaker was removed from the Shipping Register on July 31, 2012

During more than 30 years of service, the icebreaker took part in many events and covered over a million nautical miles in the ice. In 1983, the vessel saved a ship caravan stuck hopelessly in the ice. The Arktika spent an entire year (May 1999 – May 2000) at sea without touching at a port – which is still considered a world record – even 25 years after intensive operation and the severe expedition to the North Pole. The icebreaker was so successful technically that another five nuclear icebreakers were built using the same design: Sibir, Rossiya, Sovetsky Soyuz, Yamal and 50 Let Podedy.

In 2012, the Baltic Shipyard (Baltyisky Zavod) started constructing the lead icebreaker of the Russian nuclear fleet: the project that was designed based on the data received during the Arktika's service and operation.

On June 16, 2016, the icebreaker was commissioned. It received its predecessor's name: Arktika. This Project 22220 vessel is the largest and most powerful icebreaker in the world.


By Ekaterina Kolchina