Blog: Russia, icebreakers and Arctic identity

The opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia on Friday, March 7, 2014. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)
The opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia on Friday, March 7, 2014. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)
On March 7 at the Opening Ceremonies for the Sochi Paralympic Games, a giant mock Russian icebreaker sailed across the blue stadium floor.

Thousands of volunteers pretending to be icebergs moved aside as the icebreaker, called Mir, came through. Mir, which means “peace” or “world” in Russian, was also the name of the space station launched by the USSR in 1986 and run by the Russians until 2001. The official Sochi Olympics website proclaims, “The icebreaker easily crushed the blocks of ice in its path, as if breaking the barriers of misunderstanding between people.” Dmitriy Chernyshenko, President and CEO of the Sochi 2014 Organising Committee, announced, “Thanks to the Paralympic Games, a new era in the history of Russia has begun, one without barriers and stereotypes.”

A new era…?

Chernyshenko is correct in describing that a new era in Russian history has begun, one without barriers and borders. As the barriers came down inside the Fisht Stadium, the border came down in Ukraine’s Crimea, too, just a little ways north of Sochi on the Black Sea. Russia has succeeded in breaking down barriers to an extreme. The blog North of 56 speculates that because of Crimea, it wouldn’t be surprising if Russia were to seize the Lomonosov Ridge, too. I’m skeptical of such conjecture, first because Russia has no “ethnic Russians” to ostensibly protect on the continental shelf. Seizing a continental shelf is also a starkly more difficult task than seizing a peninsula where military assets are already stationed. Yet if any country really wanted to deploy military might in the Arctic, Russia would be the most well-equipped to do so. As this USGS chart illustrates, Russia has six nuclear icebreakers with four more on the way. The countries with the next biggest fleets, Sweden and Finland, don’t even possess Arctic coastlines.

‘Top of the world’

The appearance of the mock icebreaker at the opening ceremonies recalls the actual journey made by the Olympic torch onboard the world’s largest icebreaker, the 50 Let Pobedy (“50 Years of Victory”), as it sailed to the North Pole. This voyage, which I wrote about in a previous blog post, manifests the military-industrial-scientific complex in Russia. The state-owned operator of Russia’s nuclear icebreaking fleet, Rosatomflot, sponsored the voyage, while controversial and renowned Russian polar explorer Artur Chilingarov was the torchbearer. At the North Pole, Chilingarov expressed, “It is the first time in history that the Olympic flame will visit a place known as the ‘top of the world.’ It is a meeting point of longitudinal meridians and time zones, where the very concept of time loses all meaning.”

Russian engineering in the Arctic

Chernyshenko’s comment that barriers no longer exist in Russia echo Chilingarov’s sentiments. Time, space, lines on the map, blocks of ice – none of these seem to matter anymore. Just as the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 were carried out under the slogan “One World,” Russia’s Winter Olympics are basically following a similar theme of staking out essentially a new era for global unity. Yet in the case of Sochi, that new “one world” is clearly in the image of Russia. So when the MIR icebreaker sailed through the “blocks of ice” at the Paralympics ceremony, it didn’t just symbolize peace and togetherness. It also symbolized the might of Russian engineering in the Arctic. No other country can match this technology of Russia’s, and perhaps that’s why the country has featured it twice so far during in the Olympics (relay included). Both science and the Olympics allow national power to be projected through seemingly innocuous and even cosmopolitan activities.

Looking ahead

Canada, another Arctic state, hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010, but icebreakers did not play a role in either the relay or the ceremonies. Russia, which has the world’s largest icebreaker fleet and its only nuclear icebreakers, seems to view these capabilities as more a part of its national identity than Canada or any other Arctic state for that matter. South Korea will be the next nation to host the Winter Olympics. The country operates one of the world’s most modern icebreakers, the RV Araon, which South Korean shipbuilder Hanjin Heavy Industries built in Busan in 2009. It will be interesting to see whether this icebreaker makes an appearance in any way, shape, or form during the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018.

This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.


Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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