National Geographic : 2014 Aug
114 national geographic • August 2014 hard in the boonies, as the distant central gov- ernment metamorphosed so shockingly. Franz Josef Land is as far into the boonies as you can get. Making matters worse, in 2001 Krenkel Sta- tion was devastated by a fire. Personnel were pulled out and not replaced. They left their little houses, their recreation center with its two pia- nos and its pool table and its library, and they boarded boats or helicopters that carried them back to the mainland. Romanenko seems to see all that in his mind’s eye as we walk amid the ruins of this little polar station. “C’est la fin de l’empire,” he says, not complicat- ing his French with past tense. The end of the empire. He’s old enough to remember. More than one empire has fallen since an Austro-Hungarian expedition came to these is- lands in 1873. More than one flag was raised here that no longer flies. More than one geophysical expectation, such as the existence of an Arctic continent, has been debunked. The North Pole is real, as a determinable if invisible point, but the early explorers such as Nansen, who came or went via this archipelago with their dog teams and their ice-riding ships, failed to reach it. Franz Josef Land has been a memorable waypoint on the glorious polar route toward frustration and disillusion. Its lonely flat-topped islands, with their parapets of basalt, stand as emblems of frigid adamance; they testify that, though men can be stubborn and resourceful and brave, na- ture is surpassingly complex and strong. The remains of old Krenkel Station temper that testimony to nature’s preeminent power in their ambivalent way: with hundreds of tons of industrial garbage and with delicate vestiges of the humanity of those who hunkered here. Because the station is part of Franz Josef Land and because Franz Josef Land is within the administrative ambit of Russian Arctic National Park (though not yet enjoying full park protection itself ), park authorities have initiated cleanup operations at Krenkel. They envision subsuming the site within a planned muzey pod otkrytym nebom, or great open-air museum. But they will face some delicate deci- sions about where remediation should stop and preservation begin. When a place lands on the junk heap of history, how do you tell what’s his- tory and what’s junk? Even more delicate, and far more consequen- tial, will be decisions made in Moscow about renewed Russian military attention to the Arctic. In early November 2013, just two months after we finished our voyage, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced plans to deploy a squadron of warships with ice-breaking capability to protect new trans-Arctic sea routes as well as potential oil and gas deposits. As of 2011, according to the Russian news agency Novosti, 95 percent of Russia’s natural gas reserves and 60 percent of its oil reserves lie in the Arctic region, although most of the fields are beneath the Barents and Kara Seas, closer to the mainland. The pat- tern of the discoveries of those fields and the warming climate have encouraged Russia to look farther north. The defense minister’s an- nouncement even mentioned reopening the air base on Franz Josef Land. Will this proprietary More than one empire has fallen since an Austro-Hungarian expedition came in 1873. More than one expectation has been debunked.