“Tougher than cosmonaut.” How polar explorer became institute’s director

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MOSCOW, June 16. /TASS/. Alexander Makarov’s working experience began from an internship program and progressed to a leader of expeditions to the East Arctic and the Spitsbergen. At the age of 34, he became the youngest director of Russia’s major institute for the Arctic and Antarctic studies.

Alexander grew in St. Petersburg. He says, back in the youth he did not think much about the Arctic. At the age of 13-14, his ideas about future occupations varied from the theater to the medicine. Becoming a polar explorer was not on his preferences list.

“The only moment in my childhood could have been a mark – at the age of eight, in 1991, I was among the last kids who became Little Octobrists (the Soviet Union’s communist organization for school students under 9),” he said. “The ceremony was organized at St. Petersburg’s Museum of Arctic and Antarctic, where I for the first time saw vessels, planes and other objects related to the Arctic.”

Leap of faith

In the last years at secondary school, Alexander decided to study natural sciences at the St. Petersburg University. However, only the second attempt to become a student there was successful.

He was not a fan of the exact sciences like mathematics or physics, thus he was choosing from geography and geology. At a certain moment, he decided geography is “tougher,” and went to study at the geomorphology department. Russia’s prominent polar explorer Dmitry Bolshiyanov was Alexander’s supervisor. When Alexander finished the third year, the scientific supervisor invited him to join an expedition.

“Just imagine – it was not at all about me. Right, I was a member of the tourism club for six months at the age of ten, but as for the rest – I was an absolutely urban person. Museums, cinemas, theaters and libraries – those were my attractions at that time. And that [the expedition] for me was a leap of faith – new conditions, new challenges which took me away from the comfort zone,” he said.

The expedition members were to go to Yakutia, to the delta of the Lena River, which runs into the Laptev Sea – a severe area, which remains covered with ice for almost nine months a year. The team took a flight from St. Petersburg to Moscow, where German experts joined the group. From Moscow – to Khatanga on the Taimyr Peninsula, and finally to Tiksi – a Yakut settlement on the Arctic Ocean.

I thought it would be fun

“Getting to the Arctic for the first time is like getting into a movie. We were like Gypsy wanderers – bending under those huge backpacks. At first, I thought it would be fun – I will take a flight, will see the edge of the world (I was 20 years old then, full of inspirations). We landed at Khatanga – back then the settlement and the airport were in poor conditions. Frost. Wild. Shock and shiver. I kept wondering – what am I doing here? We take another flight. I seemed to put up with everything. We arrived in Tiksi – the shock was even worse: ruins and even bigger wildness. Though it was summer – the sky was full of heavy grey clouds, the air temperature was just plus five, and the rain,” Alexander said.

Being on an expedition for the first time is a tough experience for anyone, the explorer said, stressing that the first expedition is the time, when a polar researcher develops a life-long attitude to the Arctic.

“The situation is rather elementary. You live there, say, for a month, work, communicate with others, often face severe conditions, physical and moral: the beautiful though wild nature, long trips, freezing temperatures and the scientific routine,” he told TASS. “In the end, you either get the feeling, or not really. As a rule, all the polar explorers, including me, are the people who get that feeling, who, when departing, think: Well, it was tough, what a luck! This is what I want to do.”

Most dangerous enemy

Being that far from the civilization and in those severe conditions, explorers normally develop “communism within a limited group,” he continued. On one hand, you have all the equipment, you do your favorite job, you can always rely on others, and during expeditions all problems of the “big world” seem completely unreal.

On the other hand, in critical situations the scientific group may rely on itself only, and the biggest enemy is panic.

“In the Arctic you never know when a critical situation may occur, you never know how your colleagues will behave or how you will react. Problems were not once. For example, once, a polar bear came to our camp. No danger from it, and we were simply supposed to frighten it off. But all people react differently, some even got inadequate, and we had to apply certain effort to calm down the situation,” he said.

Alexander has an effective solution for critical situations and panic: any problem requires simple, calm and consequent efforts.

“Even in case of great fears, the main thing is to make yourself do at least something. One day, we were sailing a boat and were caught in a storm, which seemed endless. Water was running into the boat, we got nervous. I could not think about anything else, and was just bailing out. What could we do against the storm? Baling out was our main task. Just bail out, keep doing it, and as you work – see, the storm is over, the boat is safe, and the fear fades away,” he said.

Polar administrator

Alexander has spent more than a decade in expeditions to the East Arctic. For the first two years, he was still a student, and later – a graduate. Over that time, he walked practically the entire delta of the Lena – almost 6,000 square kilometers: collecting soil samples, describing the landscapes and soil layers.

In 2010, when Alexander was already the expedition’s organizer, the then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited the scientists.

“We met him, had tea together, told him about our problems, about achievements, and organized a tour for him. Later on, we learned about the decision to organize in that district a new scientific station. Formerly, we could work only in summer – we stayed at houses inside the local nature reserve. By 2013, the station received a new building for year-round studies. It was a major landmark of my work in the East Arctic, and I think I have 100% fulfilled all my tasks there,” he said.

Over recent five years, the objectives have been changing very quickly: in 2016, Makarov led a Russian expedition to the Spitsbergen – to see the West Arctic’s specifics, to establish communication with new foreign counterparts – Norwegian polar explorers.

During that expedition, Alexander’s participation was already remote – from an office at the St. Petersburg institute. Paperwork, figures and phone calls replaced walking and collecting samples. A year later, he became a Doctor. The Norwegians were true partners, and Alexander became a youngest director of the country’s main institute for Arctic and Antarctic studies.

From North to South

“When we have settled the northern aspects, here emerged the southern ones. There, on one hand, everything is elementary – only our expedition works in the Antarctic, and everything is strictly regulated. But on the other hand, if people there require assistance, we are unable to offer it promptly – they are literally on the other side of the globe. For eight months a year because of the severe weather it is out of question to get to the scientists at the Vostok station, which is in the continent’s center. In this regard, polar explorers are tougher than cosmonauts, as it takes just a few hundred kilometers to fly to the orbit,” Alexander said.

He has not been to the Antarctic, and this is a dream – to get there, to see how different the poles are. He has not been to field expeditions for a few years, and quite often, when remembering the past, Alexander feels the desire to return somewhere north from the Arctic Circle.

“However, we have to make choices, and I have made mine. I do not regret my occupation has changed,” Alexander Makarov said. “I love my job, though nowadays it is unlike the previous work. This is, so to say, a natural process: I have progressed from an undergraduate student to a director, and with the experience I have, I manage to be most effective in what we are doing. Look – the more I work here, the better and more comfortable will be conditions for the Russian explorers during expeditions to both poles”.