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A history of the Northeast Passage: Russia's gateway to the Asia-Pacific

After Columbus had failed to open the sea route to India or China, the search continued, among other options, along the north coast of Eurasia. Eventually a passage was discovered in the 18th century, but only as late as 1878/79 it was mastered for the first time. Under Soviet rule the Northern Sea Route (NSR), as it has been called since then, was transformed into a regular shipping lane. It facilitated the development of the Soviet North, but was hardly known abroad. Today the NSR plays a key role in Moscow's "pivot to Asia"; i.e. to connect Russia more closely with the economies of the Asia-Pacific. The NSR provides a short cut to the notoriously congested Suez Canal and, more importantly, is pivotal to supply the resource-hungry East Asian economies with, among other commodities, Russian liquified natural gas.

The history of the Northeast Passage has been written in fragments only. Since the 18th century it has been utilized by Russian and later Soviet mariners and hunters, merchants and scientists, but only the most spectacular explorations have been studied so far. The project will provide an overdue general overview, but it also uses the NSR to study Russia as a maritime power with global ambitions. The control of the Polar coasts and seas did not only provide access to the riches of Siberia, but was part of Russia's imperial expansion and civilizing mission in Eurasia; it was embedded in discourses about the North and it peoples as well as about Russia's role as a commercial hub between East and West, the Atlantic and the Pacific. The NSR provided a stage for heroic tales and economic plans, for ecological and humanitarian catastrophes, for hot and cold wars. The history of the NSR is the history of a Russian lifeline.

Nature of the project:
Book project


Participating researchers:
Prof. Dr. Andreas Renner (LMU)