On February 13, 1956, the Soviet Union set up its first-ever research station on the Antarctic. It was named Mirny, after one of the two ships of the Russian Bellingshausen and Lazarev expedition, which discovered the continent in 1820.
The second station, Vostok, was named after the other ship and was set up in 1957.
Located on the Antarctic’s Indian Ocean coast, Mirny served the Soviet Union as the main year-round research observatory and transportation hub for decades.
Following attempts by different countries to claim the Antarctic, the international convention of 1959 established the cold continent as a no-man’s territory, making it open to everyone for exploration. However, it is prohibited to place any military or nuclear hardware on the continent.
At first, Mirny comprised 12 buildings, and later expanded to 42. These include the research centre, living quarters, fuel and tractor storage facilities, a radio station and diesel power generation unit. Mirny was used as a base to set up four other observatories which are still operating to this day.
During summertime, up to 200 people live and work at Mirny, the number declining to a quarter of that in winter.
Mirny, which translated from Russian means peaceful, has living conditions which are far from peaceful. The year-round temperatures average around -11 C, but the cold factor is doubled by stormy winds blowing through the continent almost all year round. The coldest Earth minimum was registered at the Vostok station: –89C. Because of the cold temperatures, the equipment for the Antarctic is similar to what is produced for space exploration.
The harsh conditions practically make everyone working there a hero. Sadly, there have been a number of deaths at Mirny – the Antarctic cemetery has dozens of graves as reminders of the cruelty of the seventh continent. The only monument there is dedicated to the first victim – 20-year-old Ivan Khmyra.
The first expedition team was unloading cargo from the ship that had brought them to the Antarctic. They had just unloaded a tractor, which wouldn’t move when started. Ivan got into the cabin and put it in gear, hoping to jerk the tractor into motion. The caterpillar track rolled, digging through the pack ice, and a moment later the tractor had disappeared into the crack. The man was trapped in the cabin and had no time to escape.
There was also an incident when the whole station went down under the ice and people made a very narrow escape by running up the spiral staircase.
Vladimir Kontrovsky, who took part in the 22nd and 23rd Antarctic expeditions, says one should always watch out for the treacherous Antarctic ice – “You can never trust what you see, you walk thinking it’s plain ground, but it turns out to be a snow crust over a hundred-meter-deep crack. If you fall into one of those, they won’t even search for you. Any time you leave the building you have to let someone know. During the stormy winds there is no guarantee you’ll make it even as far as the canteen next door.”
The first Antarctic expedition to Mirny has been followed by more than 50, some 17 000 people taking part in the research of the Antarctic over the years of its existence.