On November 5, 1933, the legendary steamship Chelyuskin, on entering the Bering straight, was caught up in the ice fields, starting its unprecedented four-month-long drift. The ship was on a scientific expedition along the so-called Northern Maritime Route, exploring its pass-through capacity and investigating the northern territories of the Soviet Union.
The Chelyuskin steamship, headed by Otto Schmidt, the corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences, departed from the city of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. After reaching Murmansk in the August of 1933, it re-supplied and headed along the Northern Maritime Route. In mid-September, the Chelyuskin entered the ice field zone near the Kolyuchin Island in the Chukotsky Sea, eventually becoming stranded in the ice pack. It spent the first days of October drifting in the packs, as the crew tried to rescue the ship.
Later in October, favorable winds almost drove the Chelyuskin out of the second strand it had gotten into, pushing it forward toward the Bering Straight. However, as the ship was just miles away from the clear waters, the last ice pack was so thick that it squeezed the Chelyuskin out, toward the North-West and back into the ice fields.
After the unprecedented four months of drifting, the Chelyuskin was crushed by the icepacks on February 13, 1934, and sank in just two hours. Anticipating such an ominous outcome, the crew managed to escape on to the surrounding ice bergs and unload all the necessary construction and food supplies. The crew of 104 people – one of the crew members went down with the ship – had to wait for the rescue teams for almost a month, as no other ships could reach the Chelyuskin victims. On March 5, 1934, Pilot Anatoly Lyapidevsky sighted Camp Schmidt on the ice and rescued the first ten women and two children. The rest of the crew left the ice berg almost a month later, on April 7 and April 13, 1934, transported to Cape Vankarem on the Chukotka Peninsula.
Once the Chelyuskin survivors arrived in Moscow, they were greeted with honor as heroes and a number of the geographic objects in the Soviet Union were named after them. The pilots who rescued the survivors became the first Heroes of the Soviet Union.
The expeditions which set out to find the remains of the ship in 1974 and 1978 were unsuccessful, as was the one undertaken in 2004, when its members thought the had discovered the remains, later admitting they had been wrong. It was not until 2007 that a special commission finally approved some of the revealed parts as belonging to the Chelyuskin.
In 1997, Anatoly Prokopenko, the former head of the Special Archive, revealed a broader version of the Chelyuskin famous drift, to account for the inability of the salvage crews to find the remains of the Chelyuskin for so long and discrepancies in the number of the survivors rescued from the ice pack. This version was later investigated by other researchers, gaining more solid evidence. It suggested that another ship, Pizhma, carrying over 2000 political prisoners, and following the Chelyuskin, froze into the ice and was later blown up per Stalin’s order. To keep this secret, Stalin refused foreign help in rescuing Camp Schmidt members. One of the alleged survivors from the Pizhma recalled that this ship was transporting the political prisoners to the mines of Chukotka. However, after the Chelyuskin tragedy, with the start of the rescue campaign, Stalin made a decision to blow up the Pizhma so no one would see it. Some of the convoy from the Pizhma managed to escape and ended up on the same ice block with the Chelyuskin victims.