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Prominent Russians: The Shparos

Dmitry Shparo - born August 23, 1941, Matvey - born April 27, 1975
Дмитрий и Матвей Шпаро Dmitry and Matvey Shparo

Both father and son are polar explorers that have walked cross the Arctic lands, the North Pole and many other “extreme spots” of the planet. Some of their expeditions have been recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. Dmitry and Matvey are co-founders of the “Adventure Club” – an organization that coordinates expeditions and projects for those in search of adventure – including children and disabled people.

The father – the beginning of the journey

Dmitry Igorevich Shparo was born in Moscow in 1941 shortly after the Nazi German invasion of the USSR. His father, Igor Shparo, was of Swedish descent. Igor was a journalist and had also made some money writing fiction. Shparo’s mother, Nina Gimer was a mathematician. Many members of Nina’s family became victims of Stalin’s early political repressions at the end of the 1920s. When she was only three, her father was arrested - the authorities declared him an “enemy of the people” and sent him to a labor camp in the Far North. No one ever heard from him again. For this reason Nina was unable to find a job in 1940s. Only after Stalin’s death in 1953, she joined the Institute of Applied Mechanics. She calculated the functioning of the first Soviet cruise missile under the guidance of the academician Mstislav Keldysh, and the first artificial man-made satellite, known to the world as “Sputnik.”

Dmitry inherited his mother’s interest in finding solutions to equations. In 1958 he entered the Department of Mathematics at the Moscow State University. After five years of studies he enrolled in postgraduate courses. In 1967, after completing his thesis in applied mathematics, Dmitry received a Candidate of Science degree. After that he became a full-time lecturer at the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys – one of the leading technical universities in Russia known by its acronym MISIS.

In the 1960s many young men from technical colleges had two hobbies – extreme tourism and playing songs on the guitar. Dmitry Shparo excelled at the first. In university he began to practice long hikes – sometimes on skis. Shparo developed a taste for trips to the Far North. He spent all his vacations doing all sorts of adventure hikes.

In the spring of 1970 Dmitry Shparo and four other residents of Moscow went on a tourist hike along the Taimyr Peninsula in the north of Russia. They took many pictures on the long journey from Lake Taimyr in the center of the Peninsula to Cape Chelyskin – the northernmost point of Eurasia. Shparo and friends presented their photos to the editor’s board of the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper – one of the most popular central publications in the USSR, which was also the official paper of the Youth Communist League, or Komsomol. Some of the small Arctic Islands that the team visited during their trip were named after the newspaper. During a meeting with journalists in 1970, the young adventurers, including Shparo, declared: “We shall go to the North Pole!” But it took them nine long years to make their announcement real.

On the way to the Pole

After that very meeting the Komsomolskaya Pravda became a sponsor for all the activities of Dmitry Shparo’s team. All the expeditions to the North were named after the newspaper. The explorers made several crossings along the Arctic Islands. A couple of times they went on archaeological searches – to the Taimyr Peninsula and to the islands of the Kara Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean. By the middle of the 1970s Shparo realized that exploring had become his second job.

The Komsomolskaya Pravda highly valued Shparo’s efforts. It regularly published his diaries and always issued updates on preparations for upcoming expeditions. Exploring, though, was not an easy task– the Communist Party and the KGB always treated people like Shparo with a great deal of suspicion. Shparo had to obtain numerous approvals for his trips from the local committees of the Communist Party and the KGB. In many cases it was his connections at the Komsomolskaya Pravda that helped Shparo fight his way through the bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, Communist Party officials continued to be cautious about Shparo’s endeavors. They viewed the Arctic region as a strategic defense zone during the Cold War era – and did not want any civilians in the area. For this reason the Politburo, at the beginning of 1979, considered the Shparo ski expedition to the North Pole as “pointless.” Yet, in March, 1979, Shparo and his team - Yury Khmelnitsky, Vladimir Ledenyov, Anatoly Melnikov, Vadim Davydov, and Vasily Shishkaryov - made a decision to start the expedition. Some Politburo members, including KGB Chief Yury Andropov and Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov, were ready to dispatch military helicopters to stop the expedition and punish Shparo.

The situation was saved by Mikhail Suslov, the influential Communist Party Secretary in charge of ideology. He was convinced by Ivan Papanin – the man who set up the first drifting station at the North Pole in 1937 – who was sure that Shparo and his team would be able to successfully reach the North Pole.

It was a difficult journey for the expedition that began on 16 March from Henriette’s Island. The team had to cope with the extreme cold and with drifting ice that formed huge mountains on the way. Nevertheless, Shparo and companions overcame all these obstacles and, on 31 May 1979, they reached the North Pole. For his endeavors Dmitry Igorevich Shparo was awarded with the Order of Lenin. Standing at the North Pole he said, “Look, guys, Canada is so close! We should go there someday!” He would do so nine years later.

To the other side of the Arctic

As a warm-up Shparo decided to carry out a very risky operation - crossing the Arctic to the North Pole during the Arctic nights in total darkness. Again, for two months Dmitry had to compete with drifting, crashing ice and extremely cold temperatures that sometimes dropped to minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 34 Celsius). The following is an excerpt from Shparo’s diary: “I’ve fallen many times today. My cheeks bleed because I’ve cut them with ice. You fall a lot in the dark and every time you’re filled with fear that you may break something and the expedition will stop.” In spite of all these difficulties, in February 1986 he reached the North Pole again and the “Arctic Night” journey went into the Guinness Book of World Records.

As a mathematician, Dmitry Shparo believed that the North Pole was a shifting spot that only existed as a mathematical concept. He was sure, however, that the dream of reaching it could unite people from different countries. This idea became vitally important during the times of Perestroika (the restructuring of the USSR during the second half of 1980s), and Dmitry Shparo became a “Goodwill Ambassador,” representing the USSR. In 1988, for the first time in history, a Soviet-Canadian ski expedition under Shparo’s leadership crossed the Arctic ocean following the route: Drifting Station “North Pole-27” (Russian Arctic) – North Pole – Island of Ellsmere (Canada). For this expedition Shparo was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and Labor as well as the prestigious UNESCO "Fair Play" award.

In 1989 Dmitry Shparo and his American colleague, Paul Shurke, crossed the Bering Strait that separates Eurasia from America, with the help of sled dogs. The idea behind the journey was to trace the ancient Inuit route. Before the start of the Cold War the inhabitants of the shores of the Strait traveled from Siberia to Alaska and back to hunt walruses and visit relatives, as they all shared the same language. Thus the explorers attempted to reconnect the ties of the families. Later on the idea was endorsed by the Soviet and American leaders of that time – Mikhail Gorbachyov and George H. W. Bush. The politicians gave the “green light” and opened the border for the expedition. Later on, Shparo and Shurke initiated a protocol that would allow free travel for Inuit families across the Bering Strait. It was signed in 1989 – three months before the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. Many Inuit families had a chance to reunite.

That same year Dmitry Shparo initiated another of his life’s projects. With the help of Canadian Paralympic athlete Rick Hansen he founded the "Adventure Club" – a non-profit organization that organizes travel for the deaf and blind and people with spinal cord injures. Over the past 20 years the “Adventure Club” has sponsored countless endeavors for disabled athletes and disadvantaged children all around the world. Step by step, Shparo’s son Matvey also became involved in the process.

Like father, like sons

Matvey was born in 1975. From an early age he and his elder brother Nikita were fascinated by their father’s stories about the remote Arctic areas. They never complained when Dmitry made them go in for sports. The first big expedition that Shparo made with his sons took place in 1996. It was an attempt to cross the Bering Strait on skis. The expedition failed – the drifting ice carried the explorers into the Bering Sea while they were sleeping. Dmitry Shparo sent out a distress signal. The rescue operation was carried out by the United States Coast Guard who thought that the Shparos had perished after they saw two dozens polar bears. But fortunately, the “brave three” were spotted and transported to the coastal base of Nome in Alaska.

In 1997 the Shparos made a second ski crossing attempt. And again, it almost resulted in a disaster. In the waters of the Bering Sea, Nikita fell through the weak ice and got severe frostbite. Dmitry Shparo had to close the expedition. After that Nikita turned his attention to administrative activities and now runs various projects under the aegis of the “Adventure Club.”

That same year Matvey organized his first “Adventure Club” expedition – a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in eastern Africa. The team included a blind person, two deaf participants and four amputees. The expedition was dedicated to the 850th anniversary of Moscow. Inspired by the success, Dmitry and Matvey Shparo managed to pass the Bering Strait with flying colors in 1998 – by doing so they secured another entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. They also received great praise from the then Russian and American presidents – Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton.

Following this Matvey began his own professional exploring career. In the year 2000 he set up a joint Russian-Danish expedition called “Polar Passage-2000.” It was a transit along the coast of Greenland on an open boat with outboard engines - a unique thing for the Arctic. The organizers of the expedition had chosen to imitate the conditions of sailing during the Viking period – when the first Europeans reached the shores of Greenland in 982 A.D. They also made a ski crossing over the island. Again, disabled people were among the participants. By order of the President of the Russian Federation, Matvey Shparo was awarded the Order of Friendship for this trip.

A couple of years later, in May and June 2002, Matvey Shparo led a team of 11 athletes on an ascent of Mount McKinley, the highest peak on the North American continent. The team included two athletes with spinal cord injury. 

In 2005 there came another chance for a joint expedition between father and son. Their companion was Prince Albert of Monaco who sponsored the 2006 North Pole dog-sled expedition. The Prince wanted to draw the attention of the world community to global warming and pay tribute to his late grandfather who was a fan of Arctic travel at the beginning of the 20th century.

The latest extreme achievement of Matvey Shparo was an Arctic night trip to the North Pole with Boris Smolkin in 2007. In recent years the “Adventure Club” has focused much attention on various youth programs, including various youth ecological camps called “Great Adventure” in the Republic of Karelia in the northwest of Russia. But the main highlights of the club’s children’s activities are regular trips to the North Pole. The last Russian Youth Expedition to the North Pole took place in April 2010. The young fans of adventure spent a week in the boundless Arctic under the guidance of Matvey Shparo. They covered a distance of about 100 miles. 

As for the father, Dmitry Shparo, he has enjoyed a successful career as a writer. The most famous books about his trips are “A Way to the North,” “To the Pole!” and “Three Mysteries of the Arctic.”

Written by Oleg Dmitriev, RT

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