History of Novaya Zemlya
Novaya Zemlya was known to the Pomor inhabitants of the
White Sea region of northern Russia from the early middle ages.
In 1032, Uleb is said to have sailed as far east as the
"Iron Gates," the location of which is unclear, though possibly it is Kara
Gate, which is sometimes referred to by this name. By the beginning of the 14th
century, expeditions were regularly sponsored by the grand dukes of Moscow to
obtain walrus tusks and hide, polar bear furs, salted geese, and other
By the middle of the 16th century, hunting voyages were organized on an annual basis, and
encounters with Pomors are frequently referred to in the accounts of expeditions.
The first sighting by a Western European was made by Sir Hugh Willoughby in 1553, though the
island was not actually reached until three years later by Stephen Borough, who reached the southern extremity of
Novaya Zemlya in 1556.
The existence of Matochkin Strait was known to Western explorers and cartographers by the
earliest years of the 17th century, as proved by its appearance on a map made by the Dutch merchant and diplomat
Isaac Massa and published in 1612, where it is named "Matfeiof Yar." Since it offered an alternative route into the
Kara Sea, it would have been of the greatest interest to anyone seeking the Northeast Passage.
A letter concerning the activities of the English trader Anthony Marsh in the 1580s appears to
suggest that by then the strait was known to the English. The letter refers to it as "Mattushan Yar," a name most
likely derived from "Matthews Land," which was possibly the early name for Novaya Zemlya's northern island.
Dutch navigator, William Barents, touched the southern island and followed its coast in
While many expeditions reached the west coast, the east
coast remained unvisited until a hunting and exploring expedition in 1760–176,
led by Savva Loshkin cruised north from Kara Strait to spend two winters here,
returning the third year along the west coast to complete the first
In 1766, the hunter Yakov Chiratkin sailed through Matochkin
Strait from west to east. This is the first documented transit, though probably
not the first made by a hunter.
Sent to investigate Chiratkin's report, the Russian naval officer Fedor Rozmyslov sailed through
Matochkin Strait two years later and made the first accurate survey.
Several expeditions were dispatched in the early 19th century to improve charts of the coastline.
Dense ice offshore and an outbreak of scurvy prevented Andrey Lazarev from accomplishing this in 1819.
Count Fyodor Litke was more successful between 1821 and 1824 on four voyages organized by the
Russian Admiralty to investigate the potential of Matochkin Strait as a navigable route from European Russia to the
Kara Sea and Siberia.
In addition to compiling the first accurate charts of this strait, Litke conducted a detailed
survey of the west coast. Despite making several attempts, he was unable to reach the east coast.
Russian explorer Petr Pakhtusov charted the east coast for the first time in the 1830s, but his
successors were unable to explore north of 74°24′N. This coastline was mapped for the first time by the members of
Georgiy Sedov's expedition in 1913 while wintering at Foka Bay.
Norwegian hunters began visiting Novaya Zemlya from 1869 onward. The walrus population of
Svalbard was declining, and Erling Carlsen and Edvard Johanessen were persuaded to come here instead. Johanessen
circumnavigated the island the following year, only the second time that this had been achieved. Hunters such as
these regarded the islands as a no-man's land rather than as part of Russia.
The Russian response was to relocate several Nentsy families to the settlement of Maliye
Karmakuly in 1877. A relief station for shipwrecked sailors was also established here, consisting of a house,
bathhouse, lookout post, and lifeboat. Sovereignty remained an issue well into the Soviet era, and Norwegian and
other expeditions continued to visit until the islands were formally closed to non-Russians following the 1926
decree stating the Soviet Union's claim to the sector between 32°4′35″E and 168°49′30″W.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, hydrographers and hydrologists were sent to work off the east
coast. The passage of a small icebreaker, the Sibiryakov, around the northern tip in 1932 led to an inconclusive
discussion of the possibility of developing a northern variant of the northern sea route