Alas, Poor Nordvik (21 cents)

I recently picked up a book titled “40,000 Against the Arctic”, the story of the steps taken by the USSR in the 1930s to settle and develop its far north. The book was published by William Morrow & Co. in 1937. I had neither heard of the book, nor of H. P. Smolka, its author. From the book’s introduction, I gathered that Smolka was a London based journalist who happened to be given the opportunity to travel to parts of Siberia not previously visited by western journalists. From Google, though, I see that in fact he was (is? he may still be alive at 98) an Austrian Communist, who must have been some sort of a spy in England and a friend of Herbert Philby. But that’s another story…..

The book clearly shows sympathy for the Russians, but does not read as if it is a propaganda piece. Clearly, the difficulties of taming such a vast and inhospitable land are laid out, as are some of the shortages of equipment and funds. What is equally clear is how the pioneering spirit of those selected to settle this country (mainly young university graduates and scientists, mostly male) is appreciated by the author.

One of the places he describes is the new settlement of Nordvik, on the Arctic Ocean, where recent expeditions had located extensive salt deposits and the possibility of significant amounts of oil. The town of Nordvik was expected to grow to 40,000 with a decade or so, and house the workers in these extraction industries as well as providing port facilities. The spirit of optimism and determination was pervasive.

Alas, it was not to be. Checking various internet sources, I had a hard time learning anything about Nordvik. Finally, I saw why. The oil turned out to be non-existent, the salt deposits were exhausted, and in 1956, the entire town was abandoned. Alas, poor Nordvik.

Of course, this book is not only about Nordvik and, even though dated, is not without interest in what it shows about the difficulty in settling an area with such a difficult climate, and – equally important – of such expanse.

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