The Northern Sea Route (Се́верный морско́й путь, Severniy morskoy put’) is a shipping lane from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean along the Russian coasts of the Far East and Siberia. The vast majority of the route lies in Arctic waters and parts are only free of ice for two months per year. Before the beginning of the 20th century it was known as the Northeast Passage. In Russian it is also shortened to Sevmorput from the first syllables of 'Severnii Morskoi Put' (Northern Sea Passage).
Western parts of the passage were simultaneously being explored by Northern European countries like England, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, looking for an alternative seaway to China and India. Although these expeditions failed, new coasts and islands were discovered. Most notable is the 1596 expedition led by Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz who discovered Spitsbergen and Bear Island and rounded the north of Novaya Zemlya.
Fearing English and Dutch penetration into Siberia, Russia closed the Mangazeya seaway in 1619. Pomor activity in Northern Asia declined and the bulk of exploration in the 17th century was carried out by Siberian Cossacks, sailing from one river mouth to another in their Arctic-worthy kochs. In 1648 the most famous of these expeditions, led by Fedot Alekseev and Semyon Dezhnev, sailed east from the mouth of Kolyma to the Pacific and doubled the Chukchi Peninsula, thus proving that there was no land connection between Asia and North America.
Eighty years after Dezhnev, in 1725, another Russian explorer, Danish-born Vitus Bering on Sviatoy Gavriil made a similar voyage in reverse, starting in Kamchatka and going north to the passage that now bears his name (Bering Strait). It was Bering who gave their current names to Diomede Islands, discovered and first described by Dezhnev.
Bering's explorations in 1725–30 were part of a larger scheme initially devised by Peter the Great and known as The Kamchatka (Great Northern) expedition. The Second Kamchatka expedition took place in 1735–42. This time there were two ships, Sv. Piotr and Sv. Pavel, the latter commanded by Bering's deputy in the first expedition, Captain Aleksei Chirikov. During that voyage they became the first Westerners to sight (Bering) and land on (Chirikov) the coast of the north-western North America, a storm having separated the two ships earlier. On his way back Bering discovered the Aleutian Islands but fell ill and Sv. Peter had to take shelter on an island off Kamchatka, where Bering died (Bering Island).
Independent from Bering and Chirikov, other Russian Imperial Navy parties took part in the Second Great Northern expedition. One of these, led by Semion Chelyuskin, in May 1742 reached the northernmost point of both the Northeast Passage and the Eurasian continent (Cape Chelyuskin).
Later expeditions to explore the Northeast Passage took place in the 1760s (Vasili Chichagov), 1785–95 (Joseph Billings and Gavril Sarychev), the 1820s (Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel, Piotr Fyodorovich Anjou, Count Fyodor Litke and others), and the 1830s. Possibility of navigation the whole length of the passage was proven by mid-19th century. However, it was only in 1878 that Finland-Swedish explorer Nordenskiöld made the first successful attempt to completely navigate the Northeast Passage from west to east during the Vega expedition. The ship's captain on this expedition was lieutenant Louis Palander of the Swedish Royal Navy. In 1915 a Russian expedition led by Boris Vilkitsky made the passage from east to west.
One year before Nordenskiöld's voyage, commercial exploitation of the route started with the so-called Kara expeditions, exporting Siberian agricultural produce via the Kara Sea. Of 122 convoys between 1877 and 1919 only 75 succeeded, transporting as little as 55 tons of cargo. From 1911 steamboats ran from Vladivostok to Kolyma (the Kolyma steamboats) once a year.
In 1932 a Soviet expedition led by Professor Otto Yulievich Schmidt was the first to sail all the way from Arkhangelsk to the Bering Strait in the same summer without wintering en route. After a couple more trial runs in 1933 and 1934, the Northern Sea Route was officially open and commercial exploitation began in 1935. Next year, part of the Baltic Fleet made the passage to the Pacific where an armed conflict with Japan was looming.
A special governing body Glavsevmorput', the Administration of the Northern Sea Route, was set up in 1932 and Otto Schmidt became its first director. It supervised navigation and built Arctic ports.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union commercial navigation in the Siberian Arctic went into decline in the 1990s. More or less regular shipping is to be found only from Murmansk to Dudinka in the west and between Vladivostok and Pevek in the east. Ports between Dudinka and Pevek see next to no shipping at all. Logashkino and Nordvik were abandoned and are now ghost towns.