Discovery of the Northern Sea Route has centuries-long prehistory. At early stages of Siberia colonization Novgorod people and later the White Sea coast-dwellers were sailing along the western areas of the Route. These brave explorers possessed unique practical skills of sailing on fragile boats in harsh climatic conditions of the North. In the XIth century Russian seafarers put to seas of the Arctic ocean, and in the XII—XIIIth centuries they discovered the islands of Vaigach and Novaya Zemlya, and in the end of the XVth century — the islands of Svalbard and Medvezhy. In the XVI-XVIIth centuries the section from the Northern Dvina River to the Taz Bay was explored and developed (so-called “Mangazeiya seaway”).
It is accepted that in 1525 the Russian diplomat Dmitry Gerasimov was the first to suggest using the North-Eastern passageway (the name of the Northern Sea Route before the beginning of the XXth century) for marine communication between Russia and China. At the same time following his description the Italian cartographer Battista Agnese made one the first Moscovy maps showing some parts of the basin of the Arctic Ocean.
In the second half of the XVth century English and Dutch seafarers made several attempts to pass to the East by the North Eastern passageway. A specific society of explorers was created in England. The society raised money for several expeditions to the basin of the Arctic Ocean with the goal to discover a new trade route to China. Richard Chancellor and Hugh Willoughby (1553—1554), as well as by Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman (1580) were in charge of the most famous expeditions. Expedition participants just managed to reach the estuary of the Northern Dvina River, Murmansk coast and the Island of Novaya Zemlya.
The Dutch seafarer Willem Barentsz made three cruises in the north in 1594-1596. His ships tried passing further to the East turning around the Island of Novaya Zemlya from north to south. During the third voyage Barentsz managed to turn around the Cape of Wish but he had to spend winter in the Ice Harbour. In spring 1597 on the way back to the continent Barentsz died.
In the end of the XVIth century Russian seafarers were making regular voyages to the estuary of the Ob River and later managed to reach the basin of the Yenisei River. Soon after Ermak campaign the towns of Berezovo and Obdorsk (Salekhard), and later Mangazeya burg on the Taz River, were built. For a long time these towns served as ports for furs transportation to Arkhangelsk. In the beginning of the XVIIth century Russian seafarers often reached the estuary of the Yenisei and the Pyasina River. In 1622—1623 a troop commanded by the explorer Penda followed up-stream of the Nizhnyaya Tunguska River from the Yenisei, crossed the watershed and reached the Lena. In 1632 officer Petr Beketov founded the burg giving start to the town of Yakutsk. Ten years later Cossack troops went down to the estuary of the Lena. From this point Ivan Rebrov made a voyage to the West and reached the Olenek River; Ilya Perfiliev made a voyage to the East and reached the Yana River. Soon the boats of explorers managed to reach the Anabar River and the Indigirka River in the East. In 1644 Nizhne-Kolymsky burg was founded in the estuary of the Kolyma River.
Discovery of the last section of the North Eastern passageway to the Pacific Ocean is connected with the names of Semen Dezhnev and Fedot Popov. In 1648 they made a trade voyage on small boats and proved existence of a strait between Asia and America. They made detailed description of Chukotka and founded Anadyr burg.
Thus, Russian pioneers investigated the entire northern coast of Eurasia and the seas washing its shores. Their contribution into the chronicles of the greatest geographic discoveries had in fact solved the problem of the North Eastern passage to the Eastern countries. Quite naturally Dezhnev’s voyage and discovery of a strait between Asia and America was compared with the feat of Christopher Columbus.
In the XVIIIth century the Second Kamchatka Expedition made the most important contribution into studies of separate parts of the Northern Sea Route. Within 10 years the crew headed by Vitus Bering went through the Northern Sea Route from Arkhangelsk in the west to the Bolshoy Baranov Cape in the east. In 1742 Semen Chelyuskin reached the northern extremity of Asia – the cape later named after him. Khariton Laptev investigated the coast from the Lena to the Khatanga and the Taimyr Peninsula. He mapped the Khatanga Bay, the Rivers of Pyasina and Khatanga; he discovered the Bolshoy Begichev and the Maly Begichev Islands and the central part of Byranga mountains. The crew following from Yakutsk to the Bering Strait studied the coast of the Arctic Ocean between the Lena and the Bolshoy Baranov Cape. This crew also surveyed the rivers Yana, Indigirka, Khroma, Kolyma, Bolshoy Anyui and Anadyr. Other crew headed by Martyn Shpanberg investigated the Kuril Islands and discovered the seaway to Japan. The crew headed by Vitus Bering managed to make outstanding discoveries of the strait between Asia and America and to describe the northern shores of Kamchatka, north-western coast of America and to discover many islands.
Taking into account the results of the first northern expeditions of the Russian Academy of Sciences Mikhail Lomonosov put forward and proved the idea of integrated study of polar seas and countries for development of trade seafaring and for protection of Russian territories in the Far East.
Russian seafarers F.P. Wrangel and F.F. Matyushkin made a big contribution into studying of the eastern part of the Northern Sea Route. In 1820—1824 they investigated and mapped the coastline from the estuary of the Kolyma River to the Kolyuchinskaya Bay. In this area they were the first to make four tours on drifting ice.
From 1877 Kara expeditions were organised from time to time to bring Siberian agricultural products and minerals to the world market through the Kara Sea. Seventy-five out of one hundred and twenty-two Kara voyages were successful in the period from 1877 to 1919. The total amount of cargo was 55 thousand tons. Failures of Kara expeditions were explained by the absence of proper navigation equipment, ports and icebreakers.
In 1899 the first powerful icebreaker in the world ERMAK was built in England upon initiative of Admiral S.O. Makarov. The icebreaker was supposed to ensure regular navigation in the Kara Sea between the rivers Ob and Yenisei.
In 1878-79 outstanding Swedish scientist Nils Nordenskiöld proved the possibility of Northern Sea Route use for transit. He made a voyage on “Vega” schooner from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean with one stop for winter.
In 1875 Nordenskiöld made a voyage in the direction of the Yugorsky Shar Strait. The sealer “Preven” passed the strait and stopped in a cosy harbour on an island in the Yenisei Bay. He called the harbour Port Dickson. At present the entire island is called Dickson.
In spite of the fact that Nordenskiöld reach the Yenisei safely and rapidly, he considered that the voyage on a sailing vessel was slow due to calm. He thought that a steam vessel would allow saving one month. Russian people were inclined to underestimate the significance of the trip ascribing it to an exception due to uncommon ice distribution in the Polar Sea. Wishing to prove the falsity of such opinion and to arrange trade communication between Europe and Siberia via the Northern Sea Route, Nordenskiöld made the second voyage on a steam vessel “Imer” in 1876. This time he managed not only to enter the estuary of the Yenisei but also to go up-stream till Yakovleva village where he discharged the cargo. Nordenskiöld named the island discovered in the Yenisei Bay – the Sibiryakov Island – after Irkutsk merchant A.M. Sibiryakov who financed the greater part of the expedition budget.
Success of Nordenskiöld's voyages made irrefutably evident the fact that the western part of the North Eastern passageway could be used as a trade route. All this inspired Nordenskiöld to undertake a through voyage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean by the Arctic Ocean along the shores of Europe and Asia. Another task of the new campaign was to check possibility of safe navigation from Scandinavia to the Bering Strait. The secondary task was to collect information on poorly studied Siberian shores and waters. Nordenskiöld wrote that the expedition “should have explored the Arctic Sea to the east from the estuary of the Yenisei possibly till the Bering Strait from the point of view of geography, hydrogeography and natural science”.
Nordenskiöld was provided with “Vega” steam vessel made of oak with displacement of 357 tons. The steam-engine power was 60 horsepower. The vessel was equipped with sails; its velocity was 6-7 knots. The officer staff and crew (totally 30 persons) were represented by experienced sailors of Swedish Navy and seal hunters. Apart from Nordenskiöld the research staff of the expedition included zoologist A. Stuksberg, botanist F. Chelman, geophysicist A. Hovgard (Dane), hydrograph D. Bove (Italian) and doctor E. Almquist. Considering that the expedition was of high interest for the country, Russian Geographical Society sent Guards lieutenant Oscar Nordquist to join the crew. He took active part in zoological observations and other studies. He was crew interpreter during stay for winter in chuckchi settlement.
On the 1st of August “Vega” passed the Yugorsky Shar Strait to the Kara Sea and in five days arrived to Dickson harbour without any difficulties. On the 10th of August the vessel moved on to the Chelyuskin Cape and regardless of fears this part of the way was successfully passed. On the 24th of August “Vega” reached the estuary of Lena. “Vega” passed through the first blocks of ice and successfully reached the Kolyuchin Bay on the 27th of September. Fighting with ice the vessel doubled the cape situated on the eastern extremity of the bay. Not far from the Bering Strait the vessel cast aground at Pitlekay jammed by the ice. The crew had to stay for winter at 222 kilometres from the principal goal. During wintering the staff collected data particularly valuable due to the fact that the area under study had never been investigated from research point of view. Only on the 18th of July the expedition continued the voyage and in two days “Vega” entered the Bering Strait. After that the vessel went to Japan, around Asia and Europe overseas the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean and returned to Sweden overseas the Atlantic Ocean. Thus the task to go through North Eastern passageway was accomplished.