Consecrating the North – a Polar Crusade?

As of September 2012 the North Pole has become Orthodox – and Russian. Performing a different kind of ‘god trick’, a Russian Orthodox bishop consecrated the North Pole by lowering a ‘holy memorial capsule’ into the sea at the world’s most northern point. This performance served both as a testament to Russian territorial sovereignty and the increased accessibility and importance of the Arctic. The capsule bore the following inscription:

“With the blessing of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, the consecration of the North Pole marks 1150 years of Russian Statehood.”

Interestingly, this text lets the Church speak on behalf of “All Russia” (only 41% of Russians classify themselves as Russian Orthodox) and connects Church and state through a religious celebration of “Russian Statehood”, with the overall effect being an appearance of national unity. Having a “Statehood” that dates back 1150 years implies a stability and continuity of Russia, of which the North Pole is a natural part (though some scholars might argue that 1150 years back predates times when ‘statehood’ was connected to a clearly demarcated territory). Shooting down all counter arguments, the statement is clear: The North Pole was always Russian and will continue to be so.

The consecration was part of the Arctic-2012 scientific expedition funded by a state research centre and traveling on-board the nuclear icebreaker Russia. The expedition was linked to seabed mapping, which is central to claiming Arctic territories. Such a trinity of science, religion and the nation in claiming the North Pole supports the idea of a strong, united Russia.

According to Barents Observer, the Bishop makes no attempt to conceal the realpolitik behind the consecration. He claims that it symbolises state efforts on “the return of the country’s former positions in the region” and makes a direct connection to Russian resource interests, which makes the region important for “all of Russia” and the Church. The consecration coincides with plans of a state-funded cathedral within the Arctic Circle in Murmansk, which is meant as a monument of Russian ownership of the Arctic. It would seem that the Arctic, which is often represented as a ‘space of the real’ where territorial claims rest on science, might become a ‘space of the spiritual’ as well.
This modern day ‘crusade’ may seem bizarre, but it is merely part of a longstanding tradition in a region that has frequently provided a stage for all sorts of ceremonies of possession, such as flag-plantings and sovereignty patrols. Arctic coastal nations resort to this kind of ‘sabre-rattling’ because territorial sovereignty is more than a legal concept; it needs to be performed. In the Arctic, however, territorial inscription is a challenge due to the dynamism of the geophysical environment. The increasing openness of the Arctic is not only enabling sovereignty performances; it is also making them ever more pertinent because open spaces are potentially vulnerable to ‘foreign intruders’. This creates a constant pressure to fill this empty, increasingly open space with evidence of effective occupation. Performances – especially well-photographed ones – reache much wider audiences, international and domestic, than any state document, and its significance owes as much to stagecraft as it does to statecraft. An important element of stagecraft is the visual – images do more damage than the show itself. Unfortunately, the visual palette of the consecration itself is not particularly impressive and is unlikely to stand strongly in the visual archive that constructs the Arctic. Without affective visual coordinates the ice will soon erase all evidence of the new-found religious identity of the North Pole.

Johanne Bruun graduated from Aalborg University with a BSc in Geography and is currently pursuing an MSc in Geopolitics and Security at Royal Holloway, University of London. Johanne has a particular interest in the ways in which cultural and spatial differences are imagined as well as their manifestations and politics. Next year she aspires to start a PhD focusing on the geopolitics of popular spatialisations in Scandinavia.

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