Olga Stefanova: “This is a movie about the meaning of life, about the happiness of finding your calling”
“No other science is as costly as discoveries as geography. Every bit of knowledge is paid for with human lives,” wrote Igor Zabelin, a well-known physicogeographer and historian. So it was with Antarctica. In the 67 years that have passed since the beginning of the work of the First Soviet Antarctic Expedition, 81 people have died at domestic polar stations. The bodies of 40 researchers rest on Buromsky Island in metal sarcophagi fixed directly on the rocks. If the remains of the deceased could not be found, the burial was designated conditionally. Olga Stefanova’s documentary film about the island-cemetery and the fate of the dead polar explorers became the winner of the 10th National Prize “Crystal Compass” in the “Enlightenment” nomination.
Buromsky Island is located 2 km from the Russian Antarctic station Mirny. A piece of land measuring 100 by 200 m, consisting of rocks, is barely visible on the map. In reality, it is a cemetery where many of those who died on the icy continent rested. The island got its name in honor of the Soviet captain-lieutenant Nikolai Buromsky. On February 3, 1957, 10 people worked on the ice edge. Suddenly there was a collapse, and they all fell into the icy water. Buromsky and Yevgeny Zykov could not get out, the rest received fractures and bruises. The Honorary President of the Russian Geographical Society Vladimir Kotlyakov also took part in that expedition.
— You are a member of seven expeditions to Antarctica, the fifth Russian woman who spent the winter in Antarctica. How did you become a polar explorer and how was the idea of this particular project born?
– I dreamed of becoming a polar explorer ever since I read Vladimir Sanin’s book “It’s hard to let go of Antarctica” and decided that this was my land. And for 14 years now, I have been working on the topic of high latitudes. In the 2012/2013 season, I worked as a special correspondent for Vesti in Antarctica and for the first time I found myself on Buromsky Island, I saw how desolated the burial places were. At that moment, a desire arose to restore the cemetery, to put it in order. Then I knew very little about the dead …
What did the burials look like?
“Metal sarcophagi rusted, penguin fluff, feathers, garbage stuffed into huge holes, signs with portraits burned out in the sun, names were erased. It took us three years to prepare the project, assemble a team and find funding. Significant funds were invested by Alexander Zhukov’s film company “Lex Film”, the rest was donated by private philanthropists. Part of the costs – already for the production of the film – was covered by a grant from the Russian Geographical Society.
The expedition to restore the burials took place in the 2016/2017 season, and it was it that became the plot core of the film Buromsky Island. Our detachment of eight people, who had extensive experience in construction and rescue work, including in the Arctic and Antarctic, landed on the island on February 3, 2017 – on the day of the death of Nikolai Buromsky and Evgeny Zykov, exactly 60 years later. We brought new stainless steel sarcophagi to Antarctica, sheathed all the pedestals with fresh larch, and made new nameplates.
81 people died at our stations, and only 11 polar explorers were brought to the mainland and buried in their homeland. The rest remained in Antarctica forever. On one of the monuments of the island it is written: “Bow your heads, who come here. They gave their lives in the fight against the harsh nature of Antarctica.” Some burned out during a fire, others were lost in a hurricane and froze in a snowstorm, others fell into an ice crack or crashed on an airplane. Among the dead were scientists, mechanics, photographers…
There is a lot of authentic archival footage in the film, starting with the scary footage of a tractor going under the ice with 20-year-old Ivan Khmara in the cab. This tragedy was filmed by cameraman Alexander Kochetkov, also a participant in the first trip of Soviet specialists to Antarctica. The day before, Ivan Khmara learned from a telegram that he had become a father. The authors of the film found his relatives in the Krasnoyarsk Territory and learned that the grandson of the polar explorer also became a tractor driver.
— What did this project give you?
— Several years after the expedition to the island, we collected the stories of the dead polar explorers. We were looking for relatives, friends, colleagues, eyewitnesses – all those who could tell us about the people whose burials we restored. We found unique photographs, letters, diaries. There are very few living witnesses of the early expeditions, and therefore their stories are very valuable. Many of these stories have never been told before. In Prague, we filmed the widow of the Czech polar explorer Oldřík Kostka, who died in 1960 at the Russian Mirny station. Our heroine Clara was almost 100 years old. After the interview, she told me: “Olya, today I finally understood why the Lord gave me such a long life! I had to wait for you to keep the memory of my husband…” about death, but about life! About the joy and meaning of life, about the happiness of finding your calling.
In the course of the project on Buromsky Island, the largest cemetery of polar explorers was put in order. Returning from the Southern Continent, the team sought out the relatives and friends of the victims. Filming took place not only in Russia, from the Krasnoyarsk Territory to the Kuban, but also in Germany, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Israel, Switzerland. In the tape, you can see footage from an amateur chronicle that has never been shown on screens before – the authors of the film were presented by polar explorers. Currently, work is underway to create the world’s first electronic database in memory of all polar explorers who died in Antarctica on a global scale – “Memory of Antarctica”. The project is supported by the Presidential Grants Fund. No one has ever done such a research work.
– The film “Buromsky Island” received awards at many film festivals. Does the national award “Crystal Compass” have a special meaning?
– The award in the field of geography is completely different! It is not so much about the artistic values of the film, but about preserving the memory of the polar explorers so that their exploits are not forgotten. The geographical award speaks of the high reliability of the information told, and this, as a director, is also very valuable to me, of course. Dear experts considered our work worthy of this award. For our entire team, this recognition is very important.
Recently we showed the film in Latin America – in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile. Among the spectators were also local polar explorers who spend the winter in Antarctica next door to us. And at one of the shows, the director of the Chilean Geographical Society, Hugo Romero Aravena, said: “Russian geography as a science for us, Chileans, was little known. We represented it as harsh, unemotional, focused purely on research. We knew almost nothing about the human factor. And here we saw it from a completely different side – with a human face, emotions and destinies of people! We saw how great the spirituality of the Russian soul, its religiosity. We understood the role of Russian women and families in the exploration and study of Antarctica. “
“Crystal Compass” is a prestigious international award, which is awarded for outstanding achievements and unique contemporary projects aimed at preserving the natural, historical and cultural heritage. For 10 years, 3312 projects and unique achievements from 44 countries of the world have been nominated for awards. In the special nomination “Public Recognition”, where the winner is determined by Internet voting, more than 2.3 million people expressed their preferences. The award is held under the auspices of the Russian Geographical Society with the support of the Presidential Fund for Cultural Initiatives. The winners of the 10th anniversary award “Crystal Compass” were awarded on December 8 at the Moscow International House of Music. The strategic partners of the ceremony were Gazprom and Gazprom transgaz Krasnodar, partners – OTEKO, style partner – Indever.