The Estonian Polar Club: Interview with Katrin Savomägi

By Alisa Musanovic

Alisa Musanovic 

Today I’m with Katrin Savomägi, who is the Managing Director of the Estonian Polar Club. Could you start off by telling us a bit about yourself and your career, particularly anything that sparked an interest in polar affairs?

Thank you for inviting me – I’m always ready and pleased to talk about polar subjects. About how it started: I’m a maritime and polar historian. I was working in the Estonian Maritime Museum where we did different types of exhibitions about oceans, and it was my turn to make an exhibition about seas around Antarctica. So, I started to collect the material. It was the Soviet times, so it was not possible for people to travel or see much. That’s why the museum tried to include as much as possible in the exhibitions. I also tried to find people who have worked there, such as researchers; we didn’t even know that so many Estonians have participated in Antarctic expeditions. Then, at the opening of the exhibition, polar researchers proposed and decided that we should form the Polar Club, and I was asked to be the Secretary of the Club. The aim of the Club was for it to join together people with a common interest in the Arctic and the Antarctic who have participated in polar research or related activities.

Some more background: at that time, to form an organisation, society, club or anything within a research institute was very difficult, but with the museum, it was a different story, a little bit easier. The museum already had other clubs, for example for underwater archeology, for old seamen, and the commission for maritime terminology. So, the Director of the Estonian Maritime Museum, Ants Pärna (a very active and brave young seaman), went to the Ministry of Culture to get permission, and we were allowed to organise a club by the Maritime Museum. The Estonian Polar Club was founded on 1 December 1984. The date was chosen because on that same day in 1959 the Antarctic Treaty was signed. The Club is still with the museum, and it’s good because history has shown that institutes may come and go – there are different priorities over time – but the museum is very stable. Through the years I have gotten more and more involved, and now I am an expert.

What kind of institution is the Polar Club then?  What kind of status does it have?

When we wrote our statute, it also had to be confirmed by the Director of the Estonian Maritime Museum and by the Ministry of Culture. Not everybody can participate in the work of it – it’s mainly for researchers who have worked in Antarctica or the Arctic. It’s also for other people who have done something that will further develop knowledge of the polar regions. If somebody wants to be a member, it’s not so easy – there must be two people from the club who recommend you. And you must show that you have done something already – it’s quite strict. Maybe we need to change the rules to be more open, because the polar regions are not the same as they were 40 years ago, but we still continue to work in the same system.

The members of the Polar Club are all really different. For example, the President of the Club (a climatologist who has participated in an Antarctic expedition) is Andres Tarand, the former Prime Minister of Estonia, and a former member of European Parliament. It means that we are also very closely connected with different authorities and it’s an honourable place to be. He was actually a polar researcher before he became a politician. His membership has helped the Club a lot. 

Most of the members of the club have a background in research and have taken part in many expeditions. The members are from different fields: climatology, physics, geography, geology, history, limnology, meteorology, ethnology, medicine, journalism and law. We also have polar architects, who have worked in different polar regions and have won some polar competitions, as well as writers and filmmakers. We also have some members abroad. So, we don’t only have researchers, but also people who have done something to push polar matters further on. Both parts support each other. For example, one of the members, Tiit Pruuli, is a businessman and publisher who has his own travel bureau –  GoTravel – and together with him, we have already organised two very interesting expeditions with the motor yacht “Admiral Bellingshausen”. One was to Antarctica and another to the Arctic. On the way, we stopped in different countries and held seminars, where we talked about various polar questions in Estonia and in the specific country. So, we try to be very international, because polar questions are also very international.

How do you engage with members of the public are there any kinds of special activities that you have that people can come to?

The Club is a centre for all polar information in Estonia, like a contact point. It is one of our tasks to assist the Maritime Museum in collecting polar materials related to Estonia. The Maritime Museum has quite remarkable polar collections, including historical documents, photos and items. It was decided between the other museums in Estonia that the Maritime Museum is the one responsible for polar affairs. In cooperation with the Museum, the Club has done several exhibitions and so the public can see interesting polar items. 

The other objective of the Club is introducing and popularising polar issues. We organise different kinds of events, such as open polar forums once a month during the autumn and winter period. They are open to the public; everybody can come and it doesn’t cost anything. The subjects are also very different. Sometimes we have guests, because we ask a lot of researchers from other countries to give a lecture when they come to visit us. Sometimes we have events and programmes connected with exhibitions. 

Also, our Club is in contact with polar clubs in other countries. It’s like a network; people simply know each other. If you have been in Antarctica, these connections are very tight. When there are some special questions about polar matters from other countries, different embassies or various organisations, they often send the questions to us because we know to whom to forward them or how to find the answer. We’re helping ministries when they need some kind of input for important documents. Our experts are very happy to work with any kind of polar documents, to make sure that the wording is exact, that the different questions are formulated properly and so on.

So, you engage with the public as well as acting as an information hub for higher level ministerial work.

Yes. Let’s say in other countries, it’s different. When you are bigger and richer, you have lots of institutes and other organisations dealing with polar questions, but we are small, and the Polar Club – even if the word club doesn’t sound as good – is actually the organisation that joins the people.

Could you tell us more about the Polar Forum that you helped host last year in the lead up to the discussion surrounding Estonia’s application to the Arctic Council?

Yes. Members of our club participated in different events which were organised after Estonia submitted an application for Observer status at the Arctic Council. We organised two ourselves – one in Estonia and another in Sweden. In Estonia, it was on 16 February 2021 in our Maritime Museum, at the Seaplane harbour, and was hosted jointly with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was very happy for such an opportunity and I am sure it was mutually useful. In terms of how we chose the topics; we tried to choose very different subjects simply to show that there is a big variety in what Estonia can offer, that there are people who work with climate, ethnology, geography as well as anthropological movies. There are also maritime experts who work with ships that navigate in the ice; they work together with other countries to make this navigation better. We wanted to show the potential of different universities, and the willingness and commitment of the researchers who are eager to participate in all six Working Groups of the Arctic Council.

What was the event in Sweden? 

On 5 May 2021, there was an Estonian-Swedish Virtual Seminar in Stockholm, entitled ‘Challenges in exploring the Arctic: historical maritime exploration and current realities’. We did this together with the Maritime Museum and Estonian Embassy in Stockholm. The seminar was also under the label ‘Estonia: towards observer status in the Arctic Council’. Furthermore, we were celebrating a century of diplomatic relations between Estonia and Sweden. It was intended to look at historical events and current developments in the Arctic region, climate change and security together by asking how past developments have influenced the present. There were interesting presentations. Dr Katarina Gårdfeldt, Director General of the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat introduced current polar research programmes in Sweden.

What kinds of priorities for Estonian Arctic engagement were presented at the Polar Forum?

Nowadays, everybody is most interested in climate change. It’s really interesting to compare how people are talking about it now and how it was some years ago. And it’s so important. We would like to be more involved with others because the more and more we put the information together, the more useful it will be for everybody. We are very interested in, and we think that we can also offer our knowledge and experiences. 

Another thing is that a lot of our ethnologists have worked in Russia with the small nations there. Researchers have also worked on Indigenous topics in Canada and the United States, but we can’t compare, it’s mainly in the Russian Arctic that they have worked on ethnology. As a small country, IT topics are very important for us and we have been quite successful in organising different kinds of everyday administrative questions. Of course, it may be easier when you are smaller, but the results are good. So, we can also offer all these IT solutions to the Arctic. We also have very active underwater robotic researchers who use robotic solutions to investigate icebergs better, especially on Svalbard.

Can you tell us more about Estonian history in the Arctic, as well as any present connections that Estonia has?

It is quite a wide subject. Many books have been written about Arctic researchers from Estonia in the nineteenth century (notable researchers include Adam Johann von Krusenstern, Otto Kotzebue, Ferdinand Wrangel, Alexander Schrenk, Karl Ernst Baer, Alexander Theodor Middendorf, Constantin Grewingk, Ernest Hoffmann, Friedrich Schmidt, Alexander Bunge and Eduard Toll). Very often, our people have worked and participated in expeditions, but in the big books, there are simply results; it’s not known that they were actually from Estonia. A lot of Baltic Germans (the Germans who lived in Estonia) have made discoveries, mainly Russian discoveries because they worked there. Our seamen sailed in world-famous polar expeditions, but usually only the name of the ship is known, not the captain who did the work with this ship. For example, the captain who saved the expedition of Umberto Nobile was Estonian Karl Jõgi. The ship, Krassin, was Russian, but actually the captain’s maritime skills helped to achieve the salvage. 

I just curated an exhibition about Svalbard, “Memories of the Estonian research in Svalbard”, and conducted an overview of how many Estonian researchers have worked there on different expeditions. It was part of the programme connected with the application to the Arctic Council. Researchers, especially those who belonged to the Estonian Polar Club, started participating in Svalbard expeditions in the 1970s, and the work has continued to this day. Scientists from the isotope geology laboratory of the Institute of Geology were the first to go to Svalbard, followed by biologists from the Tallinn Botanical Garden. Since then, this region has been one of the most popular for research work in the Arctic.

How would you say Estonia’s approach towards the Arctic has changed over the last decade?

Our approach is more determined. Maybe earlier we thought it wouldn’t be so easy for us to join the Arctic Council as Observer, but now we are sure that we want it and can do it. During the last 10 years, we feel that we are stronger and can give our input. There is also such a feeling that the Arctic is closer, more important and everything that happens there influences us more – we are more connected. Ensuring the sustainable development of the Arctic is also in our interest. 

Finally, looking to the future, what do you see as the greatest challenges to the Arctic?

At the moment, it seems the greatest challenge is policy. Two months ago, I would have said climate change, but now it’s peace in the Arctic. The future is for young people. We have thought about how to improve society’s general view of the importance of the developments in polar regions from the climate change perspective in particular. We should start with children, and the club members are frequent speakers at schools. 

Regarding our own future engagement with the Arctic, the Estonian Polar Club just organised an expedition for students to the Arctic. The polar station that will receive us is in Finland, Kilpisjärvi, but we will do cross-border work with Norwegians and Swedes. These young people were the best of the best among our schoolchildren, because they won a polar quiz. And this is the prize – five winners can take part in a real polar expedition with real scientists and meet polar researchers in three Nordic countries. This was planned to help the students choose a subject, to decide what they want to study and specialise in. We will go now in April. So, we are actively trying to educate and support the young people who are interested in polar affairs. 

(This interview took place on Wednesday, 2 March 2022)

Alisa Musanovic is a Global Leadership Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. She is a graduate of a History BA at the University of Oxford and a recent graduate of an International Double Master’s Degree jointly studied at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL and University of Helsinki. 
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