Gennady Olonkin (1898-1960)
The radio operator Gennady Olonkin is a good example of the close connection between Norway and Russia. Of the sources we have found about his life and work, none are written or documented by himself, but there are interviews with him and characterizations of him in written works by others. It seems that Gennady was not one of those polar explorers with a great need for exposure.
Barely 21 years old, he signed on to Roald Amundsen’s «Maud» in 1918, from the Russian meteorological station at Khabarova in the Kara Sea. In the beginning, Gennady worked as an engineer until «Maud» was equipped with a radio connection. He was part of the expedition for seven years. Roald himself wrote about the sign-on in the book Nordostpassagen [The North East Passage]: «As Olonkin said goodbye, he said quite in passing, that if I needed him, he would like to join me.» (Amundsen, p. 58, our translation). Strictly speaking, Roald preferred his crew to be over the age of 30 for such an expedition, but Gennady had already convinced him that he was good enough.
Although Roald did not know Russian, he had no problems communicating with Gennady, who was half Norwegian. Olonkin was the son of the Pomor skipper Nikita V. Olonkin and the Norwegian born Eli (b. Haanshus). His parents lived in the area around Arkhangelsk and had eleven daughters and one son, Gennady.
According to the sources, Gennady found himself at ease with the other nine members of the crew on board «Maud», although it probably required a whole lot from all of them to live so close together day in and day out, year in and year out. In an interview from 1956, Gennady describes the expedition as much work and very little adventure. But they also had their small pleasures, like a gramophone: «Every Saturday night there was an hour of music. That was enough.» (Wale, our translation) You cannot have too much of a good thing on such a trip! Roald describes Gennady as their «chief conductor» (Amundsen, p. 107, our translation) in an enjoyable passage about the routines on board «Maud».
After the expedition with «Maud», Olonkin took part in flying the airship Norge to Ny-Ålesund. However, for political reasons, probably related to his nationality as a Russian, he was not allowed to take part in the aerial expedition attempting to cross the Arctic Ocean. The official explanation was that he had an earache. Instead, he got a temporary job as a radio operator at the Meteorological Institute for Northern Norway in Tromsø, and in the same year, in 1926, he became a Norwegian citizen. Later, he worked as a station manager at Jan Mayen for several periods, and, finally, in 1938 he was back at the Meteorological Institute in Tromsø as a radio operator. He worked there until his death in 1960.
Gennady is remembered as a skilled, versatile, straightforward and a bit of a quiet type. Or, to quote Bjørn Western, a colleague of Gennady (from his time at the Jan Mayen meteorological station): «I would especially like to mention Olonkin’s good character. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.»
- «Gennadij Olonkin» from www.polarhistorie.no www.polarhistorie.no
- Amundsen, Roald. Nordostpassagen. Gyldendal, 1921. www.nb.no
- Vervarslinga for Nord-Norge 25 år: festskrift utgitt i anledning av 25-års jubileet 1. februar 1945
- Wale, Thorbjørn. intervju med G.N. Olonkin, printed in several newspapers in 1956, in the Norwegian Polar Institute Library.
- Western, Bjørn. «Minner fra arktiske stasjoner». In: Været: populærvitenskapelig tidsskrift, 6 (1982) nr.3, pages 100-103