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Russian Researcher Charged With Attempted Murder In Antarctica

Earlier this month a researcher stabbed another individual at Bellinghausen Station after suffering an “emotional breakdown”

Part of Bellinghausen Station (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

A researcher at Russia’s Bellinghausen Station on King George Island in Antarctica attacked a colleague earlier this month and has now been charged with attempted murder, according to The Guardian.

The attacker was Sergey Savitsky and the victim is only identified as B. According to the Russian new agency Interfax, Savitsky stabbed B once in the station's dining room after what may have been an emotional breakdown. The two had been working together at the station for the last six months. Savitsky turned himself into the Bellinghausen Station chief and will remain under house arrest until December 8. He now faces attempted murder charges in Russia. According to the Associated Press, the injured researcher was relocated to Chile for treatment.

Antarctica is the type of place that requires cooperation. While the population of international researchers that spend part of the year in Antarctica is small, the close quarters means there’s a lot of potential for interpersonal conflict. Bryan Rousseau at The New York Times reports that in a land without police, courts or prisons nations have come up with a unique system to deal with problems at the several dozen active research stations on the continent.

For the most part, researchers are subject to the jurisdiction of their home nation. In many places, including the U.S. McMurdo station, which is home to about 1,100 people in the summer months, the station chief is also a special United States marshal, with authority to arrest.

Property crimes at the bases are usually rare since there’s not much to steal at most bases. But Rousseau reports that drinking in Antarctica can be heavy, leading to verbal altercations and physical fights. In many cases, the assailant is simply sent home.

But there have been some major incidents on the frigid continent. The most notorious recent case—up until the latest Russian incident—occurred at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. In May of 2000, Australian astrophysicist Rodney Marks complained of breathing problems and was examined by the base doctor. The 32-year-old began to improve, but then his heart suddenly stopped and he passed away.

A later autopsy in New Zealand revealed that Marks was poisoned by a fatal dose of methanol. Whether he drank it intentionally, accidentally or was purposely poisoned was never determined, and later reports found that authorities should have done more to investigate the case.

In 1996, F.B.I. agents visited McMurdo Station for what is believed to be the first time after two cooks in the galley got into a fight and one attacked the other with the claw-end of a hammer. A third cook was also injured in the fight. The victims received stitches and the assailant was arrested. That same year, 15 people rebelled at Australia’s Casey Station, and a mediator was sent in to cool things down until the relief ship arrived.

In 1983, a Chilean doctor decided to burn down his research station rather than face a winter on the ice. John Bennett at Canadian Geographic recounted an unconfirmed story that after losing a chess match, a researcher killed his opponent with an ax in 1959 at Russia’s Vostok Station. Chess was supposedly banned at Russian Antarctic facilities after that.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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