Kantorovich's watercolours record the historic voyage of the Soviet icebreaking steamer Sibiriakov on its crossing of the fabled Northeast Passage in 1932. The expedition was organised by the All-Union Arctic Institute, following the establishment of the Chief Administration of the Northern Sea Route in the same year which sought to commence working transports from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans.
While putative attempts had been made to cross from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans along the Siberian coast in earlier times, and a precursor of the route known as the Mengazeya Seaway (from Arkhangelsk to the mouth of the Yenisey) had been established in the 17th Century, the building of steam-powered icebreakers by the Soviets facilitated more extensive exploration and mapping of the Arctic seas in the 1920s. The Soviet explorer Otto Schmidt (1891-1956) led expeditions on the Georgy Sedov in 1929 and 1930 to explore northwestern parts of the Kara Sea, the western coastline of Novaia Zemlia, and to establish a station on Franz Josef Land, which became the northernmost settled post in the world.
The 1932 Sibiriakov expedition was again led by Otto Schmidt, the director of the Arctic Institute. The ship 'Aleksandr Sibiriakov', an ex-Newfoundland sealer (neither of the two icebreakers being in commission at the time), was captained by Voronin. The expedition included the young artist Lev Kantorovich, scientists, writers and journalists.
The Sibiriakov sailed from Arkhangelsk and, after calling at the island of Domashnii to pick up a copy of Urvantsev and Ushakov's new map of Severnaia Zemlia, Voronin used the map to take a northern unexplored way around Severnaia Zemlia to the Laptev Sea. In September the propellers were smashed by heavy ice off Chukotka (Kantorovich's watercolours include a scene showing the propeller shaft carried by two sailors) and the steamer drifted in the ice for 11 days before making way under jury-rigged sails into the Bering Strait on 1 October 1932. The voyage thereby made the first successful navigation of the northern sea route in one season, without overwintering, and 'many optimistic Soviet writers, polyarniks among them, considered the Sibiryakov's voyage to mark the opening of the Northern Sea Route as a regular sea lane.' (R. Vaughan, The Arctic, A History, Stroud, 1999, p. 207). Schmidt subsequently became director of the 'Administration of the Northern Sea Route', and supervised the airborne expedition to establish a drift ice research station 'North Pole - 1' in 1937.
Lev Vladimirovich Kantorovich was a pupil and friend of Lebedev. He joined the expedition aged 21, and published two albums illustrating the voyage on his return. His other work includes illustrated children's books and albums of propaganda relating to his military service. He was killed during the blockade of his native Leningrad on 30 June 1941.