An Attempted Murder at a Research Station Shows How Crimes Are Prosecuted in Antarctica

At a Russian research base in Antarctica, a man repeatedly stabbed another, almost killing him. When a crime occurs at the bottom of the world, who's responsible?

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Oct 25 2018, 7:38pm

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Update, October 26: Motherboard has learned that Sergei Savitsky was detained at an Orthodox church in Antarctica because the continent has no jails or police.

On October 9, in an isolated Russian Antarctic research station at the bottom of the world, Sergei Savitsky snapped, according to several news reports.

Oleg Beloguzov, a 52 year-old welder, had been fighting with Savitsky, a 54 year-old electrical engineer, for months. But this time was different: Beloguzov allegedly teased Savitsky by suggesting that he should dance on top of the dining room table for money. Savitsky, who was dangerously intoxicated, lunged at Beloguzov with a knife and stabbed him in the chest several times.

Beloguzov was rushed from Bellingshausen Station—situated on the remote Waterloo Island, south of Chile—to a military hospital in Chile, per the Associated Press, where doctors managed to save his life. As of October 29, he was expected to make a full recovery and return back to Russia, according to Russian outlet 47news. Savitsky, meanwhile, surrendered to the station chief, according to the AP. However, he was not able to fly back to Saint Petersburg until October 20 (which he reportedly did voluntarily, unaccompanied by authorities), as flights to and from Antarctica aren’t exactly on a daily schedule, according to Russian news outlet AIF.

Upon returning to Russia, Beloguzov admitted to the stabbing and was placed under house arrest until December 8, per Russian news outlet Interfax, when he will go on trial for attempted murder.

Savitksy maintains that he didn’t intend to kill Beloguzov, according to Russian news outlet Nevnov. Savitsky and Beloguzov have reportedly both been to Antarctica before and were stationed together in 2014 to 2015 during the Antarctic summer. Evidently, the animosity between the two had never escalated to extreme violence until this year.

It might seem strange that Savitksy remained in Antarctica for more than a week after an attempted murder. To be fair, he had nowhere to run—due to Antarctica’s isolation, if you commit a crime there, you’re basically imprisoned in the same place that you committed it.

Antarctic research stations have a reputation for hosting quirky, jubilant characters and fostering a vibrant social experience. McMurdo, an American-run research base in Antarctica, has been highlighted in works such as Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, and also covered by Motherboard. But it’s not difficult to imagine that vulnerable minds trapped at the bottom of the world can be driven to dangerous extremes.

This raises the question, how do people deal with crimes on the frozen continent?

There’s a long, little-known history of crimes committed in Antarctica. Back in 1996 at McMurdo station, one cook attacked another with the claw end of a hammer, injuring the intended victim and another cook who tried to break up the fight. Both received stitches and fully recovered. However, the FBI was flown in for the first time in the station’s history.

In the 1950s, according to the AP, a staffer at Australia’s Mawson base was locked in a storage room for multiple months. The person had become so violent that he could only approached by the base doctor.

More recently, in July 2009 (the middle of Antarctic winter) a drunk station staff member got into a fist fight with the chief cook, according to a description of a YouTube video allegedly depicting the event. This apparently happened at King Sejong Station, an Antarctic research station on King George Island operated by South Korea.

After a crime is committed in Antarctica, scientists don’t suddenly become police officers. Per the Antarctic Treaty of 1959—which the US, the then-Soviet Union, and 51 other nations signed—a person who commits a crime in Antarctica is subject to the law enforcement policies of their home country. Usually, a law enforcement officer is stationed in Antarctica in order to make sure this happens. According to a report by The New York Times, the station manager at McMurdo is also a special deputy US Marshal.

It’s unclear if the Bellingshausen research station chief is similarly a representative of Russian law enforcement. The Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, which operates the Bellingshausen research station, did not return Motherboard’s request for comment. We will update the article if we hear back.

Bellingshausen station.
Bellingshausen station, Wikimedia Commons.

It’s important to consider the mental circumstances that contributed to Savitsky’s crime. Savitsky had been stationed at Bellingshausen for six months through the Antarctic winter—which means that from June through August, the sun is down for more than 24 hours at a time. There were only fourteen people on the whole mission.

Imagine being stuck at the bottom of the world to work in near-complete darkness for half the year; it’s not hard to see how people are pushed to their mental limits, and how this could lead to violence when alcohol is involved. According to 360tv, there is a psychologist at Bellingshausen station, but it’s unclear how workers are assessed prior to being stationed in Antarctica, or how frequently they’re assessed while stationed there.

Astronomists typically work in the dark, and are consequently pretty well-equipped to cope with Antarctic winter. But how do other people get by? Internet speeds at Antarctic stations such as McMurdo, which is operated by the US, are notoriously slow, and any personal use is severely restricted. Some people have made do with multiplayer video game LAN parties. Others have a different poison of choice. According to Russian news outlet AIF, vodka is delivered to Bellingshausen station “legally and in decent quantities.”

It’s unclear if there are going to be any changes at Bellingshausen station—such as increased psychological testing and monitoring—in response to the stabbing. Right now, it’s up to the Russian court system to deal with the case of Savitsky and Beloguzov and determine a punishment.

But as the incident proves, when a crime occurs in Antarctica, there are icy barriers that delay the delivery of justice.