Reflection: Ill-timed Russian charter brings international intrigue to Canada’s North

The stories we loved to tell: Nunatsiaq News editor Randi Beers looks back on Transglobal’s incredible journey

Members of the Transglobal Car Expedition team, from left Anton Ershov (Russia), Alexei Zeitsev (Ukraine), Brandon Langan, (Cambridge Bay, Nunavut), and Alexei Dubinin, (Russia), upon arrival in Resolute. (Photo courtesy of Transglobal Car Expedition)

By Randi Beers

This article is one in a series in which Nunatsiaq News journalists reflect on a story from 2022 that they loved to tell.

The story of the Transglobal Car Expedition might have been ripped from the pages of a John le Carré novel.

It certainly was one of the strangest stories to unfold in Nunavut this year.

A Ford F-150 truck was part of the Transglobal Car Expedition and went through thin ice near the Tasmania Islands, in Franklin Strait on March 23, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Transglobal Car Expedition)

The saga centres around a Russian oil magnate with a dream so audacious it could only have sprung from the mind of a billionaire.

Vasily Shakhnovsky, once one of the richest men in the world, is in the middle of an attempt to circumnavigate the Earth — vertically — on wheels.

To do it, he has a team of scientists, mechanics, professional drivers and a wild fleet of vehicles retrofitted to traverse sea ice.

Shakhnovsky had planned a Yellowknife-to-Resolute-Bay trial run of his journey in March, just weeks after his home country launched an invasion of Ukraine.

Canada had just closed its airspace to Russian aircraft when Shakhnovsky’s chartered plane landed March 2 in Yellowknife. It was immediately grounded and with that, Shakhnovsky, his crew and the entire Transglobal expedition were swept up in international headlines.

Northwest Territories’ Transportation Minister Diane Archie let the cat out of the bag that day in the legislative assembly.

“When I got the call, I was like, ‘Oh my,’” she said.

Shakhnovsky is an interesting guy. His history is intimately tied to Vladimir Putin’s Soviet-esque legacy of punishing dissidents.

Shakhnovsky is a former shareholder of Yukos Oil, an oil company birthed in 1993 from the transfer of Soviet-owned oil and gas reserves to the private sector.

He ended up in Putin’s crosshairs in 2003, though, in what was widely regarded at the time as a politically motivated investigation into Yukos.

Shakhnovsky was arrested and fined for tax evasion. Yukos Oil was seized and dismantled. Putin was criticized by the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands for his actions. Shakhnovsky left Russia.

Now Shakhnovsky describes himself as a “retiree and traveller.”

I’m not going to lie, I nerded out a bit. It’s not every day that I, a Russian language minor in university, get to poke around Russian-language social media accounts and research the lives of oligarchs as part of my job.

It’s also not every day that I get to interview someone who has driven across sea ice to Cambridge Bay and beyond.

The Transglobal story continued in March when Transport Canada handed down $24,000 in fines stemming from the alleged airspace violation.

Meanwhile, the expedition team made its way up the ice road toward the diamond mines along the N.W.T. border with Nunavut, up across sea ice to Cambridge Bay, then on to Resolute Bay.

There was a casualty: Along the way, the team lost a Ford F-150 pick-up truck through sea ice.

A 12-member team from the Transglobal Car Expedition returned to the remote Arctic in August to recover a Ford pick-up truck they lost through thin ice in March 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Transglobal Car Expedition)

In a plan almost as audacious as the circumnavigation itself, the team vowed to recover the truck from the sea floor using scuba divers and industrial-sized floaties. And that’s exactly what it did in July.

Transglobal bills its goal to circumnavigate the Earth as an adventure, but one with an extremely lofty cause. The team’s mission statement on the Transglobal website describes its purpose as humanitarian.

“We believe that we can embrace the Earth by meridian by meridian and unite people all over the world in one common journey,” it states.

Are they going to unite the world with their endeavour? Probably not.

And one could take a cynical view of the project as a team led by a very rich man playing with very fancy cars. No doubt, this is somewhat true.

But to give the team some credit, it is giving back to northern communities by sharing sea-ice data on the Indigenous ice database siku.org.

It’s just one more reason the Transglobal story is so interesting. Sure, the adventure is wild and somewhat whimsical, but it stirs up questions as well.

What responsibility does Transglobal have to give back to the communities it encounters? What does environmental stewardship look like on a trip like this? What are the implications of a Russian-led team billing itself as humanitarian against the backdrop of war?

And like all good tales, these questions don’t have easy answers.

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(4) Comments:

  1. Posted by Jim on

    How can anyone allow this criminal to enter their territory? This nan is a puppet of Putin. He should have been not allowed to enter Nunivat until the people of Russia withdraw from Ukrainian territory and pay for the atrocities they have committed! Remember you share a border with this madman if he wins in Ukraine how long will it be till he comes for you! You should be ashamed!

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    • Posted by Way on

      Nunavut is already heading for problems, Russia could be a powerful alliance of change We all don’t know of.
      I would like to travel Russia anyway.
      The PHSIF’U

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    • Posted by Andrew Comrie-Picard on

      Hello – I’m afraid Jim you’ve got the wrong kind of guy. This man hasn’t been in Russia in 19 years and left as an opponent to Putin. His former boss at Yukos wrote an interesting piece in the Economist last year that’s worth checking out. Not all Russians are the same. As ever, it’s always more complicated.

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  2. Posted by TGC on

    What people do not get is that there is the conflict in the region And there is the Public Relations PR conflict where facts/truths are bent, dismissed, fabricated for an agenda which is to keep the very profitable (and for other reasons) war running full steam ahead. There is a 1 in 4 chance of the Ukraine operation becoming a nuclear war, you won’t hear that reported on CBC. And not knowing/not informing is as much a part of the news business as is knowing/informing us, the public. I refer you to George Galloway, a former MP in Britain and leader of a recently formed political party over there. A man who stands by his word, a person of integrity that is not often found in politics today.

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