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Aleksandr And Oleg's (Not So) Excellent Antarctic Adventure

A NASA photo shows the wing of a DC-8 as it flies past Antarctica's tallest peak, Mount Vinson, during research on polar warming in 2012.
A NASA photo shows the wing of a DC-8 as it flies past Antarctica's tallest peak, Mount Vinson, during research on polar warming in 2012.

MOSCOW -- They hoped for glory. But in the end, all they got was grief.

Over the New Year's holiday, Aleksandr Sidyakin and Oleg Savchenko*, two lawmakers from the ruling United Russia party traveled to Antarctica, where they hoped to scale Mt. Vinson -- the highest peak on the icy southern continent -- and plant the Russian flag.

But after going missing and briefly being presumed dead, the pair is now facing questions about how they financed their expedition and being reprimanded for traveling to Antarctica without permission -- and for doing so with an American tour group.

The pair's troubles began when Sidyakin’s press secretary tweeted on January 14 that they may have been caught in a storm and feared for their safety.

"Hello. This is Pavel, the press secretary of Aleksandr Gennadievich. He and deputy Savchenko haven’t been in contact from the Antarctic. I fear this is bad," read the tweet, sent on Sidyakin’s Twitter feed.

Realizing he may have raised the alarm prematurely, the press secretary followed up hours later with with a new tweet:

"P.S.: The fact that they have not been in contact does not mean that they’ve disappeared. Sidyakin and Savchenko are on the mountain and should soon appear. It’s too early for searches. We’re waiting."

The lawmakers were, indeed, soon located. And then their troubles began.

Duma lawmaker Aleksandr Sidyakin (file photo)
Duma lawmaker Aleksandr Sidyakin (file photo)

An unidentified official in the Federal Security Service told the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia that due to their positions in the State Duma, Sidyakin and Savchenko were privy to state secrets, which required them to inform the authorities about foreign trips -- which they did not do. Moreover, the daily reported, they traveled to Antarctica with an American tour group.

Moreover, according to a 2012 law that both Sidyakin and Savchenko voted for, all Russians must obtain official authorization to travel to Antarctica -- which neither of them did.

And then there was the sticky issue of how the two lawmakers managed to finance their adventure on their modest State Duma salaries. The mass circulation daily Moskovsky Komsomolets estimated the trip cost 7 million rubles.

Opposition leader and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, who famously dubbed United Russia the "Party of Crooks and Thieves," was predictably fast to point out the cost of the trip.

He tweeted that it cost approximately as much as Savchenko's entire declared annual salary, and a third of Sidyakin's.

On January 16, Izvestia reported that lawmakers were preparing legislation requiring State Duma deputies to provide detailed accounts of all foreign travel in the future.

But for all the grief they are enduring, Sidyakin and Savchenko can take heart in one thing: They did manage to raise the Russian flag on the peak of Mount Vinson.

* CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece inadvertently identified one of the deputies as Oleg Kravchenko. We regret the error.