It is winter in Moscow, three months after Chilingarov planted a Russian flag on the seafloor at the North Pole, an apparent landgrab that created a diplomatic row and a flurry of global headlines. Now he is campaigning for an election in which his party—Putin's party—will soon trounce its closest rival by a six-to-one margin. He is a busy man, and he skips the niceties when I sit down. "It took us seven days and seven nights to reach the North Pole," he says. "The ice was heavy. It was not a simple task." Near the Pole, Chilingarov's ships found an opening in the ice, and in went two submersibles, Mir I and Mir II. Chilingarov was in the first one. His goal, the true North Pole, was 14,000 feet below.
"It was dark, very dark," he says of the descent. "Of course it was risky. Of course we were scared." He and fellow parliamentarian Vladimir Gruzdev, a businessman who had paid half a million dollars for his berth, peered out the portholes. Mir II, which had one more paying adventurer, a Swedish businessman, and an Australian tour operator, Mike McDowell, followed. The descent was to take nearly three hours, the return to the surface that long again. Meanwhile, the ice pack would be drifting. If they could not find the opening, they would be stuck. "The depressing thing," Chilingarov tells me, "was knowing no one could come rescue us." Just after midday Mir I touched down on the flat, fine clay of the seabed. The sub scraped up samples of ocean floor, then moved to the Pole itself, where its robotic arm firmly planted a titanium Russian flag in the muck.
"Why did we place it? Well, anytime a country wins something, it installs its flag," he says. Many countries' flags are planted on the surface ice at the North Pole, he points out. At the South Pole there are flags. On top of Mount Everest there are flags. "The Americans even put one on the moon," Chilingarov says. He pulls out a photo of the titanium flag and robotic arm, dramatically signs it with a black marker, and hands it to me. "This is one of the world's greatest geographical achievements," he proclaims. "I'm proud the Russian flag is there." Then he stabs at the photo with his finger, pointing out empty space on the seabed. "Look here, and here, and here, and here," he says. "There is plenty of room for other nations' flags."
Chilingarov mentions that the expedition, widely believed to be an official act of the Kremlin, was privately funded; Putin, far from ordering him to the Pole, had initially cautioned that the dive was too dangerous. A patriot and a politician, well aware his feat made him a national hero, Chilingarov glosses over other little-known details: that the idea originated not with him but with three foreigners—McDowell and two Americans—in 1997, that he joined the team less than a year before the 2007 dive, that McDowell's company had previously been offering a Mir dive to the "real North Pole" to anyone with a spare $95,000, and that the seabed samples they gathered were redundant, of questionable utility to science.