This paper discusses the motives underlying two approaches to the development of the Russian Arctic in the late nineteenth century. The first, the brainchild of the British merchant seaman Joseph Wiggins (1832–1905), derived principally from private commercial instincts. The second, the work of Sergei Witte (1849–1915), Russia's Minister of Finance, and the innovative Russian Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov (1848–1904), had much less to do with trade and much more to do with projecting Russian national ambitions. The first required no great technological insight, but the second required the construction of the greatest of nineteenth century icebreakers. Although both approaches, the commercial and the political, the ‘low tech’ and the ‘high tech’, failed in the short term, both made a mark on subsequent developments. The paper concludes that although, at the time of their conception, political and diplomatic considerations made it unlikely that commercial and political approaches to the development of the Russian Arctic could be harmonised, the time for dovetailing them may be getting nearer.