Top of page

Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Exploration and Science

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

The medieval Russian trading network leading north to the White Sea and east to the Urals and Siberia established much of the wealth that propelled Russia's merchants towards the east from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The region's sturdy peasant culture, as well as the high, church-inspired culture of the wealthiest merchants, are both represented by surviving examples of architecture, particularly in Arkhangelsk province. These artifacts reflect the dynamism of an entrepreneurial spirit that would propel Russians toward the wealth of the Far East.

Early Expeditions

Geographic and scientific interests played a major role in the first phases of Russia's expansion throughout Siberia. Peter the Great (1672-1725) provided the key impetus for this concern, since basic knowledge about Russia's borderlands was essential to its political and economic future. Moreover, there was a need to know the specific extent and nature of the empire's realm in an age when other nations were expanding as well. In particular, the burgeoning international competition among European states spurred Russia to conduct multiple investigations of its eastern frontier.

While Russians served in vital positions on the initial scientific and diplomatic expeditions, Western and Central Europeans typically led the missions, reflecting Peter's famous attempts to tap European talent in his drive to westernize and modernize Russia. By the end of the seventeenth century, German and Dutch specialists began a lengthy period of Siberian exploration that resulted in a series of important books and maps describing the farthest reaches of the Russian Empire.

Northeastern Expeditions

In the 1730s and 1740s, Russian science began to develop and contribute to the exploration of Siberia, Kamchatka, and Alaska. This work involved both Russian-born scientists and the many German scientists who came to Russia to work in the service of the tsar. Stepan Petrovich Krasheninnikov, born of humble origins in Moscow, acquired a classical education and took part in the Great Northern Expedition (1733-43). A natural scientist, Krasheninnikov eventually left the expedition and traveled extensively throughout Siberia before returning in 1743 to St. Petersburg, where he was named professor of botany. Gerhard Friedrich Mueller (also known as Gerard Miller), a German who came to Russia in 1725 to join the newly founded Academy of Sciences, also participated in the Great Northern Expedition and subsequently became secretary of the Academy.

Georg Wilhelm Steller, another German in the service of the Russian Empire, worked with Krasheninnikov in Siberia and later joined Vitus Bering, the Danish seaman, on the Second Kamchatka Expedition to explore the coast of North America. German-born Johann Georg Gmelin studied science at Tuebingen before entering the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1727. He joined the Second Kamchatka Expedition, but never reached the Pacific. Instead, Gmelin traveled throughout western and southern Siberia, where he studied plants and animals, returning to St. Petersburg in 1743.

Georg Wilhelm Steller

Reise von Kamtschatka nach Amerika mit dem commander-kapitan Bering, by G. W. Steller, written in German, is an account of Steller's 1741 voyage with Bering to explore and chart the coastline of North America.

Georg Wilhelm Steller (originally spelled Stoller) was born in Windsheim, Franconia, on March 10, 1709. He graduated from Wittenberg and Halle universities with degrees in theology and later was certified in botany from the Royal Academy of Sciences in Berlin. In 1737 Steller was appointed an adjunct professor in natural history at the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and was accepted as a member of the Great Northern Expedition.

In January 1739, for the first time Steller met his countrymen and fellow Siberian explorers, Gerhard F. Muller and Johann G. Gmelin, in Eniseisk en route to Kamchatka. In March 1741, he arrived at the port of St. Peter and Paul on Avacha Bay, the point of embarkation for Bering's voyage to America. He was to serve as Bering's physician and was tasked with studying the minerals, flora, and fauna encountered on the expedition. From the start, however, the men did not get along well. Bering may have felt intimidated by Steller's intellect and education or disliked his lack of appreciation of the military chain of command. As a result, Bering and the other officers generally ignored Steller's scientifically sound advice and restricted his opportunities to go ashore. Nevertheless, he managed to record many new plants and animals, including the massive Steller's sea cow (up to twenty-four feet in length, the animal would be hunted to extinction by 1768) and the salmonberry, which he named Rubus americanus. He also described the sea otter, the fur seal, and the sea lion in a classic zoological treatise published posthumously.

Steller died of a sudden illness on November 12, 1746, in Tiumen en route to St. Petersburg. He was only thirty-seven years old. The final two years of his life brought the misfortunes of being recalled from Kamchatka by the Academy and twice being arrested on trumped-up accusations of treason for freeing some Kamchadal prisoners without authorization. Because of his constant movements, Steller managed to prepare relatively little for publication, despite amassing a large body of raw material. Following his premature death, other scientists, including Gmelin, Linnaeus, Krasheninnikov, Pallas, and Pennant, made heavy use of the information he had collected. Steller has been compared with Henry David Thoreau for his self reliance, affinity for nature, disdain for bureaucracy, love of solitude, and respect for native peoples.

Steller's journal, presented here, is the dramatic first-hand account of Bering's fateful expedition, during which roughly half the crew, including Bering himself, perished from hunger or disease. Half a century later, the journal was reworked by Peter Simon Pallas, a professor of natural history at the Academy of Sciences in Petersburg, and published in the collection of documents entitled Neue nordische Beytrage zur physikalischen und geographischen Erd- und Volkerbeschreibung, Naturgeschichte und Okonomie. The journal was translated into Russian and English.

Johann Georg Gmelin

Reise durch Sibirien, von dem Jahr 1733 bis 1743, 4 vols. Johann Georg Gmelin, Goettingen, 1751-52. LC Rare Book Collections.

Gmelin, a naturalist whose works are distinguished by their detailed descriptions of Siberia's flora and fauna, wrote these volumes in St. Petersburg in 1743-47, after having spent ten years in Siberia. He left Russia in 1747, returning to his native Germany where he was a professor at the University of Tuebingen until his death in 1755. Reise durch Sibirien is the German edition of his account of his Russian travels

Born in Tubingen, Germany, on August 8, 1709, Johann Georg Gmelin already had an international reputation as a naturalist when he came to Russia in 1727 at the recommendation of his mentor, Georg Bernhard Bilfinger. He accepted a lectureship at the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg in 1730 and in 1731 was promoted to professor of chemistry and natural sciences. In 1733, along with German historian Gerhard Friedrich Muller and French astronomer Louis de l'Isle de la Croyere, Gmelin was commissioned by the Academy to undertake an ambitious overland expedition to explore the far reaches of Siberia under the general command of Vitus Bering. Also joining the party was the young S. Krasheninnikov, who later would publish important descriptive accounts of the Far East, particularly Kamchatka.

This was the great mission of discovery envisioned years earlier by Peter the Great to supplement the sea voyages of Bering. It had more than the simple goal of reaching and exploring the little-known peninsula of Kamchatka and returning to St. Petersburg. Rather, its aim was to travel throughout Siberia and record virtually every scientific fact that could be observed. Indeed, Gmelin never reached Kamchatka. His itinerary took him to Tobo'lsk, Kuznetsk, Tomsk, Eniseisk, Krasnoiarsk, Irkutsk, Nerchinsk, the Angara, Ilimsk, Iakutsk, and the Lena, before he returned to St. Petersburg after an absence of some ten years. The expedition gathered a vast amount of scientific information, which Gmelin compiled in his four-volume Reise durch Sibirien, written after his return to Tubingen in 1747. This was was the most comprehensive botanical, zoological, geological, topographical, and ethnographic survey of Siberia published up to that time. Gmelin ignored the Academy of Sciences' prohibition against publishing anything about the expedition without special permission, apparently feeling that he could write whatever he pleased since he was back on German soil. His critical comments about the Chancellery's role in the Kamchatka expedition and his graphic descriptions of some of the seamy sides of Siberian life were shocking and embarrassing to the Russian government. Gmelin's other major opus was the four-volume Flora Sibirica (1747-69).

Gmelin returned to his alma mater, Tubingen University, in 1747, where he was a professor of botany and chemistry until his death at the age of forty-five on May 20, 1755.

The "Academic Expeditions"

Map of Tobol'sk Province (16 Districts), 1800. National Library of Russia. Many participants of the “Academic Expeditions” journeyed between the Ural Mountains and Lake Baikal in their intensive studies of Asiatic Russia.

Although Peter the Great (1672-1725) established a foundation for future scientific progress in Russia, it was Catherine the Great (1729-96) who brought forth a true expansion in scientific inquiry. Catherine's ideas about the Enlightenment led her to encourage the attainment of new knowledge and to fund scientific investigations accordingly. This was not the case during the reign of several other tsars, and thus Catherine's era stands out for its significant intellectual endeavors.

The "Academic Expeditions" in the years between 1768 and 1774, many of which included Siberia in their scope of research, were among the most important and well-funded efforts of the late eighteenth century. These missions were divided into three main groups: the "Astronomic Expedition," the "Orenburg Expedition," and the "Astrakhan Expedition." The first expedition was organized to observe the passing of Venus in front of the sun in 1769, and its success offered the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg a chance to prove the high quality of Russian science to a widespread European audience. Economic interests soon took precedence, however, and the aim of subsequent journeys was the discovery and exploitation of new Siberian resources. Each expedition was under the guidance of renowned scientists who prescribed its route and provided copious research instructions requiring participants to take extensive notes on local geography, mineralogy, botany, zoology, ethnography, agriculture, fur trading, and manufacturing.

Expeditions: 1770-1830

A voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Undertaken, by the command of His Majesty, for making discoveries in the Northern hemisphere, to determine the position and extent of the west side of North America; its distance from Asia; and the practicability of a northern passage to Europe. Performed under the direction of Captain Cook, Clerke, and Gore, in His Majesty's ships the Resolution and Discovery, in the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1780. After proving himself in surveying work for the British Royal Navy, James Cook was named commander of the ship Endeavor in 1768 and began the eminent phase of his career that was to bring him great fame and notoriety. This book is the account of Cook's third voyage, on the ship Resolution, which was completed by his crew following his murder by natives in Hawaii.

For much of the eighteenth century, Russia was the only European power active in the North Pacific. As a result, its Alaskan colony and monopoly control of the regional fur trade proceeded without any intervention from potential rivals. All of this began to change with the arrival of Captain James Cook, the illustrious British navigator, who on his third voyage (1776-80), explored parts of Alaska in 1778 in his famed quest for the elusive "Northwest Passage." In the wake of Cook's travels, trading ships from many nations sailed into North Pacific waters.

The traders' primary goal was economic, as merchants from other European states as well as the new American republic realized the substantial profit Russia was making in its Pacific fur trade with China. At the same time, however, Cook's voyages had reawakened the geographic interests of Europe and spawned another wave of exploration. His earlier scientific mission to Tahiti and the South Pacific (1768-71), followed by a second voyage around the unknown Antarctic Ocean for information about the mysterious "Southland" (1772-75), began this process even before his foray into the North Pacific. Wary of new rivals and eager to compete, Russia itself reacted with renewed interest in its lone colonial outpost and launched a wave of missions that culminated in the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe.

The Billings-Sarychev Expedition

Russia reacted to Captain Cook's third voyage (1776-80) almost immediately. Sensing a substantial economic and political threat, Catherine the Great (1729-96) commissioned a major expedition to the North Pacific under the command of Joseph Billings, an Englishman. Since Billings was a member of Cook's third voyage, the tsarina was eager to tap his knowledge as she sought to strengthen Russia's colonial claims in the region and forestall any rival European plans.

Accompanied by a second ship under the command of Gavriil Sarychev, Billings undertook a geographic and scientific investigation of eastern Siberia and the North Pacific from 1785 to 1793. As this was the first major Russian exploration of the area since Bering's voyages fifty years earlier, its importance to St. Petersburg was enormous. The mission included exploration of the Chukotka Peninsula and land east of Yakutsk, as well as several voyages to the Bering Strait, the Aleutian Islands, and Alaska. While achieving mixed results, the Billings-Sarychev Expedition signified an era of renewed vigor in Russia's colonial realm.

Private Travelers, Prisoners of War, and Tradesmen

Memoirs and travels of Mauritius Augustus, count de Benyowsky. LC Rare Book Collections. Maurice Benyowsky's tales mix fantasy and truth and borrow heavily from earlier accounts such as Krasheninnikov's. Published in 1790, his Memoirs and Travels sparked the interest of many European readers and turned their attention to far-off Kamchatka and the Pacific Ocean.

Although Russia's state-sponsored expeditions to Siberia and the North Pacific attained the highest profile, they were not the sole source of new information about the region. Personal journeys, undertaken for a variety of reasons by a wide spectrum of travelers, resulted in a number of written accounts. Although not as technical or sophisticated as government reports, such reflections prove among the most colorful and entertaining tales from the Siberian frontier.

Reflective of the history of Russia, these travel accounts incorporate the viewpoints of itinerant merchants, European scientists in service to the tsar, prisoners of war, and exiled political enemies. Although more sensational than most, the travelogue of Maurice Auguste Benyowsky typifies the genre of the vivid regional tale of adventure. Benyowsky was captured in 1769 while fighting for Poland in a war against Russia. He was exiled to Bolsheretsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula, where he staged a rebellion in April 1771, seized a ship, and sailed to Japan and Macau with a cargo of provisions and furs to finance a journey back to Europe.