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FrankD

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Russian Arctic Exploration
« on: February 24, 2013, 01:03:26 PM »
Lately I've been reading Bruce Lincoln's "The Conquest of a Continent", a very interesting book on the exploration and exploitation of Siberia since the 16th century. Most of it concerns the opening of the steppe-and-taiga land far to the south, but his discussion of expeditions to the high Arctic might be of interest. People not well acquainted with SIberian geography may find the this map useful.

Russian exploration of Siberia started in 1582 when Ermak Timeefovich, a cossack mercenary led an expedition funded by the legendarily wealthy Strogonov family over the passes of the Urals. For the the next 70 years, Russian adventurers pushed ever eastwards in search of more and more riches - furs, the best of which were literally worth their weight in gold and ivory from both walrus and mammoth. Most of the voyaging was done overland, mostly along the boundary zone where the great taiga forests dwindle into the tundra of the far north. But the history of Arctic navigation is also long, and interesting. It really begins in in 1601, when the first (unnamed) voyagers sailed from Arkhangelsk eastwards, hoping to reach the rich sable fur territories of the lower Ob. They sailed up the Gulf of Ob and then up its tributary, the Taz and founded the town of Mangazeia (north of modern Novyy Urengoy). For about 10 years traders sailed this route, taking about 4-6 weeks to complete the journey in one direction. Dutch and English traders were also keen to exploit this route, and the Tsar (rightly) feared the English were planning to establish their own colony / trading posts, and the Imperial government passed laws to close this route, with Mangazeia being closed to outsiders - by 1619 it was little more than a ghost town.

Following the decline of Mangazeia, intermittant attempts to sail the Arctic continued, but most failed, as the Taimyr Peninsula, bulging north towards Servaya Zemlya, proved an insuperable obstacle, barring entry by sea into the Laptev. However, two important expeditions in the mid 17th Century found more success by starting further east - those of Stadukhin and of Dezhnyev. The voyages were largely motivated by finding easier routes to the most productive territories for furs; at this time, an overland journey from remotest Siberia to Moscow could take four years. Mikhail Stadukhin's expedition started in 1642 with an overland trek to the upper reaches of the Indigirka River, between the Lena and the Kolyma. Once there, his men felled local trees and shrubs to make boats, and sailed down the River to the so-called "Freezing Sea". Once there they followed the coast eastwards some 500 km until the reached the Kolyma River. They sailed up river some 100 km, and established a base from which to engage in fur trapping, which they named Nizhnekolymsk. The whole expedition took four years of great hardship, but in 1646, Stadukhin left his men trapping in Nizhnekolymsk and travelled back overland to Yakutsk, the nearest established town, where he filed a report to Moscow (which did not arrive until around 1650). He also brought back tales of the imaginary "Pogycha River", a sort of Siberian El Dorado overrun with sable packs and littered with mounds of mammoth ivory, supposedly only three days sailing east of the Kolyma.

FrankD

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Re: Russian Arctic Exploration
« Reply #1 on: February 24, 2013, 01:07:11 PM »
Stadukhin's report prompted hundreds of adventurers to apply for support (or at least permission) to travel in search of the Pogycha - of those who went in search of it, most died. But in 1647, one man who had travelled with Stadukhin gathered together what would be an extraordinary expedition. Semyen Dezhnyev, a semi-literate low grade official cut from pretty rough cloth formed a party and at Nizhnekolymsk where he built the boats that would take him into the high Arctic. These were unseasoned wood held together by woven willow twigs and propelled by oars and deerskin sails. The journey and construction consumed the summer and by the time he was ready to set out, he found the lower Kolyma already choked with ice, and returned to winter quarters at Nizhnekolymsk.

The following year, he set out in spring with 90 men in 7 boats. Two were wrecked at the mouth of the Kolyma, but the rest entered the "Freezing Sea". In early September, after sailing some 1700 kms and having lost two more boats he rounded the Chukotka Peninsula into what is now called the Bering Strait and passed what he named East Cape (now Cape Dezhnyev), becoming the first man to enter the Pacific from the north. Almost immediately they were hammered by a storm that sank one of the remaining boats. Two weeks later another storm sank the sixth boat, and drove Dezhnyev and 23 others onto the southern shore of the Chukotka Peninsula. There was no chance of surviving a winter in this barren landscape, so Dezhnyev immediately set out westwards.  After 10 weeks of trudging overland along the shore, he reached the mouth of the Anadyr River in late November. There he split his party in two equal groups to gather resources for the winter - most of one party disappeared without a trace, but Dezhnyev and 11 others survived the winter on the Anadyr.

Dezhnyev's tiny group spent the winter and spring collecting walrus and mammoth ivory, trapping some animals and demanding tribute of more furs from the indigenous people of the area (a surprisingly effective approach). In summer, he marched up the Anadyr and established a new winter base on the headwaters of that river. He continued trapping through the next year until in the summer 1650, a group of men stumbled onto their camp. This group was trying to find an overland route from Nizhnekolymsk to the Pacific and was led by none other than Stadukhin himself. Stadukhin had tried to follow Dezhnyev's party down the Kolyma, but had also run foul of heavy ice at the mouth, and attempted the overland route instead.

Now, Stadukhin was a court-appointed official while Dezhnyev was a low-grade local of little consequence, so Stadukhin immediately took control of both groups. However his high-handed manner caused resentment amongst Dezhnyev's party, and they broke away to go exploring south of the Anadyr River. Many of Stadukhins officers joined in a virtual mutiny and left to join Dezhnyev. They gathered ivory south of the Anadyr for a decade, but Stadukhin, having found his land route to the Pacific, returned to base once more to file his report to Moscow. Finally, in the late 1650's Dezhnyev "came in from the cold" and returned to Yakutsk where one of the officers that had left Stadukhin to join him took down a full account of his extraordinary decade of travelling. However since Dezhnyev was without status, the Governor of Yakutsk deemed the report to be of no interest and filed it away in the store of paperwork the town administration was accumulating - "archives" is too kind a term - and it was duly forgotten.

Eighty years later, the Russian government, much changed from the mid'-17th century, undertook to explore Siberia more thoroughly and methodically. At the forefront of that process was the German ethnographer Gerhard-Friedrich Müller. He was working on an authoratative geographic and ethnographic survey of Siberia, and gained access to the Yakutsk "archives" where he found Dezhnyev's forgotten account. Müller was conviced of its authenticity, but most Russian scholars found it impossible to believe. Only in the last hundred years or so has enough corroborating evidence come to light to accept this extraordinary tale as true.

The reason Russian scholars found it unbelievable was the that Dezhnyev had succeeded in an area where more advanced and well-prepared parties had struggled at the limit of human endurance. These parties collectively formed the Great Northern Expedition, whose fortunes I'll relate in another post shortly.

Artful Dodger

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Re: Russian Arctic Exploration
« Reply #2 on: March 01, 2013, 11:35:34 AM »
Thanks, Frank

Google makes a book preview available, with much of the content of the book online:

http://books.google.ca/books?id=a7JrTvgU4yMC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
« Last Edit: March 01, 2013, 11:42:22 AM by Artful Dodger »
Cheers!
Lodger

FrankD

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Re: Russian Arctic Exploration
« Reply #3 on: March 03, 2013, 12:16:01 PM »
Cheers Lodger,

Lincoln was my main "inspiration", for want of a better word. It's a pretty good book all round, seems quite balanced and informative.

However, his accounts of expeditions are a little inconsistent in places, and a bit inaccurate in others, so in the posts above (while a summary), I tried to correct some of his minor errors.

Can I ask our gracious hosts to move this thread to the Expeditions and Science subfolder? I'll add a summary the Great Northern Expedition over there.

Artful Dodger

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Re: Russian Arctic Exploration
« Reply #4 on: March 03, 2013, 12:44:45 PM »
Cheers Lodger,

No worries, mate. Anything for a fellow Raggedy from Cloud cuckoo land.   8)
« Last Edit: March 03, 2013, 03:03:28 PM by Artful Dodger »
Cheers!
Lodger

DungeonMaster

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Re: Russian Arctic Exploration
« Reply #5 on: March 12, 2013, 01:32:55 AM »
Frank, we haven't set subfolders (yet?), so this post may stay here. Feel free to add more!
This forum helps me to feel less uncomfortable about "doing something" about the melting Arctic and the warming world.
Read again  Maslowski paper : why Arctic could melt in 2016 +/- 3Y !