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Russian Columbuses: The Distant Voyages of Russian Sailors

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Russian Columbuses: The Distant Voyages of Russian Sailors


Once Russia had gone to sea, acquiring its own navy and overseas colonies (Russian America), it could only keep moving forward. It was hard to believe that just a little while ago the Russian navy, founded by the will of Peter the Great, didn’t exist at all. But now people were thinking of a voyage around the world that would be entirely under the naval flag of Russia.


The prominent diplomat and traveler Nikolai Rezanov once said, “May Russias fate be upon the wings of sails. Many people would have signed onto this phrase, including commanders, simple sailors, and those who did everything they could to realize these expeditions without going out to sea themselves. Even Russias great Transformer dreamed of distant sea travel: Peter the Greats plans included a voyage to the West Indies, crossing the Equator, and establishing trade relations with the great Mongols.

These plans were not fated to be realized. Nonetheless, in the years 1725 and 1726 the Russian oceanic expedition to Spain took place under the leadership of Captain Ivan Koshelev, who later proposed the idea of a voyage around the world from Saint Petersburg.

In 1776 Catherine the Great signed an order to send vessels from the Baltic Sea on the first Russian expedition around the world. The young captain Grigory Mulovsky, a skilled and experienced sailor, was to lead the voyage. The expedition was to accomplish several tasks at once: to bring garrison guns to the Petropavlovsk Harbor; to establish trade relations with Japan; to transport livestock, seeds, and other necessary items to Russian America; and to discover new lands and bring prestige to Russia.

The preparations for this major expedition were going at full steam. Factories were already casting iron emblems and medals with a portrait of Catherine to be installed in the newly discovered territories. But then the Russo-Turkish War broke out, and an order was given to distribute all supplies onto ships headed to the Mediterranean Sea. Mulovsky himself perished in a naval battle. So no voyage around the world came to fruition during Catherines reign—but the idea would remain in peoples minds.

The First Russian Expedition Around the World

Sometimes life comes together so strangely that as the plot of a book it would seem improbable. On the ship Mstislav there was a certain young midshipman, recently raised in the ranks. Ivan Krusenstern was only 17 years old when he came under the command of Captain Mulovsky. It is hard to say whether they talked about the unrealized expedition, but it would be Krusenstern who would complete the task that fate had denied to his courageous predecessor.

Ivan Krusenstern and Yuri Lisyansky

As a pair of young sailors who showed remarkable promise, Ivan Krusenstern and Yuri Fyodorovich Lisyansky (Krusensterns comrade from the Naval Corps) were sent for an apprenticeship in the English Navy. Krusenstern became extraordinarily interested in trade with China. He visited Chinese ports and after his return to Russia laid out in detail (with figures and calculations) his opinion that it would be extraordinarily profitable and useful for Russia to organize maritime relations between the Russian colonies and China. Of course, the young lieutenants opinion was dismissed, as his proposal was too bold. But all of a sudden prominent and authoritative grandees supported Krusenstern. And soon the Russian American Company (RAC) came forward with a similar proposaland so the fate of the first Russian expedition around the world was decided.

The generous sponsorship of RAC meant that they didnt have to wait for vessels to be built capable of surviving the difficult route. Two capable vessels were bought in England, fixed up, and called Nadezhda and Neva. RAC was such an influential and rich organization that the expedition was equipped with the best of everything in record time.

They took only volunteers on this long and dangerous journey. Nevertheless, there were so many volunteers that it would have been possible to man three expeditions. The crew included scholars, artists (to draw landscapes and plants and animals unknown to science), and an astronomer. Their goals were to bring necessary articles to the Russian settlements in America, to gather furs from them, to sell or exchange goods at Chinese ports, and to show that the sea route to Russian America was more advantageous than the land route through Siberia. And whats more, they were to set up an embassy on the shores of Japan under the direction of chamberlain Nikolai Rezanov.

In spite of the expeditions trade character, the vessels sailed under a naval flag. Chamberlain Rezanov was far from a minor figure in RAC: he was the son-in-law of the companys head and founder, Grigory Shelikhov, and heir to the assets of the Russian Columbus. It was understood that he would answer for scientific and economic matters, and Kruzenstern would be responsible for the seafaring. In August 1803 the Neva and the Nadezhda embarked from Kronstadt. Beyond the Hawaiian Islands, the ships parted ways, as had been agreed upon. Under the command of Lisyansky, the Neva headed to the north, to the Kodiak and Sitka islands in the Alaskan Gulf with a cargo of goods for RAC, planning to rejoin the Nadezhda in Macau in September 1805. The Nadezhda departed for Kamchatka and then to Japan to fulfill Rezanovs diplomatic mission. En route the Nadezhda met a terrible stormas became clear later, it ran afoul of a tsunami.

Sadly, the mission turned out to be a failure: after a wait of nearly half a year in Nagasaki, the Russians were turned away. The Japanese Emperor returned their gifts, refused to accept the embassy, and ordered them to leave Japan immediately, though he did supply the ship with water, food, and firewood. In Macau the captains met and profitably exchanged their furs for tea, ceramics, and other goods that were rare and in demand in Europe. They then departed for Russia. After a storm made them lose sight of each other, the Nadezhda and the Neva successfully returned to Russiafirst the Neva, and then the Nadezhda a couple weeks a later.

The voyage did not go as smoothly as desired. The problems began almost immediately after their departure. Rezanov had an edict signed by Alexander I appointing him, Rezanov, as the head of the expedition, but with the caveat that he should make all decisions together with Captain Krusenstern.

In order to fit Rezanovs suite onto the comparatively small Nadezhda, they had to turn away a number of people truly necessary to the voyage. Whats more, Rezanovs suite included people like Count Fyodor Tolstoy, subsequently called the Americana completely unruly man, a cruel manipulator and mischief-maker. He managed to get the entire crew to fight with each other and repeatedly frustrated Krusenstern with his escapadesuntil he was finally forced to disembark on the island of Sitka.

Nikolai Rezanov

According to law, a naval ship could only have one leader whose orders would be fulfilled unquestioningly. As a non-military person, Rezanov was completely unable to accept discipline, and his relationship with Krusenstern gradually came to a head. Forced to share a single tiny cabin for a couple years, Rezanov and Krusenstern communicated by passing notes.

Rezanov tried to make Krusenstern change the course of the expedition in order to depart directly for Kamchatka, effectively cutting short the trip around the world. Finally, Rezanov allowed himself to disrespect the captain in the presence of the crew, and from the point of view of their charter, this was entirely unforgiveable. After a major scandal convinced him that he didnt have anyone on his side, the insulted Rezanov practically refused to leave his cabin until the Nadezhda reached Petropavlovsk.

Fortunately, the experienced and dispassionate Commander Koshelev figured out what was going on, attempting to ensure that an argument between two private individuals would not hinder the completion of his charge from the state. Krusenstern agreed with this approach entirely, and Rezanov was forced to back down. After the Japanese mission was finished, Rezanov left the Nadezhda. He and Krusenstern did not meet againto their mutual satisfaction.

The Irrepressible and Fearless Vasily Golovnin

Vasily Golovnin was a captain and an outstanding maritime writer. Even among his fellow captains, he was seen as a man of great potential. He had more than his share of adventures. At fourteen, he took part in naval battles as a midshipman and was awarded a medal. Afterwards, he returned to finish his studies since he was still too young to become an officer.

He completed his first independent voyage around the world when he was only a lieutenant. The Admiralty defied its own rules and placed the sloop Diana under the command of a mere lieutenant because everyone understood what kind of man Lieutenant Golovnin was. And indeed, their hopes were validated: an excellent captain, Golovnin showed to their fullest extent his calm, bravery, and unbreakable character. When the English were taking Russian sailors captive in South Africa due to the recently declared war, Golovnin managed to slip away from captivity and still fulfilled his expeditions mission. In the years 1808-1809, the Diana successfully completed its journey around the world.

A gentlemans captivity among the English was not overly taxing for the Russian sailors, but the imprisonment that occurred during their second trip was more serious. This time Japan placed Golovnin and several of his comrades in a real prison. The Japanese were unhappy that a Russian ship was conducting a cartographical survey of the Kuril Islands. (In 1811 Golovnin was charged with describing the Kuril Islands, Shantar Islands, and Strait of Tartary.) Japan decided that these daring cartographers were violating their governments principle of isolation, which meant that they must be imprisoned. This captivity lasted for two years, and this incident placed Russia and Japan on the edge of war.

Japanese scroll depicting the captivity of Golovnin

Titanic efforts were undertaken to save Golovnin and his people. But only thanks to the actions of Golovnins friend, the officer Pyotr Rikordwho managed to secure the intervention of an influential Japanese merchant, Mr. Takatai Kakheiwas it possible to achieve the nearly impossible task for releasing the Russian sailors from prison. A nature park in Kamchatka now features the so-called peaks of friendship between Russia and Japan: a rock face named after Kakhei and mountains named after Rikord and Golovnin. Today the Golovnin incident is a textbook case study in world diplomacy.

Golovnins notes about his adventures have been translated into many languages and become a bestseller in Russia. After returning home, Vasily Golovnin continued to work tirelessly for the cause of Russian sea travel. His knowledge, experience, and energy were invaluable, and his books about foreign voyages have been read with interest by many young people who would later choose the career of naval officer.

Baron von Wrangel: Chief of Alaska

In 1816 midshipman Ferdinand von Wrangel, who had served in Reval, made a request to participate in Captain Golovnins expedition on the sloop Kamchatka. They turned him down. Then, he feigned sickness in front of the high command, made his way to Petersburg, and practically threw himself at Golovnins feet begging to be taken along. Golovnin remarked severely that willfully fleeing ones ship was desertion and a matter for the court. The midshipman agreed but requested that he would be handed over to the court after the voyage, for which he would be willing to serve as a simple sailor. Golovnin gave in.

This was the first journey around the world for Ferdinand von Wrangel, in whose honor the well-known nature reserve Wrangel Island was named. On board the Kamchatka the reckless youth not only completed his sailors training but also assiduously filled in the holes in his education. He also made true friends in a pair of future researchers and tireless travelers: Fyodor Litke and Fyodor Matyushkin, a recent lyceum student and friend of the poet Alexander Pushkin.

Sailing on the Kamchatka proved to be an invaluable training ground for the Russian navy. Wrangel returned from his journey as an excellent sailor and researcher. And Wrangel and Matyushkin were ordered to depart on an expedition to study the northeastern coast of Siberia.

Map showing the travels of von Wrangel

Hardly anyone has devoted as much effort and energy to studying Alaska and Kamchatka as Ferdinand von Wrangel. He studied Northeastern Siberia by land and sea, went on a voyage around the world, commanded a naval transport, received honors, was appointed the chief commander of Russian America in 1829, and, incidentally, built a meteorological observatory in Alaska. Under his direction, Russian America flourished and new settlements were created. An island is named after him, and his labors for the sake of Russia have been highly valued by the state and later historians. Less than fifty years after Krusenstern and Lisyansky completed Russias first voyage around the world, the Russian navy flourished and developed because there were so many enthusiasts, truly devoted to their calling, in its ranks.

An Unknown Land

I crossed the Southern hemisphere at high latitudes and accomplished this in such a way that I incontrovertibly disproved the possibility of any other continent existing, and if one could be discovered, it would have to be near the pole, in areas inaccessible to ships… The risk associated with sailing in these uncharted and ice-covered seas in search of a southern continent is so great that I can boldly state that no man would ever decide to penetrate further south than I have succeeded in doingthese words by James Cook, a star of eighteenth-century sailing, closed Antarctica off from discovery for nearly 50 years. There simply was no one who would finance a project known to be doomed to failure and commercially unprofitable even in the event of a success.

It was Russians who finally went against good sense and common logic. Krusenstern, Otto von Kotzebue, and the captain and polar explorer Gavril Sarychev planned out an expedition and presented it to Emperor Alexander. Unexpectedly, he agreed.

The expeditions main task was defined as a purely scholarly one: to discover, to the extent possible, the Antarctic pole with the goal of acquiring as much knowledge as possible about our planet Earth. The duties of the expedition changed and instructions were given to observe and study anything worthy of attention, not only that which is relevant to maritime matters but more generally anything that contributes to the furthering of human knowledge in all areas.

V. Volkov. The discovery of Antarctica by the sloops Vostok and Mirny, 2008.

That same summer the sloops Mirnyi and Vostok left for the South Pole. They were led by two captains considered to be among the best in the Russian navy: the expedition commander Faddei Faddeevich Bellingshausen (who had participated in Krusenstern and Lisyanskys voyage around the world) and Mikhail Petrovich Lazarev (a young but very promising captain). Lazarev would subsequently make three trips around the world, but these feats do not eclipse his fame as a polar explorer.

The voyage lasted 751 days, of which 535 days were in the Southern hemisphere and 100 days were amid the ice. The sailors passed within the Southern polar circle six times. No one had come so close to the mysterious Antarctic or stayed there so long. In February 1820 Bellingshausen wrote: Here beyond the small ice floes and islands one can see a continent of ice, the edges of which are broken off perpendicularly, and which extends as far as we can see, rising to the south like a coastline. The flat islands of ice located near this continent are clearly pieces broken off from this continent for they have edges and an outer surface similar to it. For the first time in human history people saw Antarctica. And these people were Russian sailors.

Marina Bogdanova


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