The Ocean Expeditions


Peter I bequeathed the Russian fleet to his successors, but, from Catherine I to Peter III, none of Russia's rulers shared Peter the Great's love of the sea. In the decades that followed his death in 1725, it seemed inconceivable to Pe-ter's successors that a display of warships was the best way to demonstrate Russia's potence and world stature. Nor was it deemed prudent to maintain, for no immediate purpose, Peter's fleet of thirty ships of the line and hundreds of complementary vessels; the cost of keeping such a force afloat would only further deplete the State coffers. Even more unthinkable was implementing Peter's plan to increase the size of the fleet, to realize his vision of creating a vast sea armada.

The Northern War, which lasted twenty-one years, had already served to exhaust Russia's resources and treasury. Accordingly, a period of retrenchment on fleet expenditures followed the death of Peter and was accompanied by a marked reduction in the construction of new vessels and in the numbers of seamen and officers. The Nautical School and Maritime Academy that Peter had founded did, however, continue to thrive. Their students and graduates preserved and enhanced the traditions of Russian seafaring both during Peter's reign and that of his successors. From 1716 to 1719 Russians sailed in a large Pomor-type lodja from Okhotsk to Kamchatka, the territory which had been explored by Vladimir Atlasov at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1720 graduates of the Maritime Academy, navigator-geodesists Ivan Yevreinov and Fyodor Luzhin, explored and mapped fourteen islands of the Kuril Ridge. The information they brought back became the basis for the well-known expedition of Captain-Commodore Vitus Bering. In the icy winter of 1724 Bering reached Kamchatka by land and in spring set sail, on the vessels built there, "along the land which leads to the North... to look for the site where this land has converged with America..."

The main object of the Russian seafarers was to find a passage from Russia to India and China across the Arctic Ocean. In 1728-1729 Bering sailed across the northern Pacific in the Saint Gavriil. Numbed by cold and piercing wind, the Saint Gavriil and its crew passed through the strait between Asia and America. Thus, this route was discovered for the second time. The final descriptions of the discovery were compiled after navigators Ivan Fyodorov and Mikhail Gvozdev charted the route of their 1732 exploration. The strait itself and the sea to the south of it were named in honour of Cap-tain Bering. Bering's expedition discovered and explored the sea route between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk via the first Kuril Channel. Bering painstakingly recorded for future generations of mapmakers the southeast and southwest coasts of the Kamchat-ka Peninsula and, possibly of greatest importance, proved once and for all the nonexistence of the legendary lands that were thought to lie to the east and south of Kamchatka.

During his first Kamchatka expedition Bering could not, however, find the route to China and India. Therefore, in 1733 the government of Empress Anna decided to organize an unprecedented exploration of the northern coasts of Siberia and the Far East. Bering and a member of the Saint Gavriil expedition Alexey Chirikov set sail from Kamchatka. The other detachments were left to seek out the route to Japan along the Kuril Islands and explore the coast of the Arctic Ocean. The general leadership of the expedition was entrusted to the Admiralty Collegium.

The vessels set out on their expeditions and began a sequence of amazing discoveries. In 1736-1737 the detachment under Lieutenant Stepan Malygin rounded Jamal Peninsula and reached the estuary of the Ob River. At the same time, the detachment under Lieutenant Dmitry Ovtsin, sent farther eastward, sailed from the Ob estuary to the Yenisei and mapped the coast of the Gydansk Peninsula. Lieutenants Vasily Pronchishchev and Hariton Laptev explored the coast of Taimyr Peninsula and the estuary of the Lena. The navigator of that detachment, Semyon Cheluskin, discovered and described the northern tip of the Asian continent. Finally, Pyotr Lasinius and Dmitry Laptev sailed along the Siberian shore from the estuary of the Lena to the Kolyma. Due to its grand scale and daring, this voyage came to be called the Great North Expedition. Many geographic areas and bodies of water were named to honour the eighteenth century Russian officers who first explored them: the Straits of Malygin and Ovtsin, the Pronchishchev Coast, Cape Cheluskin and the Laptev Sea.

In early summer of 1741 two packet-boats, the Saint Peter and the Saint Paul, left the calm harbour of Petropavlovsk [Peter and Paul], which had been discovered during the first Kamchatka expedition, and, under the command of Bering and Chirikov, the ships reached the North American continent. Unfortunately, the second Kamchatka expedition was Bering's last. Returning from the coast of Alaska his Saint Peter wintered near one of the Komandorskiye Islands. On that island, later named Bering Island, the prominent seafarer fell ill and died. However, as a result of his second Kamchatka expedition, the northwest coast of America was explored as well as the Aleutian and Komandorskiye Islands.

In 1738-1742 the vessels of Captain Martin Spanberg were the first to reach the northeastern coasts of Sakhalin and Japan. The information gathered during his expedition helped in compiling the eastern portion of the General Map of the Russian Empire, drawn up in 1745.