The Bering or Dezhnev Strait? The First in the Arctic


Siberian Cossacks at the Inspection of New Lands, 1891. Nikolai Karazin.

In summer, 1648, Russian Cossack Semyon Dezhnev set out on the main journey of his life. According to one version, he set off with his team "as a guard" on a trade journey of Fedot Alekseyev (Popov). According to another version, Semyon Dezhnev as the "sovereign people" set out on a journey to collect "yasak" (tribute) from the peoples of the new lands. Semyon Ivanovich never learned until the end of his days that he had discovered not only the famous Cape (Dezhnev) but also the strait separating the Asian continent from the American continent. Later, it would be called the Bering Strait after another navigator who, almost 80 years later, followed part of his route.

Another Russian traveler, documentary filmmaker Leonid Kruglov with a team of like-minded people repeated the path of our heroic ancestors. He traveled ten thousand kilometers from Arkhangelsk to Chukotka by the same route. Leonid Kruglov also did not use air transportation. Instead, he used reindeer and dog sleds, sailing ships and small boats during the voyage, as Semyon Ivanovich and his crew did in the late 17th century. The main reason that prompted the researchers to begin the arduous journey was the desire to understand why Dezhnev's discovery remained unrecognized for a long time.

Speaking about their journey, Leonid Kruglov noted that only by traveling this way on their own, with enough food, special equipment and clothing, the team was able to truly appreciate the feat accomplished by Dezhnev's team. The film director considers his main task to share the information received and to continue studying the history of Arctic exploration in the future. Kruglov's team managed to bring back new data from their first trip along the Dezhnev route.

Brave Cossack

Almost nothing is known about where and when and in what family Semyon Dezhnev was born, what kind of upbringing he received, and why he dreamed of discovering new lands. Unfortunately, very few records about the life of the great traveler remain from that time. Most researchers tend to believe that he was born in 1605 in Veliky Ustyug. The city that gave Russia such discoverers as Vasily Poyarkov, Erofei Khabarov, and Vladimir Atlasov. Scientists cite as the main evidence one of the most famous documents about the life of Semyon Ivanovich - the "fourth petition" (1639) with the testimony of the ataman himself, where he mentions these regions. However, there is a version that Dezhnev came from the Pomors or one of their neighboring regions. Research on this subject is still in progress. For the time being, the famous monument to the navigator was erected in Veliky Ustyug.

Veliky Ustyug. Monument to Semyon Dezhnev

When exactly Dezhnev found himself in Siberia is also unknown. But first, he served in Tobolsk, then in Yeniseysk, and after that, in 1638, he moved to Yakutsk Ostrog. Ostrog at that time was recently founded near the unconquered tribes of "foreigners" (then so-called inhabitants of Siberia). In this settlement Dezhnev for the first time had the opportunity to take part in expeditions to discover new rivers and lands. As he moved through new territories, he learned from the locals about new and new rivers located in the neighborhood. Thus, he moved farther and farther towards the "Breathing Sea", as the Arctic Ocean was called in those days. For the first time, Dezhnev thought of the need to undertake a voyage across the "Breathing Sea" in search of the Anadyr River. Fortune didn't smile on him right away. Lack of financial opportunities was the first difficulty. At that time Semyon Ivanovich was serving as an ordinary Cossack in Yakutsk. The extremely modest salary, paid with "great delays", prompted him to turn his attention to the fur trade. By that time Dezhnev was already married to a Yakut woman Abakayada Syuchyu. They bring up their only son Lyubim. Later he would follow in his father's footsteps and also become a Cossack. At that time, Semyon Dezhnev's campaigns were short-term. Starting from 1640, he regularly went on campaigns in eastern Siberia to collect fur tax (yasak). Of course, the locals perceived the new duty "with hostility" and often aggressively defended themselves, using bows, arrows and all possible means of struggle.

The first page of Ivanov Dezhnev's report on the sea voyage to the Anadyr River

In total, Dezhnev was wounded nine times during almost 20 years of his service in Yakutsk. According to Leonid Kruglov, in his petition of 1662 (Dezhnev usually made all reports on his service and campaigns with great delays) Semyon Ivanovich wrote "... in those many years of the state service I endured all kinds of need and poverty, and ate pine and larch bark, and ate everything I could find...". Two years later, in 1664, he says about the service of the same years: "... I risked my life, received countless wounds, shed my blood, endured both cold and hunger, and almost died of starvation...". Some of the wounds described in Dezhnev's reports were almost incompatible with life. Only the Cossack's outstanding health saved him from death each time. This hard and dangerous service described by Semyon Ivanovich began for him in 1638 when he joined the detachment of Pyotr Beketov and went to the Yakut settlement. Already in the next year, 1639, Dezhnev switched to the service of Pyotr Khodorev. Both leaders of the future discoverer are well-known and, to put it in modern terms, professional military men. Along with Vasily Poyarkov, Dmitry Mikhailov, and Mikhail Stadukhin, they were great mentors and teachers for Dezhnev. Dezhnev's unique courage was immediately noticed by them. Already in a petition of 1639 or 1640 (the exact date, unfortunately, has not been preserved), Dezhnev was the head of a whole detachment. And already in 1641, his journey along the rivers flowing into the modern Arctic Ocean began.

The beginning of the journey

Merchants Usov and Guselnikov were extremely interested in the legend about a river located beyond the Kolyma River, "whose waters are teeming with sables".  They decided to join their forces and equipped the clerk Fedot Popov (Alekseyev) for the trade voyage. They also hired Dezhnev to lead the expedition and ensure its safety. Why did they choose him and not anyone else for this mission? The answer is quite simple. Besides possessing outstanding physical and personal qualities, Dezhnev also proved to be a skillful diplomat. Wherever he could, he avoided clashes with the local population during the "tax hikes". Dezhnev was also able to negotiate mutually beneficial cooperation with them without spilling a single drop of blood. For example, the Chukchi people categorically did not want to "be under the sovereign's hand". Without bringing the situation to an armed clash, Dezhnev ensured that once concluded cooperation agreements were never violated in the future.

As a result of negotiations with Usov and Guselnikov, Semyon Ivanovich headed Fedot Popov's expedition. He also promised, as a loyal subject to the tsar (king), to get 250 sables for the state treasury during the expedition. But even here everything was not so simple for Dezhnev. He was not the only one who wanted to lead the expedition. Gerasim Ankudinov, the leader of a gang that was not subordinate to anyone, also offered his candidacy to the merchants. When he realized that they preferred Dezhnev, he equipped his own koch with his own money and joined the expedition on his own. The koch was a ship 10-15 meters long with a rounded bottom. It could sail without being damaged in the waters full of ice blocks and ice floes. However, Dezhnev did not recognize him as a participant of the campaign. In all his reports he wrote that there were only six koches in the campaign, not seven. He complained about Ankudinov's presence to the leadership, calling him a thief and a robber. Fedot Popov (Alekseyev) took a neutral position.

Semyon Dezhnev
Semyon Ivanovich Dezhnev

For the first time, the expedition went to sea from the mouth of the Kolyma River on 4 ships in June 1647. However, this start was not successful. They encountered impassable masses of ice and had to return. On June 20, 1648, the crew set off again on 6 koches. There were 30 people on each vessel. Also, one woman took part in the expedition. It was Fedot Popov's wife, a Yakut woman, whose name, unfortunately, has not been preserved in the documents. Fedot Alekseyev was in charge of the "industrial workers", and Semyon Dezhnev was in charge of the Cossacks' "official people". In addition, Gerasim Ankudinov’s team also considered themselves part of the expedition. Later Alekseyev and Ankudinov would not be able to reach the end of the way. Only Dezhnev and a small number of survivors would go all the way to the end of the upcoming difficult journey. Before reaching the "Big Stone Nose", 4 koches separated from the rest and disappeared without a trace. Three koches of Dezhnev, Alekseyev and Ankudinov safely continued their way to the east. By August they turned near the Chukchi Peninsula (the Chukotka Peninsula) to the present Bering Strait. They came into the strait in early September. Dezhnev's koch was the first to go. Most likely, the ship was equipped with a compass, since Semyon Ivanovich used the sides of the world to describe the Big Stone Nose. Having rounded the cape, later named in his honor, Dezhnev sailed into the Pacific Ocean. Thus, he proved the existence of "the mysterious Strait of Anian, which European navigators had guessed and talked about a lot, but no one had ever been there". In addition, he confirmed Russian assumptions that there was a new land to the north of Russia, extending eastward from the archipelago of the same name (the Novaya Zemlya archipelago). Dezhnev was the first to recognize and record that it had no connection with the Russian land and could only be reached by sea.

Semyon Ivanovich Dezhnev
S.I. Dezhnev

The description of the Big Stone Nose is quite detailed and accurate. Considering that Semyon Ivanovich was poorly versed in geography, it is surprising that he was able to determine that " is not the Holy Nose that lies in the valley of the Chukhona River..." (researchers believe he was referring to the promontory of the Chukochya River about 50 versts from the Kolyma River delta), " went out to sea much farther out...". Speaking of direction, Dezhnev notes: "... the long journey by sea as well as by land along the bank of the Anadyr River will take three days...". To describe the shape of the Big Stone Nose he describes the shore: "... on its western side there is a river flowing into the sea, and there is a Chukchi encampment near the river...". A "tower" made of whale bones also caught the attention of the discoverer. Leonid Kruglov's team will find this place as well as the abandoned Chukchi settlement called Naukan. It was discovered on the coastal cliffs of the strait next to the very river flowing like a waterfall.

A Chukchi encampment

Return home at all costs

The Big Stone Nose became the last point in the route of Ankudinov's ship. The koch crashed and the crew was evacuated to the two remaining koches. Ankudinov got on Alekseyev's koch. It is not known whether it was due to the shipwreck or lack of food and water, but something forced the travelers to come ashore on September 20. The coastal Chukchi received the Russians aggressively and in a fight with them Alexeyev was wounded. They could continue their journey only at the end of September, but strong storms separated the two ships. Dezhnev knew nothing more about the fate of the second ship. Only many years later he would find out that both of his companions died of scurvy, and the rest of their crew were killed by foreigners on the shore.

Dezhnev's koch was left alone and was caught in a storm.  According to Semyon Ivanovich's notes, it "was washed ashore ten weeks' journey from the lower reaches of the Anadyr River". About 25 people remained with Dezhnev. In inhuman conditions, with deprivation and in the absence of any devices for fishing, they survived the winter and with the onset of warmth moved on. On the middle reaches of the Anadyr River, Dezhnev was surrounded by warlike tribes of Chukchi. He decided to organize his own fortress and named it the Anadyr fortress. Having wintered over and built new ships, the travelers were able to go another 500 kilometers up the river, fighting off attacks from the locals. Dezhnev was wounded but still was able to negotiate with the attacking tribes. Semyon Ivanovich discovered a walrus rookery. It did not belong to any of the locals. It was a real stroke of luck. All rookeries in the Bering Strait have always belonged (and this tradition is still preserved, as Kruglov's team found out nowadays) to a particular clan or tribe. Rookeries are considered sacred. People settle around them and use natural territories and everything they can give to humans. They also control and protect walruses from any external threats. It would have been impossible to extract a walrus tusk from someone else's rookery, but fate smiled at Dezhnev this time.

Dezhnev was
Monument to the great pathfinder Semyon Dezhnev and his wife Abakayada Syuchyu and their son Lyubim

Leaving Yakutsk for a year, the Cossack ataman returned home almost 20 years after the journey began, in 1662. All this time his first wife Abakayada had been waiting for his return.

Having returned, Semyon Ivanovich set off again. This time to Moscow. He carried a huge batch of “fish tooth” (280 poods), the price of which was more than 17 thousand rubles. He returned home a rich man in the rank of ataman with a corresponding salary. He received a percentage of the profit extracted for the sovereign, 500 rubles in sables, as well as debts on money allowance and grain pay (one-third in money and two-thirds in cloth). For another eight years, he reconciled the warring peoples of Evenks and Tungus on the Olenek River. Only in 1671, he moved to the capital "to retire" where he died in early 1673. Dezhnev gave almost 50 years of his life to sea voyages.

Thanks to the discoveries of Semyon Dezhnev, our country acquired the borders it has and became the Russian Empire. Although the sovereign not immediately estimated this increase of about 1/5 of its territory. The development of new lands by Russians was quite different from the development of America by Europeans in the same 17th century. The local population was not destroyed and was not settled in the ghetto. The arrival of Russians in the new eastern lands ensured the population growth of these territories by 2-3 times. To cherish and collect historical memory and to be proud of the nobility, courage, endurance and determination of our ancestors means to love our country.

Based on the documentary film by director Leonid Kruglov about the expedition of his team for the project "Dostoevsky Lecture Hall": the following photos " A Chukchi encampment", "Abandoned Chukchi encampment", "Naukan", "Dezhnev-Popov route" are screenshots from the documentary film directed by Leonid Kruglov.

Photo of Siberian Cossacks at the Inspection of New Lands, 1891. Nikolai Karazin.

Photo of the Monument to Semyon Dezhnev. Veliky Ustyug.

Photo of the First page of Ivanov Dezhnev's report on the sea voyage to the Anadyr River

Photo of Semyon Ivanovich Dezhnev

Photo of S.I. Dezhnev

Photo of the monument to the great pathfinder Semyon Dezhnev and his wife Abakayada Syuchyu and their son Lyubim

The editorial board of The Arctic Century



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