Part 4: St. Petersburg; First Journey to Western Europe, Section 2
Part 4: St. Petersburg; First Journey to Western Europe, Section 2
AT the same time I worked a great deal for the Russian Geographical Society in my capacity of secretary to its section of physical geography.
Great interest was taken then in the exploration of Turkestan and the Pamírs. Syévertsoff had just returned after several years of travel. A great zoologist, a gifted geographer, and one of the most intelligent men I ever came across, he, like so many Russians, disliked writing. When he had made an oral communication at a meeting of the society, he could not be induced to write anything beyond revising the reports of his communication, so that all that has been published over his signature is very far from doing full justice to the real value of the observations and the generalizations he had made. This reluctance to put down in writing the results of thought and observation is unfortunately not uncommon in Russia. The remarks on the orography of Turkestan, on the geographical distribution of plants and animals, on the part played by hybrids in the production of new species of birds, and so on, which I have heard Syévertsoff make, and the observations on the importance of mutual support in the progressive development of species which I have found just mentioned in a couple of lines in some report of a meeting,--these bore the stamp of more than ordinary talent and originality; but he did not possess the exuberant force of exposition in an appropriately beautiful form which might have made of him one of the most prominent men of science of our time.
Miklúkho-Makláy well known in Australia, which towards the end of his life became the country of his adoption, belonged to the same order of men: the men who have had so much more to say than they have said in print. He was a tiny, nervous man, always suffering from malaria, who had just returned from the coasts of the Red Sea when I made his acquaintance. A follower of Haeckel, he had worked a great deal upon the marine invertebrates in their natural surroundings. The Geographical Society managed next to get him taken on board a Russian man-of-war to some unknown part of the coast of New Guinea, where he wanted to study the most primitive savages. Accompanied by one sailor only, he was left on this inhospitable shore, the inhabitants of which had the reputation of terrible cannibals. A hut was built for the two Crusoes, and they lived eighteen months or more near a native village on excellent terms with the natives. Always to be straightforward towards them, and never to deceive them,-not even in the most trifling matters, not even for scientific purposes,-was the point on which he was most scrupulous. When he was traveling some time later in the Malayan archipelago, he had with him a native who had entered into his service on the express condition of never being photographed. The natives, as every one knows, consider that something is taken out of them when their likeness is taken by photography. One day when the native was fast asleep, Makláy, who was collecting anthropological materials, confessed that he was awfully tempted to photograph his native, the more so as he was a typical representative of his tribe and would never have known that he had been photographed. But he remembered his agreement and refrained. When he left New Guinea, the natives made him promise to return; and a few years later, although he was severely ill, he kept his word and did return. This remarkable man has, however, published only an infinitesimal part of the truly invaluable observations he made.
Fédchenko,, who had made extensive zoological observations in Turkestan,--in company with his wife, Olga Fédchenko, also a naturalist,--was, as we used to say, a "West European." He worked hard to bring out in an elaborated form the results of his observations; but he was, unfortunately, killed in climbing a mountain in Switzerland. Glowing with youthful ardor after his journeys in the Turkestan highlands, and full of confidence in his own powers, he undertook an ascent without proper guides, and perished in a snowstorm. His wife, happily, completed the publication of his "Travels" after his death, and I believe she has now a son who continues the work of his father and mother.
I also saw a great deal of Prjeválsky, or rather Przewálski, as his Polish name ought to be spelled, although he himself preferred to appear as a "Russian patriot." He was a passionate hunter, and the enthusiasm with which he made his explorations of Central Asia was almost as much the result of his desire to hunt all sorts of difficult game,-bucks, wild camels, wild horses, and so on, as of his desire to discover lands, new and difficult to approach. When he was induced to speak of his discoveries, he would soon interrupt his modest descriptions with an enthusiastic exclamation: "But what game there! What hunting!" And he would describe enthusiastically how he crept such and such a distance to approach a wild horse within shooting range. No sooner was he back at St. Petersburg than he planned a new expedition, and parsimoniously laying aside all his money, tried to increase it by stock exchange operations for that purpose. He was the type of a traveler in his strong physique, and in his. capacity for living for years the rough life of a mountain hunter. He delighted in leading such a life. He made his first journey with only three comrades, and always kept on excellent terms with the natives. However, as his subsequent expeditions took on more of a military character, he began unfortunately to rely more upon the force of his armed escort than upon peaceful intercourse with the natives, and I heard it said in well-informed quarters that even if he had not died at the very start of his Tibet expedition,-- admirably and peacefully conducted after his death by his companions, Pyevtsóff, Roboróvsky, and Kozlóff, -he very probably would not have returned alive.
There was considerable activity at that time in the Geographical Society, and many were the geographical questions in which our section, and consequently its secretary, took a lively interest. Most of them were too technical to be mentioned in this place, but I must allude to the awakening of interest in the Russian settlements, the fisheries, and the trade in the Russian portion of the Arctic Ocean, which took place in these years. A Siberian merchant and gold miner, Sídoroff, made the most persevering efforts to awaken that interest. He foresaw that with a little aid in the shape of naval schools, the exploration of the White Sea, and so on, the Russian fisheries and Russian navigation could be largely developed. But that little, unfortunately, had to be done entirely through St. Petersburg; and the ruling powers of that courtly, bureaucratic, literary, artistic, and cosmopolitan city could not be moved to take an interest in anything provincial. Poor Sídoroff was simply ridiculed for his efforts. Interest in our far north had to be enforced upon the Russian Geographical Society from abroad.
In the years 1869-71 the bold Norwegian seal-hunters had quite unexpectedly opened the Kara Sea to navigation. To our extreme astonishment, we learned one day at the society that that sea, which lies between the island of Kóvaya Zemlyá and the Siberian coast, and which we used confidently to describe in our writings as "an ice cellar permanently stocked with ice," had been entered by a number of small Norwegian schooners and crossed by them in all directions. Even the wintering place of the famous Dutchman Barentz, which we believed to be concealed forever from the eyes of man by ice fields hundreds of years old, had been visited by these adventurous Norsemen.
"Exceptional seasons and an exceptional state of the ice" was what our old navigators said. But to a few of us it was quite evident that, with their small schooners and their small crews, the bold Norwegian hunters, who feel at home amid the ice, had ventured to pierce the floating ice which usually bars the way to the Kara Sea, while the commanders of government ships, hampered by the responsibilities of the naval service, had never risked doing so.
A general interest in arctic exploration was awakened by these discoveries. In fact, it was the seal-hunters who opened the new era of arctic enthusiasm which culminated in Nordenskjöld's circumnavigation of Asia, in the permanent establishment of the northeastern passage to Siberia, in Peary's discovery of North Greenland, and in Nansen's Fram expedition. Our Russian Geographical Society also began to move, and a committee was appointed to prepare the scheme of a Russian arctic expedition, and to indicate the scientific work that could be done by it. Specialists undertook to write each of the special scientific chapters of this report; but, as often happens, a few chapters only, on botany, geology, and meteorology, were ready in time, and the secretary of the committee-that is, myself-had to write the remainder. Several subjects, such as marine zoology, the tides, pendulum observations, and terrestrial magnetism, were quite new to me; but the amount of work which a healthy man can accomplish in a short time, if he strains all his forces and goes straight to the root of the subject, no one would suppose beforehand,-and so my report was ready.
It concluded by advocating a great arctic expedition, which would awaken in Russia a permanent interest in arctic questions and arctic navigation, and in the meantime a reconnoitering expedition on board a schooner chartered in Norway with its captain, pushing north or northeast of Nóvaya Zemlyá. This expedition, we suggested, might also try to reach, or at least to sight, an unknown land which must be situated at no great distance from Nóvaya Zemlyá.. The probable existence of such a land had been indicated by an officer of the Russian navy, Baron Schilling,, in an excellent but little known paper on the currents in the Arctic Ocean. When I read this paper, as also Lüya; journey to Nóvaya Zemlya, and made myself acquainted with the general conditions of this part of the Arctic Ocean, I saw at once that the supposition must be correct. There must be a land to the northwest of N6vaya Zemlyá, and it must reach a higher latitude than Spitzbergen. The steady position of the ice at the west of Novaya Zemlya, the mud and stones on it, and various other smaller indications confirmed the hypothesis. Besides, if such a land were not located there, the ice current which flows westward from the meridian of Behring Strait to Greenland (the current of the Fram's drift) would, as Baron Schilling had truly remarked, reach the North Cape and cover the coasts of Laponia with masses of ice, just as it covers the northern extremity of Greenland. The warm current alone--a feeble continuation of the Gulf Stream--could not have prevented the accumulation of ice on the coasts of Northern Europe. This land, as is known, was discovered a couple of years later by the Austrian expedition, and named Franz Josef Land.
The arctic report had a quite unexpected result for me. I was offered the leadership of the reconnoitering expedition, on board a Norwegian schooner chartered for the purpose. I replied, of course, that I had never been to sea; but I was told that by combining the experience of a Carlsen or a Johansen with the initiative of a man of science, something valuable could be done; and I would have accepted, had not the ministry of finance at this juncture interposed with its veto. It replied that the exchequer could not grant the three or four thousand pounds which would be required for the expedition. Since that time Russia has taken no part in the exploration of the arctic seas. The land which we distinguished through the subpolar mists was discovered by Paver and Weyprecht, and the archipelagoes which must exist to the northeast of Nóvaya Zemlyá-I am even more firmly persuaded of it now than I was then-remain undiscovered.
Instead of joining an arctic expedition, I was sent out by the Geographical Society for a modest tour in Finland and Sweden, to explore the glacial deposits; and that journey drifted me in a quite different direction.
The Russian Academy of Sciences sent out that summer two of its members-the old geologist General Helmersen and Frederick Schmidt, the indefatigable explorer of Siberia--to study the structure of those long ridges of drift which are known as åsar in Sweden and Finland, and as eskers, kames, and so on, in the British Isles. The Geographical Society sent me to Finland for the same purpose. We visited, all three, the beautiful ridge of Pungahárju and then separated. I worked hard during the summer. I traveled a great deal in Finland, and crossed over to Sweden, where I spent many happy hours in the company of A. Nordenskjold. As early as then-1871-he mentioned to me his schemes for reaching the mouths of the Siberian rivers, and even the Behring Strait, by the northern route. Returning to Finland I continued my researches till late in the autumn, and collected a mass of most interesting observations relative to the glaciation of the country. But I also thought a great deal during this journey about social matters, and these thoughts had a decisive influence upon my subsequent development.
All sorts of valuable materials relative to the geography of Russia passed through my hands in the Geographical Society, and the idea gradually came to me of writing an exhaustive physical geography of that immense part of the world. My intention was to give a thorough geographical description of the country, basing it upon the main lines of the surface structure, which I began to disentangle for European Russia; and to sketch, in that description, the different forms of economic life which ought to prevail in different physical regions. Take, for instance, the wide prairies of Southern Russia, so often visited by droughts and failure of crops. These droughts and failures must not be treated as accidental calamities: they are as much a natural feature of that region as its position on a southern slope, its fertility, and the rest; and the whole of the economic life of the southern prairies ought to be organized in prevision of the unavoidable recurrence of periodical droughts. Each region of the Russian Empire ought to be treated in the same scientific way, just as Karl Ritter has treated parts of Asia in his beautiful monographs.
But such a work would have required plenty of time and full freedom for the writer, and I often thought how helpful to this end it would be were I to occupy some day the position of secretary to the Geographical Society. Now, in the autumn of 1871, as I was working in Finland, slowly moving on foot toward the seacoast along the newly built railway, and closely watching the spot where the first unmistakable traces of the former extension of the post-glacial sea would appear, I received a telegram from the Geographical Society: "The council begs you to accept the position of secretary to the Society." At the same time the outgoing secretary strongly urged me to accept the proposal.
My hopes were realized. But in the meantime other thoughts and other longings had pervaded my mind. I seriously thought over the reply, and wired, "Most cordial thanks, but cannot accept."
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