The Great Northern Expedition
In Russian history, the Great Northern Expedition refers to a wide enterprise initially conceived by tsar Peter I the Great. The tsar had a vision for the 18th century Russian navy to map the Northern Sea Route to the East. This vast and far-reaching endeavor was sponsored by the Admiralty College in St. Petersburg. In 1725, Russian explorers under the leadership of Captain Vitus Bering, a Dane serving in the Russian navy, made the first expedition voyage on Sviatoy Gavriil starting in Kamchatka and going north to the strait that now bears his name.
The major sailing of the Great Northern Expedition was undertaken between 1733 and 1743 through a series of voyages led by Aleksei Chirikov. The goal of the expedition was to find and map the eastern reaches of Siberia, and to hopefully continue on to the western shores of North America to map them as well.
The important achievements of the expedition included the discovery of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, the Commander Islands and Bering Island; as well as a detailed cartographic assessment of the northern and northeastern coast of Russia and the Kuril Islands. The expedition also refuted definitively the legend of a land mass in the north Pacific. It also included ethnographic, historic and scientific research into Siberia and Kamchatka. When the expedition failed to round the northeast tip of Asia, the dream of finding an economically viable Northeast Passage, alive since the 16th century, was at an end.
With more than 3,000 people directly and indirectly involved, the Second Kamchatka expedition was one of the largest expedition projects in history. The total cost of the undertaking, completely financed by the Russian state, reached the estimated sum of 1.5 million rubles, an enormous amount for the period. This corresponded to one-sixth of the income of the Russian state for the year 1724. Because of its complexity and scale, the voyages became known as the Great Northern Expedition.
Despite the extreme hardships and numerous deaths, mainly from scurvy, the Great Northern Expedition represented a remarkable accomplishment in terms of organization, perseverance and courage. More so, it resulted in an outstanding compilation of knowledge. In tangible terms, the expedition resulted in 62 maps and charts of the Arctic coast and Kamchatka. It is interesting to contrast the general chart of the Russian Arctic resulting from the Great Northern Expedition with what was known of the Arctic coast of North America at the same date (by then William Baffin’s voyage round Baffin Bay had largely been forgotten or discredited and the only part of the Arctic coast reliably known and charted was that of the Hudson Bay and Strait)