Libmonster ID: RU-14961
Author(s) of the publication: Valery GLUSHKOV

by Valery GLUSHKOV, Dr. Sc. (Tech.), RAS Institute of History of Natural Sciences and Technology named after S. Vavilov

The Sannikov Land was brought to public attention thanks to the publication by Acad. Vladimir Obruchev (1863 - 1956) of a popular science novel bearing the same name.

The novel, however, rests on certain factual evidence, including eyewitness accounts of travelers who visited the Novosibirskye Islands (in the Arctic Ocean, between the Laptev and East Siberian seas) and said they saw some mountainous shores on the horizon.

The central figure of these stories, Yakov Sannikov, was on one side a descendant of Russian "dissidents" of the 17th century who fled from obligatory military conscription and of the Siberian Yakuts on the other side. From 1800 he was the "chieftain" of an "artel" (team) of hunters and diggers for mammoth bones which was financed by a local merchant Syrovatsky. An inquisitive and energetic person, Yakov Sannikov traveled to many remote comers of the northern archipelago in the Arctic Ocean which is called Novosibirsky on modern

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Kotelny, that he saw in the north-western direction some mountains towering on the horizon over the sea. A year later, on his journey to the island of Novaya Sibir (which had no official name as yet) he saw some bluish haze over the ocean waves in the north-eastern direction - a sign of some remote piece of dry land. Later on one of the members of the Syrovatskys family traveled all over the Kotelny Island and reported seeing a stretch of "barren land" in the northern direction.

Reports of these and other similar sightings quickly reached the powers that be and were put on the list of major events for the year of 1807 and submitted to Emperor Alexander I. The first person who brought this news to the Russian capital (together with his find of mammoth bones) was a prominent zoologist and botanist, Member (from 1805) of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, Mikhail Adams. He suggested sending an expedition to the newly discovered lands, which could also travel as far as the North Pole and "probably discover the habitat of still existing mammoths".

On their travel in 1808 a team of workmen of the Syrovatskys merchants (including Sannikov) spotted to the east of what was than called the Land of the Resurrection* one more "big stretch of land of some 300 versts**". Later that year on the order of the Count Rumyantsev - the then Foreign Minister and Minister of Commerce-a special expedition was sent from Irkutsk to try and verify these reports. It was headed by an exiled official-registrar Matvei Geden-strom-who later became a prominent explorer of Eastern Siberia's north. On February 5,1809, after two and a half months of winter travel across the "dead land", known for its lowest temperatures in the whole of Eurasia, the expedition reached a small village of Ust Yansk where they were joined by Sannikov.

With the advent of spring snowstorms subsided and there came sun-

* It was recently established that this was the first name given to what is now the Faddeevsky Island. - Ed .

** One versta = 1.0668 km. - Ed .

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Pages. 79

Maps of routes of M. Gedenstrom, Ya. Sannikov and P. Pshenitsynin 1809 - 1811.

shine. Members of the expedition, traveling on dogsleds, reached their destination and started "mapping the coast in a most accurate manner possible and establishing the geographical latitude and longitude by their own astronomical observations and describing all objects of natural history and especially those which could be used by local craftsmen." Equipped with a marine compass, astrolabe and octant, Gedenstrom explored 220 versts of the southern coast of a big unnamed island which he named New Siberia "for reasons of its size and gloom". Ivan Kozhevin, a land-surveyor, studied the Bolshoi and Maly Lyakhovsky and Faddeevsky islands and Yakov Sannikov crossed in several places the strait between the island and established that it was from 7 to 30 versts across. Gedenstrom summed up their findings in a report and drew a map showing, in addition to the Bolshoi and Maly Lyakhovsky islands, also the islands of Stolbovoi and Belkovsky and partially Kotelny and Faddeevsky which was marked as "land discovered by bourgeois Sannikov".

In the autumn of 1809, Gedenstrom again welcomed Sannikov who returned from a trip to Novaya Sibir. He told him of his discovery of a river there flowing from the Derevyanny Hills (literally Timber Hills) called so because there were piles of driftwood brought in by tides.

In the meantime one of the members of the Gedenstrom team, Cossack Tatarinov, tried to travel on ice to the north of the island in an attempt to find there some land. But after some 25 versts he run into stormy open sea and had to turn back.

As for Sannikov, in 1810 he happened to be again on the northern coast of Novaya Sibir and again saw some blue haze in the north-east. The haze was also seen by Gedenstrom from another place on the same island-Cape Kamenny. He tried to travel in that direction but run into open water. Current calculations show that thanks to clear weather the pioneer explorers saw signs of islands which were actually discovered more than half a century later by an expedition of hydrographer-geodesist Lieutenant B. ViMtsky (that was the last attempt to find the Sannikov Land). The islands were called Vilkitsky (1913) and Zhokhov (1914).

That same year Yakov spoke again with the head of the expedition about high cliffs which he spotted to the north-west of the Kotelny at a distance of some 70 versts from the shore. In a word, there must have been several "Sannikov lands" in several places - all visible from the central isles of the Novosibirsk archipelago.

At this point it should be pointed out that in Arctic even an experienced explorer has problems assessing distance to some object by eye. According to one of our contemporary experts, oceanologist Sergei Kessel who drifted in 1988 on board the Russian research station "Severny Polyus-30" (North Pole 30), nearly all of its staff assessed distances of some 70 km as no greater than 20 km. Bearing this in mind, let us get back to the start of the 19th century.

In the spring of 1811 a Siberian miner-hunter provided his contribution to the explorations of the North: he proved that the Faddeevsky island is linked with the Kotelny by a "belt of sand". Thus he practically discovered a hitherto unknown dry land which was much later called Zemlya (land) Bunge. In the summer Sannikov with his sons Pyotr and Roman, army officer Reshetnikov and peasant Portnyagin traveled on reindeer across the Kotelny from west to east - from the Tsarevaya River to the Sannikov River and later all along its perimeter. At that time geodesist Pyotr Pshenitsyn explored the Faddeevsky island. On the basis of his own findings and notes of Sannikov he drew up a map of the Kotelny and of the Novosibirsky Archipelago as a whole. It was published shortly after in the "Atlas of Geographical Discoveries in Siberia and North-West America".

That was the end of the first expedition mounted in search of that "proverbial land". A map in Mercator projection drawn up by Gedenstrom on the basis of these findings shows two stretches of dry land observed by

Pages. 80

Sannikov in the Arctic Ocean. The first is depicted as part of the mountainous shore to the north-west of the Kotelny and the second as a narrow rocky isle located to the north of the Faddeevsky island and stretching from the northwest to south-east approximately to the meridian of Cape Vysokiy on the island of Novaya Sibir. Descriptions attached to the map said: "From the northern coasts (obviously of the Novosibirskie islands. - V. G.) at a distance of not more than 25 versts there is ice beyond which there is open, unfrozen sea. From the Kotelny and Faddeevsky islands one can see to the north-west and northeast distant bluish mountains which, incidentally, are inaccessible on dogsleds."

An interesting discovery related to the mysterious lands was made in 1815. One local Yakut native, Maxim Lyakhov, lost his way while trying to cross by ice the River Lena, flowing into the Laptev Sea, and reach the Kotelny. To the west of the Stolbovoi he came across two islands of ice covered by a layer of soil (Semenovsky and Vasilievsky) which have melted away and are no longer there.

In the spring of 1812, for verifying the findings of Gedenstrom and Sannikov, an expedition was formed headed by lieutenant Pyotr Anzhu-future admiral and prominent arctic explorer. Its task was to study the coast of the Kotelny up to its north-western extremity, describe the Belkovsky Island, then enter the strait between the Faddeevsky and Novaya Sibir islands and than travel northwards-towards the "land seen by Sannikov".

The detachment split into two groups: one headed by the lieutenant himself and the other - by navigator Ilya Berezhnykh. The first reached the area where the mysterious land must have been located. It was probably really there, but as Anzhu wrote later, remained unobserved because of its low location. The second part of the expedition in the meanwhile completed its studies on the Kotelny and the Faddeevsky and rejoined the Anzhu team. From there they all traveled by ice to the north in search of the other piece of land seen by Sannikov But 12 versts away they stepped onto some young ice which became thinner and thinner and had to turn east. Approaching Cape Vysokiy on the Novaya Sibir the party encountered a stretch of sea with floating ice. And Anzhu wrote that "no expected land was visible to the north".

Later on he tried to find the land, mentioned by Sannikov and Gedenstrom, to the north-east of the Novaya Sibir. But passing a distance of 25 versts he ran into open sea and had to turn back. On May 8, 1821 the expedition returned to Ust Yansk where its leader had a meeting with Sannikov himself who told him that the mysterious land was visible only in summer and at a distance of 90 versts.

Anzhu reported his findings to the Governor-General of Siberia, Mikhail Speransky (from 1819-Honorary Member of the Academy of Sciences) and he passed on the report to the Minister of the Navy, Jean de Travercet. Quoting the opinion of the Admiralty Collegiums, the top administrative body of the Russian Navy of that time, the above official replied that further attempts to find Sannikov Land are useless because the hunter-explorer "must have seen not dry land, but fog which looked like land". As for Speransky, he believed on the contrary that the task of primary importance for the following year was to renew the explorations in the Arctic Ocean. In his letter to Anzhu he wrote that was the only chance for new discoveries in the region of the Arctic Ocean and that explorations should be continued there unless and until some insurmountable obstacles are encountered.

On February 28,1822 a party led by Anzhu left for explorations of the Bolshoi and Maly Lyakhovsky islands. Once, near Cape Berezhnoi on the Faddeevsky island the leader of the party saw some bluish glow in the north-western direction, which looked like some distant land and there were even footprints of reindeer leading in that direction. But after covering a distance of some 15 versts the explorer saw

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Route of the ZARYA voyage in 1901 and the pedestrian expedition of Baron Toll to the Bennett island in 1902.

through his spy-glass high hills of ice. The party turned west and soon encountered an unknown island about 4-versts long. Its longest, northern, bank consisted of sand-and- clay deposits and fossil ice (the island has since sunk into the sea).

The leader of the expedition also made several attempts to find patches of dry land to the north of the Kotelny and to the north-east of the Faddeevsky, but always ran into open sea or very thin ice. Having completed their descriptions of the Vasilyevsky, Semenovsky and Belkovsky islands, the explorers returned to Ust Yansk at the end of March 1823. And although they failed to discover the Sannikov land, they brought with them descriptions of all of the newly discovered islands and determined the border of the greatest propagation of shore ice, sites of open water beyond permanent ice and the nature of high and low tides.

In 1825 the Admiralty published a map of "northern arctic lands... with their latest descriptions". The "Sannikov lands" were not included as not discovered until then, and shortly after their "eyewitnesses" departed this world, putting an end to the debates...

More than half a century later the American three-mast Jeannette was caught in the ice in that region. Her crew, headed by the arctic explorer, Captain De Long, tried to reach the North Pole. The attempt failed, but they discovered 3 islands to the northeast of the Novosibirsk Archipelago: Jeannette, Henrietta and Bennett. Informed about this discovery, the Learned Secretary of the Russian Geographical Society, Prof. A Grigoryev, suggested that these isles could be the lands seen by Sannikov and Gedenstrom from the Novaya Sibir.

In 1885 an expedition was organized by Prof. Alexander Bunge - a botanist and traveler, Honorary Member of the St. Petersburg Academy who later became Chief Physician of the Baltic Fleet. His aide was Baron Edward Toll, a zoologist and pioneer explorer of the Novosibirsky Archipelago. In August 1886, from the northern coast of the Kotelny isle, he saw in the north "clear outlines of four table mountains with low pointed rocks to the east of them" - the land which he later named after Sannikov. It was located some 150 versts away and "was similar to the mountainous islands of the Franz Josef Land, basalt rocks of the Bennette island and the pillars of Cape Svyatoi Nos..."

In 1891 - 1893 Prof. Toll wrote down some eyewitness accounts of local hunters and collectors of mammoth bones about some unknown island visible from the shores of the Kotelny. In one of the accounts of his quests he wrote: "My native guide, Jergili... who had seen the mysterious land time and again, told me his final dream in life was to set foot on the shore of that wonderland. Just do and die!"

In 1896 Acad. Toll submitted to the Academy his plan of a new expedition to North Siberia whose main objective was to search for "yet undiscovered dry land". And he was not discouraged by the fact that the famous Norwegian explorer of Arctic, Prof. Fridtjof Nansen (Foreign Honorary Member of the St. Petersburg Academy) who had visited that region in September of 1893 found nothing there (although he later put the Sannikov Land on his final map). Acad. Toll assumed therefore that the celebrated explorer must have passed to the north of the land in question, oriented in the latitude direction, and he could have been hampered by thick fogs.

The search for the mysterious land was not the aim in itself. Explorers were trying to find the answers to many questions linked with the geological past of Arctic and the disappearance of the mammoths. Deer antlers which De Long saw on the Bennett actually belonged in the opinion of Prof. Toll not to the animals of today, but to some contemporaries of mammoths which were there when the island was linked with the Sannikov Land.

Shortly after we learned about preparations of a Canadian expedition to that region. And Acad. Toll again raised the problem of stepping up Russian polar studies: "We, Russians, relying on the

Pages. 82

experience of our predecessors, by our own geographic position can mount better than all other nations expeditions for the discovery of an archipelago located to the north of our Novosibirskie islands and organize them so as to achieve both happy and fruitful results."

Finally, the scientists' initiative received Government support and funds for the new expedition. A whaling bark was bought in Norway, and rebuilt into a motorized sailboat called Zarya. Her crew and members of the expedition were handpickedby the organizers. A leading figure of the Russian Civil War, future Admiral Kolchak, served as magnetologist and hydrologist.

On March 24, 1900 Acad. Toll presented a report "On the Objectives of the Russian Polar Expedition Organized by the Academy of Sciences". He said that the research vessel "will set sail from the mouth of the Lena to the north, being equipped with 3 or 4 dog-sleds, and several deers... When it reaches the Sannikov Land in August and landing the expedition there... it will sail back to the mainland... Wbile some members of the expedition start doing their work on the Sannikov Land... others will be building a house for the winter... In the spring and summer of the following year geological, physico-geographical and topographical studied will be continued, possible as far as the Bennett Island... In summer of that year the vessel shall sail to the Sannikov Land again and take members of the expedition back home..." This plan was supported by Vice-Admiral Stepan Ushakov, a prominent scholar who was then in command of the Port of Kronstadt. He said: "Going in search of the unknown Sannikov Land, let the daring explorer Edward Toll know that we, seamen, are fully with him, highly value his labors and wish him from the bottom of the heart complete success and luck in the forthcoming expedition."

On June 21, 1900 the Zarya under the command of Lieutenant Nikolai Kolomeitsev and with members of the expedition on board set sail from Kronstadt to the Norwegian port of Tromso and then to Alexandrovsk-on-Murman and to the Dickson Island from where it set course for Cape Chelyuskin (in the north of the Taimyr Peninsula and further north to the Novosibirskie islands). But after three months at sea, on her way to Cape Chelyuskin, the ship ran into heavy ice and had to be anchored for winter in the Taimyr Strait. In the spring of 1901 A Kolchak traveled on sleds around the Belkovsky island and mapped it. He discovered south of it a small rocky island which he named after his coachman Strizhev. He also studied a huge iceberg which had run aground and often mistaken for an island, observed fog from the frost near the Great Siberian "Polynia" (unfrozen patch of water in the midst of ice) which appeared from distance "as some very stable forms which often assume fantastic shapes and forms because of light refraction and look like contours of land." He then explored the central part of the Kotelny, the Land of Bunge and banks of the Faddeevsky Island. But he found no Sannikov Land.

On August 12, 1901, the Zarya resumed her voyage. Sailing around the north-eastern part of the Taimyr Peninsula she sailed north of the Kotelny and soon reached a region where Sannikov could have seen his dry land. Acad. Toll wrote in his diary that "shallow depths suggest the proximity of land, but it is still not in sight". At about the same time a sailor saw from top of a mast belt of ice in the shape of a horse-shoe with a strip of free water behind. This report put the baron into depression.

On the following day the sea was covered by thick fog. Further search was pointless and the head of the expedition wrote in his diary: "It is quite clear now that one could have sailed scores of times past the Sannikov Land and failed to see it." On August 29 the ship approached the Bennett Island but moving further was dangerous because of heavy ice. So they had to sail back and then go northwards as far as they could. This route passed across the regions where silhouettes of rocky shores were clearly seen by Sannikov in 1810 and Toll in 1886. But this time around no one saw anything of the kind, and on September 11 the expedition cast anchor for winter off the western shore of the Kotelny.

Pages. 83

On June 14, 1902 Prof. Toll, astronomer F. Zeeberg and two locals - Protodyakov and Gorokhov - with bag-fols of provisions and dogfood, two rowing boats and other necessities left for the Bennett Island across ice. On the eve, the head of the party handed in to the new captain of the Zarya, lieutenant Fyodor Matisen, a new letter of instruction. It said, among other things, that: "As for your instruction to pick us up from the Bennett Island, you must always retain the freedom of maneuver of the vessel in the ice because losing that you will be unable to fulfil that objective. The time limit when you will be allowed to give up attempts to pick me up from the Bennett will be the moment when the stock of fuel on the Zarya will run out. I have foil confidence about a successful and safe completion of our expedition."

But the ship was unable to cut her way through the ice by the appointed time and sailed back in keeping with the instruction. At the Academy of Sciences Lieutenant Kolchak was able to organize a rescue party for Acad. Toll and his party which had to reach their destination by boat. Kolchak later wrote that "the attempt was of the same kind as that of Baron Toll. But there was no other way out..." Unfortunately, the mission, involving unimaginable problems and endangering the lives of the participants, failed to achieve the expected results. As it was, members of the expedition had left the Bennett and traveled to the south months earlier (as was established later). As for A Kolchak, he only found Prof. Toll report addressed to the Academy President. It described the geology, flora and fauna of the Bennett, including birds which flew over it from north to the south: "Because of fog it was impossible to see the dry land from where the birds came, like at the time of the previous navigation."

So it appears that the daring explorers found rest eternal under the Arctic waves. But their efforts and achievements were not in vain. As Admiral Makarov pointed out: "All polar expeditions were a failure in terms of fulfilling their objectives. But if we do know something about the Arctic Ocean, this is thanks to these unsuccessful expeditions."

Summit it up, we know now that there were several Sannikov lands. On the strength of the available data they can be classified in the following way: those seen by Yakov Sannikov to the north-west and to the north of the Kotelny island and to the north-east of the Faddeevsky, which remained undiscovered; islands seen by him and Gedenstrom to the north-east of the Novaya Sibir and discovered in 1881 by De Long (Bennett, Jeannette and Henrietta) and in 1913 - 1914 by Russian seamen (Vilkitsky and Zhokhov islands); lands really discovered by Sannikov in 1800, 1805 and 1811- Stolbovoi, Faddeevsky and Bunge Land which were described and put on the map.

Thus pioneer Yakov Sannikov is considered by right the discoverer of many geographical objects. But why could they not find some others which are clearly visible in clear weather? And if they really were there, why did they "fade away" and what was the cause of that? These really intriguing questions belong, however, to a different subject. And it should also be noted at this point that according to the aforesaid oceanologist S. Kessel, the Russian research vessel Stvor visited in 1980 the region at 77 - 78° N L and 140° E L (approximately where Prof. E. Toll saw that mysterious land). As proved by investigations sea depths there are relatively shallow and the seabed is sandy with some silty patches. And that means that until recently there could be an island there made of fossil ice and it was considered to be the Sannikov Land.

Data sources used in the article were offered to the author by Honorary Polar Explorer Prof. L. Sverdlov and writer V. Sinyukov.


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Valery GLUSHKOV, SANNIKOV LAND: FACT OR FICTION? // Moscow: Russian Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.RU). Updated: 27.09.2018. URL: (date of access: 28.09.2021).

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