The Explorer showed Russia its greatness.

by: Katherine Marsh

I t’s hard to imagine Russia without the immensity of Siberia, rich in timber and minerals, stretching across six time zones from the Urals to the Pacific. But at the start of the 18th century, Russia’s center of gravity was about as far west as it could be, at the ornate new capital of St. Petersburg on the Baltic marshes. The task of turning Russia’s eyes to the east fell to a middle-aged, dutiful Dane named Vitus Bering. The corpulent, double-chinned gentleman shown in the only known portrait of Bering doesn’t look like much of an explorer. Indeed, the image reinforces a view of Bering as an overly cautious cornmander, too quick to retreat from danger. But two new books on Bering—the first in a century—paint a different picture: of a steadfast leader whose expeditions helped transform Russia into a world power. Bering, by Alaska Pacific University Prof Orcutt Frost, credits him with opening up Siberia for development. And Peter Ulf Moller of Aarhus University in Denmark, co-editor of the essay collection Under Vitus Bering’s Command, says Bering transformed Russians’ sense of identity, making them aware “of the greatness of their territory.”

Born in Denmark in 1681, Bering learned navigation on Dutch and Danish ships. In 1704, he was recruited to join Peter the Great’s newly formed Russian Imperial Navy. More than 20 years later, after commanding ships during Russia’s war with Sweden and its campaign against the Turks, Bering got his shot at glory. Peter wanted to map his vast lands to the east and. if possible, extern them into the New World. In 1725, he charged Bering with charting Siberia’ northern coast and searching for a land bridge to America.

Bering and his crew first had to travel over 3,000 miles across forbidding and often frigid territory. Among their burdens: eight cannons and various materials for the ship they would build once they reached Okhotsk, a cluster of huts on the Pacific. “One of his achievements was his ability to take care of the logistics s of a huge operation,” says Moller.  From Okhotsk, Bering and his crew sailed more than 1,000 miles up the Siberian coast, becoming the first to chart the Asian side of the sea now named for Bering, and the first to disprove the idea of a land bridge. The resulting maps showed that Siberia extends 30 degrees of longitude farther east than previously thought. “These maps changed the whole Western European conception of Russia,” says Carol Urness of the University of Minnesota. They also whetted the government’s appetite for exploration. Two years after his return, Bering was appointed leader of a second great expedition and instructed to sail to America. He marshaled a virtual army—several thousand soldiers, boat-men, carpenters, naval officers, and scientists, plus many families, including his own—for a four-year trek across Russia. Upon reaching Okhotsk, Bering’s team s spent three years building ships and an entire port city. On June 4,1741, he and his crew set off for North America, reaching Kayak Island off the coast of Alaska in late July. Bering weighed anchor the next day, a move that some historians deem craven but that Urness believes was prudent, given the threat of fall storms.

As it was, the ship never made it home. Fighting contrary winds, it made slow progress, as scurvy killed 12 men and weakened the rest. Fierce storms drove the ship off course, and on November 6, it was wrecked on uninhabited Bering Island. It was only the following summer that the crew managed to build a new ship and return to port. In the meantime, 20 more men had died, Bering among them.

Bering hasn’t always gotten full credit for his legacy to his adopted country. Now even his physique is getting its due. In 1991, 250 years after his death, a group of Danish and Russian scientists traveled to Bering Island and exhumed his remains. A reconstruction revealed a strongly built, lean, and muscular man. Urness and others think the famous painting actually depicts a different Vitus Bering, a writer and poet who could have been every bit as sedentary as the portrait implies.

Bering's Strait



February 23 / March 1, 2004 (pg. 82)

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