Russia's Great Voyages
Russia's Great Voyages

About this ExhibitWhy They Set SailWho They FoundBiodiversity | Public Programs



About This Exhibit

Science Under Sail: Russia's Great Voyages to America 1728-1867 tells the story of early Russian maritime exploration in the North Pacific. More than two hundred years ago, Russian naturalists, ethnographers, astronomers, cartographers, geographers and artists first described the west coast of America to the rest of the world. To this day, much of our knowledge about the peoples and places of the North Pacific Ocean is based on those Russian reports, artworks and maps. The exhibit showcases a scale model of Bering’s ship and the brilliant, colorful maps made during that expedition’s 7000-mile trek across Siberia, along with portraits of Native Californians and Alaskans, artifacts, and original watercolors of botanical and animal species.

This exhibit has been prepared in collaboration with the Anchorage Museum of Histroy and Art.



Captain Otto von Kotzebue
  Captain Otto von Kotzebue, from a painting by A.A. Tron, 1989. Central Naval Museum, St. Petersburg.

Why They Set SailIn 1700 the North Pacific Ocean appeared much larger than it does today. On maps of that time, it occupied nearly all of western North America. Legend filled its waters with fantastic islands and continents. Mariners feared its storms, fogs, and ice. No European power dared explore its limits. It was Russia—a nation with little ocean-going experience—that would reveal the North Pacific to the world.

In 1725, when Peter the Great, Tsar of All the Russias, was near death at the age of 53, he launched an enterprise which gave the North Pacific its present borders and described its land and peoples. Over the course of 140 years, Russia sent more than 225 ships into the North Pacific, first to establish, and then to serve its colony in North America.

Russia's voyages were inspired by motives common to European nations:

  • secure routes of commerce, especially with China and Japan
  • search for new resources
  • secure the Empire's borders
  • play a role in the fierce European competition for "new lands," resources and strategic value

Tsar Peter had introduced China to the luxurious furs of Siberia and built up his Treasury by a monopoly on the fur trade. In 1724, he founded the Academy of Sciences, declaring his desire to create and "empire of knowledge" and "seek glory through the arts and sciences." The Russian Navy, which he had created in 1698, would work closely with the Academy of Sciences. Over the next 150 years, their expeditions not only charted every island and inlet of the north while seeking new resources for Russia's Treasury, these mariners and scientists also introduced new lands, species, and peoples.


Bringing knowledge to perfectionMariners and scientists alike received instructions from the Russian government about what they should look for, and how objects should be preserved and described. Some of the most detailed instructions are those issued by Catherine the Great in 1785.

Painting of Kronstadt Roads
  Kronstadt Roads, I.K. Aivazovsky, 1840; oil on canvas. The Russians imperial naval base at Kronstadt northeast of St. Petersburg was the port of embarkation not only for all the major voyages of exploration from 1803 onward, but also for many of the Russian-American Company vessels that serviced the colony posts in Alaska and California. Ships might be built elsewhere, as in England or Finland, but they were always outfitted at Kronstadt before sailing.

Catherine ruled Russia from 1762 to 1769, a period of important expansion to the east across the Pacific. She took great interest in her empire, not only in extending it, but also in describing it. Under her rule, the Billings-Sarychev voyage (1785-1792) produced three detailed journals, a large atlas of charts and engravings, and an outstanding volume of drawings. All of the journals are now available in English. One contains the very instructions of Catherine herself:

To Fleet Captain Joseph Billings
Regarding The Expedition to Siberia and Northwest America, 1785

Her Imperial Majesty, extending her maternal and unremitting care for the happiness of her subjects to all, even the most distant part of her vast dominions, has been graciously pleased to order...and expedition of discovery to the most eastern coasts and seas of Her Empire...bringing to perfection the knowledge acquired under her glorious reign, of the seas lying between the continent of Siberia and the opposite coast of America.

You are to determine the latitude and longitude of remarkable draw remarkable views of coasts...

You are likewise to make...circumstantial descriptions of the quality and use, and even drawings, of the most curious productions of nature;

You are to enquire...about the number, strength, natural dispositions, manners and occupations of the inhabitants of unknown places; likewise order to be made vocabularies of their language...

You will particularly attend to trees, shrubs, land and water plants, preserving as many specimens as possible, particularly any that are extraordinary or new...

You will collect and cause to be stuffed or otherwise preserved, all extraordinary quadrupeds, birds, fish, amphibious animals, insects, shellfish, or zoophytes...

Meteorological observations...demand your strictest attention.

Lastly, you are to procure (or, if that be not possible, to get painted, or describe) the furs, dress, arms, and manufactures of such nations.


Search for the Northeast PassageSince the 17th century, Europe sought a northwest passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, while Russian expeditions, sailing east from the Pacific, searched for a "northeast passage." Although no passage was found, these Russian explorations provided knowledge of new places and peoples to Europeans. Fro 1790 to 1840, Russian mariners succeeded in charting the Arctic and Pacific shores of Siberia. They reached beyond Point Barrow in North America. Their voyages included important scientific studies, testing of new technologies, revelations about the dynamic peoples of the "New World" and thousands of plant, animal, and mineral identifications for European museums.

Traveling Samovar Sextant
Traveling samovar, Russian, early 19th century. Samovars such as this were used on the Russian voyages. Brass. John C. Middleton Collection, California.   Sextant, early 19th century. John C. Middleton Collection, California.


Fort Ross
Fort Ross, Il'ya G. Voznesensky, 1841. Artists on the voyages were keenly interested in views of San Francisco and Fort Ross. Voznesensky spent more than four years in Russian America drawing, painting, and collecting specimens. A prodigious collector, he sent more than 40 trunks with more than 6,000 zoological specimens to St. Petersburg. Watercolor. Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg.


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