Polar Record. Page 1 of 23. c
Cambridge University Press 2016. doi:10.1017/S0032247416000449 1
The Russian Antarctic Expedition under the command of
Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and its reception in
Russia and the world
Department of Geography, University of Tartu, Vanemuise 46, Tartu, Estonia; and Centre for
Science Studies, Estonian University of Life Sciences, Baer House, Veski 4, Tartu, Estonia
Received February 2016
ABSTRACT. The existence of an icy continent around the South Pole is known to everybody today. But it is common
to ascribe this kind of modern knowledge to navigators sailing in southern polar waters in the 19th century. A
good illustration of this is the Russian Antarctic expedition (1819–1821) under the conduct of Fabian Gottlieb von
Bellingshausen (Russian version Faddej Faddeevich Bellinsgauzen), the reception of which in Russian society of the
19th and 20th centuries is analysed in this article. During the cold war, beginning at the end of the 1940s, the question
of who discovered Antarctica turned from being a scientiﬁc problem into a subject of political struggle between
the United States of America, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. This article provides an analysis of the Russian
discovery in the area, while at the same time, attempting to give an answer to the main question of the history of
Antarctic exploration which is: is it well-justiﬁed to establish the ﬁrst discoverer of Antarctica? All the dates in the
text are according to the Gregorian calendar.
The sovietization of Russian science began in the Soviet
Union in the early 1930s and was almost concluded
before World War II. Repression and several campaigns
against scientists created an atmosphere of fear in order
to make scientists loyal to the Soviet regime. The next
ideological step was to rewrite the history of world sci-
ence on the basis of materials from the Soviet archives, in
order to emphasise the prominence of Russian science in
numerous scientiﬁc discoveries as well as in geographical
studies. The Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union
(AS SU) took responsibility for this, as in, for example,
1947 when the Soviet Union took part in an international
discussion on the invention of radio (Sonin 2011: 411–
416, 433). The project had to be coordinated with the Sec-
retariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party
of the Soviet Union (CPSU) (Osipov and Esakov 2000:
391). On 11 January 1949, the general meeting of the
AS SU accepted the Central Committee’s ‘suggestions
for ideological activities and Joseph Stalin’s instructions
concerning the revision of science history in the Marxist-
Leninist [context],’ emphasising the ‘urgent need for
improving and extending the activities in the ﬁelds
of science history and technology’ (Postanovlenie . . .
In writing the ‘true history’ of science, the Russian
expedition to the Antarctic in the nineteenth century
(the ofﬁcial name was ‘premiere division partie’ (‘ﬁrst
squadron of sloops’) (compare de Traversay 1819)) under
the leadership of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen
became one of the ﬁrst ideological battleﬁelds for Soviet
researchers. On 9 August 1948, the United States of
America called upon seven states that had made colonial
claims to Antarctica (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France,
New Zealand, Norway and United Kingdom) to give up
their demands and together establish an eight power con-
dominium to assume collective sovereignty over Antarc-
tica (Berg 1949:4;Bulkeley2013: 10). The Soviet Union
was to be excluded from this collective. Such a proposal
could not be met without a contest. On 29 January 1949,
the CPSU decided that at ﬁrst, it would be appropriate not
to use ofﬁcial methods to draw attention to the rights of
the Soviet Union to the Antarctic (Dokladnaya . . . 1950).
This suggestion was included in the resolution of the
meeting of the Soviet Geographical Society, convened
especially for this purpose on the initiative of the CPSU
on 10 February 1949 (Berg 1949: 31–32). The Soviet
Union’s right to participate in political discussions about
Antarctica was asserted on the grounds of the Belling-
shausen expedition. This fact on its own, however, was
insufﬁcient to assert Soviet interests; a new version of the
‘exploration’ of the Antarctic continent, starting with the
Russian Antarctic expedition, had to be planned.
This article discusses treatments of the Russian Ant-
arctic expedition in the context of western, Russian and
Soviet ideas about the Antarctic in the 19th and 20th
centuries. The analysis focuses on the arguments put
forward by Soviet scientists between 1945 and 1970
that the ice shelf (verge of the Antarctic continent) was
ﬁrst sighted and thus discovered namely by the Russian
expedition. In this context, whether Bellingshausen and
his contemporaries interpreted the nature of continental
ice the same way that scientists of the twentieth century
did is the decisive question. The answer would indicate
whether it is correct to ascribe present-day knowledge
to people from the nineteenth century; in the present
case, concerning a continent that can consist of ice. Even
today, a deﬁnitive claim over the ‘ﬁrst exploration’ of
the Antarctic continent depends on the answer to this
question, which is political in nature. From a scientiﬁc
and historical point of view, it would perhaps not be
correct to give one deﬁnite answer. The article tries to
contribute to the depolitisation of the history of Antarctic
General conceptions of the physical geography of the
South Pole region before the 19th century
During his great voyage of 1519–1521, Fernando Magal-
hães discovered that south of the strait he had crossed
(which opened a route from the Atlantic to the Pa-
ciﬁc Ocean) was ‘Tierra del Fuego’. The following
voyages under the leadership of Francis Drake, Jacob
le Maire, William Dampier, Jacob Roggeween, Jean
Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier and Edmund Halley
proved that the ancient conception of the large ‘Terra
Australis’ was outdated and if it existed, then most prob-
ably in the region of the South Pole. The ﬁrst to analyse
the voyages to that extensive territory, in the past called
‘Terra Australis’, was the French encyclopaedist Charles
de Brosses in his publication Historie des navigations
aux Terres Australes of 1756. According to him, voyages
to the region of the South Pole indicated that ice was
encountered at very low latitudes. He interpreted that
as the evidence of considerably more severe climate
in this region, as compared to the North Pole. Brosses
concluded that difﬁcult ice conditions were the reason
why a continent had not been yet discovered in the South
Pole region (Brosses 1756: 1: 47, 69, 2: 314).
The famous British circumnavigator James Cook at-
tempted to solve the question of the presence of a con-
tinent in the region of the South Pole during his second
voyage around the world (1772–1775). Cook wrote in
his travelogue: ‘Thus I ﬂatter myself, that the intention
of voyage has, in every respect, been fully answered;
the southern hemisphere sufﬁciently explored; and an
ﬁnal end put to the searching after southern continent,
which has at times, ingrossed the attention of some of the
maritime powers, for near two centuries past, and been
a favourite theory amongst the geographers of all ages.
That there may be a continent, or large tract of land, near
the pole, I will not deny; on the contrary I am opinion
there is; and it is probable that we have seen a part of it.
The excessive cold, the many islands and vast ﬂoats of
ice, all tend to prove that there must be land to the South’
(Cook 1777: 239). Some pages later Cook stated: ‘If any
one should have resolution and perseverance to clear up
this point by proceeding farther than I have done, I shall
not envy him the honour of the discovery; but I will be
bold to say, that the world will not be beneﬁted by it’
(Cook 1777: 243).
Cook supposed that his expedition had put an end
to the speculations concerning the physical geography
of the South Pole. Indeed, it partly had. In 1778, a
close friend and colleague of Brosses, Georges-Louis
Leclerc de Buffon, the most inﬂuential 18th century
natural scientist, published in his voluminous work His-
toire naturelle, générale et particulière special maps of
the physical geographies of the North and South Poles
with respective explanations added to volume 5 (Buffon
1778: 601–615). Relying on the data of severe climate
by navigators who had been to the regions of the Arctic
and Antarctic, he, as had some earlier authorities, reached
a logical conclusion accepted by his contemporaries that
the poles were permanently covered with ice. It means
that he conﬁrmed the view of Cook that there was no
point in trying to ﬁnd some economic beneﬁt from the
South Pole region. Describing the ﬂoating continuous
ice sheet, Buffon applied a witty metaphor of cork (ice
cap), comparing ice around both poles with ‘une calotte
de glace solide & continue’ (Buffon 1778: 604). To the
question whether there was a continent or a number of
islands in the region of the South Pole, Buffon preferred
not to answer.
Buffon’s publications were widely known. One of the
best experts on the Russian Antarctic expedition, Rip
Bulkeley (2014: 57–58), has pointed out that Buffon’s ice
cap hypothesis in the North and South Poles was cited
in several publications and was even included in maps.
But if the Russian Minister of the Navy, Jean-Baptiste
Prevost de Sansac, Marquis de Traversay, who was the
initiator of the Russian Antarctic expedition (July 1819–
August 1821), had used Buffon’s speculative hypothesis
as the main source, the Bellingshausen expedition, prob-
ably, would have never taken place. De Traversay knew
the publications of Cook and, relying on his data, was
convinced that there was a continent in the region of the
South Pole and it was possible to ﬁnd it. That supposition
encouraged Russians to launch the Antarctic expedition
(de Traversay [1818–1819]; compare Tammiksaar and
Antarctic expeditions from the 1820s to 1920s
The origin, course and results of the Bellingshausen
expedition on board the sloops Mirnyj and Vo s t o k are well
known today (Bellingshausen 1945; Rubin 1982;Bulke-
ley 2014), while the Soviet historiography of the Russian
Antarctic expedition has been studied (Ovlashchenko
2014;2016). The members of the Russian Antarctic
expedition, Bellingshausen and the astronomer Ivan M.
Simonov, accepted the opinion of Cook that it was
impossible to determine whether the Antarctic continent
existed (Nähere . . . 1821; Bellinsgauzen 1823; Simonow
1824; Debenham 1945;Bulkeley2014). But, unlike
Cook, the Russians discovered patches of terrestrial land,
Peter I Island and Alexander I Coast, south of the Antarc-
tic Circle in January 1821 (Fig. 1).
During the Bellingshausen voyage the south polar
regions were also visited by three mariners – in 1819
the English William Smith on the brig Williams and in
1820 Master in the Royal Navy Edward Bransﬁeld with
Smith in the same vessel and also the American sealer
Nathaniel Palmer on the sloop Hero. They made dis-
coveries in the northern part of the Antarctic peninsula.
Smith discovered the South Shetland Islands in 1819, and
BELLINGSHAUSEN’S ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION AND ITS RECEPTION IN RUSSIA AND THE WORLD 3
Fig. 1. Map of the southern hemisphere with the islands discovered by the Russian Antarctic expedition (Bellinsgauzen,
1831a). There is no remark on the discovery of the Antarctic continent.
these were further examined by Smith and Bransﬁeld in
1820. During this examination Bransﬁeld sighted, on 30
January 1820, terrestrial land west of the South Shetland
Islands and named it ‘Trinity land’ (compare Gould
1941). Palmer made his discovery on 17 November 1820
when he sighted Trinity land later named partly after him
as Palmer Land (Balch 1925; Debenham 1945: xxiv).
These as in the case of Bellingshausen’s discoveries
caused no big sensation in that time in European society.
After Bellingshausen’s voyage, expeditions to the
region of the South Pole continued. Many whalers and
sealers visited South Polar regions (Headland 2009: 123–
154). In 1821–1824, the British sealer Benjamin Morell
(1832) sailed in the southern polar waters; in 1822–1824,
there was the British sealer James Weddell (1827) and in
1830–1833, the British sealer John Biscoe (1833;1901).
The ﬁrst Russian circumnavigator Adam Johann von
Krusenstern (in Russian Ivan Fedorovich Kruzenshtern)
was, until the 1830s, convinced that there was no con-
tinent present in the region of the South Pole (Kru-
senstern 1821:3;1830; Kruzenshtern 1830: 106; com-
pare Tammiksaar and Kiik 2013:181, 185, 188). Having
learned about the discoveries of the British John Biscoe,
Krusenstern wrote to Alexander von Humboldt in 1833:
Bellingshausen’s ‘discoveries at 69 South Latitude awoke
interest again in connection with the discoveries of Capt.
Biscoe [Enderby and Graham Lands] in the same region.
It cannot be excluded that there is a connection with Capt.
Bellingshausen’s Alexander Land . . . If that appears to
be true, it makes for the extent [of this land] over 900
miles and, no doubt, deserves to be called continent’
(Krusenstern 1833; B.[erghaus] 1863: 11–12).
Fig. 2. Charles Wilkes (1844b) was the ﬁrst who stated that he had discovered Antarctica. His discovery was depicted
in the ‘Chart of the Antarctic Continent described as an icy barrier discovered by Charles Wilkes 1840.’
The captain Paul Theodor von Krusenstern (compare
Keyserling, Krusenstern, 1843; Kruzenshtern 1879;Kru-
senstjern 1982: 1–10) wanted to check his father’s sup-
position. In 1833, he met James Clark Ross at Kronshtadt,
who planned an expedition to the South Pole and invited
Krusenstern to join it. But he refused as he dreamed of
organising his own expedition to these areas but failed
(Perneder 1990: 82–83).
After Biscoe visited the South Polar regions in 1837–
1840, the British sealer John Balleny (1839); in 1838–
1841, the French circumnavigator Jules Sebastién César
Dumont d’Urville (1987); in 1838–1839, the American
captain Charles Wilkes (1844a); and in 1839–1841, the
British sailor and scientist James Clark Ross (1847)
also explored in the area. Discoveries made during these
expeditions were similar to those of the Bellingshausen
expedition; new separate patches of terrestrial land were
added to the maps of the region in the southern hemi-
sphere (Fig. 2).
The J.C. Ross expedition in 1841, however, dis-
covered a large landmass with high mountains. Victoria
Land, and ‘ice barrier’ were more prominent than the
patches of terrestrial land discovered during previous
expeditions. Numerous discoveries changed the general
situation, and more people, such as Wilkes (1844a),
member of the J.C. Ross’ expedition Robert McCormick
(1847), geologist Gregor von Helmersen (in Russian
Gregor Petrovich Gel’mersen), geographer Leopold von
Schrenck (in Russian Leopol’d Ivanovich Shrenk), astro-
nomer Otto Struve, geophysicist Emil Lenz (in Russian
Emilij Khristianovich Lents) (Smirnov 1998: 51) and
John Murray (1886) began speculating on the existence
of a continent in the south.
Others, especially the cartographers August
Petermann (1850;1863a) and Alexander Keith Johnston
(1848), Bellingshausen’s companion Simonov (1844),
meteorologist Matthew Fontaine Maury (1860: 463–
479), Ferdinand von Wrangell (in Russian Ferdinand Pet-
rovich Vrangel’) (Smirnov 1998) and geophysicist Georg
Neumayer (1885,1896a, 1896b) speculated over the
question of sea or archipelago behind the ice barriers in
the region of the South Pole. Those who were more cau-
tiously inclined left questions open about the existence of
a continent or a sea. The fact that most of the seafarers in
the 19th century saw ice in the south made the problem
even more complicated, as they did not ﬁnd a logical ex-
planation for the origin of such high ice masses, whether
they had been formed on the mountainous continent, in
the sea, or between islands. Each explorer put forward
his own argument. In terms of today’s knowledge, their
assumptions were not accurate (Wilkes 1844a: 349–354;
d’Urville 1987: 479–488; Ross 1847: 274–275).
For Russian scientists, as well as their European
colleagues, it was difﬁcult to establish what there was
BELLINGSHAUSEN’S ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION AND ITS RECEPTION IN RUSSIA AND THE WORLD 5
in the South Pole region. However, although reliable
knowledge of the physical geography of the South Pole
region was scant, this did not bother those who believed
in the existence of a continent there and, depending on
their nationality, people considered Wilkes, d’Urville, or
J.C. Ross as the ﬁrst explorer of Antarctica. Among them,
Ross was even in Russia considered to have contributed
the most to the exploration and discovery of the Antarctic
(Otkrytie . . . 1842: 48–52; Baer 2001: 45; Seybt 1847;V;
Kämtz 1848: 85–88; Lenz 1858: 45; Nordman 1877:8;
Smirnov 1998: 46–54). Pavel M. Novosil’skij, an ofﬁcer
on Mirnyj, was probably very disappointed that the dis-
covery of the Antarctic continent by the Bellingshausen
(he died in 1852) expedition was not mentioned in his ob-
ituaries (Anonymous 1853; Milyutin 1853: 6; Zhizneop-
isanie . . . 1853). That may be the reason why Novosil’skij
very soon after the obituaries published two pamphlets,
The sixth continent, or, a brief account of voyages to
the south from Cook to Ross ([Novosil’skij] 1854) and
a diary entitled South Pole ([Novosil’skij] 1853) claiming
publicly, for the ﬁrst time in Russia, that Russians, who
discovered the Alexander I Coast in January 1821, should
be considered the pioneers of the Antarctic continent.
He wrote: ‘ . . . until the present day, neither in Russian
nor in foreign languages, has there appeared any special
study on the southern continent [which I have compiled]
and the ﬁrst discovery of it rightly belongs to Russian
navigators’ ([Novosil’skij] 1854: 17).
Novosil’skij was elected a member of the Russian
Geographical Society on 11 February 1854 and in
the same year he wrote his book The sixth continent
(Otchet . . . 1855: 5, footnote 1; 71). Next year, on 25
April 1855, he presented his conclusions to the general
meeting of the geographical society (65 members were
present) (Obshchee . . . 1855: 20). Friedrich Benjamin
von Lütke (in Russian Fedor Petrovich Litke), the ﬁrst
vice-president of the Russian geographical society, did
not agree with Novosil’skij’s statements and probably
initiated a critical discussion on this question after the
presentation. We know Lütke’s views thanks to his letter
(January 1856) to the secretary of the St Petersburg
Academy of Sciences. The Academy had commissioned
Lütke to review Novosil’skij’s books for the Demidov’s
Prize awards (Dvadtsat’ . . . 1856) and in this letter he
severely criticised Novosil’skij’s statement and his pub-
lications. Lütke wrote: ‘ . . . now, after all the discov-
eries made in recent times [in the southern areas], and
especially after the discovery of the Antarctic continent,
interest in Bellingshausen’s discoveries is fading. . . .
This expedition had no scientiﬁc value, as no scientists
took part in that and sailors only made their every-
day ordinary observations’ (Lütke 1856: 3). Obviously,
that disapproval by Lütke after the presentation was the
reason why Novosil’skij changed his attitude in his next
article (Otchet . . . 1856: 53) writing at the end of 1855:
‘Are all these coasts [discovered during the 19th century]
emerging [in the region of the South Pole] parts of a
continuous continent or, vice versa, are these different
lands? This question will be solved by navigators sailing
in the polar sea in the future’ (Novosil’skij 1855: 30).
Novosil’skij’s statements were almost forgotten in
Russia (except in [Russwurm] 1870: 17; G[ershau] 1892:
373, 381) until 1949 (Ostrovskij 1949). However, the
claim that the Russian expedition had discovered the
Antarctic continent upon the discovery of the Alexander
I Coast in January 1821 attracted more attention after ex-
peditions by the Belgian (Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery
1897–1899), the British (Carsten Borchgrevink 1898–
1900; Robert Falcon Scott 1901–1903; Ernest Shackleton
1908), the German (Erich von Drygalski 1901–1903),
the Swedish (Otto von Nordenskiöld 1901–1903), and
the French (Jean-Baptiste Charcot 1904–1907) explorers
yielded evidence of the existence of an Antarctic con-
tinent consisting mainly of continental ice. This was
supported by the famous Russian geographer Lev Berg
(1929: 47, 1946: 109) as well as other Russian authors
(Rabinovich 1908: 5; Vvedenskij 1940: 46; 1941: 121;
Such an approach was still not dominant in Russia in
the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century. The Bellingshausen
expedition did not result in the discovery of Antarctica,
but it was considered very important in the exploration
of southern polar areas in the 1840s, although this ex-
pedition was not the immediate trigger for the under-
standing of Antarctica as a continent (Shpindler 1903:
281; Grigor’ev 1937: 15; Raikhenberg 1941). The most
important supporter of this view was another Russian
geographer, Yulij Shokal’skij (1898;1902;1928: 191).
The question of the Antarctic continent and
ice age theory
Until today, in the explanation of the nature of the
Antarctic continent, attention has not been paid to the ice
age theory developed in the 19th century. That, however,
is important as since 1949, thanks to Admiral Evgenij
Evgen’evich Shvede (1949: 27, 1960: 38), the conception
that Bellingshausen and Lazarev understood the nature
of the ice continent and thus can be correctly considered
the discoverers of the Antarctic continent began to gain
ground in Soviet publications. Tobias Krüger (2013) has
pointed out that in the history of geology the question
of the extension of glaciers from the Alps to different
regions of Europe was discussed as early as the 18th
century. The main question was how erratic blocks were
transported long distances from their original places. At
ﬁrst the transportation was not considered to be con-
nected with past changes in the climate of the Earth.
The theory of ice ages, partly based on meteorological
and geological ﬁeld observations in the Alps, attracted
greater attention among European scholars thanks to the
Swiss scientists Ignatz Venetz (1833), Jean de Charpen-
tier (1835) and Louis Agassiz (1837a,1837b; Agassiz
and Bettannier 1840). It means that Bellingshausen and
Lazarev did not know the ice age theory when writing
their works. They, after all, were not scholars (although
they have been speciﬁed in this way), but navigators who
had to carry out certain tasks.
Bellingshausen, probably, ﬁrst learnt about the ice age
theory in September 1842 when Karl Ernst von Baer
(in Russian Karl Maksimovich Bér), member of the St
Petersburg Academy of Sciences, applied to him as head
of the port of Kronshtadt for renting a boat for a trip
to islands of the Gulf of Finland (Baer 1842; Sukhova
and Tammiksaar 2015: 38; footnote 30). He wanted to
show Alexander Theodor von Middendorff (in Russian
Aleksandr Fedorovich Middendorf) the traces of the
glacial era in these islands. Baer hoped that Middendorff
(who was appointed the leader of a Siberian expedition
organised by the Academy of Sciences in 1842–1845)
would, as a result, better appreciate indicators of former
glaciation in Siberia (Tammiksaar 2002: 132). Whether
Bellingshausen drew on this basis any conclusions con-
cerning his earlier observations in the region of the South
Pole, the data at our disposal do not provide an answer.
It is noteworthy that the naturalists who proved the
existence of ice age in the history of Europe, Siberia
and Middle Asia were not very much interested in ﬁeld
study to establish the reasons of the drift of real glaciers.
They tried to establish former boundaries of continental
ice with the help of geological data available (Drygalski
1896: 25). As geological traces of the glacial epoch in
Siberia with its severe climate, as in several places in
Europe, were contradictory, the theory was not accepted
with enthusiasm (Sukhova 2000). On the contrary, it took
a long period, from 1840s to 1870s, to prove the validity
of the ice age theory. It was mainly the Swedish geologist
Otto Martin Torell, who studied the phenomenon of
glaciers in Switzerland, Spitsbergen and Greenland in the
1850s and later proved that the glacial era also existed in
Scandinavia and several other places in Europe (Krüger
Since the theory of the glacial era was acknowledged,
it was often emphasised in scholarly literature that the ice
age still exists in the Arctic and Antarctic (Ratzel 1885:
17). That was a theoretical conception. Only the drift of
Alpine glaciers at the place had been studied, not the drift
of continental glaciers. Thus the physical preconditions
and possibility of the movement of inland ice was in
practice unknown. The ﬁrst important attempts in the
study of the physical laws of its movement were made
by the Dane Hinrich Rink in Greenland in 1848–1851.
Adolf-Erik Nordenskiöld carried out similar studies in
the same region in the 1870s. The German geographer
Erich von Drygalski measured in practice the movement
of inland ice in Greenland in 1892–1893 and discovered
numerous indicators of the principles of their drift
(Lüdecke 2015: 16–23).
By the time that Drygalski carried out his Green-
land expedition, the voyages by Wilkes, d’Urville and
J.C. Ross had become history. Only the Challenger
expedition of 1872–1876 made a short visit to the
South Pole region (Neumayer 1896a: 12). In contrast to
Greenland, which Nansen had crossed in 1888, nobody
reached the inland area of the Antarctic before the 20th
century. The only reliable data available was temperat-
ures for summer periods and this was too scanty for
providing a deﬁnite answer about the physical geography
behind ice-barriers discovered by J.C. Ross, Wilkes and
d’Urville (Drygalski 1896: 18; Fricker 1898: 222; 1904).
It was still unknown whether there was a mountainous
continent (Murray 1886; Markham 1901) or an ocean
mostly covered with ice behind the glaciers (Neumayer
Numerous public lectures delivered by the German
geophysicist Georg Neumayer since 1865 with the aim
of encouraging the exploration of southern polar areas
bore fruit thirty years later (Neumayer 1901). In July
1895, Neumayer participated in the Sixth International
Geographical Congress in London, where he had been
invited by John Murray, former researcher of the Chal-
lenger expedition. He made a very detailed report about
the tasks and importance of the study of southern polar
areas (Neumayer 1896b). Before the London congress,
German geographers had gathered in Bremen where the
launching of the German expedition to the south was
on the agenda. In addition to Neumayer, Drygalski also
prepared a report in which he suggested that the methods
he had applied in inland ice studies in Greenland should
also be used in the Antarctic. His idea was to point out the
origin of different types of sea ice in order to establish the
occurrence of glaciation in inland areas (Drygalski 1896).
Neumayer acquainted the delegates in London with the
purposes of Drygalski’s studies as well as the report of
Friedrich Ratzel (1896) who also underlined the need to
study glaciers in the region of the South Pole (Neumayer
It was, in the ﬁrst place, thanks to Drygalski that
the study of glaciers in southern polar areas had become
topical since 1895 (Drygalski 1898;1901). The meteoro-
logical data collected during the wintering of the Belgian
Antarctic expedition (1897–1899) under the guidance of
Adrien de Gerlache at last provided some evidence of
the existence of the Antarctic continent covered with
glaciers (Supan 1901a,1901b). Drygalski, the leader
of the ﬁrst German Antarctic expedition (1901–1903),
devoted effort to the study of the inland ice of the Antarc-
tic (Drygalski 1904). Similarly to Nansen in Greenland,
Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition (1907–1909) proved ﬁ-
nally that the whole territory along which it progressed
from the sea to the South Pole was a large high ice sheet
and there stretched an ice continent, not an ice-covered
sea (Shackleton 1911).
Americans, British and Russians declare themselves
discoverers of Antarctica
By the beginning of the 1920s, when the existence of
the ice continent was evident, Wilkes, J.C. Ross, and
d’Urville were no longer considered to have discovered
the Antarctic continent. In the ﬁrst half of the 20th cen-
tury, scientists of the United States of America and Great
BELLINGSHAUSEN’S ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION AND ITS RECEPTION IN RUSSIA AND THE WORLD 7
Fig. 3. The exploration results of Wilkes were considered unreliable after the publication of results by Ross and d’Urville.
That fact is well illustrated by the world map in the school atlas published in Germany in 1846 where there is a question
mark placed on the lands discovered by Wilkes (Schul-Atlas 1846).
Britain argued who had the honour of having discovered
the Antarctic continent. Neither of these could boast of
the discovery of some continent, while the Spanish had
discovered America and the Dutch had discovered Aus-
tralia. The Antarctic continent provided an opportunity.
Expeditions making for the region of the South Pole at the
beginning of the 20th century had to ﬁnd reliable proof
concerning the existence of a continent in the southern
Americans, however, had a problem. Although Wilkes
was the ﬁrst to declare himself the discoverer of the
Antarctic, J.C. Ross and d’Urville had raised a doubt
about his discovery and that was widely known (Fig. 3).
So in 1902, Edwin Swift Balch (1902: 72, 174) in
his book Antarctica tried to diminish the position of
J.C. Ross who was mainly accepted as the discoverer
of Antarctica and had pointed out that the American
sealer Nathaniel Palmer could have discovered it on 17
November 1820 (Balch 1902: 91). However, according
to an article published by Rupert Thomas Gould in
1925, Bransﬁeld, rather than Palmer, saw Antarctica ﬁrst
(Gould 1925). The debate on who was the ﬁrst to see
Antarctica became heated between Balch (1925) and his
supporters (Anonymous . . . 1911; Hobbs 1939,1941;
Martin 1938,1940) and Gould (1941) and his adherents
(ARH 1939; Hinks 1941; Campbell 2000: 132–133).
In the debates between Americans and British the
question that the honour of the discovery of the Antarctic
continent could belong to the Russian Antarctic exped-
ition did not arise (except for Martin 1938). The main
reason, probably, was that Bellingshausen’s travelogue
was published only in Russian and in very small number
(a print run of 600). Already in 1833, Alexander von
Humboldt had expressed his regret to the cartographer
Heinrich Berghaus that the Bellingshausen travelogue
had been published in the ‘unknown to us Russian lan-
guage’ (B[erghaus] 1863: 11–12). In 1842, some data of
the expedition were published in German (Löwe 1842),
but they did not provide an adequate picture of the course
of the expedition and especially the ice observations
made during it. By the middle of the 19th century, the
Bellingshausen book (1831b) had become a rarity even
in Russia. August Petermann was successful in procuring
one in 1863. After receiving it, he wrote in his registration
book: ‘Bellingshausen expedition in Russian in one
volume plus album and atlas in folio – the second copy of
the library of the Russian Ministry of the Navy (received
from Grand Duke Konstantin [Nikolaevich, Commander-
in-chief of the Russian Navy and president of the Russian
Geographical Society]). Very rare, impossible to provide
in some other way’ (Petermann 1863b).
A more complete German translation of Belling-
shausen’s entire voyage narrative was published in 1902
(Bellingshausen 1902), when interest in former voyages
and their results in the southern polar waters started to
arise connected with new expeditions there, but it was
unavailable in English. Robert Falcon Scott wrote in
1905: ‘Bellingshausen was the ﬁrst deﬁnitely to discover
land within the Antarctic Circle. . . . Unfortunately, little
is known of Bellingshausen’s voyage, as the narrative was
never translated into English from the original Russian’
(Scott 1905: 10). Numerous other explorers of southern
polar areas and those writing on exploration history
reached the same conclusions (Fricker 1898: 41; 1904;
Cook 1901: 36; Balch 1902: 83; Mill 1903: 151; 1905:
Interestingly, Soviet scientists did not do anything
noteworthy in the 1920–1930s for the study and propaga-
tion of Bellingshausen’s legacy. Meanwhile, Soviet Rus-
sia was mainly interested in preparations for the Second
International Polar Year (1932–1933) to guarantee its
geopolitical interests in international scientiﬁc collabora-
tion in northern polar areas (Lüdecke and Lajus 2010). It
is not surprising, then, that when the part of the Antarctic
coastline named Kronprinsesse Märtha Land, to which
the Bellingshausen expedition had been quite close on
28 January 1820, was discovered by the Hjalmar Riiser-
Larsen expedition in 1930, the Russians did not ascribe
much ofﬁcial attention to it until 1939 (Razdel . . . 1939).
Bellingshausen’s volume in English was printed in
1945. The preface and commentaries of the English
book were written by Frank Debenham, director of the
Scott Polar Research Institute, who had been interested
in Bellingshausen’s work in 1920s (Debenham 1923:
189). His work, based on the available knowledge of the
physical geography of the Antarctic continent in 1930s,
indicated to Soviet researchers indirectly that the key
to when Antarctica was ﬁrst sighted did not lie in the
discovery of Alexander I Coast in January 1821 or on
17 February 1820 (Bellingshausen 1945: 128, footnote),
but rather in the date 28 January 1820, when the Russian
expedition had made the ﬁrst attempt to approach the
South Pole through ice. Debenham described that as
follows in a footnote: ‘This day must be considered an
unfortunate one for the Russian expedition, for we know
now that they must have been within a few miles, not
more than twenty at most, of the coast of what is now
called Princess Martha Land, discovered in 1929–30 by
the Norwegian expedition. It is even possible that the
“solid stretch of ice running from east through south
to west” was indeed the land ice which, everywhere
along this coast, marks the edge of the continent. In
any case, a few hours of clear weather on this day
would have certainly antedated the discovery of land here
by 110 years’ (Bellingshausen 1945: 117 footnote 2).
The fact that Bransﬁeld discovered the extreme northern
portion of the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula, as
proved by the British in the late 1930s, named Trinity
Land, on 30 January 1820 made the situation even more
complicated (Fig. 4). In 1947, Rear Admiral Evgenij E.
Shvede published a review of this book in the journal of
the Russian Geographical Society, in which he did not
dispute Debenham’s statements (Shvede 1947), but there
is a high probability that he did not read it very carefully.
The great political game had not yet started as the
Americans undertook their démarche in 1948. As a res-
ult, Bellingshausen’s expedition, the discoveries made,
and writings and other issues became very important to
political authorities. Due to that, the Palmer-Bransﬁeld
discussion and the book by Debenham were studied more
thoroughly by Soviet geographers at the beginning of
1949. A hasty study of Russian-language archival doc-
uments and literature provided plenty of material proving
that it was certainly the Russian Antarctic expedition that
discovered the Antarctic continent (Berg 1949: 17).
On 10 February 1949, a general assembly of the
Geographical Society took place. Berg, president of the
Society, relayed the main report (Berg 1949: 4–20). To
strengthen the political message, he spoke about the view
of James Cook (that is, that it was impossible to see a
continent/land in the Antarctic because of complicated
ice conditions) which had hindered further exploration
in the Antarctic, and that brave Russian seafarers had
refuted such a misleading view. After this report, it
became very important to Soviet researchers to prove
that Cook’s expedition had denied the existence of a
continent in the south. Such political allegations were
explicitly expressed in the publisher’s preface to the book
The voyage of the sloops ‘Vostok’ and ‘Mirnyj’ to the Ant-
arctic in the years 1819–1821 published in 1949. It reads:
‘Russian explorers sailed to the southern hemisphere with
a special aim to discover lands in the vicinity of the South
Pole after it had been completely assumed in the West
[by Cook] that the South continent did not exist. The
discovery [did] take place’ (Anon. 1949: 3). In this way,
the communist Soviet Union brought discredit upon the
It was also important to prove that the honour of dis-
covering the Antarctic continent ﬁrst belonged to Russia.
In his report, Berg highly valued Debenham’s data and
suggested that the rough ice described by Bellingshausen
on 28 January 1820 was actually the verge of the Antarc-
tic continent (Berg 1949: 12; 18–19). However, Berg did
not declare that Bellingshausen had assumed that he had
discovered the Antarctic continent on that day; as an ex-
perienced historian of geography, Berg knew that in such
circumstances, it would be too provocative to assume so
(Fig. 5). Some other distinguished Soviet geographers,
such as Andrej A. Grigor’ev and D. M. Lebedev (1949),
Aleksandr I. Andreev (1949a) and Stanislav V. Kalesnik
BELLINGSHAUSEN’S ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION AND ITS RECEPTION IN RUSSIA AND THE WORLD 9
Fig. 4. The map of British discoveries in the region of the Islands of South Shetland and South Orkney (today that
region also includes the Antarctic peninsula) compiled by the Department of Hydrography of the British Admiralty in
1844. It follows from the map that at that time the British did not regard the discoveries of Bransﬁeld and others
as the discoveries of the continent (there is no respective word on the map) (Kartensammlung Perthes. Erfurt.
(1949), also used Debenham in their articles to show
how highly they valued Bellingshausen’s observations.
Admiral Shvede also participated in the general assembly
and, relying on Debenham, noted that the discoveries
of the Bellingshausen expedition should not be limited
to the ofﬁcially recognised discoveries of Peter I Island
and Alexander I Coast in 1821. Speciﬁcally, it should be
acknowledged that the expedition repeatedly approached
the Antarctic continent and, judging by the descriptions
presented by Bellingshausen, he had certainly seen Ant-
arctica considerably earlier than what was assumed (Berg
1949: 24). In this way, Shvede recognised that there was a
serious problem for Soviet geographers, and encouraged
the proving that it was the Russian Antarctic expedition
which discovered the Antarctic continent.
Since prominent Russian geographers Berg,
Grigor’ev, Andreev, and Kalesnik were not completely
successful in solving the problem, Shvede tried to
do it himself by creating a different account of the
Russian Antarctic expedition. In 1949, on his initiative,
the second edition of Bellingshausen’s narrative was
published in Russian. A critical analysis of the available
archival documents and published materials in the
introduction to the book indicated that he was convinced
that Bellingshausen could not see the Antarctic continent
on 28 January 1820 due to bad weather. He compared
the observation data of the second Soviet whale ﬂotilla
Slava (Gan 2011) of 20 March 1948 in clear weather
with those from the Bellingshausen expedition on 2
February 1820, and deemed them similar. Thus, Shvede
wrote: ‘If the visibility had not been bad, Bellingshausen
and Lazarev would already have secured data on the
Antarctic continent on 28 January 1820’ (Shvede
Books about the ﬁrst (1946–1947) and the third
(1948–1949) trip of the ﬁrst Soviet Antarctic whale
hunting ﬂotilla have been published (Shister 1948;1949)
but not on the second Slava expedition. There is only one
report by Georgij M. Tauber (1949) and it appears that
the abstract (not appropriate to the text) describing the
approaching of the Antarctic continent by Slava on 20
March 1948 in the region (69°25S and 1°11W) where
Fig. 5. The map of the voyage of the Russian Antarctic expedition around Antarctica compiled by Soviet
geographers and published in 1949. It is remarkable that the boundaries of the Antarctic continent have
been indicated in the map due to which it was accepted as a proof of the discovery of the continent by
the expedition (Berg 1949).
the Russian Antarctic expedition had been on 2 February
1820, was added later. The Antarctic continent was that
day clearly seen from Slava (Tauber 1949: 370). It is not
known whose idea it was to include that paragraph in the
text. But the fact that in March 1948 the question of the
discovery of the Antarctic continent on 28 January 1820
was not on the agenda (otherwise Slava would have been
sent straight to that position) can provide an answer. It is
more probable that it was pure chance that Slava reached
the region of Kronprinsesse Märtha Land.
Nevertheless, Soviet authors tried to portray the
Russian Antarctic expedition as having discovered the
Antarctic continent on 28 January 1820, although
the publications of the materials about the expedition
containing Bellingshausen’s texts (Bellingshausen 1945:
117; Bellinsgauzen 1949: 110) (Fig. 5), notes by Egor
BELLINGSHAUSEN’S ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION AND ITS RECEPTION IN RUSSIA AND THE WORLD 11
Kiselev, a sailor aboard Vo s t o k under the command of
Bellingshausen himself (Andreev 1949b; Tarnopol’skiy
1941;Bulkeley2014: 130–140), and the diary by Pavel
Novosil’skij (1853: 28–29), sailing as an ofﬁcer on
Mirnyj, proved well that the navigators had not seen
anything special on that day. This was also well known
in the west (Armstrong 1950;1951;1971).
First, on 17 February 1820, the ‘verge of continental
ice’ was sighted by the Russian Antarctic expedition.
On 20 April 1820, Bellingshausen wrote in his report
to the Minister of the Navy: ‘17th and 18th [February
1820], I reached latitude S 69°730, longitude E 16°15.
There, beyond ice ﬁelds comprising small ice and [ice]
islands, a main of ice [‘materik l’da’] was sighted, the
edges of which had broken away perpendicularly, and
which stretched as far as we could see, rising to the south
like land’ (Bellinsgauzen 1823: 212; Samarov 1952: 147;
translated Bulkeley 2014: 83).
To maintain the prominence of the Russian expedition
over the American (Palmer) and British (Bransﬁeld)
expeditions, the Soviet researchers had to ﬁnd a source
that differed from the notes of other expedition members
on the same date.
‘Materoj led’, ice age and the ﬁrst sight to Antarctica
Such a source already existed: from Mikhail P. Lazarev,
captain of Mirnyj. Lazarev’s letter to a friend from 15
September 1821 was published in the Russian Navy
journal in 1918, describing the course of the voyage as
follows: ‘On 28th January we reached latitude 69°23S,
where we met main ice [‘materoj led’] of extraordinary
height. It was a ﬁne evening, and looking out from the
crosstrees it stretched just as far as our gaze could reach,
but we had not long to enjoy that amazing spectacle,
because the murk quickly came over again and the usual
snow set in’ (Pis’ma . . . 1918: 55; Andreev 1949b: 21;
Samarov 1952: 150–151; English translation Bulkeley
Thus Bellingshausen as well as Lazarev, both used for
describing ice what was seen very similar terms ’materik
l’da’ (Bellinsgauzen 1823: 212; Samarov 1952: 147) or
‘materoj led’ (Bellinsgauzen 1949: 118; 310; Pis’ma . . .
1918: 55; Samarov 1952: 150–151), in Soviet Antarctic
literature known as ‘ice continent’. Thus these terms are
playing a key role in the exploration history of Antarctica.
What two captains meant when used these expressions?
The similarity of terms may have resulted in a discus-
sion that took place during a lunch on 20 February 1820
on board Vo s t o k , three days after the sight of ‘materik
l’da’ according to Bellingshausen (Bellinsgauzen 1823:
212; 1949: 120). We know about this lunch thanks to
the navigation chart of the Russian Antarctic expedition
(Belov 1963: 33). We can only imagine the perplexity
of two captains and the ofﬁcers of both ships on 20
February when they discussed such an unexpected and
magniﬁcent sight. Nobody, not even James Cook, had
encountered anything like that during his voyage to the
south. This was quite different from Buffon’s speculative
ice cap hypothesis, in the event that they knew that, but
rather slightly. So it is clear that the descriptions of ice in
the Antarctic seas published by Bellingshausen in 1831
were not always understandable to his contemporaries.
In the ﬁrst German translation of Bellingshausen’s work
(1842), the translator had not translated all the long
descriptions of the sight, for example ‘materoj led’on
17 and 18 February (Löwe 1842: 139). In the English
translation of 1945, ‘materoj led’ was translated as ‘high
icebergs’ and ‘mother-icebergs’ (Bellingshausen 1945:
128, 417), not as ‘ice barrier’ now named as the ‘verge
of continental ice’ (Wilkes 1844 a: 354; J.C. Ross 1847:
228). Bulkeley (2014: 54–60) in his book Bellingshausen
and the Russian Antarctic expedition, 1819–21, has used,
in his translation of Bellingshausen’s and Lazarev’s texts,
the term ‘main ice’, used by John Ross (1819)(very
similar to the term of Buffon ‘ice cap’ and his follower
William Scoresby’s (1818) ‘continuous ﬁeld of ice’ 6 or
7 m thick). Thus, the term ‘materoj led’ is very confusing
and there are different translations for this term.
Bulkeley (2014: 58) has pointed out that astronomer
Simonov knew Buffon’s hypothesis. But from his texts it
follows that during the voyage Simonov had no special
interest in ice and its types (Simonov 1822; Simonow
1825; compare Bulkeley 2014: 144–158). When the naval
ofﬁcers Bellingshausen, Lazarev, Novosil’skij and even
the sailor Kiselev (compare Bulkeley 2014: 13B3) paid
in their notes attention to the magniﬁcent sight on ‘the
verge of continental ice’, then Simonov, the only scientist
on the expedition, did not. That raises a serious question
about his position on the ships during the voyage. He
seemed not to belong to the close company of ofﬁcers of
the expedition and thus could not take part in common
discussions on board, meaning that his ideas did not
inﬂuence the views of other expedition members.
But what about the terms ‘materoj led’ and ‘materik
l’da’ themselves? There seem to be several reasons, such
as the extraordinary height of the ice,its extension far
beyond the horizon and rising to the south like a coast
of land why Bellingshausen used the term ‘materik l’da’
in his report to the Minister of the Navy in April 1820
(Bellinsgauzen 1823: 212; compare Bulkeley 2014: 83).
He could not provide another adequate description as
compared to solid ground. According to the ﬁrst Explan-
atory dictionary of the Russian language by Vladimir
Dal’, in the nineteenth century, the word ‘materik’was
used in a geographical context as a general term for ‘solid
ground’ (from island to continent) (Dal’ 1881: 311). In
Dal’s Dictionary it is also denoted that ‘materik’ can
also mean the height of a coast, a slope of a river, or a
mountain, as opposed to level relief (Dal’ 1881: 311), for
example, to sea level.
Interestingly P. Novosil’skij (1853: 30) who took
part in the lunch on 20 February 1820 did not use the
term ‘materik’ in his diary but the term ‘ledyanoj bereg
vysokimi otvesnymi stenami’ (‘ice coast with high vertical
walls’). Did he use this expression because was so strong
in Russian terminology or he had read the expedition
results of Ross and Wilkes, which were published in his
booklet The sixth continent, or, a brief account of voyages
to the south from Cook to Ross ([Novosil’skij] 1854)?
Still it seems that Novosil’skij wrote differently from
Bellingshausen and Lazarev ﬁrst of all under inﬂuence
of Ross, who discovered ‘a perpendicular cliff of ice
between one hundred and ﬁfty and two hundred feet [46–
61 m] above the level of the sea, perfectly ﬂat and level at
the top’ (Ross 1847: 218). Ross (1847: 219) continued in
his book: ‘The whole coast here from the western extreme
point [Parry Mountains], now presented a similar vertical
cliff of ice, about two or three hundred feet [61–91 m]
high.’ Ross called his discovery ’Great Icy Barrier’ (Ross
1847: 208). Novosil’skij translated this into Russian as
‘ledyanaya stena’ (‘ice wall’) ([Novosil’skij] 1854: 10;
13). In this way Novosil’skij very probably linked his own
sight with Ross’ one. But did Bellingshausen do the same
with his own southern sea high ’materik l’da’ and John
Ross’ northern sea low ’main ice’ as Bulkeley (2014: 58–
60) proposed? Even more as Bellingshausen similarly to
Cook sailed around the South Pole, and had thanks to his
own experience a very complex view on ice and its types
in the south as is evident from his book (Bellinsgauzen
1831b, 2: 236–250; 1949: 308–310). Unfortunately this is
not translated by Bulkeley in his book. On the other hand
it must be admitted that to translate that text correctly
is difﬁcult as it is replete with different terms, with
paragraphs omitted from the original. In the course of
editing a book such problems present very big challenges.
For Bellingshausen and Lazarev ‘materik’, and for
Novosil’skij ‘ledyanoj bereg vysokimi otvesnymi stenami’
did not denote a continent. On the contrary, it was used as
an indeﬁnite expression ‘ice of extraordinary height and
extensive like a coast of land’ as far as it was impossible
to determine its area. It also follows from the Russian text
written by Bellingshausen himself (Bellinsgauzen 1831b,
2: 236–250; 1949: 308–310), although the switch from
describing different ice types in the sea to the origin of
‘materymi l’dami’ is very prompt. It seems as if one
paragraph on Bellingshausen’s text (1831b: 250; 1949:
310) had been deleted in the course of editing the book.
As it follows from the printed text Bellingshausen was
convinced that the almost land-free region of the South
Pole was mostly covered by different types of ice (ice is-
lands, ice hills, ice ﬁelds, small ice, ﬂoes and hummocks),
but its thickness and size varied from place to place and
it was ﬂoating about. This was ‘rising into mountains’
(‘materymi’) in some places near the South Pole as result
of compressing of different ice types and stationary in
the regions of the southern waters where it was attached
to islands like Peter I Island and the Alexander I Coast, or
to some shallows in the Antarctic Ocean (Bellinsgauzen
1949: 308–310). It is why ‘main ice’ is not the best
term to translate ‘materik’, or a comment should be
added to explain the use. Firstly, that does not reﬂect
the main characteristic, the extraordinary height of the
ice shelf, which embarrassed Bellingshausen, Lazarev,
Novosil’skij, Wilkes and J.C. Ross, and, secondly, the
majority of ice was moving not stationary.
Most of the Soviet researchers did not waste their
time in arguing why Bellingshausen and Lazarev had
used the term ‘materoj led’, the term itself, meaning in
everyday Russian ‘ice continent’, was important. Such an
explanation appeared to be sufﬁcient grounds to state that
Bellingshausen and Lazarev had understood the nature
of the ice continent. From the writings of Lazarev and
Bellingshausen, however, it follows that they both used
theword‘materik’, in the ﬁrst place, to denote the
height and continuousness of the ice coast seen, that is
to describe the proﬁle/relief, not a mainland/continent,
which is different from what Soviet scientists have tried
to prove using contemporary Russian terminology.
But Shvede understood the necessity of building a
link between ‘materoj led’, the date of 28 January 1820
and the ice age theory in order to keep the discovery for
Russians. Shvede wrote in 1949: ‘It was only because
of extraordinary fairness and strictness to the reliability
of the discovery that the Russian navigators did not
allow the declaration that [on 28 January 1820] they had
actually seen the low part of the continent, rather than
the coastal ice’ (Berg 1949: 24; Shvede 1949: 26–27,
1952: 15, 1958: 35, 1960: 38) (Fig. 6). Although in this
argument there is no word about ‘ice age’ Shvede’s words
‘extraordinary fairness and strictness to the reliability of
the discovery’ had to indicate that the Russian navigators
knew that Antarctica was covered with glaciers.
Shvede’s declaration, in one version or another, was
often used later in the publications of Russian authors
(Karelin 1949: 22; Sokolov, Kushnarev 1951: 125; Buin-
itskij 1953: 12; Ostrovskij 1966: 62). However, Shvede
knew well that this was false because he used in his
introduction Bellingshausen’s report of 20 April 1820 to
the Minister of the Navy (Shvede 1949: 25, 26), in which
Bellingshausen admits: ‘I found no evidence anywhere
of a great Southern land [from the Sandwich Islands to
New Holland], although I held most of my course inside
or near the polar circle [in January and February 1820],
as much as the winds allowed. If such a land does exist,
it must lie far within the ice and be covered by it, and
there would be no way to recognize it’ (Bellinsgauzen
1823: 217; translated in Bulkeley 2013: 15; 2014: 87).
This statement was the only one by Bellingshausen that
refuted the whole notion that Antarctica, mostly made
up of continental ice, was sighted ﬁrst by Russians in 28
January 1820. A similar opinion was also expressed in the
writings by Simonov (1824: 5). Berg and Andreev had
also used the same Bellingshausen’s report as a source
(Berg 1949: 17; Andreev 1949b: 170 note 16).
Lazarev – the discoverer of Antarctica?
The sights described by Bellingshausen, Kiselev, and also
by Novosil’skij on 28 January were similar; only the one
by Lazarev was different. Comparing their descriptions
of 17 February 1820, when they approached the ‘ice
BELLINGSHAUSEN’S ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION AND ITS RECEPTION IN RUSSIA AND THE WORLD 13
Fig. 6. Although Shvede was convinced that Bellingshausen had recognised the Antarctic continent, the well-
known German cartographer August Petermann did not accept this opinion. In the 1860s, he compiled the ﬁrst
special map of southern polar areas for the widely distributed Stieler atlas (compare Tammiksaar 2007). To
draw Bellingshausen’s navigation route on the contour map of southern polar areas, he needed the original
narrative written in Russian (Bellinsgauzen 1831b). As it was impossible to obtain that, he had to use, at ﬁrst,
Löwe’s (1842) translated version of the book (Kartensammlung Perthes. Erfurt 547$111790697). On the date
28 January 1820 in the map, Petermann has written with his own hand ‘impenetrable ice, no sign of land’, and
on 17 February ‘Immobile and moving ice’.
of extraordinary height’, there is no doubt that just on
that day Bellingshausen (1945: 127–128; Bellinsgauzen
1823: 212, 1949: 120) and Kiselev on Vo s t o k (Tarno-
pol’skij 1941: 41; Bulkeley 2014: 133) and Novosil’skij
(1853: 30) on Mirnyj had seen in modern terminology
‘the verge of the continental ice’ of Antarctica, which
made a strong impression on them. According to written
sources, Lazarev was the only one who did not see this;
at least, he did not write about it in his letter. This letter
was used by the geographers Berg, Grigor’ev, Andreev,
and Kalesnik in their writings, but because Lazarev was
not aware of understanding the nature of continental ice
and did not state anything about discovering the Antarctic
continent at the end of the letter (Pisma . . . 1918: 59;
Andreev 1949b: 25–26, compare Bulkeley 2014: 171),
it was probably not used as proof that the Russian
expedition had seen the Antarctic continent on 28 January
(Berg 1949: 17–18; Andreev 1949b: 21, 168 note 4).
In spite of that, the ﬁrst to use Lazarev’s letter as
the most important proof of the discovery of Antarctica
was Arkadij Adamov in a non-scholarly article of 1951
(Adamov 1951). Shvede conﬁrmed the same position
in 1952 (Shvede 1952: 18). In 1957, Vladimir Lebedev
(member of the Russian Antarctic Commission organ-
ising the IGY) introduced this idea to the international
audience (Lebedev 1957: 20–21; 1959: 22). Although
many of the European and American researchers, headed
by Debenham (1959: 44–46), disagreed that the discov-
ery took place on 28 January 1820 as stated by Lebedev
(Euller 1960: 39; Caras 1962: 15; Hatherton 1965: 29;
Lewis 1965: 19), it is thanks to Lebedev that Lazarev’s
private letter was accepted as a major scientiﬁc proof of
the discovery of Antarctica (Lebedev 1960,1961,1962,
1963; Treshnikov 1963: 24–25). Subsequently several
Russian authors credited the discovery of Antarctica to
Lazarev (Firsov 1963; Trapeznikov 2003: 128–139).
Between 1961 and 1963, Mikhail I. Belov, polar
historian, published three important studies in which
he analysed unsigned navigation charts of the Russian
Antarctic expedition drawn during the voyage (Belov
1961,1962,1963). According to him and his group of
experts, the compilers of the maps were clearly ofﬁcers
of the expedition. These maps were probably drawn for
the Emperor and the Minister of the Navy to illustrate the
discoveries in the region of the South Pole (Tammiksaar
2014: 293, footnote 15). On the basis of 15 navigation
charts and of the colours used on them, Belov tried
to prove that the verge of the continental ice Lazarev
had seen on 28 January 1820 had been depicted on
chart no. 2 (Belov 1962: 111, 1963: 32–33) (Fig. 7).
Belov’s arguments were partly acknowledged interna-
tionally (Jones 1982; Fogg and Smith 1990: 28; Landis
2001: 35; Trewby 2002: 39). But on the chart, a note
on that day reads ‘solid stretch of ice was seen’, rather
than ‘ice of extraordinary height’ as written by Lazarev.
‘Solid stretch of ice’ was that day seen from the ships
by Bellingshausen (1945: 117) as well as by Novosil’skij
(1853: 29). Thus, the navigation chart conﬁrms what
was written by Bellingshausen and Novosil’skij, not the
information in Lazarev’s letter.
The question is why Bellingshausen had considered it
necessary to indicate on the chart with own handwriting
a ‘solid stretch of ice’? Aside from this note, six other
important notes of Bellingshausen were on the charts,
which denoted the sighting of the previous known de
Traversay and South Sandwich islands, and the discovery
of Peter I Island on 21 January and Alexander I Coast
on 28 January 1821 as ‘saw the land’ (Belov 1963: 110,
navigation charts no. 1–15). The note on ‘solid stretch of
ice’ extending south, however, marks the end of Belling-
shausen’s ﬁrst important and, as later become clear,
furthest attempt at approaching the South Pole during
ﬁrst season in 1820, since according to the instruction by
de Traversay, he had to sail as far as possible to discover
new lands (South Continent) (Tammiksaar and Kiik
2013: 186). The corresponding dark blue colour on the
map denoted impenetrable ice, not ‘ice of extraordinary
height and extensive like a coast of land’ (‘the verge of
continental ice’). Later, the ‘solid stretch of ice’ or ‘ice of
extraordinary height and extensive like a coast of land’
seen on 17 February blocked their way to the south. The
contours of ice depicted in the navigation chart found
in the Bellingshausen map (1831a) coinciding with the
ice contours published in the uncoloured maps of Peter I
Island and Alexander I Coast (respectively No 61)
(Fig. 8). So there is no reason to doubt that the ice
hand coloured dark blue in the navigation charts simply
indicated the limit from which the ships could not
move further, nothing else. This point of view of
Bellingshausen is also conﬁrmed by what Simonov had
seen on 28 January 1820. Simonov wrote: ‘ . . . at last
we approached 69º30S, where impenetrable eternal
ice set limits to the power of man in moving on [to
south]’ (Simonow 1824: 11). Thus it is not surprising
that Bellingshausen, as a good cartographer, who had
compiled maps of the ﬁrst Russian voyage around
the world 1803–1806, had omitted these navigation
charts from his atlas and they were forgotten. He did
not consider the sighting of stationary high ice coasts
a discovery (terrestrial land was not seen), and the
position of ice could be described in his narrative,
as indeed it was. As concerns Soviet science, the
discovery of these charts, actually contradicted the
statement that Antarctica was discovered by the Russian
Thus the navigation chart of the Russian Antarctic
expedition proves the validity of the texts by Belling-
shausen, not those by Lazarev. But how is it possible
that these two dates, 28 January and 17 February 1820,
which appeared to be so important from the point of view
of later Antarctic exploration, were described completely
differently by Lazarev and Bellingshausen. According to
Belov, Lazarev had written his letter on the basis of the
logbook (Belov 1962: 111), but he does not provide any
proof. It rather seems that Belov was (purposely?) mis-
taken in order that the letter would seem ‘more scientiﬁc’
BELLINGSHAUSEN’S ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION AND ITS RECEPTION IN RUSSIA AND THE WORLD 15
Fig. 7. Bellingshausen’s route to the south on 28 January 1820 according to the navigation chart. Contours of
impenetrable ice (colored blue) stopped voyage further south (Belov 1963, map No 2).
beside the navigation charts. Thus, the only explanation
is that Lazarev wrote the letter to his friend without
consulting his personal maps from the voyage (if these
existed!) and travel notes (which have not been found
up to the present day). He probably made the simple
human mistake of exchanging the dates 28 January and
17 February in his letter. This was not important at the
time. According to some Russian authors, it was just
Lazarev’s letter that proved that he, not Bellingshausen,
had discovered the Antarctic continent and had known
the nature of continental ice in Antarctica (Trapeznikov
2003: 128–139). But Lazarev, at the same time, resol-
utely disproved the existence of the Antarctic continent
at the end of his letter (Pis’ma . . . 1918: 59; Bulkeley
2014: 171). Neither Lazarev nor other participants in
the expedition placed much attention to the sight ‘ice of
extraordinary height and extensive like a coast of land’
and associated it with certain land as can be concluded
from the articles by Simonov, the diary of Novosil’skij
and the writing by Bellingshausen. But there was one
thing in his writing accepted by every member of the
expedition; lands discovered within the Antarctic Circle
in January 1821 were the southernmost as compared to
those discovered up to that time and indicated to the
possibility existing of other ‘mainlands’ in southern polar
regions. This was an important result and was, perhaps,
According to de Traversay’s instructions, the aim of the
Russian Antarctic expedition (1819–1821) was to ﬁnd
the fabled south continent, the existence of which James
Cook assumed but considered impossible to discover. As
opposed to Cook, the Russian Antarctic expedition under
the command of Bellingshausen and Lazarev discovered
terrestrial land within the Antarctic Circle in January
1821. However, like Cook, they could not prove the pres-
ence of a continent. In this context, Bellingshausen and
Ivan M. Simonov, who wrote about the Russian Antarctic
expedition in detail, agreed that it was impossible to
discover the continent if this existed there at all. The view
that the Russian Antarctic expedition had not sighted
the Antarctic continent dominated in Russia until the
beginning of the twentieth century.
The expeditions launched by Great Britain, the United
States, and France discovered several new patches of land
in the region of the South Pole at the end of 1830s and
Fig. 8. Map No 61 from the atlas of Bellingshausen (1831a), the route of the Russian Antarctic
expedition near the coast of Alexander I Land on 29 January 1821. Contours of impenetrable ice
attached to the coast are in black-white version (typical for that time maps and illustrations everywhere
in the world) but in its style and structure identical with the navigation chart (compare Fig. 7).
BELLINGSHAUSEN’S ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION AND ITS RECEPTION IN RUSSIA AND THE WORLD 17
beginning of 1840s. As a result, several scientists, carto-
graphers, and navigators began to speak openly about the
presence of a continent in the South Pole region, although
the point of view that there was no continent was just as
popular. Speciﬁc geographical conditions of the Antarctic
continent, the hard-to-deﬁne icy coastline, difﬁculties in
approaching it, and severe natural conditions prevented
any clear answers until the ﬁrst decade of the twentieth
century. The few expeditions to the southern polar areas
that provided some data of scientiﬁc importance in the
nineteenth century were searching for land, rather than
ice. Little, however, was discovered during these voyages.
No expedition or explorer of the nineteenth century was
able to solve the main problem of the southern polar
areas, that is the existence of extensive and large icebergs,
and the presence of ice shelves (continental ice) in this
region. The peculiarity of Antarctica lies in the fact that
it is not mainland, but a land of ice, totally different from
terrestrial land. Of course there were at the end of the 18th
century and the beginning of the 19th century speculative
views in the style of Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon’s
‘ice cap’ and his follower William Scoresby with his
‘continuous ice ﬁeld’. They suggested on basis very few
observation data, that both poles are covered with ﬂoating
continuous ice sheet but real scientiﬁc argumentation that
a continent can also be made up of ice is only feasible
through the ice age theory, a perspective developed only
in the end of nineteenth century.
In the 1840s, after the results of the Wilkes and
J.C. Ross expeditions had been published, discussions
about who discovered the Antarctic ﬁrst arose. According
to some American researchers, it was Wilkes; for the
British, it was Ross; for the French, it was Jules Dumont
d’Urville; and in Russia, some authors stressed that the
discovery of Alexander I Coast could be regarded as
the discovery of the entire Antarctic continent. As there
were very few empirical data about the (non-)presence
of the continent, these discussions could not be resolved
and every one participating was independent in his/her
conclusions, there was no pressure and no preappointed
Interestingly, as a result of the ‘heroic age’ in the
early 1900s, the existence of the continent in the South
was proved theoretically as well as empirically, while the
question of who discovered Antarctica was still open. As
compared to the 19th century, the modern situation was
totally different: attempts were made to establish who
ﬁrst sighted Antarctica, not how complicated it was for
earlier generations to understand the nature of it. The
ﬁrst sight did not need any understanding, it was only
important to make the world accept that.
Perhaps this development was result of the glorious
celebration of the discovery of America in 1892 (Fleming
2003: 271). Christopher Columbus was the ﬁrst to sight
America in 1492 but this was unknown in European soci-
ety until 1825 when Spanish sailor Martín Fernández de
Navarrete rediscovered Columbus journals and published
them (de Navarrete 1825). But still in 1850 in the British
empire John Cabot was honoured as the discoverer of
North America (compare Jones 1850: lxviii). In 1892
Columbus’ priority of honour was acknowledged. Now
honour and priority became crucial during the ‘heroic
age’. The attempts to conquer the North or the South
Pole are the best examples in this context. It was not
only competition between explorers, but also between
different countries, because the national pride was at
stake and that made it extremely signiﬁcant. Thus, to
be ﬁrst was an important political instrument in proving
one’s supremacy in the world. The ﬁrst sight of Antarc-
tica and the title of its discoverer also belonged to that
category. To receive this title made investigators go to
archives. That is why the Americans and British were
ready to replace the names of their glorious explorers
Wilkes and J.C. Ross with those of the almost unknown
Nathaniel Palmer, Edward Bransﬁeld, William Smith and
Charles Poynter, the co-traveller of the last-mentioned
(Campbell 2000: 132). Russell Owen had a reason for
writing in 1941: ‘The argument as to who (Palmer or
Bransﬁeld) saw it [Antarctic mainland] ﬁrst has been for
many years, particularly in the twentieth century, a matter
of acrimonious debate between American and British
scientists’ (Owen 1941: 41).
As the Soviets had similar aims with the Americ-
ans and British, after World War II, they also entered
the political debate upon the question of who ﬁrst dis-
covered Antarctica. That was an opportunity to show
one’s position in the days of the cold war. To reach that
aim, texts by Cook, Krusenstern, Bellingshausen, and
his travelling companions were altered to an extent that
their content was in accordance with the interests of the
Soviet authorities (Tammiksaar and Kiik 2013;Bulkeley
2014). Similarly as American and British scientists were
concerned with Palmer and Bransﬁeld, Soviet researchers
relying on scientiﬁc investigations of the most recent
period took little interest in how Bellingshausen and
Lazarev had estimated their observation results. Partly
under political pressure and partly on their own patriotic
initiative, they considered it a priority to prove, by any
means, that Bellingshausen and Lazarev knew the nature
of the continental ice and discovered the Antarctic con-
tinent in January 1820, not in January 1821 when they
ﬁrst sighted terrestrial land within the Antarctic Circle.
It is regrettable that Bellingshausen, Bransﬁeld, and
Palmer were drawn into cold war agendas, and scientiﬁc
integrity was almost forgotten. Bellingshausen, Lazarev,
Ross, Wilkes, Dumont d’Urville and others did not know
as much about Antarctica as we know today. Antarctica,
(in this case) should be analysed with consideration to
what was known about it at the time (for example ice
theory, doubts about the existence of continents that are
not terrestrial etc). This has been the main problem of
the history of Antarctic exploration, given its complicated
Proceeding from today’s knowledge, we could con-
sider any of Bellingshausen, Lazarev, Palmer, or Brans-
ﬁeld as discoverers of Antarctica, but we should not
deliberately ascribe modern aspects of scientiﬁc know-
ledge to them or other Antarctic explorers. It would
be more correct to accept that our knowledge of the
complicated physical geography of southern polar areas
has changed slowly but completely, and for that reason, it
is not justiﬁed to point out the ﬁrst pioneer of Antarctica.
Another reason is that the question of who ﬁrst sighted
the mainland of the Antarctic continent has throughout
the 20th century, depending on antagonistic relations of
the countries and national pride, been, in the ﬁrst place, a
political, and only a long way after that, a scientiﬁc task.
The political aspect has not been forgotten even today,
for example, compare British and Russian encyclopedias.
The Antarctic Treaty concluded in 1959 was a reasonable
compromise in solving the claims to Antarctica in a
neutral way. Such a neutral attitude should be used in
solving the question of the discovery of Antarctica, too
and there is no sense in trying to establish who discovered
Antarctica ﬁrst, since it is not within anyone’s power to
solve this problem.
This article was supported by Estonian Ministry of Edu-
cation Grants No IUT 02–16, by Estonian University
of Life Sciences 13005SPTL and from the Grant of
European Union KESTA No 3.2.0801.12–0044. Many
thanks to my good friends Natal’ya Sukhova, Cornelia
Lüdecke, Stéphane Schmitt, Vello Paatsi and especially
Rip Bulkeley for valuable comments and help with liter-
ature sources. For English revision of the text my thanks
are due to Maie Roos and Marielle Dado. Also grateful
thanks to Olga Stone for reviewing the Russian texts in
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