- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003


By Orcutt Frost

Yale University Press, $30, 384 pages


Columbus is credited with the discovery of America, though we know that English and French fishermen had visited the shores, and possibly Vikings before them. But history has been kind to Columbus: not so to Vitus Jonassen Bering.

The man whose name lives on in the narrow, icy strait between Asia and Alaskan America was the real discoverer of the North Pacific. That is to say, it was Bering in his great second Kamchatka Expedition of 1733 to 1743 who defined the northern Pacific in its vastness, and outlined for the first time where the continent of Asia ended, and that of the Americas began.

Bering is relatively unknown to biography. Before Mr. Frost’s admirable portrait, 100 years and more stretch back to the last authoritative biography. It would seem much is shrouded in the ice and the fog and the distance, and much, as Mr. Frost reveals, is shrouded by the peculiarly secretive nature of the Russian government.

It is this remarkable urge to control and repress information that cost Mr. Frost many of the 17 years he expended on research for his biography. For after Bering’s death at the age of 60 (thought to be from scurvy, but probably from heart disease) on a tiny Arctic island in 1742, a veil of silence fell on the expedition. This was partly due to xenophobia, which was sweeping Russia at the time (for Bering was a Dane), and partly due to the utterly chaotic political situation which followed the death of Peter the Great. The period was followed by a long-term attempt to airbrush Russian history into an acceptable form by diminishing the role of foreigners.

Mr. Frost’s thorough research results in part from his translation of Georg (sic) Steller’s diary of the voyage, published in 1994. Steller, the scientist of the expedition, played an adversarial role to Bering’s leadership; Mr. Frost happily avoids the temptation to make a hero of him. His narration is scholarly — almost too scholarly — but anyone fascinated by the energy and inventiveness of early voyagers will find rewards here.

Nor were the beginnings of Bering’s mission to explore Siberia free of confusion and political cross-currents. Russian emperor Peter was burning with curiosity and imperial interest in his huge eastern realm, much of which had never been accurately mapped or even explored. Convinced that Russia’s future lay in following European ideas and European technical progress, he looked to Europeans for expertise in his favorite realm — naval and sea matters. It was natural that the emperor should notice Bering, who had been recruited to the Russian naval service.

But it would prove another case of disastrous timing for Bering’s place in history. The groundwork for the two expeditions Bering led to Siberia and to the Kamchatka Peninsula was ordered only a few months before Peter’s death in 1725; for the next 10 years Bering was faced with vacillating government support, unimaginable communication difficulties, and muddled objectives. Though Peter the Great’s intent was clearly to secure the eastern parts of his country before Europeans (or Orientals for that matter) could make a head there, his successors had no such clear aims.

Without the overwhelming personality of Peter, direction of the expeditions fell to the Russian court bureaucracy, a mire of conflicting desires and, like most organizations of its kind, concerned mainly with its own preservation. Bering soon found his leadership position weakened as the bureaucrats turned to a small committee to head exploration, and his time encumbered with appeals for support lest the government shelve the whole enterprise.

It’s difficult today to imagine the sheer size of the problems Bering faced. First was the 6,000-mile distance from St. Petersburg to Kamchatka, the logical base from which to explore farther eastward. Those interminable miles were to be covered by horses and sledges and the river system of Siberia, a land and water ordeal broken only by isolated forts established by traders. The horrors of the route caused the restrained Dane to write, “I cannot put into words how difficult this route is.”

But arriving at Kamchatka, they were barely begun. There, ships were built out of available timber, supplies gathered and a voyage into the complete unknown made. It was a task far more difficult than those of the Spanish, Portuguese or English navigators. The first winter passed as the larch trees were cut for ship construction, and hauled by dogs and men to a site on the Kamchatka River. To give a measure of the hardships, Mr. Frost notes calmly that “the following spring shipbuilding was at first hampered by Kozlov’s inability to obtain enough food for his workmen.” They froze, they died, they suffered the torments of scurvy.

The author’s strong point does not lie in the details of nautical lore — how the first ship “Archangel Gabriel” was fastened, or even its shape. Such things are sketched in. But in addition to the “staggering obstacles” of the terrain, utter dependence on the spring salmon run for sustenance, plus rebellious and sometimes murderous Siberian villagers, there were internal human troubles to contend with too.

At the base of the difficulties was the Russian refusal to delegate complete authority, which led to meddling, corruption and delay; Mr. Frost’s somewhat scholastic style of presentation fails to make clear the impact of this factor. Every major decision was made not by Bering alone but by a committee or “sea council” of five or more officers.

This cumbersome arrangement proved a deterrent to bold venturing, and Mr. Frost suggests it is the reason the Russians did not succeed in exploring the Pacific coast of North America. The system, inherited from the Russian Imperial Navy, meant that a commander could be overruled by his own officers. It was a formula that dissolved the resolution of the expedition command into a series of compromises.

But these conflicts prove the most fascinating part of the book; there was intense antagonism between Bering and Steller, a deeply religious man who immediately objected to the rough justice Bering meted out to rebellious native peoples. Until Bering was clearly ill and sliding toward death, Steller was a thorn in Bering’s side. Steller’s diary, however, provides Mr. Frost with the material he needs to make history into an intensely human story, for Steller’s usually critical eye produced the best record of the climactic second expedition.

The story does not end in the 18th century. In 1991, a group of Danish archeologists found and dug up the great explorer’s bones on the isolated island where he died, once and for all ending several myths about the man; proving the accuracy of his and Steller’s jounals; and returning proper luster to his name.

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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