Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

'Your experience and skill are known'

Anniversary of Fyodor Litke, who made four expeditions to Novaya Zemlya Archipelago

20 september 2022

225 years ago, on 17 September 1797, Count Fyodor Litke, Russian navigator, Arctic explorer and founder of the Russian Geographical Society, was born. His name is inscribed on geographical maps and the gold medal awarded by the RGS for achievements in geography is named after him.

The future academician's childhood was not rosy. His mother died when he was born, his father married for the second time to a young woman, and she disliked the children from his previous marriage. That is why Fyodor was sent to a boarding school at the age of 7. When he turned 11, his father died. His stepmother refused to pay for his stepson's upkeep and he was taken in by relatives. Until the age of 15, the inquisitive teenager had no teacher and could only draw knowledge from books, which he devoured by the volume.

Luck helped: his sister Natalia married a sea captain, the future Admiral Ivan Sulmenev. He liked his wife's brother as if he were his own, and spent hours telling him about his travels around the world and geographical discoveries. This is how Fyodor's dream of travelling to unknown lands came about.

In 1812, at Sulmenev's request, Litke was accepted as a volunteer in a rowing flotilla. During the Patriotic War, he took part in battles with French units and was promoted to midshipman for his bravery.

After 5 years in the fleet, the young officer's dream came true—he was appointed to a round-the-world expedition on the military sloop Kamchatka, commanded by Captain Vasily Golovnin. Over two years of sailing, Litke proved to have outstanding talents, was promoted to lieutenant and awarded the Order of St. Anna, 3rd class.

Golovnin recommended Litke as the head of the hydrographic expedition to the coast of Novaya Zemlya Archipelago in 1821. The naval minister instructed him, 'The purpose of the mission you are undertaking is not to describe Novaya Zemlya Archipelago in detail; but only to survey the shores of it for the first time and to learn the size of the island by determining the geographical location of its main capes and the length of the strait called the Matochkin Shar unless ice or other important obstacles prevent this.' The previous expedition under Lazarev's command failed in this task—the ice and scurvy prevented it.

The new expedition was given the brig Novaya Zemlya, specially built in Arkhangelsk to navigate in polar waters. This time, however, it was not possible to reach the shores of the Arctic archipelago—storms and ice prevented them from approaching their destination and they had to return.

Litke comprehended the reasons for the failure and revised his plans for the next year. Having outlined the best route, he was able to reach Novaya Zemlya, pass through the Matochkin Shar and describe part of the western coast of the archipelago.

The results of the expedition and the accuracy of the measurements were deemed excellent. The 26-year-old Lieutenant Commander was commissioned to continue his survey of Novaya Zemlya. 'Your experience and skill are known already to your superiors from the logs and charts drawn up on your previous voyages in those places,' the Admiralty Department's instructions said.

In the expedition of 1823, Litke again successfully reached Novaya Zemlya and was about to pass the Kara Gate, when a misfortune happened: the brig hit a rocky bank and lost its rudder. Litke ordered the ship to turn to Arkhangelsk, where it was to be repaired. An examination of the damage revealed that it was even more serious than the captain thought.

'Horror gripped me when I saw the position we were in! Two or three more hits of the stern and our countrymen probably would not have known until this minute where and what fate befell us,' admitted Litke.

Despite the setback, Emperor Alexander I instructed Litke to lead the expedition the following year. Her goal was to reach the extreme north-eastern point of Novaya Zemlya and describe its eastern shore. The ice conditions in 1824 were difficult and it was not possible to achieve all the planned objectives, but the scientific results of the expedition were very serious. For example, reliable information on the ice and meteorological conditions in the Barents Sea was gathered, and the position of several coastal points was determined using astronomical methods. 

Litke was offered to lead another expedition to Novaya Zemlya the following year, but he asked to be given the opportunity to process the results of his earlier voyages. In 1828, he published a book entitled Four voyages to the Arctic Ocean in 1821–1824, which convinced the scientific world of the Russian priority in exploring the Arctic. 

Fyodor Litke made a significant contribution to the exploration of the Arctic, and his name is not only associated with it. In 1826–1829, he made a round-the-world trip. In 1832, he proposed a historic initiative to bring together all geographers, explorers and travellers in learned society. Thus, with the support of like-minded people, the Russian Geographic Society was established, which he headed for over 20 years.

Read more Ten brave men 190th anniversary of the first hydrographic expedition to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago


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