Valerian Ivanovich Albanov and the Land of White Death

Arkhangel’sk, Saint Anna, and the Arctic

In a country where ships are named Saint the people have to be religious. A man who carries an icon of Nicholas the Miracle-worker in his pocket must also be religious—or superstitious. But this is not the story of a religious country or a religious man, per se, but the story of a hazardous journey and a God who shows up.

Valerian Ivanovich Albanov (1881-1919), a contemporary of Antarctic explorers Robert Scott (1868-1912) and Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922), was not an explorer, but a navigator. While the British were having their adventurers at the South Pole, the Russian was having his own at the North.

Albanov was slow to tell his story, but eventually he spoke, sharing what happened in his 1912-14 Arctic ordeal. Adventure would be too romantic a term. A lean tale, with sparse writing, couched in a good, clean style, and rich detail—concerned mostly with the ninety days in which he was crossing ice—it provides remarkable testimony to Divine Providence.

The book reached the Russian public in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution, but, perhaps because of the changing world scene, it went largely unnoticed in the annals of polar literature. Albanov died in 1919, at the young age of 38, without knowing how the book would someday be propagated. A decade later, 1928, it was translated into French, Au pays de la mort blanche, not English, and, again, with little international notice.

Widener Library, Harvard University, had a French edition; but in its near seventy-year shelf-life, the book had never been checked out, and may not have been still if David Roberts, a regular contributor to National Geographic Adventure and Smithsonian, had not happened on it in the mid-1990s—and that only because a French publisher, Michel Guerin, having himself been tipped off by a polar literature enthusiast—like myself—Christian de Marliave, had put him onto it. The happy result was the book’s revival, translation into English by Alison Anderson, and the compact 2000 edition In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic by Modern Library (Random House).

As the story goes, all summer 1912 a 28-year-old, frustrated captain, Georgiy Lvovich Brusilov (1884-1914), of the schooner Saint Anna, was trying to make his way out of port. He had had trouble with red tape and finding a crew. He was anticipating not polar exploration exactly, but an expedition to find new hunting grounds for polar animals; consequently, the twenty-some motley crewmen he finally put together numbered more hunters and trappers than sailors.

Brusilov’s second in command was his ship navigator, 31-year-old Valerian Ivanovich Albanov, a few years his senior and more experienced, and a graduate of the Naval College, St Petersburg. The past several years Albanov had made numerous voyages into and out of Arkhangel’sk.

Brusilov’s ambitious plan was to navigate the Northeast Passage: the shortcut from West to East across the North Pole. It had been done only once, 1879, by Swedish explorer Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskiold (1832-1901) . Still Brusilov was optimistic—or, as it turned out, nuts.

Knowing winter was coming, Brusilov, when he finally got the go-ahead, still set sail, with supplies enough to last a year and a half. The Saint Anna left St Petersburg 28 August 1912.

Brusilov, who had never seen it before, breezed into the Kara Sea, “the ice-cellar,” 4 September. Sure enough, by 15 October, the Saint Anna was locked in ice. Brusilov was unmoved. Nordenskiold also had been immobilized and had had to winter over. At that point, the ship was close enough to land that the men could have gone overland and survived, but Brusilov was determined to stay with his ship.

That winter most of the crew became sick with scurvy: no longer fit to walk out. The following summer, 1913, the ship was still ice-locked; they would have to spend another winter at sea. To add to their troubles, the ship had drifted with the ice close to 2,500 miles (the distance by air from New York to San Francisco), which meant they were no longer near land. By January 1914 dying men were thinking mutiny. Albanov was building a kayak.

Angry, rational, and possessed with a will to live, 10 April 1914, Albanov, armed with a copy of Brusilov’s log (to vindicate himself), a faulty chronometer, his diary, and thirteen crewmates (about half the ship), left the Saint Anna with homemade kayaks and sledges, oars, skis, provisions, firearms, tents, and other supplies, including about 500 pounds of biscuits. Eleven days and near thirty miles out, three unfortunate fellows abandoned the effort and returned to the ship. Albanov—the obvious leader since he was second in command to Brusilov—and the remaining ten (named in a footnote) were the only ones who made it out. Everyone who remained aboard the Saint Anna perished. If they had remembered the Alamo, read Napoleon, or studied military strategy, perhaps they would have known better: a siege never fails. Any group, city, opponent, or victim in lock-down eventually succumbs. It is only a matter of time.

Not long after they left the ship, Albanov had a vision. He saw an old man who told him, “You will reach your goal, open water is not far away, but there …” Albanov was sure it was “St Nicholas himself who had appeared before me to reveal the outcome of our enterprise.” Of course, he could have been simply hallucinating.

The first casualty among the ten came 3 May when they lost Prokhor Bayev, one of the handful of sailors. Bayev left on foot, with a rifle and ammo, scouting a better route, and evidently ended up in the sea. Albanov and a search party looked for him, but his tracks grew faint in the fresh snow. They waited three days; when he did not appear, they moved on. They were now down to Albanov and nine.

Though plainly he was a religious man—he speaks often of God, he has dreams and prophecies—and there is a hint of Russian Orthodoxy in his tale, Albanov was quasi-heathen. On Whitsunday, 25 May, the men shot a polar bear—roasted meat—something they had not tasted in months. “Heaven had sent us succor at a time of utter distress!” Albanov attributes the bear to Diana and the wind to Aeolus, and compares the men to soldiers of the hunt. “The first of June is my saint’s day. What a wonderful gift of Providence it would be if we could reach the 82nd parallel by that day!”

Besides fresh kill—10 June, a seal—they had with them tea and ship’s biscuits, each man was rationed one pound of biscuits per day. These biscuits were interesting things, because if you added water and baked them, they turned into loaves of bread. When the men ate so much, and had such wolfish appetites, Albanov worried about starvation. “God protect us from that!” When Albanov found “seven pounds of biscuits had disappeared,” he owns that “If I managed to catch the ignominious thief red-handed, I would shoot him on the spot … I must admit there are three or four men in the group with whom I have nothing in common.”

Several of the men were suffering from serious eye inflammation. Crossing an open lead, someone dropped a Remington into the sea. The negligence, Albanov remarks, “made me so angry that I lost my temper and struck out at anybody who crossed my path.” It was the second rifle lost because of “heedless behavior … anyone who can picture himself in my shoes would surely understand my frustration with such unforgiveable carelessness.”

Mid-June two thieves ran off in the night with supplies. “If we caught them now, the trial would be brief: death or mercy? … probably lynch them without hesitation.” Refreshingly honest.

In words that could be read as poetic, but clearly biblical—church talk—two weeks later Albanov acknowledges: “Thank God our situation has clearly improved … salvation … [a] miracle.” “A miracle had delivered us from that icebound prison and its mysterious power had been stripped of its terror” … “we were about to step onto the ‘land of deliverance.'” The sound of birds was “a profound chorus, the hymn of life and the hymn of existence.”

He talks about the truth of the precept: “It is when you are alone that you are free. If you want to live, fight for as long as you have strength and determination. You may have no one to help you with your struggle, but you will at least have no one dragging you under. When you are alone, it is always easier to stay afloat.”

Along the trail, the main party happened again on the two fugitive thieves. When Albanov saw their plight and reckoned on his own good fortune, he changed his mind and forgave them. The thieves prepared eider-egg omelettes around, later fresh duck. “There was no shortage of eggs.” Near the sea they found a cairn and, inside, a tin box of Union Jack. It was the stash of the Frederick G Jackson-Harmsworth polar expedition, which had landed on Cape Mary Harmsworth 7 August 1897, having left Cape Flora the previous day aboard the yacht Windward. Now Albanov knew where they were: Cape Harmsworth, at the southwestern tip of Alexandria Land, the 80th parallel.

Because of the food—polar bear, seal, eider eggs, cooked duck, biscuits—the “omnipresent need for sleep”—Albanov reckons they ought to have renamed Cape Harmsworth “the Promised Land.”

They worked their way over to Cape Neale, on Prince George Land, separated from Alexandra Land by Cambridge Bay. There they heard “an infernal clamor … shrieking noises … piercing … painful … as if evil spirits were voicing their anger about our intrusion.” One of the nine, Alexander Arhireyev, had to be left behind: his legs failed. “You can kill me, but I’m not going any farther with you!” He died. Besides Albanov, they were now down to eight.

Three others—Ivan Lunayev, Yevgeni Shpakovsky, and Olger Nilsen (another sailor)—became sick with symptoms of scurvy. Alexander Konrad and Albanov traveled in one kayak; the sick men in another. On skis four men: Piotr Maximov, Yan Regald (ship’s steward), Vladimir Gubanov, and Pavel Smirennikov.

The weather turned “abominable … strong easterly wind with penetrating cold and snow.” When the snowstorm died down, Konrad went duck-hunting. Nilsen died. They were now down to seven, not counting Albanov.

It was work trying to keep the others alive as they tried to island-hop to Northbrook Island and Cape Flora. “The mind must command the limbs and convert itself into a force that controls the body, even if part of that body refuses to obey. Those who let themselves go … fall prey to death. There is no way out, other than remaining master of one’s body, down to the last muscle!” “The seduction of lethargy … that is where the danger lies.”

In the middle of the channel, 8 July, “a strong north wind sprang up and soon increased to hurricane level.” “What had begun as an easy crossing had suddenly changed into a battle against the elements.” When their sleeping bag fell into the water, Albanov observed of himself and Konrad: “We were like two unwanted kittens thrown together in a sack to be drowned.” Albanov “saw Lunayev and Shpakovsky”—the two sick kayakers—”carried away in … the storm” with the only rifle.

The remembrance of three deceased crewmates (Bayev, Arhireyev, Nilsen), now the apparent loss of two more (Lunayev, Shpakovsky), the thought that he and Konrad might die themselves and that no one would know how hard they had fought to survive, spurred Albanov on. “In the midst of this torment I recalled my dream and its prophecy” … “At that precise moment I was suddenly possessed with unknown strength.”

When Albanov and Konrad were about to be drowned, “benign Providence once again showed us the way to safety.” The two were literally flung back into the sea toward Bell Island.

At least they still had a shotgun for hunting. They rested, then as soon as possible set out for Cape Flora, which they reached by 11 July.

Albanov remembered the journey of Fridtjof Wedel-Nansen (1861-1930) and Hjalmar Johansen (1867-1913) whose story was told in Nansen’s Farthest North. In 1893 the Norwegians sailed north of Siberia in a deliberate attempt to get the Fram stuck in ice. They succeeded. After a year and a half, 1895, they abandoned ship, headed for the North Pole, had to turn back at the 86th parallel, went south to Franz Josef Land, stayed another winter, went to Cape Flora, and were picked up by a passing ship August 1896. The Fram drifted with the ice from the Arctic to the Atlantic—later used by Roald Amundsen (1872-1928). Albanov knew the story well: it was possible to walk out.

Providentially, at Cape Flora Albanov and Konrad found an abandoned camp, a real house, made of logs, with a sloping roof, and chimney. A second cabin. A third. A Norwegian whale boat in perfect condition, oars, and accessories. Surely someone was around. But no. No.

They discovered five crates of biscuits. To the wall next to the door was a board bearing the inscription: “Expedition of Lieutenant Sedov, 1913.”

So that was it: this was the camp of Georgiy Yakovlevich Sedov (1877-1914). But why 1913? Sedov had left Russia 1912—about the same time they had—on the Saint Foka competing with Robert Peary (1856-1920) for the North Pole.

Above the board hung two cans, affixed to the wall, which Albanov took to be mail tins. On the wall was another inscription: “The first Russian polar expedition led by Lieutenant Sedov arrived at Cape Flora on August 30, 1913, and continued toward the Bay of Teplitz on September 2.” Off Prince Rudolf Island. It was now 1914. Albanov and Konrad had missed two years of news.

So Sedov had been here four days. Sedov and his men could not have built these cabins in four days. On closer inspection, Albanov discerned the place was not so new. Sedov had just used the camp.

Albanov and Konrad found tins of pork, rabbit, smoked herring, ammo—providentially “twelve-gauge shotgun shells that were a perfect match for our shotgun”—first aid, skis, harnesses—”a bit of everything one would ever want”—household goods, furniture—”basic necessities,” even “luxury goods.” They built a fire in the cast-iron stove and made themselves at home. There was “more than we could have dared to imagine in our wildest dreams” … “Our torments were now behind us” … “Had we really suffered such hardships?” … “What did we not find?” “Pemmican, beef, mutton, pork, rabbit, fish, dried vegetables, potatoes … unsweetened chocolate, powdered eggs, butter and sausage” … tea, coffee, oats, biscuits, kerosene, candles, clothes, silk tents with the words “Ziegler Expedition to North Pole” … axes, skis, shovels, kayak, portable stove—everything highest quality. (William Ziegler, a rich American industrialist, had outfitted two unsuccessful polar expeditions 1902-05 that had stopped over at Cape Flora.)

Albanov realized it was Frederick George Jackson’s camp, and it had seen “several waves of occupants.” It was a “delightful haven, equipped with every imaginable convenience”: coffee grinder, lamp, cutlery, tools, dishes … One wave of occupants were from the Stella Polare, a sledge expedition in 1900. Another came under the Duke of Abruzzi, led by Italian naval officer Umberto Cagni; this expedition had surpassed Nansen’s farthest north by 23 miles.

The big cabin could sleep forty. They were now down to two: Konrad and Albanov, the latter sick with fever, chills, shivering, delirium, and swollen, painful legs.

In mid-July Konrad, who also had swollen, painful legs, decided to return to Bell Island to look for the two missing kayakers and the four missing skiers. Albanov who was hardly able to stand, and aching all over, would stay and wait.

Alone, Albanov was frightened by the “incessant uproar of birds … wild howling … symphony … cascade … snowmelt … avalanches … feaful sound …sinister at night … brought to mind witches’ sabbath. Their rumblings sounded so near that I got up almost every night to …make sure the encampment was still standing.”

After two full days and another night, Konrad returned. He could not contain himself and “began to sob; he had found nothing.” Except for the two left standing, they were all gone—skiers and kayakers.

Albanov and Konrad would have to stay put for the coming winter. At least, thank God, they had somewhere to winter, a roof over their head, and plenty of supplies. So they began to prepare the main cabin. Except for lunch break, they worked from morning to evening. Cleaning up the place, they uncovered 1,000 cartridges for a Ziegler rifle they had stumbled across earlier, Russian tobacco pouch—a pleasant change from ersatz tobacco—clothes, and hides. The mail tins suggested that a ship from Arkhangel’sk would arrive. Albanov had scruples—he would never open someone else’s mail.

On the evening of 20 July Albanov went outside to catch a breath of fresh air. “The weather was calm and warm, with a slight mist.” At sea were ice floes, some carrying sea animals. He thought about going back inside for his gun when a strange apparition caught his attention. “Was it yet another hallucination? No, it was real!” Rising above the sea, two masts, a smokestack, a cloud of vapor. “Alexander, a ship! There’s a ship coming!”

Albanov recognized it at once as the Saint Foka. He had often seen it in port at Arkhangel’sk while it was being fitted out to take Lieutenant Sedov to the North. Albanov and Konrad put their kayak in the water to sail to the ship. The ship’s crew spied the two men in the water; Albanov waved his hat in greeting. Everyone stared in surprise, their faces lit with joy. When Albanov told them who he was, they cheered.

The Saint Foka had come not from Arkhangel’sk but from Hooker Island, where Sedov had wintered over, 30 miles northeast of Cape Flora. Sedov had died and been buried at Prince Rudolf Island. His ship, the Saint Foka, had been at sea two years—the same two years the Saint Anna had been missing. Like Albanov and Konrad, the Foka‘s crew had no news of the outside world either. Some of their men were also afflicted with scurvy, and their ship was near falling apart. This was an unscheduled stop. The only reason the Saint Foka was here was that they were out of fuel. They were planning to raid Ziegler’s camp and burn everything in the ship furnace.

Aboard the Saint Foka Albanov and Konrad had a princely meal of bread, eggs, meat, vodka, dessert, tea, milk, and sugar. “We could not have been happier to be once again among our own people.” There was a fine piano, maestro, gramophone, dinner music, clean clothes, wash, shave … “Surrounded by such kind and helpful friends, I suddenly felt I had a new lease on life, and un unfamiliar wave of happiness swept over me.”

Sedov’s successor, P G Kushakov, said that on Bell Island, at Eira Harbor, a hut had been built by Leigh Smith 34 years ago. It had a storehouse, supplies, and rowboat. Albanov had been within 300 feet of it when he was hunting for ducks’ nests. They had turned back too soon. If they had found it, Lunayeo and Shpakovsky, the two sick kayakers, could have been saved. “How wretched it is to learn such things when it is too late, when the irreparable damage has been done, and no amount of regret can change things!”

The crew of the Saint Foka wondered why Albanov had not opened the mail tins. If he had, Albanov would have learned that the Saint Foka was at Hooker Island; and, when he was able, 18 July, he would have sailed there in his kayak via the Mieres Channel. Of course, he would have missed the Saint Foka, because, while he was gone, its crew would have been destroying Ziegler’s camp for fuel. Then he would have come back and found his hut missing. So Albanov actually saved his and Konrad’s lives by not opening the mail tins!

Albanov and Konrad, of course, now rescued, as it were, cast their lot with the Saint Foka. Even after the crew had destroyed Ziegler’s camp, and set out for home, 28 July, the shortage of fuel was a real anxiety. They were burning wood from cabins and fighting icebergs. The Saint Foka was old, not seaworthy, it had sprung a leak, and they were using manual pumps around the clock to prevent sinking.

Eventually they worked their way south, ran out of icebergs, and entered warmer waters, the Gulf Stream. “Praise God, we had now joined a heavily traveled maritime route.” During the night Sunday, 10 August, they sailed past the Kharkpov Lighthouse. They stopped at a fishing village, Rynda, to send wires announcing their arrival and requesting assistance. There they learned that the world was at war and that Russia was allied with France against Prussia. The Saint Foka was such a wreck it had to be towed into port. The next day Albanov, Konrad, and three men from Saint Foka (geologist Mikhail Pavlov, geographer Vladimir Vize, and artist Nikolai Pinegin) were given free passage to Arkhangel’sk aboard the SS Emperor Nicholas II. “Miraculously rescued after so many hardships,” they finally disembarked 1 September 1914.

Of all companions who left St Petersburg 28 July 1912 aboard the Saint Anna, only two returned. In October, Albanov met the hydrographer Leonid Breitfuss (1864-1950), who suggested he tell his story. Konrad, a reserved person, also wrote his account, which was much shorter; he spoke “sparingly and warmly” of Albanov. Sometimes the two accounts, Albanov’s and Knorad’s, were bound together in one volume. Vladimir Vize, the geographer who had dined with Albanov on Saint Foka and traveled with him aboard SS Emperor Nicholas II, said, “Albanov owed his survival to his personal qualities: bravery, energy, and strong will”—to which I would add, “and to Providence.”

Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Lee

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About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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