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Prominent Russians: Faddey Bellinsgauzen

September 9, 1778 – January 13, 1852
Faddey Bellinsgauzen Faddey Bellinsgauzen

On January 16, 1820, an expedition led by Imperial Russian Navy Officer Faddey Bellinsgauzen, reached Antarctica. For the first time in history people saw the ice-covered banks of the sixth continent.  

Career beginnings

Faddey Bellinsgauzen was born into a noble family of Baltic Germans and spent his childhood on the seaside: the family manor was located on Saaremaa Island in Baltic Sea. Bellinsgauzen grew up among sailors and fishermen, listening to the noise of the surf. These early impressions affected his career choice: at the age of ten, he enlisted in the Navy as a cadet and started his education at the Kronstadt Naval Cadet Corps. As an adult, he often said “I was born surrounded by the sea, and as fish cannot live without water, so I cannot live without sea”. 

Bellinsgauzen graduated in 1797 with the rank of warrant officer. He spent the next five years sailing in the Baltic Sea, and gained the reputation of a responsible, skillful, and smart mariner. This reputation helped him in 1803, when the commander of the Kronstadt port recommended Bellinsgauzen to Ivan Kruzenstern, the head of the first Russian circumnavigation expedition.

In July of 1803, Kruzenstern’s vessels got underway. It took the expedition three years to circumnavigate the world, to complete all their diplomatic encounters, and to gather scientific information about foreign countries. Kruzenstern gave Bellinsgauzen flattering reviews in the report, “Nearly all the maps of our route were drawn by this skillful officer, who is also a good hydrographer. He drew up the general map, too”.

During the voyage, Bellinsgauzen was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and right after his return became a lieutenant-captain, his sailing experience allowed him to command large battleships.

The search for Terra Australis

Схема маршрута вокруг Антарктиды Route of the expedition to Antarctica

In the 3rd century BC, the Greek geographer Eratosthenes drafted a world map. It might look strange to a modern-day person: Eratosthenes’s world was much smaller than the world we are used to. At the southern extremity of Africa, Eratosthenes placed a hypothetical land named “Terra Australis”.

Five hundred years later, another Greek scientist, Ptolemy, created another map. For him, Terra Australis was a large continent, which occupied the whole southern hemisphere, turning the Indian Ocean into a lake.

Centuries went by, and Terra Australis never stopped occupying the minds of explorers. In 1770, the British mariner Alexander Dalrymple even published a book about this mysterious land, where he estimated its population to be about 50 thousand people. By that time, cartographers had moved Terra Australis’ location to the South Pole region.

In 1773, during his second circumnavigation, James Cook crossed the Southern Polar Circle, but the ice barrier prevented his ship from going further. From where he stopped he did not see any signs of dry land, and concluded Terra Australis was either non-existent or unreachable. The world believed him, and the legend was forgotten for 45 years.

In 1819, Ivan Kruzenstern embarked on the project of a polar expedition to confirm or disprove Cook’s observations. The Naval Ministry took interest in his idea. When asked who could lead such an expedition, Kruzenstern pointed at his former subordinate Bellinsgauzen.

On June 4, the two sailing sloops “Vostok” (“The East”, commanded by Bellinsgauzen) and “Mirny” (“Peaceful”, commanded by Mikhail Lazarev) left the port in Kronstadt bound for Rio-de-Janeiro. From there, the expedition headed south to explore the polar waters, and according to instructions, put all further effort into looking for unknown lands. 

Марка Estonian stamp with the portrait of Faddey Bellinsgauzen

In December of 1819, the sloops passed the Southern Georgia Island and turned south-east, heading towards the Sandwich Land. After research, this land (discovered by James Cook) turned out to be an archipelago, and was renamed the Southern Sandwich Islands.

On January 16, 1820, Bellinsgauzen’s ships successfully forced their way through the ice and came as close to Antarctica as possible. From the deck, the expedition members could easily see what was without a doubt a continent. To confirm this observation and to define the shape and size of “Terra Australis”, the vessels approached the newly discovered land five more times. 

When March came, “Vostok” and “Mirny” headed to Sydney, Australia, to wait until the winter was over. After a month-long rest, the expedition left to explore the Pacific Ocean. It visited Tahiti and Tuamotu and discovered twenty nine archipelagos to replace the blank areas on the maps.

In December 1820, the sloops raised anchor again and resumed their attempts to reach the bank of Antarctica. The Land of Alexander I, The Land of Peter I and The Island of Peter I were plotted on the map as a result of these attempts. “All-destroying time will wipe all the monuments to these great people from the face of the Earth. But the Island of Peter I and the Land of Alexander I, which are as old as the world will remain intact forever and will pass these noble names to future generations”, Bellinsgauzen wrote in his memoirs.

Bellinsgauzen base (Photo from Bellinsgauzen base (Photo from

In July, 1821, the “Vostok” and the “Mirny” returned to Kronstadt, carrying unique botanic, ethnographic, and zoological collections along with astonishing news about the sixth continent. Bellinsgauzen’s journal served as one of the most important sources of information: he described the voyage in great detail, and readers could easily imagine a dinner party with a native tribe or the cold bright lights of the aurora australis. Later, he wrote a book about his incredible voyage, and this book inspired many people to become polar explorers.

Return and legacy

After his return, Bellinsgauzen was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral, and in this position took part in Russian-Turkish war of 1828 - 1829. In 1830, he was promoted to Vice Admiral and was chosen to be the military governor of Kronstadt. He had time to receive the rank of Admiral before he died.

Bellinsgauzen’s name will certainly reach the ears of future generations: an ice shelf, a sea, two islands, a cape, a gulf, and even a lunar crater are named after him.

Written by Olga Pigareva, RT

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