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Section: Ethnography
Moving Beyond the Horizon, or a Prayer for Overcoming

Moving Beyond the Horizon, or a Prayer for Overcoming

The life of Steller could easily make a novel. It is a strange that such a novel has not yet been written. The only explanation is that Steller as a researcher and a person was forgotten for a long time. Only over the last fifteen years his works have been translated one after another. As a result, they have occupied the place they deserved in the history of Russian and world science. This stimulated an interest in the personality of the scientist and provoked an increasing number of publications about his life, which was splendid and tragic...


The greatness of a scientist does not always correlate completely with the greatness of his or her personality. But with Steller, the correlation was perfect. His everyday life and scientific research done during his adventurous trips would make a truly absorbing novel. There would be the epic of his private life interwoven with many autonomous plotlines (every halt in Steller’s trips is a strand) with a number of original characters. All these lines would be united into a single harmonic whole by the main idea, which should be present in every novel that seeks to become a part of eternal literature. The idea that would bring us from the sinful earth to the clouds is the collision of two powerful forces, “life and fate”, which sounds so familiar to the Russian ear.

Steller was endowed with excellent health, many talents, high energy, and an indomitable will. If all these qualities had been adapted to the conditions of those times, he would have had more than enough to enjoy life: to do research, publish books, train disciples, win fame, and reach one’s old age in wealth and favor. Steller had every opportunity for this, but he did not use it. He burned like a comet, traveling over half the earth but not seeing a line of his works published, which is indeed a dreadful misfortune for a scientist. He died when he was only 37 years old. Too often such an early death marks extraordinary people; it shines with mystical light, and reminds us of fate and higher destination. Steller’s “fate” prevailed over his “life”, leaving no space for a routine existence.

But let us start from the very beginning.

The course of botany in the orphanage in Halle, where young Steller worked as a tutor (by the way, he was rather popular among his students), was supervised by Professor Friedrich Hoffmann, one the best European physicians of that time. Hoffmann promoted Steller because he noticed Steller’s exceptional ability for science. He advised Steller to take qualification exams in botany. He had to take the exams because in Wittenberg and Halle Universities he studied theology, doing the sciences in passing, as a burst of a young soul that was interested in everything in the world, from the justification of the existence of the Lord and the fundamentals of a religious life to the structure of human organs. In fact, there is no contradiction: for a person in the beginning of the 18th century (moreover, one brought up in the protestant tradition), the harmony and integrity of the world gave no cause for doubt. On the other hand, his curiosity towards external manifestations of Divine revelation (that is, natural science) overcame in young Steller the interest in their source, and this determined all his life.

Having passed the exam in Berlin, Steller applied fora professor’s position at Halle University. Hoffmann tried to persuade Friedrich Wilhelm that the University needed a professor of botany and that Steller was the most suitable candidate for the position; however, the king did not accept the arguments of Hoffman for some reason.

Steller was a great walker. At Kamchatka it even helped him to run a scientific experiment. Kamchatka was to be developed but human resources for that were lacking. One of the reasons why people were reluctant to settle there was an extremely high price of bread. Steller decided to test if a man could do without bread at all. He went on foot 242 versts from Bolsheretsk to Upper Kamchatka, and his menu included only local foods, no bread at all. He reached the destination safe and alive, just lost some weight. Thus, the scientific problem was solved, but not the one of diet. The Russians did not want to stop eating bread.

At that moment Steller made an abrupt move instead of sitting quietly and waiting for a new vacancy. Most probably, sooner or later a vacancy would have opened up, because usually life, desiring to give a person quiet good things, pushes him toward them. But abrupt moves finally became Steller’s normal life style, the style of overcoming, striving to go where a regular man would never go on his own will. From many variants offered in daily life he always selected the most difficult, which were also the most fascinating.

Thus, in 1734 Steller left Halle and at his own risk went on foot to the headquarters of the Russian Army based in Dantzig. He supposed that it would be easier to get the position of a professor of botany at the newly founded Academy of Sciences in Russia than in Germany, which was abundant in educated people. He was short of money; thus, the most suitable way to get to Russia for him was through employment — as a doctor — in the Russian Army. At a glance this seems logical, though in fact, it was rather adventurous of him to go abroad without references and contract, in particular to a country which was famous for bears wandering along the streets of big cities. Nevertheless, Steller left for Russia and arrived in Petersburg. His fate came true.

Nobody was waiting for Steller in Petersburg. He was not offered the position of a professor of botany. But this did not discourage the young scientist. Soon he gained the confidence of Archbishop Feofan Prokopovich, who enjoyed talking to quick-witted people. Besides, the archbishop’s health left much to be desired. Behind him lay stormy years of reformative efforts, dangers, intrigues, victories, and defeats. Steller, having a grasp of medicine, agreed to become the archbishop’s doctor. These duties did not leave him much leisure time, but what he had he devoted to scientific research. He was only “doing various jobs” at the Academy, but there were certain prospects for the future. What else could be desired? Having such a promoter as Feofan Prokopovich, one could patiently wait until these prospects turned into reality. For sure, with time Steller might have become a professor. And not the worst of them.

Strange coincidences occur… Prokopovich and Steller met once again — after death. The first complete edition of the treatises by Feofan Prokopovich was printed in Leipzig in 1773—1775. At the same time the “Description of the Land of Kamchatka” was published there. In Russia, this book was shelved for reasons that we will not describe here, though they are worthy of a detective story. Thus the Russian translation of the book managed to reach its readers only in the late 20th century. The coincidence is strange, but there was nothing strange in the friendship of Steller with Prokopovich, who was a convinced protestant in the cassock of the Orthodox hierarch. The times of Peter the Great were lavish with paradoxes. The main reformer of the Orthodox church, Prokopovich canonically “justified” the methods of Peter’s religious reform, but he was at the same time the person “who with the best forces of his soul hated the miters, cassocks, crosiers, sconces, incensories, and the like” (from the private communication of the hierarch). On the other hand, he liked sciences and arts, the spirit of rearrangement, feasts and intrigue, and believed in a strong state. He never had scruples in using any means to attain the goals that he believed were justified by the highest necessity. In the 1730s, after the like-minded protector of Prokopovich [Peter the Great] had passed away, the earth began to rock under the archbishop’s feet and he started looking for spiritual support among intimate friends. He saw Steller as one of them.

Nothing of the sort happened. The news about the Second Kamchatka Expedition agitated Steller’s restless heart. To Siberia! No one could dissuade him from this hasty (as most people would think) action. In Petersburg, Steller communicated with Daniel Gotlieb Messerschmidt who had traveled across Siberia from 1720 to 1727 on the instructions of Peter the Great to collect information about the history, nature, and geography of Siberia. Actually Messerschmidt was a prospector for the Second Kamchatka Expedition, and he had endured much in Siberia. He tried to dissuade Steller from the trip of his dreams, but failed. Having enlisted the support of the mighty of this world, Steller gained his ends. In early 1737, he was employed by the Academy as a junior research assistant in natural history for the Kamchatka Expedition. Another mark of fate.

Gmelin described Steller’s character very precisely in several lines: this is what Steller looks like in his diaries, which are page-turners. However, the relations between Steller and the academicians soon became complicated almost to the point of hostility. The main reason for the discord was the fact that Steller did not respect any hierarchy. He was irrepressible and could easily initiate a conflict with his bosses. The only thing that mattered for him was “the truth”.

Upon his arrival in Irkutsk, Steller worked a lot, investigating the places that were left without attention by the academicians, filling in the gaps. He was acquainted with the local society; local authorities treated him kindly and provided him with all the necessary assistance. His path was set for Kamchatka, but he could have cancelled the dangerous trip, as Mueller and Gmelin had done (sending their student Krasheninnikov there). Furthermore, Steller would not have had to invent an excuse. He could have used the formal prohibition of the academicians themselves.

Gmelin and Mueller did not authorize his mission because earlier Steller without their permission had sent collected materials: herbs, minerals, bones, seeds and other “curious things” from Irkutsk to Petersburg. When the academicians learnt about this, they became angry, detained the freight in Krasnoyarsk, where they were spending the winter, and sorted through it. Then they sent a report to the Irkutsk authorities and asked them to prohibit Steller, as a person who “cannot work independently”, from traveling to Kamchatka.

Irkutsk was not Kamchatka; no matter what you could call it—it was at least civilization. Had Steller remained there, he would not have subjected his life to extreme danger, and for his scientific investigation Siberia offered him great opportunities, if he only had had the desire to take advantage of them. But this would not have been Steller. He was a scientist by the Lord’s mercy, and a person in love with the horizon. But the horizon is unattainable; it keeps moving away. Also, he was attracted by danger on the brink of death. It was a kind of unconscious striving to test himself at the breaking point, at the limit of human forces, discovering new horizons, new animal and plant species, new lands, new peoples…

In spite of the interdiction of his official bosses, Steller met Captain Martin Spanberg, the deputy of Vitus Bering, and obtained his permission to go to Kamchatka. Initially, he planned to join Spanberg’s second expedition to the South Kuriles, but when the expedition did not take place, he met Vitus Bering. Later Bering wrote in his report: “There is a certain Steller here, a junior scientific assistant sent from St. Petersburg, who claimed in writing that he was experienced in the exploration of metals, thus the Captain and the Expedition officers decided to admit Steller to the voyage. In addition, Steller promised to perform various observations concerned with natural history, peoples, and land conditions, etc., and to analyze ores if any were found.” At that time Bering was unwell and the ship’s doctor was ill, so they needed a new one, thus he appreciated Steller’s qualification as a doctor rather than as a researcher. Bering even allowed Steller to stay in his own cabin.

In any event Steller set out on the famous “voyage” which ended so tragically. Again fate had its word.

The tragic details of the return trip are well-known. For two months the ship was blown about by storms, the crewmembers died from scurvy, in torment. “We drifted under the might of God whither the angry heavens willed to send us. Half of our crew lay sick and weak, the other half were of necessity able-bodied but quite crazed and maddened from the terrifying motion of the sea and the ship. There was much praying, to be sure, but the curses that had piled up in the ten years spent in Siberia prevented any response”. The terrible chronicle of the navigation is narrated sparingly in the logbook: “October 18. Marine soldier Alexei Kisselev died as God has willed… October 20. Government-employee from Kamchatka Nikita Kharitonov died as God has willed… October 22. Marine soldier Luka Zavyalov died as God has willed… October 31. Soldier of the Yakutsk regiment Karp Pashennoi died as God has willed… November 2. Admiralty carpenter Ivan Petrov died… November 4. Drum major of the Siberian garrison Ossip Chentsov died (3 am); at 2 pm Siberian soldier Ivan Davydov died; at 5 pm marine grenadier Alexei Popov died.”

Finally they landed on the island that was later given the name of Bering. Three weeks later a storm broke the anchor of the packet boat, it was run aground, and was put out of commission. The survivors had to winter on the island. During the winter 30 more people, including Vitus Bering, died. The others survived and came back home, partly thanks to Steller’s care. He looked after the sick, hunted for animals, made anti-scurvy herbal drinks for the crew, until they started recovering. And in the meantime, he enthusiastically studied the island. He made several collections and a large herbarium, discovered several animal and bird species. Sometimes he despaired of success: “I was alone under the skies, sitting on the earth; the cold, rain or snow often annoyed me; wild animals made me anxious; I did not have proper tools and I did not believe that one day my work would become known and someone would benefit from it.” But in front of his companions in distress he was always merry, resilient and energetic.

There is much evidence that Steller never was at a loss for a word, when he wanted to get his own way. Science owes an entire series of discoveries to his “lack of restraint”. He even managed to ruin relations with Bering on the way to Alaska, to the degree that the Captain Commodore put a formal boycott on him. But if he had listened to the opinionated scientist, the expedition might have been more fortunate, because it would have ended much sooner. The point is that on the first try Bering ‘missed’ Alaska. The land, which was nearby, was covered in fog. Steller drew his attention to the seaweed moving from the north and the birds flying in that direction, but the Captain Commodore did not listen to him. When they finally found the Kadyak Island near the Alaskan shores, they only had time to take fresh water on board, and Steller commented that they “had come only for the purpose of bringing American water to Asia”. He insisted on being allowed to go ashore; a quarrel started which Steller described as follows: “At first an attempt was made to scare me with dreadful tales of murder, to which I answered that I had never been so womanish as to fear danger and that I could not guess why I should not be allowed to go ashore, especially since that was in line of my principal work, my calling, and my duty and that it was my determination to serve the Crown to the best of my ability in the future, as I had done in the past; moreover, that, if for reprehensible reasons I were not given the permission, I would report this action in the terms it deserved. For this I was called a wild man, who could not let himself be held back from business even when treated to chocolate, which was just then being prepared. Seeing now that it was the intention to force me, against my will, to inexcusably neglect my duty, I finally put all respect aside and prayed a particular prayer, by which the Commodore was at once mollified so as to let me go ashore…” What magical prayer did Steller use? There is no need to guess, he explained it below: “On my leaving the ship I showed the Commodore once again how good I could be at cursing and being angry — and he ordered to play trumpets so that my words would not be heard”. It seems that Steller turned to the help of this “special prayer” many times during his life, and that this time it worked miracles. In the six hours he spent on the island, Steller performed a scientific feat: he described the flora and fauna of the island (he found 160 species of plants alone), as well as the signs of life of the natives (who escaped at the sight of the travelers), and collected a great number of scientific specimens.

Curiosity, a perpetual impetus of research, did not leave him for a moment. He wanted to see everything with his own eyes, touch things with his own fingers, even taste them. He describes the milk of the famous, now extinct, sea cow that in the scientific tradition is called Steller’s sea cow, as if he drank it (he most probably did!): “Under the forefeet legs there are mammary glands with black wrinkled two-inch-long nipples, to which countless milk ducts bring much milk that exceeds the milk of land animals by its sweetness and fat content; in all other characteristics they are quite similar.”

Finally, everything turned out all right. In August 1742 the survivors returned to Petropavlovsk.

Between August 1742 and August 1744 Steller was extremely active as a scientist, as if he was trying to complete all the matters he was born to do.

The Second Kamchatka Expedition was over, the surviving fellow members of the Expedition left for home, but Steller did not hasten to Europe. During the next two years he walked Kamchatka peninsula far and wide, visited all the forts, sailed to Shumsha Island, studied the life of the Russians and aboriginals, gathered collections, described plants and animals, and wrote a lot. In doing so, he hurried (he always was in a hurry!) to do good. He opened a school in Bolsheretsk and taught there. He tried to protect the Itelmens from the oppressions of colonizers; as a result, he acquired many enemies.

One should admit that the psychological atmosphere in the Second Kamchatka Expedition left much to be desired. The dispute started from the very beginning. The leaders of the Expedition could not come to terms with each other. There were many misunderstandings among the crewmembers. Bering did not always manage to settle these affairs. Thus, a method of weaving plots was often used: offended people or those who believed that they were offended made a complaint and sent it to Petersburg. Considering the distances and the Petersburg affairs in the 1730s, one can imagine the mess that reigned in the Expedition.

Steller was not squeamish about this method either. But he used it exclusively “for the sake of truth”. He was virtually infatuated with the Itelmens (one must not forget that the cult of the natural man was typical of the emerging Age of Enlightenment) and tried to do his best to protect them from excessive external aggression. Once, when he faced shocking evidence of oppression against the Itelmens, he reported to the Senate that a certain midshipman Khmelevsky did not follow the government’s regulations and opressed the Itelmens. This fact had a fatal consequence for Steller. In his turn, Khmelevsky sent a denunciation to the Senate, in which he reported that Steller had released some rebels from jail without authorization and armed them. The first statement was true, although Steller released not the rebels, but poor people, driven by the abuse of power to quiet grumbling. The second statement was simply untrue.

In the meantime, Steller continued his works. He practically finished writing the book Description of the Land of Kamchatka during the winter 1742–1743.

It’s a pleasure to cite Steller’s remarks not only because they contain invaluable information but also because of the original style. Without doubt, he could have become a great writer because he had a sense of rhythm and composition, subtle irony, and romantic emotionality. For example, when he first saw the sea cow he formulated a hypothesis that could result in an upheaval in marine mythology. At those times people tried to find a rational explanation for the numerous legends about mermaids and concluded that mermaids were erotic fantasies of seamen who started to lose their mind in the conditions of long isolation from regular life. But upon his observations of the sea cows, Steller suggested that the tired eyes of seamen took sea cows for mermaids. What a daring suggestion! One should not forget that the sea cows were up to ten meters long, their weight was up to four tons, and they moved with the help of two fins. However, they had a tail similar to that of a whale or a mermaid. Listen to Steller’s poetic description of sea cow mating: “The mating occurs after long preludes. Continuously pursued by the male, the female flees slowly, slipping away from him, until she finally decides not to put it off, turns on her back as if she is weary or surrenders to him. Then the male covers her immediately and abandons himself to his passion, and they flow together in a tight embrace”. Upon reading this fragment one can even suggest that Steller might have written verse.

About half of the book was devoted to the unique descriptions of the Itelmen culture, the way of life of this original people that differed much from its neighbors. It is hard to imagine how much time he had to spend among the Itelmens to get such a deep insight into their life, and what is more important, how intimate his relationships with the people were so that they opened up to a stranger. Even when the Itelmens tried to conceal something, Steller managed to find it out. Once he pretended to be sleeping to watch the ceremony of the major Itelmen holiday.

In August 1744, Steller decided that his mission was over and via Okhotsk and Yakutsk started his way back to the capital.

The fate was fulfilled. At that time it wished to come to a stop. We can only wonder why this stop had to be so sad. It is hard to write about the last months of Steller’s life because it was the point of his internal catastrophe. Some people are made of rubber: they smile no matter how life bends them. But Steller belonged to the people made of iron who can withstand unbearable loads, but break after a certain threshold. In the case of Steller, the reason was probably that he was devoid of the process of creation he was used to and allowed himself to relax and to have break — and relaxation is contra -indicated to people of this caliber.

We know that after he was released from jail in Tara, Steller made a three-week halt in Tobolsk on his way to the West. The locals lavished care and hospitality upon him, and Steller started drinking. Was it to celebrate his release or to drown his disappointment at the lack of recognition of his scientific accomplishments? Anyway, he continued drinking during the long journey to Tyumen. He complained that his career was not a success and scientific activity was needless, that he was sick of his life. The weather was below freezing and Steller caught a bad cold. In Tyumen, two boat physicians of the Second Kamchatka Expedition tried to save him, but nothing helped. He burnt away in several days.

The local priest prohibited the burial of a protestant at the Orthodox cemetery; thus, Steller was buried on the steep bank of the Tara River. The body was wrapped in an expensive red mantle with golden braids. The same night the grave was desecrated, defilers stole the mantle and threw aside the body. After the repeated  funeral a massive gravestone was put on the tomb. Thirty years later Academician Peter Simon Pallas came to the grave to revere Steller’s memory. Then the grave was lost — it was washed away by a flood.

When one thinks about Steller’s life, The Iron Will by Leskov comes to mind. Georg Steller could hardly be considered as a double of Hugo Pectoralis. He was too joyous and reckless. But the image of German “iron” tightly sticking in the Russian “dough” is very meaningful. This goes beyond the evaluation of whether the iron or the dough is better. Everything is good for its purpose. It was not a coincidence that Leskov’s novel was reprinted during the Great Patriotic War against Germany. Anyway, these are things to ponder over.

The Itelmens still keep the memory of Steller. He was one of the few scientists who managed to observe them when the Itelmen people was pure, had no admixtures. By the end of the last century the Itelmens assimilated with other peoples. But the ethnic identity goes beyond blood and genes. National self-consciousness based on culture is more important in this respect. A people disappears when its culture is lost. However, one can try to revive the culture if it was documented. When at the end of the 20th century Kamchatka enthusiasts decided to regenerate the culture of the Itelmens, they used written sources with relevant information, one of which was Steller’s “Description of the Land of Kamchatka”. His descriptions made it possible to reconstruct many festive rites, dances, rituals, household behavior, etc. The notes made by Steller several centuries ago allowed contemporary Itelmens to learn about the traditions their ancestors had in the past, to introduce them to the present and to associate them with the future. Thanks to Steller our culture is still alive, say contemporary Itelmens.

Steller’s fate was frightening and splendid. Who can judge whether it was worth leaving for Russia at a young age? Let us imagine for a moment that Professor Hoffmann had managed to persuade Friedrich Wilhelm to appoint Steller as a professor to the Botany Department. All the years after would have been predictable… No trips to Russia, Kamchatka, or Alaska. Expressing one’s attitude toward such a turn of fate is up to the reader. I for one would be against it, because there were many good scientists in Germany, and Steller would have become one of them, but in Russia he was unique. He happily fell into his destiny like a billiard ball into its pocket. He lived it to the fullest, having inriched Russian and world science.

For a long time his works were hidden under a bushel. One can remember the gravestone put on his tomb. Exactly the same stone, speaking figuratively, lay on his works. Now the time has come to lift up that stone.

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