By the end of the 16th century, the Russians had established a commercial route via the Arctic to the fur-trading centre of Mangazeya on the Taz River in western Siberia. From the mouth of the Northern (Severnaya) Dvina River, the route ran coastwise, through Yugorsky Shar Strait to the west coast of Yamal; to avoid the difficult ice conditions farther north, the shallow-drafted vessels crossed the peninsula to the Gulf of Ob via two opposing rivers and an intervening portage. Use of this route was officially discontinued relatively soon afterward as a result of prohibitions by Tsar Michael in 1616 and 1619, aimed in part against foreign interlopers and in part to control trade better.
In 1581–82 the Cossack leader Yermak crossed the Urals and conquered the Tatar khanate of Sibir, defeating its leader, Kuchum. In the summer of 1641 a detachment of Cossacks descended the Okhota River to the Pacific. Furs, extracted as tribute from the indigenous peoples, were the main driving force behind this phenomenal eastward surge, and the routes used were mainly riverine—by boat in summer and by sledge in winter. Nonetheless, during or shortly after this eastern expansion, attempts were made to utilize the central section of the Northeast Passage around the Taymyr Peninsula as a commercial route.
In 1940 and 1945 workers at archaeological sites on Faddeya Island and on the mainland at Simsa Gulf in northeastern Taymyr recovered a remarkable collection of artifacts, including parts of a boat, the ruins of a log hut, human skeletal remains, firearms, bows and arrows, fragments of cloth and leather garments and footwear, abundant remains of furs, and 3,482 Russian coins, the latest of which dated to 1619. Interpretation of the evidence varies, but most likely these are the remains of a Russian expedition shipwrecked on this coast while attempting to sail from east to west (possibly from the Lena River) sometime about 1640. There are only vague references to this expedition in the literature, perhaps because it represented a clandestine attempt to circumvent official prohibitions on use of the riverine and overland routes farther south; i.e., these early Arctic seafarers did not want to advertise their activities.
Farther east there was already substantial regular use of the Lena-Kolyma section of the Northeast Passage by the mid-17th century. The first Cossacks descended the Lena to its delta in 1633, and within a decade the entire coast from the mouth of the Olenek River to the mouth of the Kolyma River had been explored. By 1645 the first trading vessels were plying between the Kolyma and the Lena along the Arctic coast.
In 1648 seven vessels under the command of the Cossack Semyon Dezhnyov sailed east from the mouth of the Kolyma bound for the Anadyr River basin east of the Kolyma Mountains, which was rumoured to be rich in furs. Three of the vessels reached Cape Dezhnyov (the entrance to the Bering Strait), where one was wrecked. Running south, Dezhnyov’s own vessel made a final landfall at Cape Olyutorsky, whence he and his men made their way north overland to the Anadyr. Thus, Dezhnyov was the first European to sail through the Bering Strait.
In the 1720s Peter the Great mounted an ambitious operation to determine the geography of the Bering Strait area, because the documentation from Dezhnyov’s voyage was still filed in the obscurity of the archives. He commissioned Vitus Bering, a Danish officer in the Russian navy, for the task, and, after three years of preparation, Bering put to sea from the east coast of Kamchatka in the summer of 1728. He discovered St. Lawrence Island and the Diomedes and pushed well north through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea but without sighting the Alaskan coast either outward or homeward bound. Hence, he could not know for sure that he had been in the Arctic Ocean. Four years later, during an expedition aimed at subduing the Chukchi people, Ivan Fyodorov and Mikhail Gvozdev sailed east from Cape Dezhnyov, discovered Cape Prince of Wales, and explored the coast to the vicinity of Nome, thereby becoming the first Europeans to see any part of Alaska.
At that point the Russian Admiralty mounted an operation that to the present day has had no equal in the history of polar exploration: the Great Northern Expedition of 1733–43. The undertaking was again under the command of Bering but consisted of seven separate detachments totaling 977 men, each responsible for exploring different sections of the Arctic or Pacific coast. The vessels involved were repeatedly blocked by ice and were forced to winter in the Arctic or to return to base and try again the following year. Even after eight years of effort, a crucial gap still remained along the north coast of the Taymyr Peninsula, which was filled by parties traveling by dog sledge. One of these, led by Semyon Chelyuskin, reached Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost tip of Eurasia, in 1741. The other major gap (which was not traveled by either land or sea) extended from just east of the Kolyma’s mouth to the Bering Strait.
Almost all the exploring parties endured extreme hardships, and there were numerous deaths from scurvy, including Bering and the leader of one of the other parties and his wife. But the entire Arctic coast was surveyed and charted from Archangel to Cape Bolshoy Baranov, quite apart from the achievements of the better-known Pacific detachment led by Bering and Aleksey Chirikov. The expedition produced 62 maps and charts of the Arctic coast and Kamchatka, generally of a very high standard, at a time when the Arctic coast of North America was totally unknown north of Hudson Bayand west of Baffin Bay.
The charts, soundings, and sailing directions compiled during the expedition were invaluable to later navigators, but the problems encountered by all the detachments owing to ice led to the conclusion in Russian government circles that the concept of a navigable Northeast Passage was totally impracticable. Indeed, the only other Russian attempt at navigating any portion of the passage in the 18th century was made by a trader, Nikita Shalaurov, although he did have government approval. He tried to sail east from the Kolyma to the Bering Strait in 1762 but was foiled by ice; trying again in 1764, he and his party disappeared. The Chukchi later told of finding the expedition’s wintering site littered with skeletons.
This troublesome gap from Chaun Bay to the Bering Strait was partly filled by the English navigatorJames Cook in 1778 when he sailed northward through the Bering Strait and pushed as far west as Cape North (now Cape Shmidt). This initiative provoked Catherine II (the Great) of Russia to mount an expedition to explore the Chukchi Peninsula. She recruited Joseph Billings, who had been assistant astronomer with Cook; in 1791 Billings and a party of seven landed at St. Lawrence Bay and traveled west overland to Nizhnekolymsk. But it was not until 1823 that the gap in the north coast of Chukchi was finally mapped, by Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel. With orders to survey the coast east from Cape Shelagsky and to investigate rumours of land to the north, over three seasons (1821–23) he surveyed the coast to Kolyuchin Bay and attempted (unsuccessfully) to reach a landmass (now named Wrangel Island) reported by the local Chukchi as being visible from Cape Yakan in clear weather. During the same period, Pyotr F. Anzhu surveyed the New Siberian Islands and made repeated efforts to locate land rumoured to lie north of that archipelago.
From the Britannica Encyclopedia (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/33100/Arctic/57895/Early-Russian-exploration
The Russian Geographical Society began studying and opening up polar territories in 1846, only a year after the Society had been founded.
The History of Exploring The Arctic by The Russian Geographical Society Before 1917
The first large expedition organized by the Society happened to be Arctic-bound. From 1847 through 1850 a group of scientists headed by E. Gofman explored the regions of the Arctic Urals and Pai-Khoi Ridge, adjacent to the south-western shore of the Kara Sea. In 1870 the associated departments of the Society formed a permanent Commission whose main task was to study the high-altitude region of the Arctic. The Commission did a great job mapping out future expeditions and defining the gear needed by navigators. Famous Russian scientists and Society members, such as P. Kropotkin and V. Voeikov, dedicated their time and effort to studying the Arctic shore of Siberia, the seas and islands of the Arctic Ocean, in conjunction with the development of the Northern Sea Route.
The Society and its departments took part in, or gave their name to, the first expeditions into various Arctic regions: the Chukotka expedition (1868-1870), the north of the Turukhan region expedition (1866), the expedition to Yakutia (1894-1897) and Cola Peninsula (1898). In 1876 well-known philanthropists M. Sidorov and A. Sibiryakov sponsored Russian-Swedish expeditions led by A. Nordensheld and D. Shvanenberg that set the stage for developing trade routes between Russia and Europe through the mouths of Ob and Yenisei rivers.
In 1882-1883 the Society participated in the first International Polar Year. The event’s working committee developed a detailed campaign of research to establish a series of polar meteorological stations to study the environmental and climatic conditions of the Polar Regions. Scientists from 11 countries collaborated on the project, for the first time in the history of humanity. At the time, the Society had the most up-to-date equipment to conduct research on a meteorological station. Supported by the Russian government, in 1881 the Society opened up two such stations, in the mouth of the Lena River and on Novaya Zemlya.
Polar stations later developed into a network of stations and observatories that thoroughly and systematically explored different geophysical phenomena in the Arctic. Later, in 1983, Russian Geographical Society started publishing one of the first synoptic maps.
The Society also oversaw the studies of northern seas. In 1893 hydrologic activities began in the Barents Sea. The Society played an important role in the fate of arctic expeditions led by explorers Sedov, Brusilov and Rusanov, participating actively in rescue efforts. The vice-chairman of the Society, P. Semenov, noted “In the second half-century of its existence, the geographic society will have to again, this time more successfully, explore the physical geography of polar seas that have a significant climate influence on the entire Russian land”.
Arctic Exploration and The Geographical Society of the USSR
On September 17, 1920, the Committee on North was founded under the auspices of the Geographical society. The Committee was tasked with coordination of the Arctic exploration. In 1923 the Society, together with the Academy of Sciences, organized and sponsored the Western-Siberian expedition led by a renowned botanist and geographer B. Gorodkov. The expedition was to explore the country’s geography within the basins of the Agana and the Pura Rivers. The expedition turned out to be a big success, bringing in various ethnographic and anthropological materials.
The Society also paid significant attention to publicizing geographical knowledge, widely discussed its plans to organize polar expeditions and participated in creating scientific programs for those expeditions. In 1933 the first map of Northern Land, compiled by a renowned researcher N. Urvantsev based on the findings of his expedition of 1930-1932, was unveiled at a meeting of the Society. In 1930th, the Society members conducted ethnographic research at the Chukotka Peninsula, and organized a phenological expedition to the Kola Peninsula.
Geographical Society also paid significant attention to the activities of drifting scientific stations “The North Pole”. In the spring of 1938 the participants of the drifting of “The North Pole-1” Station I. Papanin, E. Fedorov, P. Shirshov and E. Krenkel were named honorary members of the Geographical Society of the USSR. The Society paid significant attention to unification of geographical names in the Arctic region and naming geographical objects that did not have a name before.
Having famous researches of the Arctic, such as O. Schmidt, Yu. Shokalsky, S. Obruchev, and many others, as members of the Society were instrumental in further exploration of the region. Presidents of Geographical Society also participated in the research - L. Berg studied glaciers of the Arctic seas, and S. Kalesnik explored the nature of Novaya Zemlya.