In the Footsteps of Two Captains expedition. The silence of those who perished on the ice
Everyone in Russia who has read Veniamin Kaverin’s novel Two Captains knows about the 1912-1914 expedition led by Georgy Brusilov. In the run-up to the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov, the St. Anna schooner left St. Petersburg for the Arctic to be the first to travel along the Northern Sea Route. However, the ship was caught in the ice off the west coast of Yamal and began to drift to the north and the northwest. In April 1914, after falling out with Captain Brusilov, navigator Valerian Albanov led a group of 11 people off the ship and headed south. Nine out of the 11 died or went missing, and only Albanov and sailor Konrad were rescued by Georgy Sedov’s expedition. The fate of the 13 members of the expedition who stayed aboard the St. Anna after April 1914 remains unknown.
You are the first person after almost a hundred years to lead a search expedition to retrace the steps of these two captains. What secrets are you planning to uncover?
We wanted to find the people. Our first goal was to at least make sure that the expedition took place here (according to the diaries of navigator Albanov and sailor Konrad, it took place there), to see if they were actually there, because Albanov was widely accused of falsifying the events of the expedition and lying in his diary. We based our work on Albanov and Konrad’s diaries (Alexander Konrad (1890-1940) was a Russian sailor, a polar explorer, a member of Brusilov’s expedition, and one of its two survivors). We studied everything thoroughly.
How many people were there on St. Anna and why did they part ways?
There were 24 people on the crew. Ten people left with Albanov (chief helmsman Pyotr Maksimov, boilerman Vladimir Gubanov, steward Yan Regald and sailors Lunyaev, Arkhiereyev, Shpakovsky, Bayev, Alexander Konrad, Olgerd Nielsen and Pavel Smirennikov) and 12 people stayed with Brusilov. The crew was divided almost in half.
Why did Brusilov and Albanov fall out? Was it perhaps over Yereminia Zhdanko?
I’ve heard many different versions of this story, from Hollywood endings where Brusilov married Zhdanko and they went to live in America and have children all the way to crazy stories about how Albanov supposedly shot everyone dead and left with the few remaining people.
I believe that there was a conflict (even the diaries, which we found during our expedition, confirm this), but it had nothing to do with a love affair. People of that era were brought up in a slightly different way. Yes, perhaps the two captains had feelings for Zhdanko — this is natural, but it was not the primary reason for the conflict.
Most likely, the conflict was over who was in charge and disagreements about what to do next. It was a crisis, a dangerous edge. What were they supposed to do in that situation? They had differing views on that. Also, keep in mind that Brusilov was a nobleman, a snob. Albanov was a self-made man and was more experienced. For about a year, Brusilov was sick with a fever, and when he got better and resumed his captain duties, he realized that his place was already taken by Albanov. This caused a rift between them.
By the way, 21-year-old Yereminia Zhdanko was taking care of Brusilov during his long illness. Actually, to me, she is the main character of this story.
That is, your expedition should have been called “In the footsteps of three captains.” Is Yereminia Zhdanko your personal hero?
Yes, Zhdanko became my hero once we started delving deeper into Brusilov’s expedition. Previously, I thought of her differently: she was just another girl to me who caused a rift between the two captains. But when I dug deeper, I realized that she actually saved all these men. They owed their survival for two long years to this girl, who kept them alive and made them write their diaries… She forced them to stay alive.
Zhdanko is a big theme. I can compare her to the Grand Duchesses who, during World War I, helped at the hospitals. Blood, pus, soil — the emperor’s daughters came in and cleaned it all up. The sacrificial nature of Russian women is also part of the theme of Zhdanko. That girl sacrificed herself, in fact, for the idea.
Which of the two captains, Brusilov or Albanov, are you more sympathetic toward?
Zhdanko! As for Brusilov or Albanov, I find it hard to decide. Members of our expedition had different opinions, too: some said that Brusilov was the hero, others said that Albanov was the hero while Brusilov was the bad guy. Still others believed that Albanov was the bad guy because he left the ship, took healthy men with him, sending the sick ones by land, realizing that they would die, and so on.
That is, everyone had their own perceptions of these characters. When we got together, I said, “Guys, let’s leave our subjectivity aside, because we can’t get into their shoes. The one thing we know for sure is that people went missing. We’re just looking for the missing people.”
If you could take a time machine back to the St. Anna schooner, what would you do?
I’m not sure I’d survive in those conditions. I can say that I was surprised when we dug deeper into that story and realized how Albanov makes it seem like everything that happened to them was easy: how they walked on ice for over two months to reach Alexandra Land, how they fell through ice, their clothes drying on their backs, and survived on a meager diet of crackers and concentrated broth. When I looked into all of that, I realized that if any of us, even the most experienced and crazy, were to find himself in those circumstances… I’m sure that none of our polar explorers could repeat it. No one.
How many expeditions were devoted to the two captains and who financed them?
There were four expeditions in all: in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. In 2010, we went to the Arctic, paying for everything with our own money. We just got together and did it. Federal Security Service’s aircraft helped us a lot. They accompanied us and took us there. Thanks go to the commander. They were inspired by our expedition. Of course, Kaverin’s book, Two Captains, has played a role as well. When you come to the people of heroic professions, who are connected with the Arctic, and say to them, “Let’s go look for what Sanya Grigoryev was looking for,” they are ready to help no questions asked.
No one, other than they, believed in what we were doing in 2010. But after we found the remains and personal belongings of the members of Brusilov’s expedition, the scientific world took an interest. But that was it — just interest. We had to fund our future expeditions ourselves.
How many people participated in the expeditions devoted to the two captains?
There were over 40 people in our four expeditions. Every year, we had a team of 12-13 specialists working on it. I’m not just talking about those who flew with us and walked around with a metal detector on the island, but also the people who helped us from Moscow with communication and coordination of our activities, and so on. Everyone chipped in.
Which of these expeditions was the most productive?
All of our major discoveries were made in 2010. However, later expeditions also gave us good materials: we found more bones that belonged to a previously unearthed skeleton, and more pages from the diary.
Which route did you take in 2010?
We followed the Pyotr Maksimov group’s trail. Five of them split from Albanov and went on by land, while Albanov’s group went by sea in kayaks. Pyotr Maksimov was the oldest of the five and could control the situation, and so he was appointed group leader. The others were Yan Regald, a steward and Brusilov’s man, sailor Pavel Smirennikov, boilerman Vladimir Gubanov, and Arkhiereyev, a sailor who was left behind to die in the snow because he couldn’t walk.
We knew without a doubt that they split up on Alexandra Land, where they found Konrad and sailor Shpakovsky, who were planning to leave the weakest group members behind so that they wouldn’t burden their passage. All of them went as far as Cape Neale on Prince George Land. We know this from Albanov’s diary.
After reaching the cape, we spent a week looking for the site where they had gathered, because the surrounding landscape has changed and differed a lot from the description in the dairies. But we were lucky to have found their fire pit and burned logs — no one ever went there besides them.
Next they were to go to Cape Grant: Maksimov by land, and Albanov by sea. Albanov’s mistake was that he decided it would be easier and safer to move by land. I don’t blame him, but it’s strange that, being an experienced seaman and having negotiated pack ice, he made that fatal decision. In fact, islands are harder to negotiate than pack ice, because of polar bears and glaciers that are almost impassable. He just didn’t know about the difficulties of traveling by land. Besides, they had no boats.
What was the most valuable artifact you found there?
Our most valuable find was a diary. An analysis of it showed that it could have belonged to Vladimir Gubanov. That diary convincingly proves that Albanov was an honest man and not a crook.
All of the facts mentioned in Albanov’s and Gubanov’s diaries coincide, at least for the period they described in the diaries that we found in 2010.
There is a mention of Zhdanko: “She took her photographic camera and went out.” It’s true that she had a camera. Next, the diaries confirm a conflict between Brusilov and Albanov in a simple but very powerful phrase: “Lunyaev was trying to break up a fight between the captain and the navigator.” What’s this? How far did their conflict go if a sailor had to break up a fight between two senior officers?
By the way, it took us a long time to decipher Gubanov’s diary because it was in a bad shape. It also contained a map of the Northern Sea Route and a drawing of a part of a steam engine. The diary is now on display at the Arkhangelsk Local History Museum.
What else did you find, and who was the luckiest man on your expedition?
The Arctic itself decides whom to help and whom to accept. We were accepted.
Our first find on Cape Neale was pure luck. For the first few days we were working in vain and started to lose courage. And then Vladimir Melnik took a metal sensor from Yevgeny Fershter and said: “I’ll go practice with it.” He goes out of the tent and starts “practicing,” and a few meters from the tent he finds two cartridges marked 1910 from a rifle that Brusilov’s team had. Everyone was inspired and shouting: “They’ve been here!” At the site where we found the cartridges, Albanov’s two groups were walking separately, because Cape Neale is quite long.
On Cape Flora we found a can that belonged to the Englishman Jackson (the Jackson—Harmsworth expedition to Franz Josef Land, 1894-1897) in a cairn, but it was empty. We hoped to find a note in it, but the can was rotten and there was nothing in it. Jackson was a fantastic man; he wrote down everything he saw in his dairies in such detail that we could easily follow his route. Maksimov’s group did this too, as they knew about Jackson’s expedition and looked for his camp, where they hoped to find food and shelter. Maksimov’s group found one of Jackson’s cairns where he left some food. We knew that Maksimov’s men found that cairn because it was empty. We left a note in it.
The luckiest man in our expedition was Alexander Untila. The Arctic chose him. This is how it happened. We passed a glacier and sat down to take a rest. Unexpectedly, Alexander rose and said: “I’ll walk around a bit.” He moved away and saw human remains. That’s when we got down to work!
We found cartridges at that spot, a rucksack in good shape, a cup, a bucket, a spoon and Smirennikov’s watch. We also found glasses made from a bottle, something resembling skis or snowshoes, and many pieces of clothes — wool and fur clothes. The fur clothes, which looked like a parka with the fur facing the skin, were in bad condition, rotten through. There were bear claw marks on one of the items of clothes.
The really valuable items that belonged to those four and were described in the diaries that we didn’t find were their rifles. We knew that they killed a bear, because we found the bones of a bear they killed at their resting site. The bear’s skull was broken in by an axe.
We kept wondering why one man had so many things with him. Ultimately, we decided that he was left with all of these items at a bonfire — fire is good protection against wild animals — to cook the bear, and the other three took a rifle and went to look around, walking light, and died in the glacier. It’s next to impossible to find someone who died climbing a glacier.
It’s unclear what happened to the man we found, whether he froze to death or died from scurvy and was later eaten by a bear, or a bear killed him. However, since we didn’t find his head, we presumed that he was killed by a bear, because this is what bears do. Had we found his skull, we could have identified him more easily.
We thought that the dead man was Regald, the steward from the Baltics. At least, Viktor Zvyagin (an MD, professor, a merited doctor of Russia, and a coroner), who examined the remains said so. It couldn’t be Maksimov on account of his age. So, we started looking for the Baltic connection and went to Tallinn, where we found Regald’s descendants and convinced them to take a DNA test. In all, it took us over a year. Eventually, we received an official paper saying that it was not Regald’s remains. But we could have made a mistake by finding the wrong relatives. The issue is not settled, we must keep on looking. The identification stage is not over.
The trouble is that there are no documents left about the St. Anna schooner. There are no archives. There have been so many tragic events since Brusilov’s expedition, including the 1917 revolt and the siege of Leningrad during WWII when everything could have perished. There are no original diaries from Albanov and Konrad. The last man who saw Albanov’s original diary was Kaverin. And then its traces disappeared. Konrad’s diaries that are kept at the St. Petersburg Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic were copied by Konrad himself, who refused to be interviewed.
What do you think is the reason for the mysterious disappearance of the original diaries, and for the survivors’ stubborn silence?
They probably had something to hide. Konrad did take two kayaks and another sailor and basically committed mutiny against Albanov during the ice crossing. By almost any law, Albanov was entitled to execute them both once they met up on Alexandra Land. But he didn’t! He let them get away with it. I fully understand why he did it — they needed as many men as they could get, even if only to carry stuff.
Albanov never wrote the names of those who committed this mutiny in his diary, but it’s easy to figure it out. This could also be what Konrad was trying to hide. Or he might not have wanted the entire country to know what he did, since in that situation it was equal to desertion.
You took a dog named Arnie along for the mission. What was his job?
Bear alarm. It happened once, when one group left for Cape Grant, those who stayed went to work on the glacier, three people and Arnie were left to guard the campsite, and they got a visit from a bear. They tried to shoo it away, but the beast was probably too young and stupid and didn’t know what to do. It tore a tent to pieces and ate everything it could reach. Even Arnie was startled by the bear’s aggression. They stood nose to nose for some time, both at a loss. In fact dog meat is something of a delicacy for bears, but the bear’s mother must have forgotten to tell it that. So they finally drove it away.
If you’re serious though, it’s unwise to venture into the Arctic without a dog. Someone needs to keep watch around-the-clock. We stayed up in two or three-hour shifts every night.
You’re not planning to set out on a search for the St. Anna?
Actually, I am. I’ve already started this search.
Once it became clear there was nothing else to be found on Prince George Land, we asked ourselves, well, what’s next? Where is the St. Anna? There were various theories as to what could have happened to the ship. One of them, although ridiculed by theorists, seems interesting to me. In 1937, navigator Akkuratov (Valentin Akkuratov, 1909-1993, a merited Soviet Arctic flight navigator and writer) and the pilot Mazuruk (Ilya Mazuruk, 1906-1989, a Soviet Arctic pilot, Hero of the Soviet Union and air force Major-General), who were responsible for the logistics of North Pole-1, the first Soviet manned drifting station in the Arctic Ocean, lived on Rudolf Island.
One spring day they noticed a sail on the horizon. They decided to start their airplane and fly toward it, but while they were warming up the engine, a mist fell, and they couldn’t take off for another ten days. Of course by that time there was no ship in sight. The Flying Dutchman. Moreover, they found a women’s shoe, with a label, Supplier of His Imperial Majesty’s Court, on Rudolf Island. How did it get there? They reported both incidents to the Soviet government, but in response they both were accused of seeing things through barrel fever. According to scientists, the St. Anna had to have gone toward Greenland, and their theories were all based on this assumption.
It has been 100 years since Brusilov’s expedition. The general ocean currents and ice drifts are unlikely to have changed significantly since then. If they had, the world would have changed as well. So I thought, why don’t I take the latest known coordinates Albanov departed from and the date he left the schooner, and try to reconstruct what happened, hypothetically at least?
So I met with some people involved in satellite navigation projects and we had an interesting idea — to try to use satellite systems to deduce the possible location the St. Anna could have drifted to.
In 2013, we flew to the place and planted buoys at the designated coordinates on the same date as the St. Anna had, to see what happened next.
The buoys’ drifts were tracked by satellites, which showed us a remarkable thing. All of our buoys drifted in a completely different direction. They moved east, not west, circling for some time near Franz-Josef Land. Then they reached latitude 85 North and went back. The last buoy was crushed near Franz-Josef Land, between Rudolf Island and Eva-Liv Island.
In any case, this shows that Mazuruk and Akkuratov’s version is as rational as the other ones. Moreover, while other versions are only theories, this one has some evidence now. We need to plant buoys for another year or two of course, to get some statistics.
Once we establish a pattern in the buoys’ movement, we’ll be able to begin searching for real. Maybe we could even find a wood splinter on the shore, because a wooden ship had to have been thrown onto the shore in the end.
What consequences could Brusilov’s expedition have?
I think Yereminia Zhdanko’s life should be made into a movie. It would be great to have this story narrated in a patriotic and educational tone. But to make a good movie, they’d need a good script that didn’t repeat Kaverin’s book.
Do you know that Kaverin actually thought Two Captains was the weakest of his works? Still, this book is what he is best known for. Why? What did he do? He took all the good qualities of human nature, on the one hand, and all the bad ones, on the other, and showed them in a beautiful and romantic way.
But if the film is based on the real story of Brusilov’s expedition, complete with romance, love and death, can you imagine what kind of film it’ll be?