During the 18th and 19th centuries, every educated Russian dreamed of traveling Europe. Whole families took trips to the West, gradually working their way from one city to the next, admiring medieval cathedrals or the masterpieces of Raphael along the way. They went to Europe to vanquish Parisian society, to relax at a spa, or to play roulette at Baden-Baden. Political exiles emigrated to the West. Herzen established a printing house in London to spread liberal ideas, while young feminists enrolled in Swiss or German universities, since Russian ones were closed to them.
But few thought about traveling to the East rather than the West. Beyond the Urals lay Siberia, which had been explored by Russian Cossacks in the 17th century and by the 19th century was already part of the Russian Empire. Nonetheless, it was seen as something distant and alien--a place Russians associated with the idea of exile.
For those with a thirst for the exotic there was Crimea, still untamed and unfamiliar, and the Caucasus, with its wild mountain people, endless wars, and romantic peaks. Beyond these lands were absolutely unfathomable reaches, where the steppes were roamed by Kazakhs (who supposedly recognized the authority of the Russian tsar), beyond which lay the endless wilds of Central Asia. Few had any idea of what these lands were like. Further still lay the exotic countries of India, China, and Japan--places unimaginably distant from Russia.
Nineteenth century Russian writers were likely to send their protagonists to Europe, to the Caucasus, or in extreme cases to America, although this destination, as was the case in Crime and Punishment, could also serve to hint at departure to "the Great Beyond." But almost nobody ever went to Asia. The Petrine impulse to orient Russia toward the West was so strong that for a long time virtually no one looked eastward except for a few wild-eyed eccentrics.
But then the empire started slowly but surely to focus its attention on Asia. This was not just a Russian phenomenon. The 19th century was the time of the "Eastern question"--a time of struggle for influence over the Balkans. Geopolitics dictated that the Balkans were critical to anyone with an interest in the Mediterranean and Black Sea basins and, consequently, the Middle East and the Caucasus. From there it was not far to Turkey and Persia. Furthermore, the great powers wanted to possess colonies. India was already a glistening jewel in the crown of the British Empire. French troops were starting to occupy Indochina.
Now it was Russia's turn, and in the mid-19th century the first military expeditions set out across the Central Asian deserts. Here, everything was alien, distant, mysterious. Soldiers died of thirst and dysentery. Military commanders were often confused about why they should be getting involved in the affairs of the rulers of Ferghana and Khiva, presenting offerings in the name of the Russian tsar, and spending hours engaged in the circumlocutionary rhetoric of oriental negotiations. At the same time, other military expeditions were working their way along the great rivers of the Far East, and the cities of Khabarovsk and Vladivostok appeared on maps. Suddenly there was Novy Bosfor (New Bosphorus) Gulf and Zolotoy Rog (Golden Horn) Bay, echoing the names of important places near Istanbul. And suddenly China and Japan were close neighbors.
And the imperial impulse--to expand until impeded by a great ocean or majestic mountains--began to be felt by the ordinary folk as well. The soldiers were followed by merchants and peasants hungering for a better life and new lands. Artists discovered the fascination of eastern landscapes. Historians and philologists undertook the study of the Orient--and with such fervor that, by the end of the nineteenth century, Russian institutions of higher learning could boast some of the world's top scholars of Asian studies.
And of course explorers also set out eastward. In the nineteenth century, the map of the world was still riddled with blank spots. Nobody knew where the Nile began, nobody had yet to make it either to the North or South Pole, no Westerner yet imagined the wonders hidden in the upper peaks of Tibet. Hosts of heroic explorers set out on dizzying adventures, sometimes disappearing for many years at a time, emerging sick and in tatters from the depths of Africa, only to meet a fellow madman willing to spend years searching for him in order to exclaim upon meeting, "Doctor Livingston, I presume?"
Russian scholars also succumbed to these romantic yearnings. One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1857, 30-year-old Pyotr Semyonov--a military officer from a venerable military family who held a degree in physics and mathematics from St. Petersburg University--turned his back on Europe and set out for distant Asia and the Tian Shan (Chinese for "celestial mountains"). Semyonov was already the author of numerous works on botany and geology. He had studied plant life along the Oka and Don rivers and had traveled to Germany and written a work on the soils of Silesia. Why Tian Shan, of all places? And why did the famous Prussian naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, with whom Semyonov consulted before leaving, say to his young friend, "I won't die until I get a fragment of the Tian Shan cliffs from you?" Why specifically these cliffs? They were not conquerors, or soldiers, or merchants. They shared a wealth of scientific interests. What drove them must have been the simple fact that the map of the world still included utterly unexplored territories. That was what kept such men awake at night.
Russia had just lost the Crimean War; Great Britain was making plans to acquire shares in the Suez Canal, which was just starting to be built; and the forces of Napoleon III were occupying Viet Nam. Meanwhile, Semyonov was calmly advancing along the roads of Tian Shan, noting every new mountain peak on his maps, catching butterflies and beetles, and collecting flowers in the mountain meadows.
During the two years that Semyonov's expedition spent in Altai, in the mountains next to the Issyk-Kul (Warm Lake) and in Tian Shan, the naturalist studied 23 mountain passes, measured the heights of 50 peaks, and collected 300 rock samples and more than 1000 plant and insect species.
He believed that he had found Tian Shan's highest peak. "We were blinded by an unexpected sight. Directly to the south of us the most majestic ridge of mountains I have ever seen rose up. From top to bottom it consisted of snowy giants, of which I was able to count no fewer than thirty from left to right ... Right in the middle of these giants rose one sharply pointed pyramid that appeared from the level of the mountain pass to be twice as high as all the other mountain peaks." In fact, this was his one error--he had called Khan Tengri the highest peak. It would be 100 years before it was discovered in 1946 that Pobeda [Victory] Peak (now known as Jengish Chokosu) was actually 429 meters taller.
It is difficult to list everything this researcher achieved over the following decades. But there was one thing he did not do. He did not return to Tian Shan. At first, this was due to a lack of funds. Later, it was probably due to the pull of other important matters.
He returned to Russia, where people were too preoccupied to be bothered with his discoveries. The liberation of the serfs was drawing near, and everyone was trying to figure out what changes that would bring. Semyonov took part in preparing the reforms and later headed the Russian Geographical Society. He organized a number of expeditions, amassed a huge collection of beetles, and-smaller in number but amazing in its quality--a collection of Dutch paintings. He also conducted the first statistical study and census of the Russian population.
All he was left with of Tian Shan was his collections and a new appendage to his last name, granted him in honor of his achievements as an explorer-he was now Semyonov-Tyanshansky. And of course there were memories of the blinding sun reflected off the snowy mountain peaks.…