June 21, 2019

Arctic Atlantis

Arctic Atlantis
Bennett Island, Baron Eduard von Toll's last known location. Wikimedia Commons

In 1811, explorer Yakov Sannikov was dispatched to survey the New Siberian Islands, an archipelago six latitudes north of present-day Norilsk. While mapping the largest of these islands, Kotelny Island, he sighted an island far to the northeast. He tried multiple times to reach this island. Each time, however, he failed.1

Sannikov was not the first person to become preoccupied with this mysterious far-north island. The indigenous Chukchi people had a legend about a tribe called the Onkilons, who split off from the Chukchi people and moved onto the Arctic islands. In 1926, a Russian geologist wrote a novel combining these myths to forge a new tale. Zemlya Sannikova (“Sannikov’s Land”), adapted into film in 1974, depicted the island as an Atlantis, an oasis of spring doomed to recede into the ice.

Even before Zemlya Sannikova was written, however, imperial scientists were fascinated with identifying Zemlya Sannikova once and for all. One scientist, Baron Eduard von Toll, was so dedicated to finding Zemlya Sannikova that he participated in two separate expeditions to the New Siberian Islands. In 1899, the Academy of Sciences invited him to lead an expedition especially dedicated to finding Zemlya Sannikova. Toll graciously accepted. It would be his third and final expedition to the Arctic.2

Baron Eduard von Toll
Baron Eduard von Toll. / Wikimedia Commons.

Construction began in April 1899 of a suitable sailing vessel, and 119 years ago today, on June 21, 1900, the Zarya departed St. Petersburg for Zemlya Sannikova. Toll directed the geographical part of the expedition, while Lieutenant Nikolai Kolomeitsev, an experienced Arctic navigator, commanded the ship. 

At first, relations between Toll and Kolomeitsev were good, but soon it became clear that they worked poorly with each other. Kolomeitsev believed strongly in discipline, while Toll cared more about the scientific side of things. Finally, as the Zarya wintered on Bonevi Island, Toll dismissed Kolomeitsev as commander. In his place, he promoted Lieutenant Fyodor Matisen, who quickly became one of Toll’s most productive surveyors.3

Among Toll’s most trusted officers was Lieutenant Alexander Kolchak. Though Kolchak would later become far better known for leading a White Army contingent, he contributed enormous amounts of support to the Zarya. In April 1901, he and Toll set off by sledge to survey a coastline and find the mouth of the Taymyr River. They actually found it, but Toll did not realize it at the time, because they were too busy searching for Kolchak’s clothing bundle, which had fallen off their sledge. Their expedition ended up being set back two days as they tried to find Kolchak’s clothes.4 Of course, it made sense that they spent so much time finding his clothes, since in subzero temperatures wearing the right clothes is a question of life or death. Still, as far as reasons to delay an Arctic expedition go, this is perhaps one of the more unexpected ones.

The Zarya wintering in 1900-01. / Wikimedia Commons

Arctic winters are long. The ice only began to melt in May 1901, and even then, it was only in September when enough ice had melted for the Zarya to venture further.5 Toll was bent on finding Zemlya Sannikova, but failing that, he was willing to settle for Bennett Island. Unlike Zemlya Sannikova, Bennett Island was confirmed to exist. It was discovered in 1881 by American explorer George De Long and was not far from where Zemlya Sannikova was supposed to be. (Indeed, it is speculated that “Zemlya Sannikova” was actually a reflection or mirage of Bennett Island.6)

Throughout September 1901, the Zarya attempted to navigate towards Bennett Island. It made significant headway, but thickening ice forced it to set up winter quarters on Kotelny Island, which was still about 300 kilometers from Bennett Island. Nevertheless, Toll was not afraid of distances. He began planning an expedition by dog sledge to Bennett Island. He decided to leave in June, with Matisen sailing the Zarya to Bennett Island as soon as the ice melted. Preserving the Zarya, however, took full priority. If the Zarya could not reach Bennett Island by September 3, then Toll would try to get back to the mainland on his own before the early onset of Arctic winter.7

On June 5, 1902, Toll embarked on his journey alongside three companions. After that, for Matisen and the Zarya crew, it was a race against time. For two months they impatiently waited for the ice to break up. It finally broke in August, but they were set back several precious days when a wind blew the block of ice where the Zarya was moored southwest. Matisen regained control of the ship and tried to steer it along Kotelny Island’s northern coast, but the ship met with too much ice to pass. He then tried to steer the Zarya along the southern coast and made great progress, but again, the ship was stopped by ice. Finally, days before Toll’s deadline of September 3, Matisen tried one last time to reach Bennett Island from Kotelny Island. He was forced to return to Siberia because the Zarya was dangerously low on fuel.8

Ice in Arctic Ocean
Ice in Arctic Ocean. / Wikimedia Commons

Despite this setback, the Zarya crew did not give up trying to find Toll. In February 1903, Lieutenant Kolchak led some of the crew on a rescue mission to Bennett Island. After an arduous journey that in itself was a feat of Arctic exploration, they reached Bennett Island on August 17. There they found an empty hut and three notes from Toll.9

According to the notes, Toll and his companions had arrived on August 3, 1902. On the island they had found more than enough food to subsist: there was a substantial herd of reindeer, many bears, and flocks of Arctic birds. However, for some unstated reason, they ended up choosing to leave. Toll’s last note, dated October 26, 1902, ended: “Today we start on the return trip south. Our travelling supplies are good for 14-20 days. We are all in good health.”10

What still puzzles people to this day is why Toll left after the onset of Arctic winter. Even if there wasn’t enough food, they should have had ample time to leave before winter set in. Kolchak wound up surmising that they must not have saved up as much food as they thought they needed. By the time they realized they did not have enough food, it was too late to set out safely, but, given the choice between certain starvation and a possible (if miraculous) escape, they opted for the latter.11 They must have perished in the icy waters between Bennett Island and Siberia.

East Siberian Sea
Aerial view of East Siberian Sea. / Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, American satellite imagery confirmed that Zemlya Sannikova did not actually exist. Nevertheless, Toll did not die for nothing. Thanks to the efforts of Toll, Matisen, Kolchak, and the rest of the Zarya crew as well as their aides and Yakut contacts, the 1900-02 Arctic exploration resulted in extensive discoveries about Arctic geography and geology, as well as ethnographic information on the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.12

We will never know how Toll felt as he approached certain death, having failed to locate the island he set out to find. Dreams of utopia and searches for nonexistent places have long fueled the cultural and political imagination; the results of those are well documented. Toll’s death was a tragedy not only for his family and the scientific community, but also for history. How does an individual respond when they find that the inspiration for all their studies never existed? This we will never know.


Further Reading

Barr, William. “Baron Eduard Von Toll's Last Expedition: The Russian Polar Expedition, 1900-1903.” Arctic 34, no. 3 (1981): 201-24.

Frank, Susanne. “Fiction’s Strategies of Evidence and Their Cultural Significance: The Scientist as Writer.” Enthymema 10 (2014): 26-40.


1 “Baron Eduard von Toll’s Last Expedition”, 202.
2 Ibid, 203-04.
3 Ibid, 204-09.
4 Ibid, 210.
5 Ibid, 211-12.
6 Ibid, 203.
7 Ibid, 214-17.
8 Ibid, 217-20.
9 Ibid, 222.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid, 223-24.
12 On ethnography, see ibid, 215.

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