The pioneer of the Far East Vladimir Klavdievich Arseniev, military orientalist, geographer, ethnographer and writer, was born on September 10, 1872, in Saint Petersburg. Thanks to him , the Far East and Kamchatka became closer and less obscure to all residents of the vast Russian Empire.

The Arseniev family was large, with 10 children. All of them read Jules Verne from an early age and loved stories about travelers. Vladimir’s father, a former serf, made his career in the railway industry. His maternal uncle loved nature and once took his nephew on a trip of the river Tosna, Vladimir’s first journey. Little Vladimir heard a lot of the great Russian explorers Nikolay Przhevalsky and Gennady Nevelsky, and, as an adult, Arseniev chose military service, following their footsteps.

In 1900, Arseniev asked for a transfer to the Far East, which had been virtually unexplored by geographers back then. His superiors gave him an assignment to make a map of the region. However, he also described flora and fauna, and made other notes. After the defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, the Russian Empire decided to explore its Far Eastern lands. In 1906, funds were allocated to the first serious expedition to study the mountainous Sikhote-Alin area from Olga Bay to the Bay of Ternay and the source system of the Ussuri river.

The explorers made a detailed map, took photographs and described what they saw. During the expedition, Arseniev met Dersu Uzala, a local hunter and guide, who became the protagonist of his book of the same name. The book was not just explorer's notes mentioning who and where the team met on their way, but a complete novel that could lure you into the world of the peoples and nature of the Far East.

Vladimir Arseniev and Dersu Uzala

Vladimir Arseniev and Dersu Uzala


Quotes from the book Dersu Uzala:

“He realized that living in a town meant living the way others wanted rather than he wanted himself.”

“The beauty of life is in sharp contrasts.”

“I asked him why he had chased the seal away. Dersu said it was counting the people who would come here, to the shore. A man can count animals, but a seal?! That hurt his hunter’s pride very much.”

“A bird's eye view of a mountainous country! The beauty of it! Mountains as far as the eye can see, with their tops, now pointed like cock's combs, now even like plateaus and now dome-shaped, were like ripples on the sea, hiding behind each other, moving into the distance, seeming to vanish vanishing in the mist.”

“Both this sky, with a broad band of the Milky Way stretching across it, and the dark ocean that reflected all the celestial bodies at once, seemed infinitely deep.”

In 1907, Vladimir Arseniev went on an expedition to the eastern slopes the Sikhote-Alin mountains and the basins of the rivers Iman (now Bolshaya Ussurka) and Bikin. The journey was not an easy one: the group traveled over 1,600 km, suffered famine twice, had to survive in a harsh winter. However, the explorers’ job in 1908–1910 turned out the most difficult one. The travelers had to explore the entire north Ussuri area along the lower course of the Amur in 19 months. The recollections of the journey are frightening,

“I nearly starved to death four times. Once, we ate leather; another time we filled our stomachs with algae, ate mollusks. The last famine was the worst. It lasted for 21 days. Remember Alpa – my favorite dog? We got so hungry we ate her and thus saved our lives. I was drowning three times, was attacked by wild animals twice (a tiger and a bear) <…> But here I am!” wrote Vladimir Arseniev.

However, specialists did need the results of the explorations since the geographic information was a total mess at the time. The same locations were referred to by totally different names, and in different languages at that – in Chinese, Udege, and Russian. The explorers standardized the system of designations, defined two climate zones (the eastern sea zone and the western continental zone), and established a sharp transition boundary between the southern Manchurian flora and the northern Okhotsk flora. Vladimir Arseniev used his talent to describe the lifestyle and traditions of the indigenous peoples of the Amur area – Udege, Taz, Orochs, and Nanai. He considered his monograph entitled Udekhe Country to be his principal work, but the manuscript, nearly finished, was lost after Arseniev's death, and thus was never published.

In the 1920’s, the explorer went to Kamchatka and traveled the route Sovetskaya GavanKhabarovsk. He was interested in various issues: from countering poaching to organizing a population census. Vladimir Arseniev died on September 4, 1930, of pneumonia he contracted in another expedition. One of his last letters said,

“My wish is to finish the processing of my research materials and then leave, go somewhere far away, go for good – to Dersu!”

Members of the expedition to the Ussuri Taiga

Members of the expedition to the Ussuri Taiga

Source: Pinterest

Vladimir Arseniev's travels are described in his works:

  • The Chinese in Ussuri Region. A historical and ethnographic essay // Notes of the Amur Region Department of the Russian Imperial Geographic Society
  • Traveling in Ussuri Region (Dersu Uzala)
  • Deep in Ussuri Region 
  • Udege, People of the Woods
  • Through the Taiga. Travel Notes of the Expedition along the Route from Sovetskaya Gavan to Khabarovsk. 
  • In the Sikhote-Alin Mountains
  • Life and Adventures in the Taiga
  • Russian-Orochi Dictionary: Materials on the Language and Traditional Culture of Orochs and Udege people

The article is based on open sources.

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Photo: Pinterest