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"I believe in my star!"

What mark did the polar explorer Georgy Sedov leave on history?

5 may 2022

05.05.2021 // 145 years ago, on 5 May 1877, Georgy Sedov was born. He was the first Russian to attempt to reach the North Pole. The attempt cost him his life, but paved the way for other stalwart explorers of the Arctic.

Georgy Sedov was born into a poor peasant family. He dreamt of attending a navy school and becoming a sea captain, but his parents thought that three years of a church school would be enough. He ran away from home and made his way to Rostov-on-Don, where he attended nautical classes. In 1899 he graduated as a navigator and worked on the steamship Sultan. Later he joined the Navy, where he had the best chance of fulfilling a lifelong dream – to embark on an expedition to the northern Terra Incognita. Having passed the examinations of the Naval Cadet Corps, Sedov joined the Main Hydrographic Office in the spring of 1902.

His dream came true: he joined an expedition to Novaya Zemlya as a hydrographer in the same year and did a brilliant job. In 1903, Sedov took part in an expedition to map the Kara Sea. In 1905 and 1906, he charted the Amur River, and in 1909, he explored the mouth of the Kolyma River, which allowed Russia to launch the first commercial voyage from Vladivostok. He was promoted to a full member of the Russian Geographical Society and the Russian Astronomical Society in recognition of his work. But even having received so many awards, Sedov still dreamed of conquering the North Pole and seeing sights yet to be seen.

By 1912, he had drawn up a detailed plan for the expedition. After examining it, the commission of the Main Hydrographic Office dismissed the project and judged it to be utterly unfeasible. State funding was also denied. Then Sedov launched a crowdfunding campaign in which even Emperor Nicholas II took part, donating 10,000 roubles. In total, he managed to raise about 120,000 roubles out of the 250,000 required. On 23 July 1912, Sedov rented the old steam schooner Svyatoy Muchenik Foka (Saint Phocas the Martyr) and began preparations. The Ministry of the Maritime Fleet refused to send a radio operator to the expedition, essentially leaving it without communications, even though there was a radio station on board. And this was just one of the many things that went wrong.

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On 27 August 1912, the schooner finally departed from Arkhangelsk. On 28 September, it ran into impassable ice and failed to reach Franz Josef Land. The crew had to stay for the winter on Novaya Zemlya. In the 352 days spent there they explored and charted all the nearest lands, as well as conducted meteorological and ice observations. For the first time in history, they crossed Severny Island from west to east and went round its northern tip on sleds. In the summer of 1913 the camp got hit by scurvy, forcing the crew to send a small group to the mainland to get help. The group made it to Arkhangelsk, but help never came.

On 3 September 1913, Sedov's ship set sail again, but on 19 September, it was again blocked by the ice. The members of the expedition asked Sedov to turn back before it was too late, to which he replied, "I believe in my destiny!" The schooner spent the second winter in Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island, one of the central islands of Franz Josef Land. They were running out of food, and the scurvy was killing people one by one. Sedov himself also fell ill. Still, he decided to make one last desperate attempt to reach his goal.

On 15 February 1914, Sedov, already seriously ill by that time, headed for the North Pole on a dog sled together with two sailors. A week later he was no longer able to walk and ordered the sailors to tie him to the sled to be able to continue the journey. On 5 March 1914, the brave explorer met his death amidst the ice near Rudolf Island.

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Sedov's expedition and his decision to embark on this journey are often criticized. According to some researchers, it is incorrect to call it the First Russian Expedition to the North Pole. After all, the distance from Arkhangelsk to the North Pole is about 2,000 km, of which Sedov barely covered 200 km. However, most scientists still consider the expedition a milestone in the history of the exploration of the Russian North, calling Sedov a true pioneer in spirit. A group of islands within the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago in the Kara Sea, an island in the Barents Sea, a cape and a glacier on Franz Josef Land, two bays and a peak on Novaya Zemlya, and a cape in Antarctica are named after him.

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