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'That time Barnaul was undoubtedly the most cultural corner of Siberia. I named it Siberian Athens'
Pyotr Tyan-Shanskiy, 1856

Arctic maritime tragedy claims three new victims 102 years later

By The Siberian Times reporter
20 April 2016

Helicopter crash kills three including leader of expedition to find schooner lost in infamous 1914 tragedy.

Head of expedition was killed during a search for the remains of the gunvessel Saint Anna, lost more than a century ago as it sought to explore the Northern Sea Route. Picture: Oleg Prodan

Three men were killed in when their helicopter crash landed on the island of Bely, during a search for the remains of the gunvessel Saint Anna, lost more than a century ago as it sought to explore the Northern Sea Route. 

Two other helicopters landed safely at Sabetta Airport after encountering bad weather. The third was lost on the Arctic island. 

Head of Russian Centre of Arctic exploration Vladimir Pushkarev said: 'Our people were the first to arrive at the site. It was very difficult to find the helicopter. There was heavy fog, poor visibility, but still they managed to catch the signal of the beacon. On arrival, they found the wreckage and the bodies. The crew had no chance to survive.'

Tragedy site


The site of tragedy

'It was very difficult to find the helicopter. There was heavy fog, poor visibility, but still they managed to catch the signal of the beacon.' Picture: Russian Centre of Arctic exploration

The dead were named as director of National Park Onezhskoye Pomorie, Oleg Prodan, aircraft commander, Alexey Frolov, and navigator, Mikhail Tarikh. The tragic Saint Anna and its crew had become stranded in ice on an ill-planned expedition which had begun in 1912.

The vessel became trapped in thick ice in the Kara Sea off the Yamal Peninsula. During 1913 and 1914 it drifted to a position north west of Franz Josef Land. Captain Georgy Brusilov and many of his crew succumbed to scurvy.

Eleven of the crew, including second in command Valerian Albanov - who fell out with Brusilov - fled on foot and after a remarkable journey he arrived safely back on mainland Russia, with one other sailor.

Saint Anna

The tragic Saint Anna and its crew had become stranded in ice on an ill-planned expedition which had begun in 1912. Picture: Ilya Melnikov

They were the only survivors of a tragedy that claimed the lives of 22 of the 24 crew, including Yerminia Zhdanko, a 22-year-old nurse and daughter of a general, described as only the second woman to explore the Arctic. Rescue efforts at the time ended in failure. Explorers led by Oleg Prodan in 2010 found the bones of a Brusilov crew member, and a log book together with other artifacts.

'There is no doubt that the skeletons and notebook pages we found at the end of July on Franz Josef Land are the remains of Georgy Brusilov's expedition - which were thought forever lost, said Oleg Prodan, after the discovery. 

Now he, too, has lost his life. Last year he spoke of his efforts to unlock the secrets of the Saint Anna, called In the Footsteps of Two Captains. Everyone in Russia who has read Veniamin Kaverin's novel Two Captains knows about the 1912-1914 expedition led by Georgy Brusilov.

Oleg Prodan


Findings

Oleg Prodan (top) and the private possesings of Saint Anna crew found in 2010 (bottom). Pictures: Russian Arctic National Park, Vladimir Melnik

Prodan said last year: '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.'

He spoke of rumours that Brusilov and Albanov fell out over the young woman on board. '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,' he said.

'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.

Brusilov


Brusilov and Zhdanko

Captain Georgy Brusilov (top). Captain Georgy Brusilov and  Yerminia Zhdanko pictured on Saint Anna (bottom). Pictures: Naval Museum of the Northern Fleet, Archive of S.N Dashchynsky

'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...

Log book


Findings

Explorers led by Oleg Prodan in 2010 found the bones of a Brusilov crew member, and a log book together with other artifacts. Pictures: Vladimir Melnik

'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.'

Albanov


Konrad

Valerian Albanov (top) and Alexander Konrad (bottom). Pictures: Kolsky Sever

He was asked: 'If you could take a time machine back to the St. Anna schooner, what would you do?'

'Im 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.'

Comments (1)

My deepest sympathies are for all those sadly affected by the tragic crash, and loss of life. However, this is a fascinating tale about the Saint Anna, and one of which I'd heard nothing before reading the above article. Also, the fact that two men survived a frozen hell, and lived to tell the tale, is an example of Arctic travel and survival equal to Nansen's. Their original expedition to find a Northern route, has echoes of a much earlier British expedition to find the North West passage connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific. Now known as the Frankland Expedition, it similarly ended in tragedy, where all the crew died.
Simon Robinson, Blackburn, England
21/04/2016 15:38
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