The Journal of the Hakluyt Society
Fedor Petrovich Litke and his Expeditions to Novaya Zemlya
by William Barr
Having distinguished himself as senior midshipman on board Vasiliy Mikhailovich Golovnin’s
Leytenent Fedor Petrovich Litke was selected by the Russian Navy Department to lead an
expedition to survey the coasts of Novaya Zemlya, and also the mainland coast from the White
Sea west to the Russian-Norwegian border. While Litke was entirely successful in executing
this latter part of his orders, he was less successful in surveying Novaya Zemlya. In the brig
Novaya Zemlya, over four consecutive seasons (1821-4), he succeeded despite his best efforts
in surveying only parts of the west coast of the double-island due to persistently late-surviving
sea ice. He was unable to penetrate north of Mys Nassau and thus was unable to reach Mys
Zhelaniya the northern tip of Novaya Zemlya, and while he was able to send boats through
Matochkin Shar to survey that strait, he was unable to reach any part of the east coast. The
contrast with the present situation, whereby the route north of Novaya Zemlya in ice-free
waters is commonly used by vessels proceeding from the Barents Sea to the Kara Sea, is an
interesting commentary on changing sea-ice conditions.
Fedor Petrovich Litke’s family was German in origin. His grandfather, Johann Philipp Lütke
(Ivan Filippovich Litke), a Lutheran pastor, moved from Germany to St Petersburg in 1735 to
take up the position of co-rector of the Academy of Science’s gimnaziya (high school)
Councilor of Customs in St Petersburg. In the interim, on 15 December 1784 he had married
Anna Ivanovna Engel. The latter gave birth to Fedor Petrovich on 17 September 1797,
children, ranging in age from twelve years to a few hours, Petr Ivanovich arranged for his
mother-in-law, Elizaveta Kasperovna Engel, then living in Kiev, to move to St Petersburg to
look after his children. Then, a year after Anna’s death Petr Ivanovich married seventeen-year-
old Yekaterina Andreyevna Pal’m whom Orlov has described as Fedor Petrovich’s ‘evil, cruel
In 1804, at the age of seven, Fedor Petrovich was sent to a boarding school run by Efim
described Fedor Petrovich at this stage as ‘badly developed physically, fearful, shy and
But then on 8 March 1808 Petr Ivanovich died, and two months later Fedor
that the children should be distributed among various of the family members. Fedr Petrovich
was taken out of boarding school and sent to live with his uncle, Fedor Ivanovich Engel. The
Alekseev, Fedor Petrovich Like, p.1; Orlov, ‘Fedor Petrovich Litke’, p. 7.
This and all other dates are according to the Julian calendar. To derive the Gregorian date add 11 days.
Orlov, ‘Fedor Petrovich Litke’, p. 7.
Alekseev, Fedor Petrovich Litke, p. 5
latter ignored young Fedor Petrovich almost completely, but on the other hand he was given
free access to his uncle’s extensive library. He read voraciously, if in rather a disorganized
fashion. This somewhat irregular education was further enhanced by listening to the
distinguished guests who attended Fedor Ivanovich Engel’s dinner parties on Monday
But then on 29 June 1810 Fedor Petrovich’s sister, Natalya, married naval officer
Kapitan-leytenant Ivan Savvich Sul’menev and he moved with them to Kronshtadt where Ivan
Savvich was stationed. A very close relationship developed between Fedor Petrovich and his
uncle. He enjoyed the trip out to Kronshtadt immensely and spent many hours exploring the
naval base. He also listened avidly to conversations between his uncle and naval friends, about
the sea, ships and naval battles.
Figure 1. Fedor Litke, 4 December 1823. Portrait painted at Arkhangel’sk.
Ivan Savvich was transferred to Sveaborg (Suomenlinna), the fortress and naval base
just off Helsinki, and, along with Natalya Petrovna and Fedor Petrovich travelled there on
board the frigate Pollux – Fedor Petrovich’s first voyage on board a naval vessel. By this time
it had been decided that he was heading for a naval career. To enter the Navy at the usual age
Fedor Ivanovich Engel would have had to enrol him in the Naval Corps several years earlier,
but had failed to do so. With Sul’menev’s encouragement, Fedor Petrovich started studying for
the Naval Corp’s entrance exams on his own – with the help of tutors organized by his uncle.
His exam was an oral one, the examiners being officers who knew his uncle. He passed the
exam and on 23 April 1813 he joined the Navy as a naval cadet (gardemarin).
one of 21 gunboats under the command of Sul’menev, who flew his broad pennant on board
that vessel when he led his little flotilla first to Riga and then to Danzig (Gdansk), held by the
Initially the gunboats were stationed in the Putziger Vik (Zatoka Pukka) but then on
21 and 23 August and 4 September they attacked the batteries at the mouth of the Wista
(Vistula) River while Russian and Prussian troops attacked the city. Fedor Petrovich was in
charge of a launch carrying Sul’menev’s orders, under fire, to each of the gunboats engaged in
the attack. For his performance he was awarded the Order of Sv. Anna, Fourth Class. Then, on
23 September he was promoted Mishman (Midshipman), still only 15 years old.
1814 Litke returned to Sveaborg on board Aglaya. He spent most of the winter of 1814-15 in St
Petersburg, staying with the Sul’menevs, then was back in Sveaborg for the following winter.
On Sul’menev’s recommendation Fedor Petrovich’s next appointment was to the frigate
Mikhailovich Golovnin. Litke was the senior midshipman on board, the others being Ferdinand
Petrovich Vrangel’ and Fedor Fedorovich Matyushkin, both of whom became lifelong friends
of Litke, and who, by coincidence would later be engaged in surveying the coasts of the East
Siberian Sea at the same time that Litke was mounting expeditions to Novaya Zemlya.
Kamchatka put to sea from Kronshtadt on 26 August 1817.
After calling at
and having taken about a month to round Cape Horn due to its notorious westerly gales, the
frigate reached Callao on 7 February 1818. From there Litke visited Lima. Putting to sea again
on 27 February Kamchatka headed north and west, reaching Petropavlovsk-na-Kamchatke on 3
May. Sailing again on 19 June the frigate next called at Kodiak en route to Novo-Arkhangel’sk
(now Sitka); along the way Litke and his fellow officers surveyed the Komandorskiye Ostrova,
Attu and others of the Aleutian Islands. The frigate reached Novo-Arkhangel’sk, the capital of
Russian America on 28 July. Although he probably did not learn of it until Kamchatka returned
to Kronstadt, on 26 July 1818 Litke had been promoted to Leytenant.
Sailing from Novo-Arkhangel’sk again, after a brief stop at Fort Ross the frigate
continued south to Monterey. Putting to sea again on 18 September, after another brief stop at
Fort Ross Kamchatka headed southwest, bound for the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). There, her
first stop was at Hawaii (the Big Island) where Litke went ashore at Kealakekua Bay where
Captain James Cook had been murdered only 40 years earlier. The next stop was Honolulu on
Oahu, from where the frigate sailed again on 30 October. After calling at Guam Kamchatka
next headed for Manila in the Philippines, arriving on 13 December. Her stay here was quite
long – until 17 January 1820, the time being used for repairs, caulking and painting in
preparation for the long voyage home. Via Sunda Strait and the Cape of Good Hope, with no
intermediate stops the frigate reached St Helena on 20 March. Since Napoleon Bonaparte was
still a prisoner there, security was tight and only Golovnin and one of the cadets was allowed
ashore. The visit was brief, with the frigate putting to sea again on 22 March. After a short stop
Orlov, ‘Fedor Petrovich Litke’, p. 8.
Alekseev, Fedor Petrovich Litke, p. 12.
ibid, p. 14.
ibid, p. 21.