Albanov, Valerian Ivanovich 1881-1919
ALBANOV, Valerian Ivanovich 1881-1919
PERSONAL: Born 1881, in Voronezh, Russia; died 1919. Education: Naval College of St. Petersburg, graduate, 1904.
CAREER: Navigator and explorer.
In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic (originally published in Russian in 1917), translation from the French by Alison Anderson, preface by Jon Krakauer, introduction by David Roberts, with additional material from William Barr's translation from the Russian, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2000.
SIDELIGHTS: Valerian Ivanovich Albanov was a Russian explorer who documented his eighteen-month-long ordeal and survival in the Arctic in a diary. The document has been translated into German and French, which finally made its appearance in English as In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic more than eighty years after its original publication in Russian in 1917. In 1912 Albanov signed on as chief navigation officer of the British-built Russian ship Santa Anna, for a 7,000-mile expedition to search for new hunting grounds for the fur trade. The crew of twenty-three included only five sailors, an incompetent captain, Georgi Brusilov, and Yerminiya Zhdanko, a nurse and the only woman on board. They set out from Murmansk in August with insufficient fuel and inadequate charts and soon found themselves imprisoned in an ice floe that took them north in the Kara Sea. Over the next year and a half they drifted. Albanov's diary begins as he makes the decision to leave the ship and seek the safety of distant Franz Josef Land. Leonard Guttridge wrote in the Washington Post Book World that "the account gathers true momentum after the transfer of personnel and equipment from the ship's deck to an ice floe, the prelude for a dash to dry land."
Thirteen men joined Albanov, but three eventually returned to the ship. With an inaccurate map torn from a book, Albanov and the ten remaining men began their ninety-day trek, dragging makeshift sledges and kayaks across the ice. They reached land, but only Albanov and one other crew member survived the incredible cold, hunger, scurvy, snow blindness, and threat from dangerous animals as they made their way to an outpost at Cape Flora, where they hoped to be rescued. "The passages describing this death march are among the most hair-raising in the book," wrote Justin Glanville in Chicago's Tribune Books. Glanville said that "Albanov's writing is uncannily vivid, pushing the reader into a world of wintry, unrelenting hardship." The two men were finally rescued during the early days of World War I, a conflict of which they had no knowledge. The Santa Anna and its remaining crew were never found.
Albanov rewrote the first part of the epic account from memory after his original diary was lost. The second part is the actual log, providing the day-to-day details of their trek. New York Times Book Review contributor Caroline Alexander wrote that "Albanov's after-the-fact editing has afforded his narrative a degree of expansiveness that makes his story more accessible to the lay reader and contains passages that capture the men's dreamlike, at times hallucinatory march through the dazzling and improbable landscape." Alexander felt that "missing entirely from Albanov's account is the human drama. . . . Albanov's ten companions remain mostly faceless characters, and there is little sense of their interaction with one another." A French edition includes letters from Brusilov and Zhdanko that indicate that there was friction between members of the crew from the onset. Alexander said that "these tensions of people in close quarters—the record of their deportment among one another in extremis—are what the true adventure classics are all about. The human dynamics are not peripheral or background details to sledging dramas; they are the dramas." New Scientist reviewer Gabrielle Walker wrote that in the English edition, "Albanov's storytelling skills more than survive translation." Albanov died two years after his return to Russia.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
New Scientist, November 18, 2000, Gabrielle Walker, "Pole Position," p. 51.
New York Times Book Review, December 10, 2000, Caroline Alexander, "The Second-worst Journey in the World," p. 10.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 13, 2001, Justin Glanville, "Gripping Tale of Death in the Arctic—From One Who Survived."
Washington Post Book World, December 10, 2000, Leonard Guttridge, "Trapped in a Frozen Sea," p. 3.*