Imperial Russian Geographical Society

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Legend holds that the idea for the Russian Geographical Society (RGS) arose at a dinner party thrown by A. F. Middendorf in St. Petersburg in 1845. Middendorf had just returned from his famous expedition to Eastern Siberia. He, along with Fyodr Litke, Karl Ber, and Ferdinand Wrangel, conceived the society, which ultimately attracted seventeen charter members, including the most prominent Russian explorers, scientists, and public officials of their day. The goal was systematically to expand and quantify the understanding of their country, which was still relatively unknown. Geographical societies elsewhere in the world (England, France, Prussia, and so on) were mainly concerned with general geography, whereas homeland geography (domashnyaya geografiya ) was for them secondary. The early founders of the RGS thus were leading proponents of the nationalist reformminded movement that perfused Russia in the mid-1800s. The emphasis would be upon Russia's special place in the world: its diversity of climates, languages, customs, peoples, and so forth.

Although, early on, members wished to call it the "Russian Geographical-Statistical Society," on August 18, 1845, Tsar Nicholas I declared that it would be named the "Russian Geographical Society"; this remained the official name for the next five years. In October 1845, the majority of the charter members held their first meeting and selected 51 active members from throughout Russia. After 1850 the society was renamed the Imperial Russian Geographical Society (Imperatorskoye russkoye geograficheskoye obshchestvo [IRGS]), an appellation that would persist until 1917.

Almost immediately after its founding, the RGS became a polestar for opponents of Nicholas I. It became one of the ideological centers of the struggle against serfdom and had direct links to Russian utopian socialists, such as the Petrashevsky Circle. Its titular leader was the tsar's second son, Grand Prince Constantine, who represented the most "progressive" (i. e., nationalistic) ideas of that time. Within the society, conflict arose between the largely non-Russian founders (the Baltic Germans) and the ethnically pure Russian contingent. Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, the IRGS stressed Russia's messianic mission in Asia, and most of the society's sponsored expeditions, including the famous Amur expedition of 18551863, were indeed carried out in Asia. By 1917 the IRGS had compiled a legacy of 1,500 volumes of scholarly literature.

See also: geography; russian geographical society


Bassin, Mark. (1983). "The Russian Geographical Society, the 'Amur Epoch,' and the Great Siberian Expedition, 18551863." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 73:240256.

Harris, Chauncey D., ed. (1962). Soviet Geography: Accomplishments and Tasks, tr. Lawrence Ecker. New York: American Geographical Society.

Victor L. Mote