Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky, Petr Petrovich

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(b. near Urusov, Ryazan guberniya, Russia, 14 January 1827; d St Petersburg. Russia, 11 March 1914)

geography, statistics.

Semyonov’s father, Petr Nikolaevich Semyonov, was a landowner and well-known playwright; his mother, Aleksandra Petrovna Blank, came from a French family that had immigrated to Russia at the end of the seventeenth century. Semyonov was interested in botany and history as a child and was educated at home by private tutors. In 1842 he entered the school for guard cadets at St. Petersburg, from which he graduated with distinction. Three years later he enrolled in the natural sciences section of St. Petersburg University. After graduating in 1848 he was elected a member of the Russian Geographical Society, and by the end of his life he had held honorary memberships in seventy-three Russian and foreign scientific societies and institutions.

In addition to his scientific activity, Semyonov was an expert on Dutch painting and collected 700 pictures and 3,500 prints by Dutch and Flemish masters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the collection was presented to the Hermitage Museum in 1910. He also published works on seventeenth-century Dutch painting and in 1874 was elected an honorary member of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. His abiding interest in entomology was reflected in his collection of 700,000 specimens, given to the Zoological Museum of the Academy of Sciences.

Semyonov began his geographical research in 1849, when, at the request of the Free Economic Society, he and Nikolai Danilevsky investigated the chernozem zone of European Russia. The botanical material that they collected provided the basis for his master’s thesis, defended in 1851, on the flora of the Don basin in relation to the geographical distribution of plants in European Russia. In the same year, at the request of the Russian Geographical Society, he began work on a translation of Karl Ritter’s Die Erdkunde von Asien, taking into consideration material obtained after 1830. This project stimulated his interest in the then almost unknown Tien Shan. From 1853 to 1855 he lived in Berlin and became acquainted with Ritter.

In preparation for an expedition to Tien Shan, Semyonov attended lectures at Berlin University, studied geography and geology, traveled on foot through the mountainous regions of western Europe and Switzerland, studied volcanic phenomena, and made seventeen ascents of Vesuvius. His acquaintance with Humboldt and study of his scientific work especially influenced his scientific outlook; Humboldt, in turn, enthusiastically encouraged Semyonov to explore Tien Shan.

In 1855 Semyonov returned to Russia, and the following year he published the first volume of his translation of Ritter’s Die Erdkunde von Asien, devoted to Mongolia, Manchuria, and northern China. Semyonov’s extensive additions constituted half the volume, and his edition subsequently acquired the significance of an independent work. In the introduction he emphasized the need for geography to deal with the particulars of nature as they related to agriculture and discussed the importance of developing a Russian orthography —especially for Chinese place names—and geographical terminology; he himself introduced “upland” (nagore), “palteau” (ploskogore), “hollow” (kotlovina), and"foothills"(predgore). In his annotations he corrected Ritter’s text and also disputed the author’s assertion that the junctions of the Caspian with the Aral and Black seas could have occurred only in prehistoric times. This problem is still unresolved. He also corrected Humboldt and accounted for the Caspian depression “by the gradual drying up of the seas and not by a volcanic collapse, as in the Dead Sea.”

In 1856 Semyonov reached Tien Shan. He had traveled through the cities of Ekaterinburg (now Sverdlovsk), Omsk, Barnaul, Semipalatinsk, and the fortress of Verny (now Alma-Ata); and en route he had met the geographers G. N. Potanin and C. C. Valikhanov, and the exiled F. Dostoevsky. From Verny he made two excursions to Lake Issyk Kul and one to Kuldja. In 1857 Semyonov wrote to the Russian Geographical Society: “My second long trip to the Chu River exceeded my expectations. I not only succeeded in crossing the Chu but even in reaching Issyk Kul by this route, that is, by its western extremity, on which no European had yet set foot and which no scientific research of any kind had touched.”

In 1857 Semyonov crossed the northern chain of the Terskey Ala-Tau range; discovered the upper reaches of the Naryn River—the main source of the Syr Darya; and climbed along the canyon of the Duzhuuk, having observed the hill and valley topography of the elevated watersheds. He then crossed the Tien Shan to the basin of the Tarim, climbed the Khan Tengri group, and discovered broad glaciers in the upper reaches of the Sazydzhas River. On his return he studied the Trans-Ili Ala-Tau range, Dzungarian Ala-Tau, lake Alakol, and the Tarbagatai range.

Semyonov’s route enabled him to trace the overall configuration of the country and to discover the actual structure of the interior of Asia. He refuted Humboldt’s assertion of the Volcanic origin of the mountains of central Asia and of the presence of the north-south Bolor (Muztagh Ata) range. His observations provided a basis for refuting Ritter’s and Humboldt’s assertion that the Chu River arises from Lake Issyk Kul. The river, he discovered, only apporches the lake, which has no outlet and only provisional connections with the Chu along the channel of the Kutemalda. He pointed out the great altitude of the snow line in the mountains of central Asia (from 11,000 to 15,000 feet), convincing Humboldt that “the dryness of the climate elevates the snowline to an unusual extent.” He established the existence of extensive glaciation in the Tien Shan, first suggested by Humboldt, and compiled the first orographical scheme of the area. He discussed the tectonics and geological structure, noting the line of east-west elevations and intermontane depressions, in which young sedimentary rock had developed. Semyonov also described the vertical division of the landscape in the mountains of the Trans-Ili Ala-Tau into five zones of vegetation and evaluated their agricultural potential. The vast collection of geological and botanical specimens that he amassed included insects, mollusks, and ethnographical material.

After his return to Russia in 1857 Semyonov became active as a scientific encyclopedist. His thirty-year study of Russian economics and statistics was reflected in publication of the five-volume Geografichesko-statistichesky slovar (“Geographical-Statistical Dictionary,” 1863–1885), a basic reference work. As head of the Central Statistical Committee from 1864 Semyonov organized important studies and introduced the geographical method into the study of landed property, sowing area, and yields; the material was grouped by districts classified according to their natural and economic features. In 1870 he organized the First All-Russian Statistical Congress. He conducted a classic investigation of the peasant economy in 1880, and the first general census of Russia (1897) was carried out on his initiative. In 1882 Semyonov became a senator, and from 1897 he was a member of the State Council.

In 1860 Semyonov was elected president of the Section of Physical Geography of the Russian Geographical Society, and from 1873 he was vicepresident of the Society. He organized many expeditions to central Asia, including those of N. M. Przhevalsky, M. V. Pevtsov, G. N. Potanin, P. K. Kozlov, and V. A. Obruchev, the results of which substantially altered existing ideas about Asia. He actively assisted the expedition of N. N. Miklu-kho-Maklai and G. Sedov; organized, with Shokalsky, the Kamchatka expedition of the Russian Geographical Society; and assisted scientists in political exile, including Potanin, A. L. Chekanovsky, and I. D. Chersky.

In 1888 Semyonov visited central Asia for the second time, passing through Ashkhabad and Bukhara to Samarkand and Tashkent. He traveled up the valley of the Zeravshan River and climbed the mountains of Turkestan and the Gissar range. His descriptions of the natural history and economy of the area are still of scientific value.

As a popularizer of geographical knowledge, Semyonov wrote and edited many works. He translated and supplemented Ritter’s Die Erdkunde von Asien with sections on the Altai, Sayan, Baikal, and regions around Lake Baikal. He edited the multivolume Zhivopisnaya Rossia (“Scenic Russia”) and wrote a three-volume history of the Russian Geographical Society. In 1906, on the fifteth anniversary of his expedition to Tien Shan, the epithet “Tyan-Shansky” was officially added to the family name.


I. Original Works. Semyonov’s earlier writings include “Neskolko zametok o granitsakh geologicheskikh formatsy v sredney i yuzhnoy Rossii” (“Some Notes on the Boundaries of Geological Formations in Central and Southern Russia”), in Geograficheskie izvestiya (1850), 513–518; Pridonskaya flora v ee otnosheniakh s geograficheskim raspredeleniem rasteny v Evropeyskoy Rossii (“Flora of the Don in Relation to the Geographical Distribution of Plants in European Russia”; St. Petersburg, 1851), his master’s diss.; “Obozrenie Amura v fiziko-geograficheskom otnoshenii” (“Review of the Amur in Its Physical-Geographical Aspects”), in Vestnik Russkolgo geograficheskogo obshchestva, no. 15 (1855), 227–255; Zemlevedenie Azii K. Rittera (Ritter’s Die Erdkunde von Asien), translated and supplemented by Semyonov, 5 vols. (St.Petersburg, 1856–1879); “Pervaya poezdka na Tyan-Shan ili Nebesny khrebet do verkhoviev r. Yaksarta ili Syr-Dari v 1857 g.” (“First Trip to the Tien Shan or Heavenly Range as Far as the Upper Reaches of the Jaxartes or Syr Darya River in 1857”), in Vestnik Russkogo geograficheskogo obshchestva, no. 23 (1858), 7–25; “Zapiska po voprosu ob obmelenii Azovskogo morya” (“Note on ... the Shallowness of the Sea of Azov”), ibid., no. 30 (1860); and Geografichesko-statistichesky slovar Rossyskoy imperii (“Geographical-Statistical Dictionary of the Russian Empire”), 5 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1863–1885).

Subsequent works are “Naselennost Evropeyskoy Rossii v zavisimosti ot prichin, obuslovlivayushchikh raspredelenie naselenia imperii” (Population of European Russia in Relation to the Conditions That Determine the Distribution of the Population of the Empire”), in Statistichesky vremennik Rossyskoy imperii, 2 , no. 1 (1871), 125–156; articles in Statistika pozemelnoy sobstvennosti i naselennykh mest Evropeyskoy Rossii (“Statistics on Landed Property and Settled Localities of Europear Russia”). pts. 1–2,4–5 (St. Petersburg, 1880–1884); “O vozvrashchenii Amu-Dari v Kaspyskom more” (“On the Return of the Amu Darya Into the Caspian Sea”). in Moskovskie vedomosti.nos. 45–46 (1881): “Oblast kraynego severa Evropeyskoy Rossii v eyo sovremennom ekonomicheskom sostoyanii” (“... the Extreme North of European Russia in Its Present Economic Condition”), in Semyonov, ed., Zhivopisnaya Rossia (“Scenic Russia”), I (St. Petersburg–Moscow, 1881), 313–336; “Ozernaya oblast v eyo sovremennon ekonomicheskom sostoyanii” (“The Lake Region in Its Present Economic Condition”), ibid., 817–834; “Ermitazh i kartinnye gallerei Peterburga” (“The Hermitage and Picture Galleries of St. Petersburg”). ibid., 687–720: “Obshchy obzor ekonomicheskogo sostoyania Finlyandii” (“A General Survey of the Economic Conditions of Finland”), ibid., II (St. Petersburg–Moscow, 1882). 119–128; “Belorusskaya oblast v eyo sovremennom ekonomicheskom sostoyanii” (“The Belorussian Region in Its Present Economic Condition”), ibid., III (St. Petersburg—Moscow, 1882). 473–490: “Zapadnaya Sibir v eyo sovremennom ekonomicheskom sostoyanii” (“Western Siberia in Its Present Economic Condition”) ibid., IX (St. Petersburg—Moscow, 1884), 349– and “Nebesny krebet i Zailysky kray” (“The Heavenly Range and the Trans-Ili Region”), ibid., X (st. Petersburg–Moscow, 1885). 333–376.

Among his later works are Kratkoe rukovodstvo dlyasobirania zhukov ili zhestkokrylykh (Coleoptera) i babochek ili cheshuekrylykh (Lepidoptera) (“A Short Guide to Collecting Beetles... and Butterflies...”; St. Petersburg, 1882; 2nd ed., 1893); “Turkestan i Zakaspysky kray v 1888 godu” (Turkestan and the Transcaspian Region in 1888”) in Izyestiya Russkogo geograficheskogo obshchestva24 , no. 4 (1888), 289–349; Istoria poluvekovoy deyatelnosti Russkogo geograficheskogo obshchestva 1845–1895 (“History of a Half-Century ...of the Russian Geographical Society...”). 3 vols.(St. Petersburg, 1896); “Kharakternye vyvody iz pervoyvseobshchey perepisi"(“Characteristic Conclusions From the First General Census”), in Izvestiya Russkogo geograficheskogo obshchestva, 33 (1897), 249–270; “Sibir” (Siberia”), in Semyonov, ed., Okrainy Rossii, Sibir, Turkestan, Kavkaz, i polyarnaya chast Evropeyskoy Rossii (“Outlying Districts of Russia, Siberia, Turkestan, the Caucasus, and the Polar Part of European Russia". St. Petersburg, 1900): “Rastitelny i zhivotny mir” (“The Plant and Animal World”), II, ch. 3; and “Istoricheskie sudby srednerusskoy chernozemnoy oblasti i kulturnye eyo uspekhi” (“The Historical Fate of the Central Russian Chernozem Regions and Their Cultural Progress”), II.ech. 4, written with V. I.Lamansky,in Rossia (St. Petersburg, 1899–1914); and Memuary (“Memoirs”). 4 vols. (I, III, IV, Petrograd, 1916–1917: II. Leningrad 1946–1947).

II. Secondary Literature. See L. S. Berg, “Petr Petrovich Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky,” in his Ocherki poistorii russkikh geograficheskikh otkryty (“Sketches in the History of Russian Geographical Discoveries”; Moscow–Leningrad, 1946), 232–272; and Vsesoyuznoe geograficheskoe obshchestvo za sto let (“The All Union Geographical Society for the Last Hundred Years". Moscow–Leningrad, 1946), 57–77; V. I.Chernyavsky, P. P. Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky i ego trudy po geografü (“Semyonov ... and His Work in Geography”; Moscow, 1955), 296; A. A. Dostoevsky, “P. P. Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky kak issledovatel, geograf i statistik” (“ Researcher, Geographer, and Statistician”), in Pamyati P. P.Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky (“Recollections of Semyonov ...”, “p. p. Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky kak geograf”) (“ Geographer”), in A. A. Dostoevsky, ed., Petr Petrovich Semyonov-Tyan-Schansky, ego zhizn i deyatelnost (“...Semyonov... His Life and Work”; Leningrad, 1928), 161–1965; V. I Lavrov, “Petr Petrovich Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky,” in Lyudi russkoy nauki (“People of Russian Science”; Moscow, 1962), 460–468; S. I. Ognev, “P. P. Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky,” in Byulleten Moskovskogo obshchestva ispytateley prirody, Biol, ser., 51 , no.3 (1946), 122–137; and Y. K. Eremov, “Petr Petrovich Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky kak fiziko-geograf” (“ Physical Geographer”). in Otechestvennye fiziko-geo-grafy (“Native Physical Geographers”; Moscow, 1959), 284–293.

Vera N. Fedchina