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 Pyotr Semenov-Tian Shansky

Born:   14 January 1827
Deceased:   11 March 1914

Russian traveler and geographer


Petr Petrovich Semenov is born in the village of Urusovo near Ryuazan in 1827. His father, former military servant, owned several estates and many serf men. He died, when Petr was only 12, thus leaving all his belongings and grieving wife, Petr’s mother, to his young son. Petr has to take necessary and important decisions himself, since his mother is unable to manage anything due to light mental disorder, caused by her husband’s death. Fortunately, Petr’s uncle Mikhail takes the responsibility of managing the estates, which allows Petr and his mother, who feels much better at the moment, to move to Saint Petersburg, where young man is admitted to the third form of academy of warrant officers and cavalry junkers. Academy teachers are bright professionals, loving their job, thus Petr’s studies are very successful and, when he turns 18, he finds himself at the university as a free officer trainee..

In 1848 Semenov graduates from the university and decides to spend his whole life in scientific research. One of his first serious scientific projects is translating fundamental work of Carl Richter “Asia’s Soils” from German into Russian for Russian Geographic Society. When future geography pearl turns 23, he meets the love of his whole life, Vera Chulkova, and marries her. However, their happiness doesn’t last for long – his wife dies of tuberculosis. Petr Petrovich decides to visit Europe in order to avoid sad thoughts.


In the course of the trip the scientist finds that the river Chu doesn’t flow from the lake Issyk-Kul, thus Issyk-Kul has no drainage. Winter of 1856-1957 Semenov spends in Barnaul, where he classifies collected material and writes a thorough report about his expedition to Russian Geographical Society.

His botanical collection, he brings from the expedition is rich – 70 plant species, four of which (mountain ash and maple) were never described before. In Barnaul Semenov meets famous Russian writer Fedor Dostoevsky and spends two unforgettable weeks with the genius. Summer of 1857 sees the beginning of another Semenov’s expedition to Tien Shan.

Another four new plant species are discovered, but not a trace of volcanic origin of the mountain system is found. Thus, Semenov shows that von Humboldt’s theory about Tien Shan’s volcanic origin was a mistake. Geographical studies of the Russian scientist result in exploration of vast mountainous Asian territories, discovery of a giant glacier and a fact that feeding of the river Chu has nothing to do with the Issyk-Kul lake, as well as finding evident absence of volcanic processes in Middle Asia. Semenov is the first to find natural altitudinal belts of Tien Shan and level of ridges’ snow line; he also explores territories of three out of four largest river systems of Central Asia and notices one Tien Shan’s peculiar feature – differentiation on parallel chains and formation of very long lateral valleys.


Semenov is the first geographer to give accurate classification of northern mountain chains of Tien Shan, based on their orographic and geological characteristics. Unfortunately, his third expedition is cancelled due to complication of Russian relations with European countries, especially Great Britain. Petr Petrovich is elected vice-president of Russian Geographical Society, and he spends all his time and power helping young explorers, eager to travel to the end of the world in their search for new discoveries. Semenov supports expeditions of eminent Russian travelers – Przhevalsky, Potanin, Kozlov and many others. Petr Petrovich Semenov develops expedition plans, vividly participates in preparing outfit for future expeditions and plans field scientific experiments. Being the head of Russian Geographic Society for over 40 years (1873-1914), the scientist is a workaholic – he writes fundamental works, collects lepidopterans, allowing many entomologists to use his collection, heads Russian Entomology society, writes essays on history of Dutch painting art an does whatever he can to praise Russian science.

In 1897 Semenov fulfills his dream – he organizes first Russian population census. In the year of 50th anniversary of his first trip to Tien Shan, Petr Petrovich is awarded the title of Tien-Shansky. The scientist presents his vast collection of paintings of Dutch masters to the Hermitage. Keeping in mind glorious expeditions and brave deeds of Russian travelers and explorers, Petr Petrovich says: “Our glory is the glory of Russia”.

Petr Petrovich Semenov dies on 11th of March 1914.

    Russian Geography Review

Kizilova Anna

Tags: Russian science Russian travelers Pyotr Semenov-Tian Shansky   

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