A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How could the Russians not discover America? It was only 50 miles away!

March 6, 1998

Dear Cecil:

It took Columbus two months in three leaky ships to reach the Americas and open up a new chapter in exploration. The Russians were less than 20 miles from Alaska (two miles if you count a few islands) and never managed to "discover" America before 1492. Why not?

Cecil replies:

Because they, uh, couldn't see it in the fog. I am not making this up.

One wants to be fair about this. The reason the Russians didn't discover America prior to 1492 was that eastward expansion of the Russian empire didn't bring them to the Pacific coast until the mid-1600s. However, Russian exploration of points east from there on out was no miracle of organization. "In 1648," we read in the Britannica, "a Russian, Semyon Dezhnyov, had sailed through the Bering Strait, but his report went unnoticed until 1736."

By 1700 the native peoples of Siberia had told the Russians about a giant landmass across the water, but this didn't get much of a response either. Moscow was preoccupied with a war against Sweden during this time and one supposes that discovering new continents ranked low on its list of priorities. By and by, however, an expedition was organized under the Danish seafarer Vitus Bering. In 1728 Bering established that Russian territory was not connected to the alleged eastern land. However, historians inform us, he failed to discover North America because of fog — a pretty lame excuse. Sure, Bering's main goal was discovering a sea route around Siberia to Europe; finding new lands was secondary. But come on, all he had to do was sail east for a while and he couldn't miss. (To be accurate, the two continents are 55 miles apart, not 20, so maybe that explains it.)

Bering later decided to take another stab and in 1741 succeeded in finding Alaska. Soon a prosperous fur trade had sprung up. In 1784 the Russians established a permanent settlement on Kodiak Island off the Alaskan coast and later a territorial capital at Sitka. Meanwhile they abused the natives and depleted the local wildlife, in particular the sea otter, which was rendered nearly extinct. In 1867, figuring they had pretty much wrung Alaska dry, the Russians sold it to the U.S. for $7.2 million and retreated to the fleshpots of Vladivostok.

Not the world's most inspiring saga, but put the shoe on the other foot. Suppose North America had been settled first, and we arrived on the Alaskan coast in 1650 to gaze west into the fog. How eager do you think we'd have been to discover Siberia?

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