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Nicholas Michailovitch Prjevalsky

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Nicholas Michailovitch Prjevalsky

"Przhevalsky" redirects here. For the inhabited localities in Russia, see Przhevalsky (inhabited locality).
Nikolai Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky
Born (1839-04-12)April 12, 1839
Died November 1, 1888(1888-11-01) (aged 49)
Nationality Russian[1]
Occupation explorer, geographer
Known for exploration of Central Asia

Nikolai Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky[nb 1] April 12 [O.S. 31 March] 1839—November 1 [O.S. 20 October] 1888), was a Russian geographer[1] and a renowned explorer of Central and Eastern Asia. Although he never reached his ultimate goal, the holy city of Lhasa in Tibet, he traveled through regions then unknown to the West, such as northern Tibet, modern Qinghai and Dzungaria (northern Xinjiang).[2] He contributed significantly to European knowledge of Central Asia and was the first known European to describe the only extant species of wild horse,[3] which is named after him.


Przhevalsky was born in Smolensk into a noble polonized Belarusian family (Polish name is Przewalski), and studied there and at the military academy in St. Petersburg. In 1864, he became a geography teacher at the military school in Warsaw.

In 1867, Przhevalsky successfully petitioned the Russian Geographical Society to be dispatched to Irkutsk, in central Siberia. His intention was to explore the basin of the Ussuri River, a major tributary of the Amur on the Russian-Chinese frontier. This was his first expedition of importance. It lasted two years, after which Przhevalsky published a diary of the expedition under the title, Travels in the Ussuri Region, 1867-69.

In the following years he made four journeys to Central Asia:

  • 1870–1873 from Kyakhta he crossed the Gobi desert to Peking (now Beijing), then exploring the upper Yangtze (Chang Jiang), and in 1872 crossed into Tibet. He surveyed over 7,000 sq mi (18,000 km2), collected and brought back with him 5,000 plants, 1,000 birds, and 3,000 insect species, as well as 70 reptiles and the skins of 130 different mammals.[4] Przehevalsky was awarded the Constatine Medal by the Imperial Geographical Society, promoted to lieutenant-general, appointed to the Tsar's General Staff, and received the Order of St. Vladimir, fourth Class. During his expedition, the Dungan revolt (1862–1877) was raging in China.[5] The journey provided the General Staff with important intelligence on a Muslim uprising in the kingdom of Yakub Beg in western China, and his lecture to the Russian Imperial Geographical Society was received with "thunderous applause" from an overflow audience. The Russian newspaper Golos called the journey "one of the most daring of our time".[6]
  • 1876–1877 traveling through Eastern Turkestan through the Tian Shan range, he visited what he believed to be Lake Lop Nor, which had reportedly not been visited by any European since Marco Polo.[7] The expedition consisted of ten men, twenty-four camels, four horses, three tonnes of baggage and a budget of 25,000 roubles, but the expedition was beset by disease and poor quality camels. In September 1877, the caravan was refurbished with better camels and horses, 72,000 rounds of ammunition and large quantities of brandy, tea and Turkish Delight, and set out for Lhasa, but did not reach its goal.
  • 1879–1880 via Hami and through the Qaidam Basin to Lake Koko Nor (Qinghai Hu). The expedition then crossed the Tian Shan mountains into Tibet proceeding to within 260 km (160 mi) of Lhasa before being turned back by Tibetan officials;
  • 1883–1885 from Kyakhta across the Gobi to Alashan and the eastern Tian Shan mountains, turning back at the Yangzi River. The expedition then returned to Koko Nor, and moved westwards to Khotan (Hetian, Xinjiang) and Lake Issyk Kul.

The results of these expanded journeys opened a new era for the study of Central Asian geography as well as studies of the fauna and flora of this immense region that were relatively unknown to his Western contemporaries. Among other things, he reported on the wild population of Bactrian Camels as well as the Przewalski's Horse and Przewalski's Gazelle, named after him in many European languages. Przhevalsky's writings include five major books written in Russian and two English translations: Mongolia, the Tangut Country (1875) and From Kulja, Across the Tian Shan to Lob-Nor (1879).

Przhevalsky died of typhus not long before the beginning of his fifth journey, at Karakol on the shore of Issyk-Kul in present day Kyrgyzstan. He contracted typhoid from the Chu River that was acknowledged as being infected with the disease[8][9] The Tsar immediately changed the name of the town to Przhevalsk. There are monuments to him, and a museum about his life and work, there and another monument in St. Petersburg.

Less than a year after his premature death, Mikhail Pevtsov succeeded Przhevalsky at the head of his expedition into the depths of Central Asia. Przhevalsky's work was also continued by his young disciple Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov.

There is another place named after Przhevalsky: he had lived in a small village called Sloboda, Smolensk Oblast, Russia from 1881 to 1887 (except the period of his travels) and he apparently really loved the place. The village was renamed after him in 1964, and now it is called Przhevalskoye. There is a memorial complex there that includes the old and new houses of Nikolai Przhevalsky, his bust, pond, garden, birch alleys, and khatka (a lodge, watch-house). This is the only museum of the famous traveler in Russia.

Przhevalsky is commemorated by the plant genus Przewalskia (Solanaceae) Maxim. His name is eponymic with more than 80 plant species as well.

Accusations of imperialism and racism

According to David Schimmelpenninck Van Der Oye's assessment, Przhevalsky's books on Central Asia feature his disdain for the Oriental— particularly Chinese civilization. Przhevalsky explicitly portrayed Chinese people as cowardly, dirty and lazy in his metaphor, "the blend of a mean Moscow pilferer and a kike" all respects inferior to..."European civilization".[10] He purportedly argued that Imperial China's hold on its northern territories, in particular Xinjiang and Mongolia, was tenuous and uncertain, and Przhevalsky openly called for Russia's annexation of bits and pieces of China's territory.[11] Przhevalsky said one should explore Asia "with a carbine in one hand, a whip in the other."[12]

Przhevalsky, as well as other contemporary explorers including Sven Hedin, Sir Francis Younghusband, and Sir Aurel Stein, were active players in the British-Russian struggle for influence in Central Asia, the so-called Great Game.[12]

"Here you can penetrate anywhere, only not with the Gospels under your arm, but with money in your pocket, a carbine in one hand and a whip in the other. Europeans must use these to come and bear away in the name of civilisation all these dregs of the human race. A thousand of our soldiers would be enough to subdue all Asia from Lake Baykal to the Himalayas....Here the exploits of Cortez can still be repeated."

Nikolai Przhevalsky on Asia

Przhevalsky's racist intolerance extended to non-Chinese Asians as well, describing the Tajik Yaqub Beg in a letter as follows, "Yakub Beg is the same shit as all feckless Asiatics. The Kashgarian empire isn't worth a kopek."[13][14][15] Przhevalsky also claimed Yaqub was "Nothing more than a political impostor," and also disdaigned the Muslim subjects of Yaqub Beg in Kashgar, claiming that they "...constantly cursed their government and expressed their desire to become Russian subjects...The savage Asiatic clearly understands Russian power is the guarantee for prosperity." These statements were made in a report in which Przhevalsky recommended that Russian troops occupy the Kashgarian emirate, but the Russian government took no action was taken, and China recaptured Kashgar. Przhevalsky's dreams of taking land from China did not materialize.[16]

Przhevalsky not only disdaigned Chinese ethnic groups, he also viewed the 8 million non-Chinese peoples of Tibet, Turkestan, and Mongolia as uncivilized, evolutionarily backwards people who needed to be freed from Chinese rule. Przhevalsky was also reportedly a butcher, killing many ethnic Tibetan nomads.[17]

He proposed Russia provoke rebellions of the Buddhist and Muslim peoples in these areas of China against the Confucianist Chinese regime, start a war with China, and, with a small number of Russian troops, wrest control of Turkestan from China.[18]

Personal life

Przhevalsky is known to have had a personal relationship with Tasya Nuromskaya, whom he met in Smolensk. According to one legend, during their last meeting Tasya cut off her braid and gave it to him, saying that the braid would travel with him until their marriage. Unfortunately, Tasya died of a sunstroke while Przhevalsky was on an expedition.[19]

Another woman in Przhevalsky's life was a mysterious young lady whose portrait, along with a fragment of poetry, was found in Przhevalsky's album. In the poem, she asks him to stay with her and not to go to Tibet, to which he responded in his diary: "I will never betray the ideal, to which is dedicated all of my life. As soon as I write everything necessary, I will return to the desert...where I will be much happier than in gilded salons that can be acquired by marriage".[19][20]

Some researchers have claimed that Przhevalsky was a homosexual, who "despised women",[21][22][23][24] and that his young male assistants that accompanied him on each of his journeys (including Nikolay Yagunov, aged 16, Mikhail Pyltsov, Fyodor Eklon, 18, and Yevgraf), could have been his lovers[25][26][27][28]


There is an urban legend that Joseph Stalin was an illegitimate son of Nikolai Przhevalski.[29][30] The legend is supported by the facial similarity of both men. However, Przhevalsky's visits to Georgia are not recorded. A humorously developed version of this legend appears in Book Three of Vladimir Voinovich — The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.


Further reading

External links

  • Kyrill Kunakhovich, "Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky and the Politics of Russian Imperialism", in "IDP News", Issue No. 27 (accessed 2007-01-31)
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