5 Female Explorers Who Made Their Marks in Siberia

Based on what we’ve seen of Rise of the Tomb Raider so far, a good portion of the game will take place in Siberia, a region in the Russian Federation that is commonly – and incorrectly – viewed as little more than an icy wilderness, a place where political undesirables were sent away to languish in Soviet labour camps. But this expansive region is actually home to dozens of indigenous peoples and a wide variety of landscapes, from sweeping tundra and alpine forests to majestic mountain ranges and beautiful crystal-clear lakes.

Scores of explorers, scientists, and writers have written about their discoveries and (mis)adventures in Siberia. Among these are five intrepid female explorers who endured bitter-cold winters, ill health, and other hardships to learn more about and demystify this remote region.

1) Maria (Tatiana) Pronchishcheva (1710 – 23rd September 1736)

Forensic facial reconstructions of Vasili and Maria (Tatiana) Pronchishchev
Forensic facial reconstructions of Vasili & Maria (Tatiana) Pronchishchev (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

First up is Maria (or Tatiana) Pronchishcheva, a Russian pioneer who joined her husband on an expedition to map Russia’s Arctic Coast and who is thought to be the first female polar explorer. Little is known about her childhood and early adulthood but what we do know is that she and her husband Vasili Pronchishchev, a lieutenant in the Imperial Russian Navy, spent their honeymoon aboard Vasili’s ship, the Yakutsk, navigating through treacherous sea ice and adverse weather conditions to map the coasts of the Laptev Sea and Taymyr Peninsula as part of the Great Northern Expedition.

Sadly, like many of the other explorers aboard the Yakutsk, the couple succumbed to scurvy on the return voyage and were buried together near the mouth of the Olenek River. Pronchishcheva was just 26 when she passed away but her legacy lives on. A bay in the Laptev Sea was named after her and the fruits of her (and her husband’s) labour provided the Imperial Russian Navy with accurate cartographic knowledge of the country’s Arctic coastline.

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2) Kate Marsden (13th May 1859 – 26th May 1931)

Kate Marsden
Kate Marsden
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Back in the days when women travellers were still eyed with some suspicion, a British woman got the blessing of two female rulers to embark on a voyage to Siberia in search of a cure for leprosy. That woman was Kate Marsden, a trained nurse from London who had treated wounded soldiers during the Russo-Turkish War, earning her the respect and admiration of Queen Victoria and the Russian Tsarina Maria Feodorovna. After a brief stint looking after lepers in New Zealand, Marsden grew determined to find a cure for the disease and when she heard that a herb that could cure leprosy could be found in Siberia, she travelled to St Petersburg and successfully persuaded the Tsarina to support her mission.

In February 1891, Marsden and her assistant Ada Field set off from Moscow and made the long, arduous journey to Yakutsk by train, boat, sleigh, and horseback. There, she and the local governor discussed plans for treating the local lepers, who were living in squalor deep in the taiga. The curative herb was never located (if it had ever existed at all) but Marsden devoted the next few years to treating the Yakut lepers and raising money to establish proper colonies and medical facilities within the region. One of these was a leper colony in Vilyuyusk, which remained open until the 1960s, allowing the Yakut people to finally shake off the social stigma attached to the disease.

While her private life became the subject of vicious gossip and she was accused of financial impropriety and committing “immorality with women”, Marsden’s efforts were not forgotten by the people of the modern-day Sakha Republic (or Yakutia). A monument to the nurse was unveiled in Vilyuyusk in 2014 to commemorate Marsden’s achievements and an annual scholarship named after the nurse is awarded to the top English Language student at Yakutsk’s North-Eastern Federal University.

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3) Aleksandra Potanina (25th January 1843 – 19th September 1893)

Aleksandra Potanina
Aleksandra Potanina (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The next trailblazer on our list is Aleksandra Viktorovna Potanina, wife of the Russian ethnographer and natural historian Grigory Potanin and a celebrated anthropologist and explorer in her own right. Like her compatriot Maria Pronchishcheva, she accompanied her husband on a number of expeditions through Central Asia, China, and Siberia and published a number of ethnographic works on the region’s indigenous peoples and folklore. In 1887, her publication The Buryats earned her a gold medal from the Russian Geographical Society and she became the first female member to be admitted into the aforementioned society.

However, like her fellow explorer Pronchishcheva, Potanina’s life was cut short when she fell ill during an expedition through China and passed away on the 19th September 1893. Her body was repatriated to Russia shortly after and was buried in Kyakhta, a town in the Republic of Buryatia. In more recent times, astronomers have celebrated the achievements of this remarkable woman by naming a crater of Venus after her while a glacier named after this intrepid couple can be found in Mongolia.

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4) Maria Czaplicka (25th October 1884 – 27th May 1921)

Maria Czaplicka
Maria Antonina Czaplicka
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Another ethnographer with a special interest in Siberia’s indigenous peoples was the Polish cultural anthropologist Maria Antonina Czaplicka. In 1910, Czaplicka became the first woman to win a Mianowski Fund scholarship, which enabled her to study anthropology at the London School of Economics and Somerville College, Oxford. Her first major academic work, a literature review titled Aboriginal Siberia: A Study in Social Anthropology, was written prior to her first expedition to Siberia and formed the basis of her later research.

In spring 1914, Czaplicka organized and led an expedition to the Yenisei River in central Siberia, where she and her team spent 13 months amongst the Evenki, Nenets, Dolgan, and other indigenous peoples of the region. During that time, Czaplicka acquired rudimentary knowledge of several Tungusic and Samoyedic languages, made detailed notes on the shamanistic beliefs and practices of the region, and collected a range of cultural artefacts and photographs (some of which can be found on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford).

Shortly after her return to the United Kingdom, she published a memoir of her field expedition titled My Siberian Year and became the University of Oxford’s first female lecturer in anthropology, where she remained until 1919. Sadly, Czaplicka wasn’t destined for a long academic career or life. Her financial situation took a turn for the worse after she failed to secure neither a travelling scholarship nor a position at Barnard College in New York so it’s thought the troubled  academic, who was living and teaching in Bristol at the time, took her own life on 27th May 1921, aged just 36. Czaplicka’s life may have been a short and tragic one but her work set the standard for research into Siberian anthropology for decades to come.

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5) Sarah Marquis (20th June 1972 – present)

Sarah Maquis in February 2009
Sarah Marquis in February 2009 (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The last lady on our list is modern-day adventurer Sarah Marquis. Hailing from Montsevelier, Switzerland, Marquis has spent much of her adult life trekking through some of the world’s most remote regions. One of her crowning achievements was a three-year expedition (2010-2013) that saw her walk some 10,000 miles from the city of Irkutsk through the Siberian taiga, Gobi Desert, south-western China, Laos, and Thailand on to her final destination: a tree she had slept under during her trek through the Australian Outback ten years earlier.

Throughout her three-year journey, Marquis faced numerous threats to her life, including extreme temperatures, sandstorms, wolves, armed drug dealers, dengue fever, and a serious tooth infection that required an emergency evacuation from Mongolia. As she put it, it was “more than an expedition. It was a constant adaptation to my environment and to all kinds of danger”. Perhaps she has a few pointers for Ms Croft.

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Want to learn about other inspirational trailblazing women? Check out this list of biographies of early female archaeologists and explorers or this review of Amanda Adams’ book Ladies of the Field, which you can buy on Amazon or Amazon UK.

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, part-time translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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