Palaeontologist, Geologist, indefatigable Siberian researcher, pioneer researcher of the region between the great rivers of Indigirka and Kolyma
Jan Czerski, who for his participation in the January uprising against Russia was exiled as prisoner of the Tsar to the antipodes of the Russian empire, was also considered to be one of the most outstanding researchers of Siberia by some Russian scientists. His research of the Baikal “become the basis of the study of the tectonic development of the Asian continent, and the mountain ridges rising above them, and led him, for the first time in world science, to the concepts of geomorphologic evolution” – claimed the outstanding Soviet geographer L. S. Berg. According to the chroniclers of the Russian Geographical Society, this exiled visitor to Siberia, self-taught, surpassed the greatest local scientists with his acumen.
It is no surprise then that the name Jana Czerski can now be found on the maps of Siberia. There is the Czerski Mountain, and Czerski Mountains, the Cherski Peak, Czerski Valley, and the town of Czerski by the Kolyma River in Jakuck. There are Cherski streets in Poland, the Ukraine, Belarus, Moscow, Irkutsk…
Jan Czerski was born on 15 May 1845, in a Polish landowner’s family, in the district of Swolna, in Witebsk. He lost his father early on. His mother, concerned about her children’s education, sent him to the tsarist noble institute in Vilnius. His studies were interrupted by the January uprising against Russia in 1863. For taking part in it, at the age of 18 he was exiled to Siberia, to the town of Omsk and conscripted into the Russian army.
At first he was a simple foot soldier, later relegated to an officer’s adjunct, and once his talent for foreign languages was discovered (he spoke fluent German and French, that he learned at home), and his high level of intelligence, he was charged with overseeing the military library. There, Czerski could continue his education, with access to the works of Russian geologists, mineralogists and palaeontologists. He was greatly impressed with Charles Darwin’s books that he found in the garrison’s small library and which had just been translated into Russian. Thanks to the efforts of Russian geographical surveyor and geologist Gorgij Nikolajewicz Potanin, with whom he became friends, Czerski could afford to carry out geological research in the region of Omsk, and even got the permission to organise scientific excursions up the river Om and down the river Irtysz. Some of the fossil specimens of plants and animals he collected were sent in 1867 to the Association of Natural Science in Moscow. However, its members refused to cooperate with him, due to the fact of him being an exile.
Czerski, as well as the collections which he amassed during his expeditions and which he gathered in a small geological museum he created, drew the attention of the well-known Russian traveller and naturalist Alexander Theodor von Middendorf. Probably thanks to his backing, Czerski, after five years of military service, was released due to ill health. He was, however, banned from leaving Omsk. Great lover of nature, he sustained himself by giving private classes, as well as an employee of an anatomical laboratory. At the same time he continued his escapades down the river Irtysz, collecting geological specimens.
Due to the efforts of the scientists of the Russian Geographical Society in Irkutsk, Czerski was transferred to the city. There he met other Polish exiles, among them prominent scholars, researchers into Siberia: geologist Aleksander Czekanowski and doctor, zoologist Benedykt Dybowski. He could continue his scientific research and expand his knowledge thanks to their support, and the resources of the extensive library and museum of the Society. He got the job of the librarian, which helped with his living expenses. He also carried out archaeological digs in the Irkutsk region. The result was the discovery of numerous stone tools and bones of different species of animals. The areas around Irkutsk, where original human settlements were found, were later named the Czerski Archaeological Site.
In 1873, Jan Czerski, together with another exile, botanist and entomologist, Mikolaj Hartungi made a scientific expedition into the Sajan Mountains. They studied the geological structures of the mountains, collecting data that helped improve the existing maps of the region. In 1875 and 1876, the Russian Geographical Society assigned its researcher the task of carrying out a geological studies of the Niznieudinska Cave, and later the Irkutsk valley.
His best-known expeditions are to the Baikal region, during which Czerski studied its coast, travelling kilometres deep into its tributaries, collecting samples of dead plants and animals, calculating the height of the coastal mountains, investigating the Olchon Island. He produced the first geological map of the Baikal coast, and got to know the Baikal Mountains well.
For his work in the region and developing the map, the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg awarded Jan Czerski the Gold Medal and an annual salary. Unfortunately, due to personnel changes in the board of directors of that company, he stopped receiving funding for his field trips, and all his projects were rejected. Jealous colleagues criticized him for being self-taught and for publishing too much for an exile. The growing conflict led to a nervous breakdown and a diagnosis of a heart disease.
In 1881, Czerski and Mikolaj Witkowski- archaeologist, and another exile, despite strained relations with the management of the Geographical Society, secured funding for another expedition to the Selengi river basin. After his return from that expedition, Czerski publishes another large tome on the Baikal, outlining the genesis of the lake and the geological structure of Eastern Siberia. His relationship with the Society deteriorated to the point that Czerski had to leave. With a wife and son to support, he was obliged to work in a grocery.
After more than a year, he received an offer to carry out geological studies along the mail route from Irkutsk to the Urals. Presenting the findings personally in St. Petersburg meant an automatic release from exile. After showcasing the results of the research and observations, scientist Vladimir Afanasjew Obruczew called it “a huge step forward in comparison with existing views”. Diverse scientific communities became interested in Czerski’s work, becoming an expert resource in the field of geology and palaeontology of Siberia. He was offered a job with the Zoological Museum of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, where he worked for six years, all the time actively participating in the world of research and publishing more work.
In 1890, the scientist was assigned the study of the Northern part of Eastern Siberia, in particular the regions around the rivers Kolyma, Indigirka, and Jana. Despite ill health, Czerski took up the challenge with enthusiasm. At the beginning of February 1891, together with his wife and son, he took off from St. Petersburg, via Moscow to Yakutsk. Even though his heart was acting up, he continued to Kolyma, through the mountain ridge that this day carries the name of Czerski Mountains. Winter found him with his wife and 11-year-old son in the Wierchnikolymsk settlement. His health was deteriorating. Temperatures were dropping below 40oC. This region is now recognized as the coldest point in the northern hemisphere. In the village of Ojmiakon, along the Indigirka River, temperatures of -71oC ware recorded.
On 31 May 1892, despite weakening strength, Czerski, together with his wife and son took a boat down Kolyma. He carried out his research all the time, drawing maps and writing reports. He knew he was dying. In “an open letter to the Academy”, he made it known, that in case of his death, the work was to be carried on by his wife. And so it was.
More than three weeks prior to the departure, during the night of 25 June, Jan Czerski died in the boat in which he was travelling. Hs wife Maria and son Alexander buried him by the Kolyma, in what is now the village of Kolomyskoje.
Upon hearing the news of his death, his colleague from the Geographical Society, Mikhail Nikolayevich Zagoskin, said: “Only thanks to such people, knowledge can move forward”.
The mountain range in Yakutia was named the Czerski Mountains. It extends from the lower reaches of the Jana River in the northwest to the upper reaches of the Kolyma River in the southeast. The highest peak of the Baikal Mountains was named the Czerski Mountain (2588 m a.s.l.) and one of the highest peaks of the Chamar-Daban Mountains above Lake Baikal (2090 m a.s.l.) also bears his name. At the foot of the Sajanów, extends the Czerski Valley. Near Irkutsk exists the already mentioned Archaeological Site of Czerski. City of Czerski is located on Kołyma. There are also many streets named after him – in Poland, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania.
Written by: Zdzisław and Edyta Preisner
Collaboration: Monika Rogozińska
Wacław Słabczyński „Polscy podróżnicy i odkrywcy”, PWN, 1988
Zbigniew Wójcik „Jan Czerski. Polski badacz Syberii” Lublin 1986
Grigorij Revzin, Stefan Gruchała „O Janie Czerskim” Warszawa 1954