The first Russian painter of the Arctic

BORISOV, Aleksandr Alekseevich

Krainii sever

[The Far North]

Publication: IZOGIZ, Moskva-Leningrad, 1931.

BORISOV, Aleksandr Alekseevich, Krainii sever

Great images due to an artist-explorer discovering the Arctic regions of Russia. Scarce, and this copy inscribed by a leading Soviet explorer.

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Our Notes & References

The “Russian Nansen” painting the Russian arctic regions: a lovely edition showing 24 paintings, and an interesting piece of Soviet re-appropriation and propaganda.

This copy inscribed by a prominent Soviet polar explorer, Pavel Afanasievich Gordienko (1913-82), also an oceanologist and “one of the main ice navigation specialists in the Soviet Union” (Strugatskii); after a successful completion of an expedition in 1948, Gordienko became one of the first people to reach a site at the 90th parallel of the North Pole.

Scarce: one copy only found on Worldcat (National Diet Library, Tokyo), just one other example traced on the Western market in recent decades, and only a couple of copies at auction in Russia.

The album reproduces Borisov’s paintings made during his travels across the Russian Arctic mainland in 1898 and Novaya Zemlya in 1901. The plates include the views of continental tundra, Nikolskoe village, Novaia Zemlia and the Matochkin Strait, Matochka river, the archipelago’s numerous glaciers and inlets, a wrecked ship of the expedition, as well as everyday life scenes (fishing, drying of clothes, making blubber) and portraits of Samoyeds.

The preface outlines the (later) exploration of the Soviet Arctic, including the exploits of the icebreaker Krasin, and the life of native people. It also contains extracts from Borisov’s memoirs about his dangerous voyage to the Kara Sea during the expedition in 1901. The expedition’s ship “Mechta” got stuck in the ice and the crew had to abandon the ship and go back ashore across the packed ice. The ocean currents constantly pulled the packed ice into the open sea and so the expedition members had to spend several weeks on the thin sea ice, where they lost their dogs and most of their supplies. Suffering from thirst, they ate sea ice, but as it didn’t help, they killed a seal and drank its blood and ate raw meat. At night they frequently heard the “furious roar of polar bears”. The expedition was rescued by local Samoyeds, 200 kilometres to the south from their starting point.

The edition is a very good example of Soviet appropriation of achievements and scientific findings accomplished within the last two decades of the Romanovs’ Russia. Borisov’s paintings, all completed before 1903, were the first colour images of the Arctic. In 1931 they still served as an important reminder of the Russian presence in the region. Borisov’s paintings captured the pre-Soviet Arctic, before it became the industrialised GULAG land. However, the Preface, while acknowledging Borisov’s artistic genius, condemns the pre-Soviet treatment of the locals: “Under the tsarist government the inhabitants of the Far North were left at the mercy of trading kulaks who impoverished them and turned them into alcoholics” (p.2, our translation).

Aleksandr Borisov (1866-1934) was a Russian painter, author and Arctic explorer, noted as “the first Russian painter of the Arctic” (Burlakov). He studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts under Shishkin and Kuindzhi and graduated in 1892. In 1894, as the official artist of the expedition, he accompanied the future finance minister, Sergei Witte, to the Kola Peninsula. In 1896, he travelled to the coasts of the White sea and the Barents sea, and then joined a scientific expedition to visit Novaia Zemlia.

In 1900-1901, Borisov organised his third and last Arctic expedition, during which he spent a winter in Novaia Zemlia and investigated the eastern coast of the islands. In particular, he made a topographic map of the region, performed meteorological observations, and collected samples of minerals, plants and animals.

The paintings by Borisov created during this expedition were exhibited in St Petersburg between 1900 and 1905. The artist also travelled to Europe (Austria, Germany, France, and Great Britain) and the US with his works. In France Borisov was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honour, in Great Britain – the Order of the Bath. In 1907 at his exhibition in London, Fridtjof Nansen, on behalf of Sweden and Norway, awarded him with the order of St. Olaf. Borisov became the first Russian artist who was received by an American president: his exhibition was organised in the White House in 1908. His Arctic paintings captured also the attention of his Russian contemporaries, including Tretiakov, who purchased many of them for his gallery; Nicholas II purchased Borisov’s “Strana smerti” for the Russian Museum.

Thanks to his first-hand knowledge of the region, in 1915 Borisov was able to come up with a grand railway project for the Arctic, the “Great Northern route”, which would have connected Murmansk with the Ob river. He continued working on the project until his death in 1934. The project was eventually abandoned due to high costs.


Pavel Gordienko (inscription dated 1948 under another ownership inscription crossed out in upper right corner of title); on February 26, 1959, Gordienko inscribed this copy to a Vasilii Fedotovich, “an enthusiast of the Far North and a friend of polar explorers, as a gift for a good memory of his visit to Leningrad” (our translation), possibly Vasilii Fedotovich Burkhanov (1908-82), a rear admiral and engineer, polar scholar and Deputy Minister of the Navy of the USSR, Head of the Main Directorate of the Northern Sea Route (GlavSevMorPut).


Borisov A.A. The Samoyeds. From Pinega to the Kara sea. St Peterburg, 1907 (in Russian).

Borisov A.A. In the Land of Cold and Death. St Peterburg, 1909 (in Russian).

Borisov A.A.The great North-East sea route. Тhe Great river route from Siberia to Europe. St Peterburg, 1910 (in Russian).

Borisov A.A. Ob-Murmansk railroad. Petrograd, 1915 (in Russian).

Burlakov, Yu., Boiarskii, P. Pervyi zhivopisets Arktiki. Aleksandr Alekseevich Borisov. Russia, Paulsen, 2017.

Rossiiskii Sever i Arktika: istoriia, traditsii, obrazy (k 150-letiiu A.A.Borisova): sbornik nauchnykh statei. Russia, KIRA, 2016.

Maksimov Yu., Krivichev A. Painter A.A. Borisov and His Contribution to Economic Development of the Russian Far North, in Zhizn Zemli, vol. 39, no. 1, 2017, pp. 79-89.

Arkhangelsk Museum page for Borisov (online).

Strugatskii Vl., “Dorogi vo ldakh. PAg v Arktike – parol doveriia” // Smena, SPb, 2009.

Item number



Physical Description

Small landscape folio (35×23 cm). Title, 8 pp., 24 colour plates.


Original publisher’s brown wrappers with printed colour label reproducing one of the paintings tipped on the front wrapper.


Spine chipped at extremities with minor losses and tears, lightly creased throughout, a couple of minor creases at extremities and along the label, bookseller’s stamp and pencil crossing on lower wrapper, with number in blue pencil in the corner of upper wrapper; all plates and pages are very fresh.

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