Fram Museum Oslo


Kutschin, Alexander Stepanovich (1888 -1912)

Kutschin was a young Russian oceanographer who was responsible for the oceanography on the Fram's scientific cruise in the South Atlantic Ocean in 1911.

Alexander Stepanovich Kutschin (1888 -1912)

Aleksander Stepanovich Kutschin was born 16 September 1888 in a poor Russian family in the village of Kusherek by the coast of the White Sea.

From early youth he worked as an assistant on board his father’s ships, sealing and hunting in the Barents and Kara seas. On these voyages he visited Svalbard, Novaya Zemlya and the northern part of Norway several times. In 1886, Alexander’s father Stephan Kutschin took an exam as third mate at a school for mariners when he was only 19 years old.

Alexander Kutschin was the first born of six siblings - three sisters and two brothers. The youngest brother died while Alexander was living in Norway. For one year, in 1904, Kutschin lived in Tromsø, Norway, where he attended school in the winter and worked on a fishing vessel in the summer. Here he stayed with a family named Gudmundsen. They were four people in the family, and they let Kutschin live together with them in their apartment. He became very attached to this family. Later he moved back to Russia and stayed in contact with them all the time.

Kutschin attended one of Russia’s oldest educational institutions, the Arkhangelsk Navigation College, and graduated as an ocean officer. It seems that he was at high school and the Navigation College simultaneously. He almost got expelled during the 1905 revolution when he was one of the agitators for the strike that occurred among the students. There were a lot of students from poor families attending the Arkhangelsk Navigation College, and Kutschin received money from the mandatory school because of his family’s situation, but also because of his good skills. The money was however taken away from him when he almost got expelled with 8 against 6 votes.

Kutschin then had to take leave from school to work as a hunter in Norway to make the ends meet. Then it seemed that he lived under a pseudonym and was a political activist in the RSDAP (The Russian Social Democratic Party). It seems that he was connected with the printing of underground Marxist news bills, proclamations, brochures and documents. This literature came from the Russian printing office “Pomor” in Vardø, a town and a municipality in Finnmark in the extreme northeast part of Norway, and he was smuggled from Vardø to Arkhangelsk by on different ships. The smugglers got caught, and the Norwegian police did some confiscations. The Norwegian minister of Justice feared that this litterature would bring Norway into a dangerous situation with Russia. Kutschin was threatened with deportation from Norway, but because of mass meetings and articles in the newspapers, the police dropped the charges against him. During this period Kutschin had his book “Liten russisk-norsk ordbok” (a small Russian –Norwegian dictionary) published by this printing office.

When Kutschin returned to Russia in 1906, the security police was shadowing him, but did not manage to catch him. He started on his studies again, but at the same time he worked as a captain on board a Norwegian vessel. He gained his scholarship and exemption for the school money as the best and the poorest student at the school. When he graduated in 1909 he received the gold medal for best student.

After his education he returned to Norway, this time Bergen. Here he studied oceanography under Professor Helland-Hansen, head of the Bergen Biological Station. He became a paid assistance on this station because of his skills. Through this work he got to know Helland-Hansen’s close friend Fridtjof Nansen. Kutschin was recommended by Helland-Hansen and Nansen to fill the position as expedition oceanographer when Roald Amundsen assembled his team for an expedition allegedly for an attempt on the North Pole. Amundsen’s acceptance of Kutschin was made in spite of the Norwegian government discontent. They preferred to have only Norwegian crew members on the Fram. Kutschin promised in his contract with Amundsen to sail with the Fram to San Francisco, but he became one of nine men remaining on the ship, completing an oceanographic survey of the Atlantic Ocean, while Amundsen’s group sought the South Pole. Kutschin made 60 oceanographic studies during two and a half months sailing in the Antarctic Ocean. He was, together with ltn. Gjertsen, one of the first who made any form of oceanographic research in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Kutschin was the first crewmember to leave the Fram, taking the water samples from the expedition to Bergen as early as in October 1911.

In Bergen on Christmas Eve 1911, Kutschin became engaged to the seven years younger Aslaug Poulsen. She was the daughter of the well known journalist, theatre, music and literature critic Andreas Poulsen, and Alexander had known her for a long time. They sent letters to each other during the period Alexander Kutschin was on the Fram.  

After returning to Russia in 1912, Kutschin was recruited by the explorer and geologist Rusanov to join a scientific expedition to Svalbard. The ship was called Hercules, and he was asked to be the leader and the captain. The ship had been bought in Ålesund, Norway, by Kutschin and Romanov. It was built in 1908 for hunting, especially in the Greenland area. It was built for eight men, but the expedition’s participants were 14, among others Romanov’s French fiancée Julie Jean. Kutschin wrote to his father that the Hercules was not good enough for the ice, but later in a new letter he wrote that he was very pleased with the ship, and that it now had a new layer of ice sheathing.

On 26 June 1912 the Herkules left Alexandrovsk (now Polyarny) in Murmansk. The expedition to Svalbard was successful, among other things they found a great deal of coal that the Russian industry would find great value in later. At the end of August 1912 three crew members returned to Russia, while the rest of the crew went on further into the ice. This happened without the permission of the Russian government. The plan was to attempt the Northern Sea Route to the Bering Strait, but the Herkules disappeared and was never seen again. Kutschin was only 24 years old.

No rescue operation was sent out by the Russian government until 1914 when Norway was asked to put one together. The 60 years old polar captain Otto Sverdrup took the mission with the ship Eclipse. On 6 March the same year, the Russian government agreed in a Council of ministers that the members of the expedition were to be considered dead, and that the rescue mission should be stopped. No objects were found before 1934 when different artefacts were found on a nameless island on the west coast of Tajmyr. A 2.5 m high post with the inscription “Herkules 1913” was also found on an island in the Mohn archipelago.

A glacier in Antarctica and two islands in the Arctic Ocean are named after Kutschin.