Members of a Russian historical society braved the forces of nature on a lone island in the Arctic Ocean to save from destruction the grave of doctor Hermann Walter, member of Eduard von Toll's expedition that set out from Estonia more than a century ago. But the fate of the remains is still unsettled.
This summer, documentary maker Riho Västrik was shooting a film in the Lena delta in Siberia. He was told of a grave on the Kotelny island in the Arctic Ocean, marked by a cross that had stood there for a hundred years, memorializing a polar expedition from Estonia that was on a quest to find the legendary Sannikov Land.
Eduard Gustav von Toll, born in Tallinn and working at the University of Tartu - or Dorpat, as it was then called - went down in history as the most ardent hunter of Sannikov Land, the phantom island claimed to lie in the New Siberian archipelago. Toll was convinced that during his two earlier expeditions, he had seen from afar the mythical land, first mentioned by Yakov Sannikov in the archives of a 1808-1810 cartographic expedition to the New Siberian Islands. In 1900, Toll set out with a schooner on a special expedition, determined to find the elusive green island, reputedly warmed by hot-water springs.
The fate of that expedition turned out to be tragic. It is known that in 1902, Toll reached Bennett Island, thought to be just a dozen or so miles from Sannikov Land. His unfulfilled dream, and one of the tragic highlights in the history of polar research, has since been symbolized by a cross erected on Kotelny Island on the grave of the expedition's doctor, Hermann Walter.
Västrik, who spent his summer in the port settlement of Tiksi, learned of the monument quite by accident. A Russian expedition crew had just returned from Kotelny in the New Siberian archipelago, where they conducted emergency rescue work to save doctor Walter's grave.
"Walter, born in 1864 near the town of Valga, was buried on Kotelny on January 3, 1902, and now, a century later, the permafrost receded to an extent that the grave was flooded," Västrik said on ETV.
Sergei Ryzhiy, the leader of the Tiksi military garrison's history society, gave Västrik video recordings made by the Russians on the island, and told him about their efforts to save the Estonian-born doctor's remains.
"Since Walter's grave is marked on all maps, we couldn't rebury his remains, but we also couldn't leave it like that. Otherwise, they would have perished. We decided to move the cross and the iron fence, but leave the grave in place and protect it as well as possible - surround it with a protective sarcophagus and then, during the winter, settle the legal and other issues that can arise with the relocation of the grave," Ryzhiy said.
So the crew did the impossible under severe conditions. They drained the little lake from around the grave, built a protective wall from old barrels, restored the iron fence and cross to their original shape, and chiseled out a new hole for it in the permafrost.
"In the letter that von Toll left to the schooner's captain, he had said something like that he would try to bury the beloved doctor and erect a cross for him, but do so in a way that wouldn't interfere with his re-interment in his homeland at some later date," Ryzhyi told Västrik.
But doctor Walter's remains are still in a place where they will probably be lost forever if nothing is done in a year.
"Members of the society hammered out a new grave in the permafrost 200 meters away, which was a real feat. They also discussed the possibility of a reburial while doing it, and one of the options would certainly be Tartu - where Walter spent his youth, where he studied and whence he started out on the expedition with Toll," Västrik said, commending the Russian team.
Västrik said the Estonian side has now contacted Walter's family in Germany. "At this point, the ball is in the Russian court. It is probably a complex affair that can't be settled without international negotiations and agreements," Västrik said.
According to Erki Tammiksaar, Toll is held in great esteem in Russia. "Many explorers have called him the most outstanding polar explorer of the Russian Empire," he said.
"In my opinion, this has been an event of enormous magnitude for Tartu, its university, and the whole of Estonia. It also matters in the context of Estonian-Russian relations. It shows that we have a shared history and that our nations are able to cooperate on many levels," said Tammiksaar.
Toll, along with several other members of the expedition, was lost near Bennett Island after November 8, 1902, after they had started a journey back towards the New Siberian island.