The Guiding Light of Grigory Potanin
© Photo: Key To Baikal
January, 29

The Guiding Light of Grigory Potanin

Within the frame of the section titled “The Lives of Great People of Baikal” today we will tell you about the first woman accepted as a member of the Russian Geographical Society - Aleksandra Potanina. Her fate and life are closely linked to Baikal and Irkutsk. Today we celebrate her 176th anniversary.

The Guiding Light of Grigory Potanin

The name of Grigory Nikolayevich Potanin, a Russian geographer, ethnographer, botanist, folklore specialist, columnist, researcher of Asia, Honorary member of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, is widely known not only in Russia.

However, without any doubt, his life partner justly deserves the same admiration: Aleksandra Viktorovna was an amazing Russian woman, traveler, ethnographer, who not only traveled through China, Mongolia, Eastern Tibet, but also left a serious mark in the life of Irkutsk. Being a capable helper in all expeditions of her husband, she not only became one of the first women accepted as members of the Russian Geographical Society, but also an author of dozens of scientific and literary works.

What Was Destined

It seemed that her life was predetermined by the everyday order of the Russian society of the 19th century. Our heroine was born on January 25 (in the Julian calendar), 1843 in the town of Gorbatov, the province of Nizhny Novgorod. Father Victor Lavrsky was a priest, therefore young Aleksandra studied at the school for girls from the clergy, and her future seemed to be predestined: marriage, children, reverence to her spouse, obedience ... Especially after the death of her people started to call her “a bride with a position”. There was a rule among clergy of that time that a position of a priest in the congregation of a deceased father was kept for his daughter, although the position could only be occupied by a priest, a bachelor, or a widower who had to marry her. Aleksandra had read many books since her childhood, she liked to paint, aspired to get the knowledge about the surrounding world, so this prospect of future was not tempting for her. She started to work in the parochial secondary school for girls of the town, and the people around her started to predict that she had to abandon all hopes for personal life. She was almost thirty, was not especially attractive, had no big fortune...

In Defiance of Traditions

Aleksandra had had warm relationship with her brothers since childhood. And it was her younger brother Konstantin who introduced Aleksandra to his exiled friend during his visit to the place of exile, being accused of revolutionary activities. Proximity of the interests and general world views of Aleksandra and Grigory pushed them together. After their marriage (in January 1874), they moved to St. Petersburg. Aleksandra Viktorovna was happy to begin to fill the gaps of her education: she studied foreign languages (English and French), read latest scientific works, listened to the lectures of venerable experts in the fields of geography and ethnography, practiced collecting plants, and even dissected animals and grinded rocks. She also took painting lessons from Ivan Shishkin himself.

But she did all these things only during her spare time remaining from helping her husband in preparation for expeditions.

It is common knowledge that the travelers-researchers of Russia at that time were only men. But Aleksandra Viktorovna, without occupying any official position during her husband’s expeditions, bravely worked together with her husband, under the most difficult and extremely uncomfortable conditions for a woman, in four expeditions. She was mainly interested not in the features of natural, climatic and geological conditions, but in people, their way of life, customs, beliefs, ways of raising children.

Irkutsk Chapter in the Life of Aleksandra Potanina


Expeditions were conducted one after another, and during these “off season” periods the Potanins came to Irkutsk; expedition members had some work to do there: they processed the materials brought from expeditions, prepared reports ... There were several stays of this kind in Irkutsk, but they didn’t last long. However, since 1887, the spouses had stayed in Irkutsk for three years, because Grigory Nikolayevich worked with the East-Siberian Department of the Russian Geographical Society as an Administrator. According to the memoirs of contemporaries, the spouses lived extremely modestly; still their room was always filled with friends who repeatedly noted that the Potanins were a kind of ingatherers of the Irkutsk intellectuals. Aleksandra Viktorovna was engaged in journalism:  she was in charge of foreign and magazine reviews, wrote separate articles in the “Eastern Review” newspaper.

The stays of the Potanins in Irkutsk resulted in further interest of Aleksandra in ethnography. She was particularly interested in life, culture, and beliefs of the indigenous people of the Baikal region, Buryats. This affection was expressed in the creation of the first scientific and literary work of the highest level titled “Buryats”: Aleksandra Potanina was the first among women to be awarded the Gold Medal of the Russian Geographical Society for this work. She also wrote an extremely original essay for children that was special for that time; it was titled “Dorzhi – a Buryat Boy” and dedicated to the first Buryat scientist Dorzhi Banzarov. An essay was published in one of St. Petersburg children's magazines.

Aleksandra Viktorovna Potanina was also the first to make one more step. We are speaking about her scientific public speech, which actually turned out to be a shock for society. One Irkutsk woman wrote some lines about this speech: “I can't help but recall how excited everyone was about the news about Aleksandra Viktorovna who was going to deliver a speech before public. A woman in the scientific department was an unexpected phenomenon for Irkutsk.”

Life after Death

Aleksandra Viktorovna died “on the go”, during a regular expedition, on September 19, 1893. The news about her death was extremely sad for the residents of Irkutsk. It was decided to open a free national library in memory of this exceptional woman and name that library after her. The money was donated by more than 200 people, and on November 10, 1896 the library was opened. In March 1901, by the order of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the library was finally named after A.V. Potanina. After some twists of fate, today this library is the Central City Library; historical justice in its regard was restored in 2001: the library regained its original name – after A.V. Potanina.

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The Guiding Light of Grigory Potanin

It is natural that a great place among various museum objects is occupied by those associated with shamanism, including Buryat shamanism. For example, a whole collection of Buryat ongons dated by the 19th century is being kept in the museum.

The Guiding Light of Grigory Potanin