Erik Laksman


This book is a short biography of Erik Laksman (1737‒96), a noted scientist who was active in Siberia in the second half of the 18th century. Laksman was born in Nyslott (present-day Savonlinna), Finland, when it was still a part of the Swedish Empire. He began his higher studies in Finland in the late 1750s and continued in nearby Saint Petersburg, the capital of Imperial Russia. Although he later became a scientist, he was initially ordained as a Lutheran minister and appointed to a church in Barnaul, Siberia. Laksman lived in this southern Siberian city for five years, astride the steep Altai Mountains on the Russo-Chinese border with present-day Mongolia. He took temperature and barometric readings in various parts of Siberia while in residence, and his research findings proved so novel that they were published in the European press. Laksman eventually became a highly prominent naturalist in Russia and made several trips across the furthest reaches of Siberia and the Russian Far East. His stature was such that he became affiliated with both the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He acquired a particular expertise in the fauna and mineral resources of the region. In the 1780s Laksman moved to Irkutsk, the main city of eastern Siberia, where he founded a renowned regional museum. The first such institution in Siberia, the museum reflected his eclectic scientific interests. Laksman also helped establish a glass factory near Lake Baikal in partnership with Alexandr Baranov, who later became the chief manager of the Russian-American Company in Alaska. Ever inventive, Laksman developed novel techniques for glassmaking that the factory used to make products that were sold across the region. While living in Irkutsk, Laksman met the Japanese fishermen who had been marooned by a storm on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska in 1782‒83. Among the fishermen was Daikokuya Kodayu, who subsequently was granted an audience with Empress Catherine the Great at her palace at Tsarskoe Selo on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg. Laksman supported a plan, subsequently backed by Catherine, to return Kodayu and some of the Japanese fishermen to Japan in exchange for trade concessions. Although trade privileges never materialized, the Japanese fishermen were returned to Japan in 1792 by Laksman’s son, Adam, an officer in the Imperial Russian Army. This tense official visit, which occurred at a time when Japan was still closed to foreigners, constituted the first official Russian mission to Japan.

Last updated: December 11, 2017