braved the isolated swamps and rivers of Central Asia to expose
one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th Century...
"The results of even a cursory examination exceeded
all the tales of eyewitnesses and my wildest expectations,"
wrote Leonid Kulik, remembering his first glimpse of the Tunguska
destruction. He stood on the bank of the Makirta River at the
end of an exhausting journey. As far as he could see upstream
and downstream, the riverbank was littered with the trunks of
trees uprooted and pushed down in one direction as if smashed
by a giant's hand. There was still snow on the ground, and the
dead and decaying branches and limbs were outlined in stark
relief. Small hills stood out, he later wrote, "picturesquely
against the sky and taiga, their almost treeless snow-capped
tops stripped bare by the meteorite whirlwind of 1908."
Leonid A. Kulik was born in 1883 in the city of
Tartu in Estonia which was later to become part of the Soviet
Union. He studied at the St. Petersburg Forestry Institute and
later in the Physics and Mathematics Department of Kazan University.
He served in the military during the Russo-Japanese War and
World War I. Between these two conflicts, he ran afoul of the
law and spent a short time in prison for revolutionary activities.
After World War I he taught mineralogy in the
city of Tomsk and in 1920 took a position at the Mineralogical
Museum in St. Petersburg (later renamed Leningrad). At the Museum
he devoted much of his time to a new discipline: the acquisition
and study of meteorites. In 1921 Kulik was charged with the
task of locating and examining meteorites that had fallen within
the Soviet Union. While preparing for this expedition, he came
across an account of an explosion in Tunguska, Siberia, reprinted
from an old newspaper:
...a huge meteorite is said to have fallen
in Tomsk several sagenes from the railway line near Filimonovo
junction and less then 11 versts from Kansk. Its fall was accompanied
by a frightful roar and a deafening crash, which was heard more
then 40 versts away. The passengers of a train approaching the
junction at the time were struck by the unusual noise. The driver
stopped the train and the passengers poured out to examine the
fallen object, but they were unable to study the meteorite closely
because it was red hot...
Strangely enough the story turned out to be wrong
in almost every detail, but even so, Kulik had never heard of
this impact before and it caused him to go searching for additional
old newspaper accounts. By piecing these stories together he
determined that the event, which he felt sure was the result
of a meteorite fall, must have been enormous. Kulik decided
to see if he could find the site during his trip.
During his first expedition Kulik only managed
to figure out the general location of the blast area, not actually
visit it. Afterward Kulik continued to collect stories about
from the Site
A geologist sent this account which was told to
him by a local herdsman: "Fifteen years ago his brother, who
was a Tungus and could speak little Russian, lived on the River
Chamb'e. One day a terrible explosion occurred, the force of
which was so great that the forest was flattened for many versts
along both banks of the River Chamb'e. His brother's hut was
flattened to the ground, its roof was carried away by the wind,
and most of his reindeer fled in fright. The noise deafened
his brother and the shock caused him to suffer a long illness..."
Entnographer I. M. Suslov interviewed the family
who had been sleeping twenty-five miles southeast of the blast
site when the event occurred. The entire group was thrown down
by the force of the blast and several knocked unconscious. The
wife reported that when they awoke they found "...the forest
blazing around them with many fallen trees. There was also a
great noise." Some of the children described "A terrible storm,"
Suslov continued, "So great it was difficult to stand upright
in it, [that] blew down the trees near their hut."
Despite resistance from some of his colleagues
who questioned the value of a trip based on rumors told by backwoods
peasents, Kulik used these and other reports to convince the
Academy of Sciences to fund a second expedition.
1927 expedition had been planned for the spring. This would
mean they would reach the area before the ground in the region
became a swamp and the mosquitoes intolerable. Even taking these
precautions the journey was difficult going since Kulik was
still not sure of where the exact blast site was and the maps
they were using were inaccurate.
The first leg of their trip was accomplished by
using the Trans-Siberian railway. Kulik and a research assistant
traveled from Leningrad to the remote station of Taishet. From
there they used horse drawn sleds to make their way up the Angara
River to Keshma, a small village where they purchased more supplies.
From that point on the way grew ever more difficult.
The land became more rugged. Deep gulches and steep hillsides
blocked their path. Their compasses became confused by the high
latitude. It took until the end of March to reach the tiny village
of Vanavara located on the Stony Tunguska River. Vanavara was
the last outpost of civilization before the expedition plunged
into the primitive forest-swamp where Kulik was sure the meteorite
In the village Kulik hired a guide named Ilya
Potapovich and started interviewing locals about what they remembered
about the blast. He found that many of the local people did
not like to discuss the event. They believed that the fiery
body that had fallen was a visitation of the god Ogdy. Ogdy
had cursed the area by smashing trees and killing the animals.
No man now approached the site for fear of being cursed by the
This story only peaked Kulik's interest and he
soon set out on horseback, with the guide, to find the fall.
An unusually heavy snow blocked their path, though, and they
were forced to return to the village and await better weather.
On April 18 the expedition set out again with
pack horses. This time they followed the course of the river.
They took three days to reach the hut of Okhchen, a friendly
herdsman, located on the Chamb'e river. By that time both Kulik
and his assistant were suffering from infections and lack of
proper food. Only the belief that their destination was only
a short distance away kept them going.
They left the horses at Okhchen's home and loaded
their supplies onto reindeer for the last portion of the journey.
After two days of following the bank of the Chamb'e due north
they came to the Makirta river and saw the first evidence of
the Tunguska blast. The already exhausted party marched northward
into the devastation, sometimes having to hack their way through
the dead entangled limbs and branches of the fallen trees. As
they traveled closer to the center of the area Kulik noticed
that the trees had been burned from above. He was sure it was
the work of a sudden flash of intense heat, not a forest fire.
The scientist speculated that what the meteorite had "pushed
ahead of it was doubtless a giant bubble of superheated atmosphere,
hotter than the blast of any earthly furnace..."
They traveled for two more days through the destruction
when suddenly his guides, Potapovich and Okhchen, apparently
fearful of Ogdy's punishment, refused to go forward. Kulik was
forced to return to Vanavara and hire new guides.
the river to get to the site.
On April 30th, Kulik, with his new helpers, set
out again for the fall site. This time the party, aware of the
difficulty of marching through the forest, built rafts to carry
them along the Chamb'e and Khushmo rivers toward their destination.
The water courses were swollen with the spring melt and it was
necessary to navigate several rapids.
It had been three months since the expedition
had left Leningrad. No word had come back from Kulik, and his
colleagues began to fear the worst. Was the scientist lost or
dead in the uncharted Siberian wilderness? Or had he simply
not sent word back because he was embarrassed about finding
Back in the field the expedition had gone as far
as they could by water and headed north on foot finally reaching
the ruined forest on May 20th. For a week they cut though the
tangle of dead tree limbs and marched toward the center of the
fallen wood. Kulik finally set up camp near the mouth of the
Churgima River believing that the crater he sought must be just
beyond the next ridge in a marshy basin his guides referred
to as the Southern Swamp.
From this camp Kulik made daily trips out across
the dead forest until he circled the entire area. From his observations
he could see that on every side of the swamp the fallen trees
lay with their tops pointing outward. That meant that the center
of the swamp was the fall point of the meteorite for which he
was searching. Instead of finding a giant crater, though, Kulik
saw a standing forest of what looked like telephone poles. Each
trunk stood straight and tall, but charred and stripped of its
In the very center of this forest Kulik found
a peat marsh blasted and tortured into a fantastic landscape.
"The solid ground," wrote Kulik, "heaved outward from the spot
in giant waves, like waves in water." He also found dozens of
"peculiar flat holes" ranging in size from ten feet to fifty
feet in diameter. Each was several yards deep.
Kulik carefully documented and photographed the
area and decided to return on a later expedition and probe the
holes with digging equipment in an attempt to locate fragments
of the meteorite he thought might be beneath them.
Realizing that nothing more could be done on this
trip and that the group had only three or four days of food
left, Kulik decided to leave. It was a good decision. The summer
thaws soon made traveling increasingly dangerous. The expedition
set out and after nine days, having supplemented their diet
with ducks, fish and local plants, they arrived back in Vanavara
at the end of June.
Kulik returned to the Academy with enough photographs
and documentation to convince even his most skeptical colleagues
that something amazing had happened along the Tunguska river.
He led two more expeditions back to Siberia, one in 1929 and
another in 1938, but was never able to establish that the culprit
in the blast was a meteorite. Even today
the exact cause of the explosion is unknown.
Kulik continued to work on the problem until,
while fighting for his country in World War II, he was captured
and died of typhus in a Nazi prison camp on April 24th, 1942.
The success of Kulik's expedition wasn't in solving
the mystery of the Siberian blast of 1908, but in proving to
the world that objects have, and continue, to fall from space
and can have a devastating result on Earth. This knowledge has
led to a better understanding of how these impact events effect
life on our planet and how they might explain such mysteries
as the death of the dinosaurs.
to Virtual Exploration Society
Copyright Lee Krystek
1997. All Rights Reserved.