Russian doctor presents bust of Bering

Posted: Monday, August 23, 2010

When one pictures early Danish explorer Vitus Bering standing on the deck of his Russian sailing ship Saint Peter in the waters of the sea that now bears his name, they picture a large man peering over the ice, sturdy in the face of adversity.

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

In reality, Vitus Bering was small in stature but broad shouldered, suffered from headaches and leg soreness, and had some Mediterranean lineage in his genetic makeup.

"He was flat-footed," Dr. Viktor Nikolaevich Zviagin said through interpreter Allan Engstrom in an open house at Elton Engstrom's in Juneau Aug. 22. "He wasn't a heavy man but his shoulders were broad. And he suffered horrible headaches like a migraine. Those who suffer from this are also very introspective."

Zviagin, from the Russian Center of Forensic Expertise, was on his way to Sitka to present a bust he had reconstructed from the bones of Bering in honor of the Sitka National Historic Park's 100th birthday.

In 1990 Zviagin, an expert in forensic facial reconstruction, joined a joint Russian-Danish expedition to Bering Island, where the skeleton of Bering was discovered and his skull sent to Russia for reconstruction. After the study the skeleton was returned to Bering Island for burial.

Zviagin discovered that sutures in Bering's skull closed prematurely as a young boy, which created intercranial pressure and severe pain and headaches throughout his life. It also resulted in hair loss at a young age. Zviagin also provided a face for the explorer, as early paintings actually depicted Bering's cousin.

"The amount of his suffering is very visible in the face," Zviagin said. "He kept it all inside, internalized it. In order to do an accurate facial reconstruction you have to study the whole skeleton to see what he suffered from."

Zviagin determined that Bering was strong and didn't die from scurvy as many believe. Because Bering had biological training, Zviagin concluded Bering was actually able to prevent the death of many to scurvy at the site of his ship wreck and eventual demise.

"The condition of his teeth are good," Zviagin said. "He was sixty years old and worked and lived in extreme conditions. He was only missing four teeth, and two were lost right before death."

Zviagin said he determined, through archival research, Bering always had a personal physician with him. Through the physician's writings, and those of others such as German scientist and explorer Georg Steller on the ill-fated voyage that claimed Bering's life, Zviagin determined that Bering died from a heart condition.

"A chronic heart condition," Zviagin said. "After death the graves of the crew were disturbed by animals, but Bering's was not."

Bering was the only one buried in a formal style, attached to a board, such as befitting an old naval tradition.

Zviagin also found that Bering was thin, his skeleton revealed a strong muscle type but not heavy set. Bering was just under 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 175 pounds. Zviagin also proved the portrait scholars used to believe was Bering was actually his uncle, Vitus Patterson Bering.

"The portrait was not a very flattering man," Zviagin said, as he held the bust recently constructed. "This is the true face of Vitus Bering."

Zviagin said that, forensically, all that was known of Bering before was that he was Danish, that he died when he was 60, and he spent 40 years in the Russian service.

"Just on those bases, nobody would believe me," Zviagin said. "After we had the skull we looked at known relatives of Bering for facial types."

Zviagin traced six generations of Bering before Vitus and 12 generations after in a year-long study. Only after that did he feel they had the true Bering.

In 1991 Zviagin was responsible for identifying the 9,000 bone fragments of the last Russian Tsar Nikolai II and his family, who were murdered during the Russian Revolution. In the first stage of investigation, which finished in 1999, they found fragments of five bodies of the Romanov family including Tsar Nikolai, his wife Alexsandra, and daughter Anastasia, and the bodies of four servants. Later he found fragments of Anastaia's sisters Olga and Tatiana. The bodies of Alexei and Maria were found August 2007 in a small burn pile.

Zviagin has also conducted an extensive examination of the skull of Adolf Hitler, an enormous project started primarily on teeth prosthetics which continues today.

"That object has never been formally called the skull of Hitler," Zviagin said. "They talk about it being the possibility, they just do not have enough of the fragments to be 100 percent sure it fits the teeth. One complication is the fragments of the skull have gone through so many different hands."

Zviagin has been instrumental in working with the Russian Orthodox Church to give more accurate depictions of their saints' sculptures and portraits. He holds seven patents for his work in forensics.

"I am sworn to secrecy," Zviagin laughed when asked what his next project was. "It is all to be revealed in the future."

Zviagin comes from a family of scientists and medical professionals which inspired him. He loved to paint and draw growing up and grew interested in forensics while studying bones in his first college years, eventually doing skeletal reconstruction's in drawings.

"When you finish such an endeavor and final conclusions and facial reconstruction it no longer belongs to you," Zviagin said of his work. "You are giving the face back to its rightful owner in history."

When asked if he could pinpoint someone's ailment by simply seeing them walking on the street, Zviagin replied it was a game he did many times while driving in his car.

"You can see a lot when you look at a person," Zviagin laughed. "You don't want me to really study you in my line of work, it usually involves a forensic basis before I start, and that is usually after death."

Zviagin also watches many crime programs, both prime-time style such as Hollywood's "CSI" series, and National Geographic and their various renderings of such historical findings, like King Tut.

"Often I never find myself not in agreement with their conclusions," Zviagin said. "As a professional I critique with a jaundiced eye."

Accompanying Zviagin were Sergei Korsun, the Director of the North American Section of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, also known as the Kunstkamera, which contains the largest collection of Alaska native artifacts in the world, and Doctor Andrei Grinev of St. Petersburg State Politechnic University. He is one of the foremost Russian Tlingit scholars and specialists in the history of Russian America.

The Kunstkamera has published The Tlingit, a book of color photographs of their collection, and Korsun will present a new second book of Alutiiq artifacts from Kodiak Island. Grinev's book "The Tlingit Indians In Russian America" was translated and published for America and his second work, a biographical dictionary of Russian America, contains more than 5,000 names and is currently being translated.

The enormity of bringing a face to the explorer whose name is on the Bering Strait, Bering Sea, Bering Islands, Bering Glacier, and Bering Land Bridge and returning that face to Sitka is enormous.

"Very heavy," Zviagin laughed as he held up the bust. "Bering is now returning to those places he discovered, opened, and to those places where he was."

• Contact Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at

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