The Russian Geographical Society was established by the highest authority of Nicholas I in 1845. The original idea of creating the Society belonged to Admiral Litke, the mentor of the great Duke (Kniaz) Konstantin, who later became the first Chairman of the Society. "Bringing together and enabling the brightest youth to explore the homeland" was the goal of the new organisation.
Great explorers (Litke, Krusenshtern, Wrangel, Rickord), members of the St. Petersburg Science Academy (Ber, Struev, Gelmersen, Keppen), great army leaders (Berg, Vronchenko, Muraviev) as well as aristocrats (Dal, Odoevsky) were among those who established the Society.
In the words of Semyonov Tyan-Shansky, a great traveller and politician, the core of the Society is being "open to all of those who love our homeland and believe in the great future of our country and people".
Since the day it was founded, the Society never stopped its work. It did however change the name, working under the original name from 1845–1850, 1917–1926 and from 1992 until now. Between 1850 and 1917 it was called the "Imperial Society", in Soviet times it had two different names- "State Geographical Community" (1926–1938) and "Geographical community of the USSR" (1938-1992).
Many great people led the Society during its history, from the Dukes to famous explorers, travellers and state leaders. Across the years the Society was run by: Great Dukes Konstantin Nikolaevich (1845–1892) and Nikolai Mikhailovich (1892–1917). Among the Vice Chairs were: Litke (1845–1850, 1857–1872), Muraviev (1850–1856), Semyonov Tyan-Shansky (1873–1914) and Shokalsky (1914–1917). From 1931 the Society was led by Vavilov (1931–1940), Berg (1940–1950), Pavlovsky (1952–1964), Kalesnik (1964–1977), Treshnikov (1977–1991), Lavrov (1991–2000), Seliverstov (2000–2002), Komaritsin (2002–2009) and Shoigu (2009 – currently).
The RGO greatly contributed to the exploration of the European part of Russia, the Urals, Siberia, the Far East, the Caucasus, Iran, India, New Guinea and the Polar countries as well as other territories. Many great travellers took part in these explorations: Severtsov, Mushketov, Przhevalsky, Potanin, Pevtsov, Grumm-Grzhimailo, Semyonov Tyan-Shansky, Obrutchev, Kozlov, Miklukho-Maklay, Veikov, Berg and many others.
The Society was traditionally very close to the navy and marine expeditions. Many great marine explorers were active members of the Society, Anzhu, Zavoiko, Zagoskin, Lisyansky, Matushkin, Nevelsky, Posiet and Makarov among others.
At the time of the Empire, Honorary Members of the Society were chosen among foreign Royal Families, such as Leopold the Second, Turkish Sultan Abdul and British Prince Albert and the King of Belgium, a friend of Semyonov Tyan-Shansky. Foreign explorers and geographers such as Baron Ferdinand Richtgofen, Roald Amundsen, Fridtjof Nansen were also among the Honorary Members.
Merchant Golubkov and tobacco producer Zhukov were the biggest philanthropists who supported the Society with sizeable donations. One of the most prestigious awards of the Society is named after Zhukov.
Gold miners Sibiriakovi also had a special place among the supporters of the Society and financed several expeditions and educational projects.
In 1851 two regional offices were opened in Tiflis and Irkutsk. Later more regional offices which conducted local research were opened: Orenbugskiy, North-Western in Vilno, South-Westert in Kiev, South-Siberain in Omsk, Priamurskiy in Khabarovsk and Turkestanskiy in Tashkent. By 1917 the Society had 11 regional offices, including the headquarter in Saint Petersburg, 2 subdivision and 4 divisions.
In Soviet times the Society was focused on smaller-scale, more focused regional research. Society expanded significantly and between 1989-1992 the Society had the Central office in Saint Petersburg as well as 14 Republican ones. At this point there were 18 branches, 2 bureaus and 78 divisions.
The Russian Geographical Society laid the foundations of national reservations. The Nature Preservation commission, founded by academic Borodin, had the initial idea for the first Specially Protected Natural Area.
Creation of the permanent Arctic commission of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society (IRGS) was one of the key milestones. Chukotskaya, Yakutskaya and Kolskaya expeditions were among the projects of the Commission. Scientist Mendeleev developed several Arctic exploration projects. RGO was among the organisers of the first international Polar year, stations at the estuary of river Lena and on the Novaya Zemlia island were created during this time.
In 1918 the world's first Geographical University was founded with the support from the RGO. The following year, one of the most famous members of the society, Semyonov Tyan-Shansky founded the first Russian Geographical museum. At the peak times of the museum, its collections were on the third place after Hermitage and the Russian museum.
In Soviet times, the Society was promoting geographical knowledge by establishing a special commission, council and an auditorium.
In November 2009 Sergey Shoigu was chosen to become the President of the Society. Board of Trustees was selected and President Vladimir Putin is the Chairman of the Board.
Today the Society has around 13 000 members in Russia and abroad. Regional offices are now present in all 83 Russian regions.
Russian Geographical Society currently focuses its activities on expeditions and studies, education and awareness programs, environmental protection and publishing.
The RGO is a non for profit organisation and does not receive state funding.