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Section: History
Science and Siberia: from Peter the Great to the 21st century

Science and Siberia: from Peter the Great to the 21st century

Fundamental science is not at all an expensive decoration; rather it is an important constituent of the national security, of the nation’s independence To the 280th anniversary of the Russian Academy of Sciences. To the 60th anniversary of the West-Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences

The best way to suppose what may come is to remember what is past. George Savile (Marquis Halifax) English political figure, writer (1633—1695)

Jubilees are not only and not so much an occasion for official celebrations. Rather, jubilees are a cause to look back at the past, think over the results, and ponder over the future. This year the Russian Academy of Sciences has celebrated its 280th anniversary, and its West-Siberian Branch — its 60th anniversary. For the past three hundred years science has undoubtedly been playing a most significant role in the life of Russia, determining and directing it in many respects. In the beginning of the 21st century Siberian science was, without doubt, a phenomenon out of the ordinary, which is directly confirmed by a network of powerful scientific centers in Siberia, as well as by the international recognition invariably won by the developments of Siberian scientists. A great distance has been overcome. But looking back into the past we suddenly discover some features that distinguish Russia’s science of the period of its birth and of the present time from the organization of science in other European countries. The Russian Academy of Sciences has not turned into some historical exhibit. Quite the contrary, its activities are still topical. More than that, the present-day debates characteristic of the historical periods of modernization astonishingly remind the disputes that took place at the beginning of the 18th century. Here we turn again to the role the state should play in the organization of scientific activity, the relationship between science and education, the ratio of fundamental and applied science, and the role of the scientist in society.

That is why it makes sense to turn to the origins of Russian science, remember how it all began, and attempt to traverse the most significant steps of its development. Without these steps science would never have attained the heights on which — with all the reservations — it rests now, the fact that may serve as direct evidence of the actual status of the Russian scientist in the modern international scientific community.

January 28th (February 8th according to the Gregorian calendar) of 1724 is regarded as the date of the establishment of the Academy of Sciences in Russia. On that date Peter the Great issued a decree “On the Foundation of the Academy and on Granting of the Receipts from Custom Duties and License Revenues Raised from the Towns of Narva, Derpt, Pernov, and Arensburg for the Academy’s Maintenance Costs”. The decree was issued six days after the Governing Senate of the Russian Empire had approved his project on founding the Academy of Sciences and Arts in St. Petersburg. Physician-in-ordinary L. L. Blumentrost was nominated the first president of the Academy. L. L. Blumentrost compiled the project that absorbed the Emperor’s most cherished ideas; subsequently Peter the Great developed the project further.

Peter’s ideas on founding the Academy are often presented as some kind of inspiration that dawned upon the Emperor at the ebb of life. Actually this is far from the real picture. The process of realization of the need for founding the institution of the Academy of Sciences was, for Peter the Great, long and rather painful, though, at the same time, deeply thought out. It may be referred to (without neglecting the fact that it was the last practical deed of national importance) as the crown of the total reforming of the state of Russia conducted by Peter.

“Studying the nature
of the past times, one may see the routes which the fortunes
of the world not yet open to us but living
in the past like seeds
in the soil will take.”
W. Shakespeare

Peter the Great, like who a great number of native statesmen wanted to be then and want to be now, well realized that servile imitation of the West means for the country being doomed to perpetual dependence. “We should not eternally reap the fruits we have not sown; to accept ready results of other people’s knowledge, experience, theory, and technology,” he remarked in 1718, “to live off other people’s wit is to be like a fledgling looking into its parent’s mouth…” Correspondence of many years standing with G. V. Leibnitz helped Peter see to what extent the nation’s progress depended on the standard of national scientific thought. Quite another matter is that not all advice of Leibnitz concerning the organization of science, actually from scratch, satisfied Peter the Great. As far back as during his famous trip to Europe Peter the Great paid a visit to French academicians. In Sorbonne the tsar visited astronomer J. Cassini, mathematician P. Varinion, and geographer J. Delille. He discussed with the scientists the principles on which an establishment unwitnessed before in Russia should be built, “The Society of Arts and Sciences”. The discussion was concerned with what the Academy should be like, which of the real models that existed at the time should be chosen.

As a result, the only right decision was taken — the Academy, in Peter’s opinion, should combine scientific-research work with training specialists.

There is no doubt that Peter was a reformer, but he was also a pragmatic person, and a great builder. From the very moment of its creation the main task of the Academy was to provide all kinds of services to the state aimed at its strengthening and centralization. The Academy became the founder and guide for university education in Russia. And not a bad guide, either; for it was due to thorough and expert activity of its ‘fathers’, that since the early years of its existence it was never second to other countries’ academic establishments, and in a number of directions of academic research even surpassed them.

Do not let us forget, the term ‘Academy’ itself in the 17th to 18th centuries designated a fairly definite ideological space. It was the place where an energetic breaking-off with theology occurred, precise experimental methods of investigation were worked out, a connection with practical needs of society was outlined, and a professional community of scientists was formed. St. Petersburg Academy was a child of its time. Its advantages are multidisciplinarity, i.e., the inclusion of natural sciences and the humanities in its sphere of activities, fixed governmental support, the possibility of working on the vast territory that was then a real ‘white spot’ for science (and, probably, for the whole enlightened world), — all this attracted the best minds of Europe to the 18th century Russia.

These scientists and their successors played (despite the difficulties that sufficed, both of objective and subjective nature) an outstanding role in the formation of the state of Russia. “In no other place than here, one of the most important tasks of the Academy should be exploration of separate countries of our vast Fatherland and finding hidden in them, without any doubt, new productive forces as well as sources of national wealth”, wrote A. Middendorf, permanent secretary of the Academy, in the middle of the 19th century.

It is evident that it was impossible to do without an academic ‘Eastward rush’ in that situation. And here we have once more to remember the name of the great reformer of Russia. By the Decree of Peter the Great of 1696 (that is, long before the Academy was set up) Semen Remezov compiled “The Book of Drawings of Siberia of 1701”. The atlas by Remezov included not only some drawings of the cities and towns, the direction of the main communication routes, but also some information on the natural resources of Siberia, the areas of habitat of many Siberian peoples, and some historical references. In point of fact, it was the first Siberian encyclopedia that represented an attempt (not unsuccessful, either) at a complex approach to studying Siberia. D. G. Messerschmidt continued the work in 1720 to 1727 — again by the direct order of Peter the Great.

“Thus, the way and hopes of aliens will be crossed, Russia’s might will be increased by Siberia and the Arctic Ocean and will reach the main European settlements in Asia and America”.
M. V. Lomonosov

From the memorandum submitted to Cesarevitch Pavel Petrovich, President of the Admiralty Collegium, “A Brief Description of Various Voyages Across the Northern Seas and Indication of the Passageway through the Siberian Ocean into East Indies” (1763)

After the Academy was set up, the investigation of Siberia assumed a really large-scale and planned character. The great Second Kamchatka Expedition (1733 to 1743) headed by V. Bering is especially impressive in this respect. One of its detachments was ‘academic’, academician G. F. Mueller and I. G. Gmelin headed it. G. F. Mueller unambiguously named his article about Siberia published in some academic monthly editions “Gold-mine”. The enormous expenses on the expedition allocated by the government were repaid with interest. According to the same Mueller, “Siberia, that remote land, taking into consideration all the circumstances connected with it, has become known better than the German heartland to local inhabitants can be…” He might have slightly exaggerated it, but it was a creative exaggeration, it reflected the significance of the work performed.

For their messengers to the ‘lands unknown’ the Academy of Sciences worked out most detailed instructions and documents (‘reminders’ and ‘notes’), which may be considered as the first national programs of academic exploration of the regions. For example, instruction “On the History of the Peoples” prepared on the eve of the Second Kamchatka Expedition, called the attention of the traveler scientists to, in terms of modern language, the problems of genesis, settling of the peoples of Siberia, to their customs, habits, ceremonial rites, occupations, religion, and culture. The fundamental work by Mueller, “The Description of the Siberian Land…”, has remained in demand till the present day — the materials in history, ethnography, archaeology and other sciences collected by him (the famous ‘portfolios’ by Mueller) are so extensive that they have not been fully introduced into scientific circulation yet.

S. Krasheninnikov, one of the first academicians really Russian in origin, whose “Description of the Land of Kamchatka” was translated into four European languages, is by right considered the founder of the Siberian ethnography. M. Lomonosov was deeply interested in the materials of the Siberian expeditions. It was he who, upon studying in detail the reports on the conducted research, uttered the following prophesy: “Thus, the way and hopes of aliens will be crossed, Russia’s might will be increased by Siberia and the Arctic Ocean and will reach the main European settlements in Asia and America”.

In subsequent years the Academy of Sciences continued active work on Siberia. Expeditions were sent one after another; for two centuries they were the basic form of studying the vast expanses of Russian territories. Their participants accumulated and summarized knowledge in the field of geology, geography, zoology, botany, ethnography, and archaeology, and made an inestimable contribution to the study of the nature of Siberia and the aboriginal peoples. Let us remember, and not only on the occasion of the jubilee, but also for their great services to their nation, such greatest explorers of Siberia as I. E. Fisher, P. S. Pallas, I. I. Georgi, A. F. Middendorf, V. V. Radlov, et al., and pay tribute to them.

What is essential is that their work has not become obsolete but has quite a good deal in common with the exploits of modern science. Thus, academician Fisher, having analyzed in his “Siberian History” the languages of the aboriginal peoples of Siberia, put forward a suggestion on the southern place of origin of the Samoyed people. Nowadays this idea is acquiring a new sounding in the light of multidisciplinary studies of Siberian archaeologists, geneticists, and anthropologists.

In the second half of the 19th century, in connection with the growth of the population of Siberia as well as the scope of its development — opening up of new lands, as Lomonosov had predicted, — an urgent necessity occurred to set up some research institutions in the region itself. The Universities of Tomsk (founded in 1880), Irkutsk (1918), and the Far East (1920) became the first ‘growth points’ for the science potential of Siberia and the Far East. The opening of Tomsk University was made possible thanks to the fact that some well-known scientists, professors from St. Petersburg and other cities of European Russia, moved to Siberia. They became a kind of fundators of growth for scientific brainpower for the provinces. The activities of professor V. D. Kuznetsov, graduate of the St. Petersburg University, in Tomsk are a vivid example testifying to it. He arrived in Tomsk in 1911 and played an exceptional role in the formation and development of physical sciences by establishing the Siberian Physical-Technical Institute in the 1920s.

The October Revolution and the establishment of a new political regime in Russia led to the reforming of academic science (as of the whole Russian life, though). It was a most contradictory and often dramatic process. Ideological break-up of the old system of social life is in itself rather painful, and here the situation was aggravated further by material hardships generated by two destructive wars and foreign intervention.

Immediately after the establishment of the Soviet power ideological persecutions of the Academy of Sciences and scientists as representatives of the hostile past started. Whether and to what extent those persecutions were justified in each particular case is not a simple matter. The euphoria of triumphant revolutionary masses played not the least role. A certain aggression characteristic of them was further provoked and aggravated by the fact that a considerable number of scientists either did not accept or rejected the new power. The opposition was reciprocal and the hostility mutual. Up to 1923 the new power preponderated. This is not surprising — all the control and coercion levers were in the hands of the new power. However, practically the whole world scientific community stood up for the Russian science.

It is hard to determine how efficient the interference of the West proved to be; nevertheless, the fact is that, by the bicentenary of the Academy of Sciences, celebrated in 1924, the attitude of Soviet power towards science had radically changed. The Soviet leadership realized that no progress in the country was possible without science. By the turn of the 1920s to 1930s that conviction turned into an unshakable position. That evolution was undoubtedly furthered by the international situation of the country, in which it was impossible to count on borrowing ‘alien’ technical novelties. Soviet leaders realized the undeniable truth that only fundamental science could furnish the army with modern armaments, that without fundamental science the army would turn into mere cannon-fodder. Science proved to be a constituent part of the national security of utmost importance. Science won back its former prestige, and the scientific worker — his former worthy position fitting him in the social structure of society.

Honoured man of science, Professor Victor Reverdatto, — one of the initiators of setting up the West-Siberian Branch of the USSR AS, organizer and first director of the Medical Biology Institute (1944—1952); was a prominent scientist and researcher working in flora studies, geobotanics, and study of herbs.
V. V. Reverdatto made a big contribution to the study of flora, vegetation, and vegetative resources of Siberia; initiated subdivided geobotanical zoning and growth map-making.

The Great Patriotic War of 1941 to 1945 dramatically but practically confirmed the above conclusions. The after-war period, in spite of the fact that half of the country lay in ruins, was marked by permanent close attention to the urgent problems and the directions of prospective growth of the scientific potential. The government did not grudge money for science, and science responded in kind, turning out impressive results.

All this directly reflected on the activities of the Academy of Sciences in Siberia, too.

The shifts in the allocation of the productive forces that began in the 1920s, major national economic projects (of the Urals-Kuzbass type) demanded an abrupt enhancement in the scope of investigation of Siberia. The local authorities experienced an ever-increasing need for the scientists’ assistance, whereas the scientists needed coordination of their activities.

In 1930 the Academy of Sciences set up a permanent commission for the exploration of Siberia that was headed by Academician A. E. Fersman. The commission substantiated the necessity of creating some scientific-research stations of the Academy of Sciences in the regions with a prospect of their growing into bigger establishments. In 1932 a guest session of the Academy of Sciences took place in Sverdlovsk and Novosibirsk, at which some development problems of the Urals-Kuzbass region were discussed. It was then that a suggestion on setting up a branch of the Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk was declared. However, the projected plans were ‘suspended in the mid-air’, because there were no financial means to realize those plans, and, what is more important, there were difficulties in attracting qualified personnel from the leading scientific centers of the country.

The situation repeated in 1936, when Academician I. P. Bardin raised that question once again at the meeting of the Academy of Sciences Presidium. The Academician based his suggestions on the proposition that departmental institutes did not go beyond their narrow departmental tasks, whereas the need for complex investigations that could cover the problems of development of the region’s productive forces became acute in the east of the country. The only response the Academician got was that at the time they could, at best, talk about nothing else but establishing a scientific-research base.

The war that broke out corrected the prewar plans. In the first days after the war began the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences had enjoined all the academic institutions to revise the themes of their scientific research and developments to include the ones for the country’s defense potential and speed up the investigations whose results could immediately be used in military purposes. The social role of scientists and specialists grew immensely, their elaborations partially made up for political and strategic miscalculations. All this concerned, though, not only scientists, war called upon the knowledge and skills of professionals in all spheres of life.

A new attitude towards the eastern regions of the USSR was born in the hardest conditions of wartime. After the loss of the western territories and the transfer of a great number of industrial enterprises to the eastern regions, the latter determined both the nation’s economic might and its capacity to effectively resist the mighty enemy. Complex regional commissions of the USSR Academy of Sciences conducted work on the exploration and rational utilization of mineral resources of the eastern regions. The Commission on the mobilization of the resources of the Urals, Western Siberia, and Kazakhstan for the needs of the national defense headed by Academician V. L. Komarov, at the time President of the USSR Academy of Sciences, occupied a special place among them.

Some Committees established on the initiative of scientists complemented the activity of the Commission. One of the first Committees appeared in Tomsk in June 1941. A group of evacuated scientists of the Institute of Aerohydrodynamics headed by Academician S. A. Chaplygin initiated setting up a Committee in Novosibirsk at the beginning of 1942. The Novosibirsk Committee of Scientists embraced as many as 900 scientific research workers of the scientific-research institutions and higher educational establishments of the city. The Siberian Scientific Research Institute of Aviation is an outstanding practical outcome of Academician S. A. Chaplygin’s activity in Novosibirsk.

Whatever undertakings the representatives of the Commission had to engage in! We shall give but one vivid example. In summer of 1942 it became evident that the rate of coal extraction in Kuzbass was not sufficient to meet the increased need for coal for the defense industry. An interim research team (at the time referred to as a crew) arrived in Prokopievsk. The research conducted in the coal pits showed that coal output could be increased by 50 %. In order to achieve that, a new technology, that of shield mining of coal, developed and tested by professor N. A. Chinakal before the war, was widely employed. It resulted in producing 4 to 5 times as much coal as under old technologies, and all that without driving new pits.

On October 21st, 1943, the Soviet of People’s Commissars of the USSR declared:
“To permit the USSR Academy of Sciences Presidium to establish the West-Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk in 1943 in the composition of:
Mining Institute;
Chemical-Metallurgical Institute; Institute of Transport and Energy;
Institute of Medical Biology.

To authorize the Novosibirsk Executive Committee of the Regional Soviet of People’s Deputies to provide the West-Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences with some industrial premises and living accommodation”.

War, even in the conditions of centralized public management, freed the local initiative. The West-Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences appeared, in part, as a result of this. The time of its birth could hardly be called favorable. The war against Nazi Germany was at its most fierce point in 1943. It was beyond the most daring dreams to hope for the motion from remote Siberia to be heard and, what is more, supported. There were more urgent needs. And yet, a miracle happened: the West-Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences was set up!

Actually, it was not a miracle but crucial and professional work of those who headed the nation then and who realized that the situation at the time called for immediate and decisive actions. In the first place, a rapidly increased economic potential of Western Siberia needed proper scientific support, and this fact could not be ignored any longer. Secondly, during the wartime not only industry, but also science shifted to the east. Major scientific establishments and big scientists, leaders of academic schools and directions, moved to Siberia. They continued their activities there, and that required a corresponding material-technical, financial, and intellectual support for conducting research. Subsequently, reevacuation concerned science more than industry. But, on the one hand, not all the scientists left; on the other hand, the region retained the cadres prepared from local specialists, as well as the expertise, material and organizational structure of ‘big’ science. As Academician V. L. Komarov stated in September of 1943, “Temporary evacuation eastward of the institutions of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR raised new layers of native cultural forces to the level of the tasks of the Academy of Sciences.” It was said rather figuratively but fairly precisely.

To solve the organizational problems of the new department, the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences appointed Commission with Academician A. A. Skochinskii as the head. It is not by chance that A. A. Skochinskii was appointed the head of the department. Born in Siberia, one of the greatest specialists in mining, he was perfectly aware of the enormous possibilities and prospects of Siberia. In the course of the first five years he headed the department devoting all his knowledge and organizational expertise to it.

The new department was a complex establishment conducting regionally oriented research. Its sphere of influence included the Altai and Krasnoyarsk Krai, Kemerovo, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tomsk, Tyumen oblasts and Tuva. The West-Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences was staffed mainly with Siberian (mainly, Tomsk) brainpower from scientific-research institutes and higher educational establishments. The Chemical-Metallurgical Institute was an exception; it merged with the Novosibirsk Complex Chemical Laboratory. One of the most characteristic features of the department in the first years of its existence was a high number of people who combined some permanent job elsewhere with work in the department. In October 1944, the department was staffed with 130 members, 89 out of them were on the staff, and the rest 41 combined jobs. Bearing in mind that “the cadres solved everything”, the problem of personnel was permanently being tackled. No later than in January 1945, the Department initiated convening the first conference of young scientists in Novosibirsk. More than 300 academic workers from higher educational establishments, sectoral and academic research institutes, including quite a large number of students who subsequently connected their life with science, took part in the conference. In the course of a fifteen-year period of its activities the West-Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences grew into one of the largest academic establishments of the country. In 1957, six institutes (Mining Institute; Institute of Geology; Chemical-Metallurgical Institute; Institute of Biology; Institute of Transport and Energy; Institute of Radiophysics and Electronics), two departments (the section of economic research and the section of mechanization of agriculture), and the Botanical Garden were members of the West-Siberian Branch. In a number of research fields the West-Siberian Branch became a coordinating center not only for Western Siberia, but also for the whole country.

Credit for this achievement should be given to those who headed the Department. We should pay special tribute to M. A. Lavrentiev for his choice of Novosibirsk as the center of the future Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences. Academician A. A. Trofimuk in his memoirs recollects that, when the problem of where a new science center was to be located was being considered, Academicians M. Lavrentiev and S. Khristianovich visited several Siberian cities. After they had been given the cold shoulder in Tomsk and Irkutsk, they arrived in Novosibirsk prepared for yet another difficult talk. But against all expectations, T. F. Gorbachev, Head of the West-Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences, heartily welcomed them. He encouraged their initiative and offered to render all the necessary assistance. In Novosibirsk, the Muscovites were even hurried up with the implementation of their idea. The West-Siberian Branch was very soon abolished as an organizational structure, since all the institutes of the Department were included in the framework of the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

Talking about the founder and first Chairman of the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Mikhail Alekseevich Lavrentiev, one cannot but remember the famous ‘Lavrentiev’s triangle’, which still remains fundamental for the Siberian Branch. Let us remind its basic principles, such as a) multidisciplinarity of research; b) integration of science and education, multilevel (starting with high school) system of selection, training, and reproduction of cadres of the highest qualification; c) active encouragement to the realization of scientific achievements, and great diversification of the forms of connection with production. At the ebb of life, the legendary Academician mentioned in this connection: “When asked on what, in my opinion, the future of the Siberian Branch depends, I usually reply: It depends on the extent to which we will be able to keep up a balanced trinity ‘science-cadres-production’. Predominance of any of these factors will lead to stagnation and regress. This harmony is not a recipe for making a delicious dish, when the exact amount of each ingredient is known. This balance should be a result of collective efforts of researches with top-level officials from industry and the authorities. Time will introduce some correctives, but the principles that proved to be valid have yet to work even after us.”

These words refer us to the very origin of the Academy of Sciences, to the principles on which the Academy was based at the moment of its creation. Loyal to these principles, Russia’s science attained unprecedented heights in its history. Whereas in the catastrophic times of break-up, when some zealous revolutionaries either wanted to start everything from scratch or make a rush to thoughtless imitation of alien and absolutely unsuitable experience, science plunged into depression, which in the end meant irredeemable losses for the nation. One must not forget about the past: the past will avenge itself. In the past fifteen years all of us witnessed some attempts to destroy the structure of academic science that had been formed in Russia. But recent developments inspire us with some cautious optimism. It looks as if the government is turning their attention to science, since they realize that the nation will not be able to survive without science. It will take long to enumerate the signs of this process. What is important about the Siberian Branch is that the ‘Lavrentiev’s triangle’ continues to actively work!

And it will probably be proper to remember the words of another person, also not an outsider for the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences, who made a great contribution to its preservation and long-term development. We mean Academician V. A. Koptyug. Without fearing to sound pathetic, he asserted, “Science will save humanity”.

The authors thank Cand.Sc. N. A. Kupershtokh for the preparation of the materials for the article

The materials for illustrations are courtesy of the Department of Rare Books of the State Public Scientific and Technical Library SB RAS

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