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Section: History
Way to the East. Dedicated to the 70th Аnniversary of Academician Michael A. Grachev

Way to the East. Dedicated to the 70th Аnniversary of Academician Michael A. Grachev

Michael A. Grachev is not just Director of one of the most successful research institutes of SB RAS but also a good friend of our journal from its beginning.
The scientists of the Limnological Institute contributed to the journal and gave its readers a possibility to become acquainted with the discoveries made on Lake Baikal. Today we have asked Academician Michael Grachev to tell us about the past, present, and future of this "Baikal Academy" he has headed for 22 years


Today nobody doubts that Dr. Michael A. Grachev has become a true limnologist. However, twenty-two years ago, when he came to Lake Baikal as Director, he many times heard that limnology was a special discipline and he was not a specialist in this field.
At first, he was appointed as Director in 1987. According to the Charter of RAS, he had to be reelected every five years by the scientific staff of the Institute and finally at the General Meeting of SB by secret ballot. Now he serves his sixth term. This is in spite of the fact that it is not easy to work under him. However, it is generally true for any strong leader. The time which we spent together was not easy. It was a time of turbulent political and economic changes. Perestroika gave us freedom and possibility to travel abroad, but also resulted in severe economic difficulties. Looking back we see that perestroika, unlike with other institutes of RAS, made our Institute stronger and helped achieve important scientific breakthroughs. This was due to the strategy conducted by our Director and the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (SB RAS) as a whole.
In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union opened its door to foreign scientists. It appeared that many reputable foreign scientists were eager to study Lake Baikal, the greatest lake of the world. Before perestroika it was impossible because all the data on environment pollution were kept secret. These people came with modern methods and equipment. Working together with our scientists in joint expeditions and in the laboratories they found that Soviet scientists had already studied Lake Baikal very thoroughly and, as a rule, arrived at correct conclusions. This was due to high qualification of our personnel.
Later on, we had a possibility to visit many foreign laboratories, to acquire new methods and to use new equipment. This was a great advantage. We made new friends, concluded long-term agreements, took part in large joint projects. To put it short, we feel that we have joined global science.
Massive intervention of foreign scientists to Lake Baikal created a challenge: are we able to support equal partnership or only able to help foreigners to carry their baggage? There were a lot of hot discussions on this topic at the meetings of the Scientific Board of the Institute. These discussions urged us to propose new ideas and topics. Generally, our efforts were a success as shows the list of our scientific publications in peer reviewed journals since 1987. The number of these papers published between 1987 and 2008 is 1431.
Financial support of the international scientific community was especially important for us in the middle of the 1990s. It was very efficient because of the extremely low exchange rate of dollar to ruble. The founding of the Baikal International Center for Ecological Research (BICER) under the auspices of the Limnological Institute helped us fulfill many huge and expensive expeditions and projects. Over these years, 300 joint projects were completed; the Institute invited up to 100 foreign scientists per year. Michael Grachev had to be an extraordinary personality to make all this happen.
Besides, there was another topical issue concerning the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Plant. Mass media made people believe that the Plant polluted Lake Baikal severely and that the lake was almost dead. In reality, thanks to the very large size of Lake Baikal pollution was small, and all the foreign specialists who studied the issue confirmed this conclusion. In the meanwhile, politicians of all kinds used the idea of the necessity of an urgent salvation of the terribly polluted Lake Baikal as a means to obtain support of the electorate. Therefore, the idea to make the world community evaluate the then state of the ecosystem of Lake Baikal was a brilliant one. More than five years passed between UNESCO experts’ first visit to Lake Baikal in 1990 and the decision to include Lake Baikal into the List of the World Heritage Sites.
Looking back, we can say that virtually all the proposed large projects have been realized and all the tasks set at different periods in the past have been solved or are being solved now. We have many new problems to tackle and a lot of plans and ideas to implement in the near future, and we look forward to continuing international cooperation. Our Institute is full of energy not only because many of our scientists are young and active but also because our Director Michael A. Grachev is young at heart and calls us to think and move ahead.
I wish our Director good health!
On behalf of all colleagues, T.I. Zemskaya, Doctor of Biology, 
Scientific Secretary, Limnological Institute, SB RAS

Michael A. Grachev is not just Director of one of the most successful research institutes of SB RAS but also a good friend of our journal from its beginning.

The scientists of the Limnological Institute contributed to the journal and gave its readers a possibility to become acquainted with the discoveries made on Lake Baikal. 

Today we have asked Academician Michael Grachev to tell us about the past, present, and future of this “Baikal Academy” he has headed for 22 years

—Many of your colleagues were surprised by your decision to leave Moscow for Novosibirsk in 1965. What moved you to make such an unusual decision?

—Actually, not “what” but “who”—it was the late Academician Lev S. Sandakhchiev who worked in the Novosibirsk Institute of Organic Chemistry. At that time a young scientist, in 1964 he won the hearts of many Moscow biochemists engaged in studies of transport RNAs by proposing an extremely elegant way of their purification. In order to learn this method I made a few long visits to Novosibirsk, and fell in love with this Institute and the famous Akademgorodok (Academic Town).

There was a brand new laboratory building with clean large laboratories, a special design bureau for scientific equipment, huge mechanical workshops, and a pilot chemical plant building, where intermediary and final products could be obtained on a large scale. My lab was twenty minutes’ walk from home. Almost everybody was young and there were no enemy parties within the Institute. I was happy and have never regretted having moved to the east.

“In early August 1991, we Japanese researchers visited Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. After a glance of the blue huge lake at Listvyanka, we had a meeting with Dr. M. Grachev at the Limnological Institute to talk about the BICER Project. Several plans of international research were discussed. However, at least for me, hopeful joint research between Japan and USSR was not convincing at that time.
Then we had a party with the staff of the Limnological Institute at a restaurant close to the Lenin statue in Irkutsk downtown. In the midst of the party, a secretary told us that a Japanese student who was from the Japanese team had been robbed at the downtown street. The Police asked to bring someone for translation of the questioning. Dr. Grachev and I went to the Police Office.
The student was interviewed by policemen very slowly because Dr. Grachev and I had to translate the interrogation from Russian into English, then into Japanese and vice versa. It was late midnight when we three left the Police Office.
When we approached the Irkutsk Railway station, Dr. Grachev stopped the car. He dropped into a street stall, bought shashlik and then gave it to the student who he considered was very hungry. Right at that moment I realized that I could start joint research with Dr. Grachev’s Institute”.
Yasunori Watanabe, Rissho University, Japan

—What did you accomplish in Novosibirsk?

—I lived in Novosibirsk for 21 years. In science it is a very long term because its progress is very fast. In 1966, a group of American scientists won a Nobel Prize for finding the sequence of 78 nucleotides in a transport RNA. In 2004, two international teams found a complete sequence of nucleotides in a human genome—a nucleic acid consisting of 3.6 billion nucleotides. The productivity of sequencing increased 100 million times.

We had to keep up with this breathtaking pace and hence to develop new methods, to invent and to build new instruments. The main achievement, however, was probably establishing a school of young scientists who were able to make good science. I am very proud of their success.

“One of the more momentous UK visits was by the Green Howard Regiment of the British Army. They came to help with a census of the seal population and brought with them a lot of equipment, including four quad bikes, which they generously left behind them, but they also had a lot of communication equipment that caused many problems with the customs at their entry port of Novosibirsk. The ensuing ‘discussions’ even made the national Russian TV news and so Michael will well remember all the phone calls and negotiations that had to go on to get the equipment released! However, there is a British saying that ‘all is well that ends well’ and, in this case, it did and the census was a success”. 

—And why did you decide to move further east?

—In 1965, I learned a lesson—the skills and knowledge I acquired in 1960—1965 at the Institute for Chemistry of Natural Products in Moscow were exported to Novosibirsk and quickly gave interesting results. Had I stayed in Moscow, I would not have had a possibility to create a scientific school.

By the mid-1980s, I enjoyed my contacts with an extensive sphere of influence and had a lot of close informal contacts with many colleagues from academic institutes, from medical science and from the Applied All-Union Institute of Molecular Biology. Many joint papers were published, many dissertations based on my ideas were defended. I felt somewhat limited within the framework of my laboratory and wanted to try myself as a leader of an independent unit, which in the Academy of Sciences is a scientific institute. I was again ready to change my address and if necessary to move to the east.

Therefore, when the President of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences Valentin A. Koptyug asked me to consider the possibility of moving to Irkutsk and become director of the Limnological Institute, I agreed at once. He supported my idea of going there with a task force consisting of about twenty scientists, mainly specialists in molecular biology. This was necessary to improve the quality of scientific research of Lake Baikal. The Regional Administration supported the idea and gave all these people apartments (free of charge).

“My first encounter with Mikhail Grachev was in print, through the pages of Nature, long before I met him in person. John Maddox, then editor of Nature, had written a profile of Grachev—or was it a profile of Lake Baikal? The two seemed intimately connected. “One of Mikhail Grachev’s dreams”, began Maddox (Nature 337, p. 111, 1989), “seems well on the way to becoming true… He was dreaming of attracting people from outside the Soviet Union to exploit the opportunities of Baikal”.
A few months later, in a Nature News item, reasons were offered for studying Lake Baikal’s unique ecosystem. Of the four reasons provided, the significant item for me was species diversity, the lake’s biodiversity: “Studies on the speciation of the unique Baikal endemic complex of some 1,500 organisms [species] and of the evolution of their nucleic acids and proteins” (Nature 338, p. 193, 1989).
…As Maddox had noted of Grachev: he “bubbles with enthusiasm” (Nature 337, p. 111, 1989). In many ways his enthusiasm was too exuberant, the ideas spilling out faster than it was possible to grasp and understand their potential, let alone implement them. To many, Grachev was really a molecular biologist, and his view that the potential to study “the evolution of their [Lake Baikal’s endemic species] nucleic acids and proteins” was ahead of its time, given today’s predilection for species bar-coding and molecular systematics. It is this, then, which marks out Grachev: his ability to see beyond the immediate, beyond the set tasks”.

The Limnological Institute: twenty-two years ago…

—What was your first impression of Irkutsk and the Limnological Institute?

—Irkutsk has never impressed me too much. Briefly, it is much less comfortable for a scientist than Academic Town which for me is like motherland. As for the Institute, it was very interesting. After a few official and unofficial meetings with its members I understood that the majority of them were people who sincerely loved Lake Baikal, who knew the lake very well and were willing to study and to protect it in spite of many difficulties. Almost all of them still work at the Institute today.

However, the Institute was very short of modern equipment and sensitive and precise methods which are necessary to obtain reliable data on the pollution. The Institute used to publish its results in the so-called monographs—brochures published in a small number of copies in Russian. Therefore, the achievements of the Institute were not known abroad. It had almost no connections with the international scientific community.

From the very beginning I had to work hard. One of the first tasks put by the Government was to develop the so-called “norms” of permissible impacts on Lake Baikal. Preparation of this document needed many meetings with officials in Moscow. I had a possibility to meet many interesting people and to study the mechanism of arriving at political decisions.

To make the work faster I chose the following strategy: I resided under the stairs in the beautiful mansion belonging to the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR situated in the center of Moscow, at the margin of the famous Gorky Park. Here I had a typewriter and was allowed to smoke and to spend as much time as I needed. I typed a version of the “norms”, called using a special phone to a top official, took a taxi and went to him. This official usually looked through the document and asked to leave it for collecting comments of his staff. Next day I typed a new improved version and went to the top official of another governmental office and so on. Finally, I collected signatures of the heads of four ministries and the “norms” were introduced by a special decision of the Government.

“Although BICER had a board to decide about the programmes and actions, there was one person who was coordinating all, directing all actions, proposing and promoting actions, bringing people together—it was Michael. During several years, this structure has been functioning very well: with a rather limited funding, important scientific projects have been realized in an effective spirit of collaboration, joining foreign expertise with the competences of the Limnological Institute, and when no local expertise was available, Michael joined young scientists from his Institute, extending in this way the local expertise. He also assembled around him motivated and competent collaborators. During the early nineties, the funding for scientific work was limited in Russia, but always Michael found the necessary funds to finance the expeditions on the lake. How he did it, I never understood, but he did it.
...I didn’t always agree with his approach, and often told him that what he was proposing was impossible to obtain. But soon I understood that “impossible” was not existing in the vocabulary of Michael…” 

—So, did you do this work alone? Why did you sit under the stairs?

—Yes, I did this work alone. As for the stairs, there was no other room available. It was comfortable there for me because I could type, smoke and have tea.

There were four bodies whose approvals had to be obtained: the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, State Committee for Hydrometeorology, Ministry of Fisheries, and Ministry of Health. The document was ready in one or two months. It would be absolutely impossible to prepare and to approve it in such a short time nowadays.

In the meanwhile, Baikal posed an urgent problem. In late autumn of 1987, mass mortality among Baikal seals began. About 6,000 dead and dying animals (of the total number of about 100,000 seals) were found on the shore of Lake Baikal. On December 25 1987, a small group of scientists of the Limnological Institute (including myself) and the reputable Irkutsk veterinarian and pathomorphologist Dr. V. Kolesnik went to Ushkany Island, a small island in the middle of Lake Baikal situated between its northern and middle basins. The expedition went on board R/V Vereshchagin.

“It is 2008… and the world-famous MIRs are on Lake Baikal in probably one of their biggest ever expeditions. Thanks to a very generous invitation, I will have the opportunity to participate in one of the many dives that will be organized and to actually see with my very own eyes what these mud-volcano structures really look like. The dive goes well, smooth and easy… 5 hours pass by in a fraction of a second. We see the mud volcano, we think.. We see bubbles, for sure. Maybe mud breccia too. And cavernous clay. And during a previous dive they even saw an oil seep. This high-profile MIR expedition and the observations of the various hydrate habitats on the lake floor come after almost 10 years of intensive hydrate research on Lake Baikal. As a result, Lake Baikal is currently internationally recognized as one of the most interesting and best studied gas-hydrate and gas-seep provinces in the World…” 

The island was inhabited by only two families who took care of the meteorological station and wild animal protection. They showed us a few dead and ill seals and described the symptoms of the disease. They also told us that all the dogs on the island had died of dog distemper. Dr. V. Kolesnik said that he was sure that the seals were attacked by canine distemper virus as well. When I returned to Irkutsk, I looked through the literature and did not find any indications that seals had ever suffered from canine distemper. This disease is caused by a morbillivirus, a relative of the virus of measles. We decided to check the hypothesis of Dr. V. Kolesnik. For this purpose we used methods of molecular biology. To our surprise, very soon (as early as in February 1988) we found signatures of distemper virus DNA in different tissues of dead and ill animals. We reported the results to the Government and published them in Nature. Later on, we found the distemper virus in many tissues of dead seals by means of electron microscopy. Remarkably, a similar outbreak of canine distemper happened in the Baltic Sea in about six months.

Chemical pollution had nothing to do with the disease of Baikal seals, contrary to the concern of many people. A very strong impression of my first month in Irkutsk was close acquaintance with the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Plant, the major pollutant of Lake Baikal. It took me a few days to visit all the departments of this plant and to see how the pollutants were formed and subsequently removed from the waste water at the waste treatment facilities. I came to the conclusion that construction of the plant on the shore of Lake Baikal was a big mistake in spite of the thorough and sophisticated waste water treatment. So these were my first impressions.

“Baikal as a natural laboratory”, that has been an idée fixe of Michael for many years. One of the last actions that we organized together, was the search for sub-bottom methane hydrates in Central Baikal. High resolution seismic studies gave strong indications for the presence of hydrates underneath the lake bottom. We planned a winter expedition on the ice with limited financing and quite primitive technical means. There was absolutely no guarantee for success when the operation started, but Michael fully supported the initiative.
The team worked hard during several days without results, but nobody was even thinking to abandon knowing that the boss was supporting this action. And finally we had success. Now, Lake Baikal became indeed a natural laboratory for the study of the occurrence of gas hydrates”.
Jean Klerkx 

—In 1990 the Baikal International Center for Ecological Research (BICER) was officially opened under the auspices of the Limnological Institute. How did you manage to do it?

—It was easy. The iron curtain fell, and the results of ecological studies did not have to be kept secret any more. Literally, pilgrimage of foreign scientists to Lake Baikal began. We tried to organize the work in such a way that foreigners went to expeditions together with Russian colleagues from this and other Russian institutes in order to achieve equal partnership.

In about two years we decided that this international cooperation had to be put into a formal framework and BICER appeared. Leading experts from almost every developed country came here bringing their know-how and modern equipment. They were accompanied by Russian scientists, many of whom had studied Lake Baikal all their life. Our foreign colleagues were sometimes amazed when they learned that Soviet scientists had already studied Lake Baikal in all the details and that the lake according to the international standards was probably the best studied lake in the world.

BICER received strong support from the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and from the international scientific community, especially from its founding members—the Belgian Royal Institute of Natural Sciences, the Royal Society of London, the Japanese Association for Baikal International Research Programs, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and the University of South Carolina. For example, Chief Editor of Nature John Maddox published two papers in his journal in support of international cooperation of Lake Baikal. This support was not in vain. Some of our achievements were described in earlier issues of SCIENCE Fist Hand.

The Limnological Institute: twenty-two years after

—And what is the Limnological Institute like now?

—It is a well-equipped, even by the international standards, and strong institute. Along with veterans, we have many young scientists—more than half of our scientific staff. The Institute has physical, chemical, biological, geographic, and geological departments—a kind of a small Academy of Sciences.

“When I decided to spend a year in Siberia, I had no idea that it should become one of the most memorable, enriching experiences in my life: personally, because of the deep friendships, the peace, the contrasts, and the beauty of nature and people; and professionally, because of my admiration for the excellent work people do in spite of all challenges, their passion for science, and the gift to merge work and families into one piece.  Every time my eyes gaze upon a map of the world, I find myself homing in on Lake Baikal, the ‘Pearl of Siberia’ in the heart of the Asian continent, the elongated blue amidst the earthy colors, because this place has become home for me. Images, memories, and feelings start to well up in me, accompanied by a longing to return. How blessed are those who live among such beauty!
Christoph K. Thomas, 
Oregon State University, USA 

 —How do you manage to support world-level research in various fields despite the modest number of research workers?

—Your question sounds more like a compliment. Our position in the world science can be judged from the publications in peer reviewed journals and the citation indices of these publications. It is true that in the recent years many of our research areas have become part of the world science and sometimes we even managed to be in advance of its fast moving front.

Our success can be explained by a number of reasons. Firstly, we have established contacts with many highly qualified research teams, both in Russia and abroad. Secondly, we respect scientific ideas and do our best to help their authors implement them. Thirdly, during all these years we have pursued a special policy to support young scientists and to invite university students to take part in our research. By tradition our Scientific Council listens to reports on dissertations of every doctorial student. In the last years, these reports have become a great pleasure for me.


—What else would you like to do?

—First of all, not to make mistakes. There are a lot of ideas; the most important thing, however, is that they should not turn out to be trivial but produce clear and impressive results. Today, as it was before, our key task is looking for large and promising areas of research. In other words, as it is said in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll “…It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”.

—What about brain drain to the west?

—Brain drain is a real problem. To overcome it we have to create conditions for brain drain from the west to us. Look at the States. Scientists come to work there from all over the world. Russia can become a leading country in science only if we find the ways to make it really international. Another option is to return to the “iron curtain”, but I hope this will never happen again.

—What advice would you give to a young scientist? How to become a good scientist?

—If this question is asked by a young “scientist”, it is probably too late. A person becomes interested in science at the age of 14 to 16. If you become interested in science later, you have to work very hard to achieve your goal.

And remember that fundamental science is global science—it is useless to repeat a discovery if it was done before. So you have to read a lot, you have to know English well, the international language of science, and to develop experimental skills throughout all your life.

The publication has used excerpts from the book “The Limnological Institute SB RAS: twenty years after…” (Irkutsk: OOO Asprint, 2009.— 288 p.) and photographs from the Limnological Institute archive

The editors thank E.V. Likhoshvai, T. I. Zemskaya, M. V. Usoltseva (Limnological Institute SB RAS) and N.A. Matuzova (Asprint Publishers) for their assistance with preparation of the present publication

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