Geologic Column

The Romance of Geology in Russia: A Tribute to Alexander Ainemer
Paul Belasky

Before Alexander Ainemer became a marine geologist, he led the author , Paul Belasky, into the romance of geology with tales of field work in Central Asia.

It happened more than 30 years ago in a far-off place — a one-room communal apartment in the heart of St. Petersburg, Russia (then Leningrad, Soviet Union). We kids huddled around the dining table and were staring at strange objects — crystals of all colors and shapes, fossils, a large peculiar compass, a skin of a huge desert lizard, and an ancient book written on parchment in Arabic. A new world, mysterious yet knowable through science, was opening up before us, and a tall, striking man (my best friend’s father) was leading us into it. He had just come back from a desert in Central Asia and, in a hushed tone, was telling us how he found the book between the moving barchans in Turkmenistan. He gave exotic-sounding names to crystals, made us use the strange compass to find each other hiding in a poorly lit room, and talked with great wonderment about desert dunes, scorpions and black spiders, ruined fortresses, and heavy backpacks. I remember it as if it were yesterday; in that room, listening to Alexander Ainemer, I decided to become a geologist. And I am still thankful to him for that.

Geology in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s was a romantic profession. Large sections of the country were still waiting to be explored and mapped. Foreign travel was still impossible for most Soviets, so idealistic youths were drawn to geology for the thrill of adventure and exploration. Some of them really thought they could find personal freedom, if not by going west, then in the distant corners of the wild east — Siberia, the “sleeping land.” The Soviet government encouraged that trend with large centrally planned initiatives and expeditions. This was the heady time of hope after the end of Stalin’s purges, and it was geologists who were returning to the remote areas formerly ruled by the vast archipelago of prison camps.

Minimally supplied geological parties trekked for months on end across the huge country. They mapped, carried loads of samples, fished and hunted, wrote poetry, drank vodka, and sang songs around the campfire. In fact, many Russian musicians and poets (Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky included) started out as geologists or worked as technicians in those parties. Few outside of Russia know that it was geologists who started an important movement in modern poetry in St. Petersburg in the 1960s, called the “Geological School.” Furthermore, geologist authors dominated a genre of unofficial, often politically risqué songs (“bard songs”). The songs were about cloud shadows in the tundra, windy mountain passes, shamans and dervishes in time-forgotten villages, apatite, camaraderie, lack of cigarettes, and nostalgia for home and love during long field seasons.

It was tough, back-breaking work for a meager starting pay of about 80 rubles a month. What Russian geologist hasn’t experienced floorless, leaky tents in a rainstorm, or being stranded in the taiga and running out of food, or even having to stop a train in the middle of nowhere after walking for miles to evacuate a sick comrade? Internationally renowned modern composer Giya Kancheli describes his early experience as a young geologist in Russia: “…after walking more than 30 km with a backpack across taiga in a single day, I collapsed in my tent and wrote a list of professions that did not involve any walking. Music composition was one of them, and I chose it.” Even until the late 1980s, saying you were a geologist to girls in St. Petersburg was a great pick-up line — often greeted with admiring smiles and questions about exotic places and wild excesses in the field. Yet when I told my father that I was going to become a geologist he said: “Do you want to be one of those inebriated loudmouths with backpacks and guitars who bellow songs on night trains?”

Ainemer fit the romantic image of an explorer very well. He was darkly handsome and looked like an Assyrian prince. Kind and humble, his eyes would light up like those of a child when he talked about his life’s passion, geology. His works are not widely known in the United States because only a fraction of his more than 200 articles, monographs and books were published in English. But numerous colleagues in Russia, many now scattered across the globe, knew him as a brilliant, dedicated and prolific scientist who wasn’t afraid to enter new fields. In many ways, his career mirrors that of an entire generation of geologists and tracks the story of Russian (Soviet) geology as a whole.

Ainemer was born in the city of Kharkov (now in Ukraine) in a Jewish family and moved to St. Petersburg as a child. After graduating from the historic Leningrad Mining Institute in 1957, he worked for 15 years at the Geological Institute (VSEGEI). After receiving his Ph.D. in 1968, he became interested in marine geology and began working at the Okeangeologiya research institute in St. Petersburg in 1974, eventually becoming the head of research. His studies there covered gold and tin placer deposits on continental shelves of the Arctic Ocean, as well as metal-bearing sediments of the Pacific Ocean. He became a professor at his alma mater, received a doctorate degree in 1984, and branched out into the new field of geoecology — geochemical environments and sediment formation along the marine shelves of the northeastern Soviet Union. His last major work in Russia was the monumental Atlas of Bottom Sediments of the World Ocean (sadly still unpublished due to financial snags and red-tape).

In 1994, Ainemer left behind his beloved work at Okeangeologiya to join his wife and son in Israel. It was very difficult for him to resume work in a new country with far less geological real estate than Russia but no shortage of geologists, many of whom were much younger and fluent in English. But he never abandoned his passion.

In 1997, Dr. Ainemer took a job at the Center for Technological Education in Holon, Israel. Just as he began to find his place as a working geologist in a new country, a sudden illness interrupted his work and in just a few months took him away from us in July 2001. He continued working until his last days, a devoted hero to his profession. He simply could not part with geology. Like many people from Russia, Dr. Ainemer had many friends. In almost 40 years of knowing him, I have not met a single person who did not smile warmly at the mere mention of his name. His passing and that of numerous other geologists of his generation marks the twilight of the romantic age of Russian geology.

Belasky is an associate professor of geology and paleontology at Ohlone College in Fremont, Calif.

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