Impressions Efremov, Museum, Friends


The first time I saw Professor Efremov he was standing in the hall of the Paleontological Museum partly obscuring an absurdly horned, grotesque skull of a Permian reptile named Estemmenosuchus. He was a big man, robust and dwarfing the ancient giant. The two, each unique in its own way, have incongruously stayed linked in my memory. Now both are gone into obscurity, the one some 250 million years ago, the other in 1972 in a country where his name may be enshrined or erased by political whim. Russia and the world are poorer for the passing of Efremov. I really see no one standing on his shoulders to think boldly and imaginatively of better times to come and — in thinking — making them happen. But the successors of Estem-menosuchus rose to heights, and perhaps some Phoenix will arise similarly from the dim contrary of the dialectic of human knowledge so dear to Professor Efremov's heart and mind.

Scientist, philosopher, writer and Russian to the core, Professor Ivan Antonovich Efremov seemed to me a unique phenomenon in a society where such a free, imaginative spirit had no business to be.

Like many Russians, Efremov was frank, honest, discon-certingly direct and meant just exactly what he said. Russian, translated directly into English, often comes through harshly, except in the hands of a master translator. When Efremov put he lovely phrase "sadyetis pazhaluista" ("would you please be seated") into his English, it came out "sit down" or "take your place." One sat! When he felt my book Vertebrate Paleozoology was too biological and not enough geological he wrote that I was a "traitor" to my profession. Biological analogies and abstractions were to his strictly materialistic mind idealistic fantasies, anathemas to the ingrained doctrines. Oddly, in his writings, he used them. As our friendship ripened, many contradictory ideas emerged and some of his basic ideas were quite alien to me. We both enjoyed trying to sort them out, to see if they could be reconciled. It was refreshing that Efremov's thoughts were put forward in his blunt way and not couched in the confusing jargon of ideologies. We wondered if our concepts, his deeply rooted in an odd dialectic and mine in the more linear mode of western science, were really so different. In long conversations and letters, I managed to learn a lot about him, his ideas and the environment in which his ideas developed. The substance of these conversations, often flavored by a "few drops" of cognac, and his writing about ideas, under my prompting, provides the substance of the rest of this book.

Professor Efremov and I had come from very different backgrounds and I am sure that he, as I, was curious and perhaps somewhat apprehensive about what might emerge as we first met. We had, of course, come to know each other's scientific ideas in exchange of letters and papers, but even in science backgrounds and personalities carry a heavy burden in development of mutual trust and cooperation. From the time of our first meeting in the Paleontological Museum in Moscow, a strong sense of rapport developed. We both spoke of this many times later, curious about just what was involved. Whatever it may have been, as far as I was concerned, his influences on my outlooks and researches in subsequent decades has been profound. Nothing, of course, develops in a social vacuum and it was in the atmosphere of the Museum, the kindnesses of the scientists there, and the complete freedom to study the collections, that our friendship matured and explorations of each other's ideas became possible. A little background, in the sense of "my time in Moscow" during the first visit, will set the stage.


The Museum Scientists

When I first visited Moscow, the Paleontological Museum was housed in the left wing of the old Mansion of Orlov dating from the time of Catherine II. The main building was occupied by the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and the coachhouse wing housed the Paleontological Museum at one end and the Mineralogical Museum at the other. There is a new museum building now, but I miss the old one. It was in the midst of its clutter of bones and display cases that Efremov and Estemmenosuchus were juxtaposed during one of my early days studying there (Figure 20). Even at this time, Efremov had a bad heart and was spending much of his time, to the dismay of Professor Orlov, in a dacha of the Academy of Science writing novels.

Just inside the front entrance to the Museum, a giant skeleton of a duck-billed dinosaur from the Gobi Desert formed something of an arch over the door of the office of the gracious Director of the Museum, Konstantine Flerov. Beyond in the main hall, a near jungle of cases of skeletons and bones, many from the Cis-Uralian areas and some from the Gobi Desert, rose in ordered disarray This was what I had come to study. In one case, some 35 skulls of a primitive pareiasaurian reptile were stacked in a pyramidal fashion.

In this museum were the treasures of the Russian Permian which, except for the most general facts about them, had essentially been "lost" to the western world until about 1954. Since then, many other scientists have passed through the doors during their own visits (Figure 22). The main barrier, language, still remains, and few publications other than the technical Paleon-tological Journal are regularly translated into English. Year by year circumstances improve, but much of the volume and detail of Soviet day-to-day science remains obscure.

Soon after I had arrived at the Museum, most members of the staff departed for Peking, China. Professor Yuri Orlov, after meeting me at the airport, took care of all my problems and became a close friend (Figure 21). Dr. Peter Chudinov (Figure 23), who also studies Permian vertebrates, was among those who left for China, but during later years he became my close companion and guide. We became fast friends. He is a medium sized man, slender and strong, and has a "Uralian" cast to his appearance, revealing his ethnic heritage. His manner is closely self-contained and his smile slow, guided by a subtle sense of humor. His generosity in time and hospitality seemed endless. During my many visits to the Soviet Union, I came to know his wife and two daughters well, and watched the children grow to maturity through the 1960s and early 1970s (Figure 24). Peter and I still are close, but now mainly by correspondence. He was Efremov's protege and had nearly completed his major work for the Doctor's Degree (more or less equivalent to the Doctor of Science Degree in Western Europe) at the time of Efremov's death. He was left without a sponsor, and I, at his request, tried to fill in a bit by way of writing a long letter to the Institute about his work, particularly about some controversial points. How much my effort may have helped I don't know, but he did pass the rough hurdles and receive the degree.


Figure 22. Top: Field camp at the Isheevo site, source of some of the finest Permian vertebrates ever collected, in 1935. Yuri A. Orlov is seated at left. Bottom: At the entrance to the old Paleontological Museum on the grounds of the Presidium of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, 16 Leninski Prospect, in 1970. Left to right: P. K. Chudinov, L. P. Tatarinov, A. A. Viripichnikov, B. A. Trofimov, K. K. Flerov., A. S. Romer (of Harvard University, who was visiting) and D.V.Obruchev.



Figure 23. Peter Chudinov and skull of large titanosuchid reptile, a "saber-toothed" carnivore, the posterior parts of which had been reconstructed. Photograph taken in the new Paleontological Museum on the outskirts of Moscow.


Dr. V. G. Sukhanov, who has made a name for himself in functional anatomy, was a young scientist when I first was at the Museum. He was assigned to me to handle the chore of taking care of my needs for specimens, literature, papers, writing materials and so on. We, too, became friends, but somehow his rapid Russian escaped me and my English was no help to his second language, which was French. We had some long and interesting, if futile, pauses where language and pantomime all break down and the only thing to do is to say "forget it" and either walk away or try to start over. Once things get off in this direction, whether ordering wine and cheese in Greece in unfamiliar French, or tortillas and beer in Mexico, there is no momentary cure. But without Sukhanov's searches for specimens and the literature about them, my results would have been cut in half.


Figure 24. A feast at the Chudinov's apartment on Vavilov Street, Moscow. Top: Professor Efremov, in a jovial mood, and Inna Chudinova, Peter's wife. Center: Professor Orlov receiving some deep points of wisdom(?) from me. Bottom: (left to right) Peter, Yuri Orlov, I and Efremov around the bountiful table of fruit, wine and cognac.


While rummaging through collections from a choice Per-mian locality I came across some "lovely" coprolites, that is, fossil excrement or faeces. The interesting thing, beyond the rare occurrence of undigested bones and teeth, was that part of the diet of the amphibians from which they came included remains of their brothers or sisters. They were cannibals! 1 wanted to tell someone about it.

My Russian included a knowledge of good, solid expletives learned from Matthew Nitecki, of Polish origin, who learned them from his father who did not want his children to learn vulgar Polish. These got mixed up with the coprolites as Dr. Sukhanov and I discussed the day's work on the Museum floor, I told him excitedly about the coprolites,

"Coprolites?" he asked? "Shto oni?" ("What are they?")

"Coprolites," I repeated, louder.

"Ne ponimayu 'coprolites'," he came back. At this cross-tongue impass, I said loudly, as if it might help, "Iskopayamoe govno," which in Russian is the equivalent of "fossil shit." My Polish assistant, Matt, would have been proud of me. Not my Russian aide.

"Ya panimayu," he said, glancing around, red-faced and dragging me away from people who were staring.

"Coproleet!" he explained outside, for there is no "-ite" in Russian and it completely threw him.

Dr. L. P. Tatarinov, now an Academician and Director of the Paleontological Institute, is a keen, imaginative student of fossil reptiles and anatomy. The late Professor P. Obruchev, the "English-speaking" member of the staff when 1 was at the Museum, worked on the extensive collections of ancient fossil fishes. At the other end of the biological time scale was Professor Flerov, whose main area of study was Late Cenozoic mammals. Between these two extremes was the work of the dinosaur expert Dr. A. K. Rozhdestvenski. During one of our visits, my wife, Lila, spent two hours in a conducted tour of the dinosaurs with him. Both seemed to enjoy it immensely, although how they communicated without a common language I never knew. Lila can do this with faith that somehow her English will be understood, and somehow it seems to be. She is successful in all languages except French, which she knows to some degree.

Dr. M. A. Shishkin is a brilliant, hard working paleontologist who studies Triassic amphibians. With him, Dr. Sukhanov and Dr. V. A. Trofimov, I went through a microscopic display of newly acquired Cretaceous mammals from the Gobi. The materials are remarkable, but each great discovery under the scope was greeted with a typical Russian toast in cognac. The later ones looked even better than the first. Dr. A. G. Sharov was a young student of paleontology at the Museum when I was first there. He later became famous for his description of a "furry" flying reptile and a weirdly scaled lizard-like animal from Kazakhstan.

Dr., or Madam, Konzhukova, Efremov's wife in 1959, before her sad death, was an expert on the Permian and a most gracious hostess both in the Museum and at home. For the first two weeks in the Museum, with white linen and silver and Madam Konzhukova as hostess, we had tea at about 3:30 each afternoon. Cognac, of course, was optional. I rather wondered how much work went on after tea. At first this seemed the British style tea, with a long work period following, but as far as I could see, tea was rather the end of the work day at the museum. The work day seemed to start at about 10:00 A.M. I did keep on working until about 5:30 and someone always stayed to see me to my Intourist cab. I considered this a real courtesy, and still feel so. My more suspicious friends assume it was surveillance. Possible, I suppose, but I prefer to approach the world more simply, abhoring unnecessary and nonproductive suspicion. One gets burned and duped now and then along the way, but life's much more pleasant without the unnecessary paranoia.

Evenings in the Hotel Ukraine on the Moscow River were long and dull, mainly good for reading and trying to comprehend the radio piped into the room. The vast lobby with the big Intourist salon to one side and the massive restaurant to the other was the crossroads of the world at this time. The Hotel was one of the principal Intourist repositories then, with the incessant multilingual babble, a pervasive smell of sausages, and late in the evenings, the restaurant, with the band playing such favorites as Sweet Sue, it was the tourists' Moscow. Eating, beyond deciphering the endless menu, was a problem to a neophyte. If one sat at some of the tables, nothing happened. These tables, unmarked, were not being served and one just sat. After learning this I was able to rescue a few stranded Americans from this apparently odd trial by silence.

After two weeks, the teas at the Museum stopped, just when I had begun to wonder if the staff had not found a pleasant new way of life. I have been to many places, many museums, and have, as a rule, been welcomed, but the grace and cordiality of the welcome and treatment in the Paleontological Museum at Moscow has never been approached elsewhere. The teas did wonders in introducing me to members of the staff and to many little Russian ways, even though the repartee left my "schoolboy" Russian far behind. One thing I did find out was that humor doesn't easily cross language barriers.

Someone in the course of conversation had asked me if we really did have instant coffee. Being reasonably egotistical about America I answered,

"Oh yes, we also have instant tea and milk."

"How do you make it?" came the eager response.

"Simple," I said. "Just add water." But then I got carried away. "We also have instant water," I quipped.

"Shto?" burst out.

"Da," I replied, "Good for field work, when it's dry you just add water."

Well, that is not very funny to start with, but it was supposed to be. Only I knew it.

"We don't understand."

"Please explain."

The more I tried to say, "It is just a joke," the worse it got. My flat "American" pronunciation of "water" didn't help. I was not articulating, as my British friend Doris Kermack always told me. I came to feel more and more like an English friend who, soon after World War II and while sitting at my American table, told a war story which involved the punning of "WC", confusing war correspondent and water closet.

"Never," he said glumly after viewing the vacuous stares, "never have I sat through such a sticky silence."

Professor Efremov came to the Museum only occasionally, to see me. So I was given his office, or cabinet, to use for study. This was more or less on the second floor of the Museum, for there were offices on an intermediate lower level. The cabinet was a few steps down from a large rotunda covered by a glass dome skylight. I like to imagine that in the old days the people of this left wing held gay parties with wine, vodka and balalaika music for dancing. In 1950-1960 it was the meeting hall for the Paleontological Institute. Down the hall a ways, and down a few steps, was Professor Orlov's office.

The main building of the Paleontological Institute was down Leninski Prospect about two or three blocks. I rarely saw many of the paleontologists, those whose main operations were down the street. In the Museum, Professor Orlov would drop in from time to time during the day to see if all was well. More often, I would just see him pacing by, muttering his likes or dislikes of what was going on. Dr. Sukhanov would see me early each day, to see what I would need for the day, and drop by now and then to find out if all was well. Daily the custodian would shoo me out of the office, open the windows and clear the air. I smoked heavily then. Whether my attendant thought I would be asphyxiated, or what, I never did find out. When noon came, after the teas had stopped, my odd habit of noon eating was automatically catered to. The usual fare was thick cut French bread, deeply buttered and heaped high with caviar or sturgeon. Lunch was announced by a husky female custodian with a bellowed "kuschits" (pronounced as it looks, and meaning to eat). I never quite got used to it.

In Efremov's cabinet was my favorite picture of him, over my right shoulder, and an autographed picture of Gina Lolla-brigida to the side. I tried to get the story of the photograph of the movie star, but never did. One of the tantalizing things about a strange country to me is that one is never just sure what is going on; it all sort of flows by in a muddy swirl with things popping to the surface for a moment here and there. Quick, idiomatic repartee is hard to catch, but in it lies the real, underlying sense of a culture.

Later I found out that Efremov had a sense of beautiful women and a gentle eroticism, which shows up in his non-science writings. At times he asked me to send photographic magazines, with nudes in them for his son — he said. Or, he needed them for artists to illustrate his books. On the surface, Moscow seemed extremely puritanical and strait-laced. Even the fanciest nightclubs, largely for dignitaries and tourists, reflected this in their 1930s vaudeville entertainment. But this may be all wrong. After a few days or weeks in a foreign country, one seems to know all about it; after many weeks or months and successive visits, it becomes evident that the opposite is actually the case.

This first visit to Moscow was later followed by six more, mainly for study and to help our exchange program. More than anything else, these visits gave me the chance to see and talk at greater length with Professor Efremov. My first visit was made during the freeze of the cold war, during the most crucial of the Berlin crises, when Khruschev threatened to move to expel other powers forcibly by May 27th, 1959, if I recall correctly. It was worrisome. I rerouted my plane reservations to avoid East Berlin, originally my first stop.

But this crisis passed and, when I returned to Moscow later as an old, and I think trusted, friend, the tensions had eased. Yet, I never did feel them directly in Moscow, even when reading Izvestia and Pravda religiously. Instead, the atmosphere that I encountered in 1959 persisted and deepened, making study and inquiry in Moscow both pleasant and rewarding (Figures 25, 26).


Figure 25. Whether in the US or USSR, we did the same sorts of things — we hunted for bones and had fun. Here, bulldozers cut down to the producing layers in the US (top) and the USSR (bottom).





Figure 26. Field camps in the US and USSR. Top: Camp on Texas field trip. Bottom: Camp at Ocher (Yeshova) site, in Russian Uralian area, where fossils were prepared at the time they were excavated.





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