Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal ArtsNomina
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: a descendant of the Zaporozhian Cossack leaders Vladimir Vernadsky – the creator of the science of biogeochemistry

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: a descendant of the Zaporozhian Cossack leaders Vladimir Vernadsky - the creator of the science of biogeochemistry
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Now it is not enough to say about the profession of a person “scientist”. Which scientist, in which field of science? The competencies of a philologist, a geologist, an astronomer and a mathematician, if they intersect in some issues, are extremely general – say, is it worth washing your hands before eating.

Was it in ancient times? If a person turned out to be a lover of wisdom (in the language of that time “philosopher”), then he was already forced to love this very wisdom, like a modern man has to love a lawful spouse – not for some individual merits, but certainly in its entirety.

For example, Aristotle was noted in all branches of contemporary science – logic, physics, astronomy, zoology, botany, mechanics, meteorology, rhetoric, poetics, metaphysics, politics … His teacher Plato even accused him of inappropriate talkativeness – was he jealous?

Time passed, science developed, and one scientist’s head was no longer enough for its full awareness. The scientist-alchemist knew one thing, the scientist-astrologer – another, and the scientist-exorcist did not know either one or the other – only how to expel demons from sinners, but how to do it, noone knows …

The successes achieved in different sciences at the same time, as they became more complex, became less and less – later they would be called encyclopedists, or polymaths. Undoubted polymaths were Leonardo da Vinci, Roger Bacon, Mikhail Lomonosov … and someone else.

And for our contemporary to simultaneously achieve results in such different sciences as geology, geochemistry, soil science, meteoritics, biogeochemistry, crystallography, philosophy, mineralogy, paleontology, radiogeology, and even founded one of them – this is a great rarity.

But it is about such a person that I will try to tell you.




His father, a descendant of the Zaporozhian Cossack leaders, considered the founder of a kind of Lithuanian nobleman named Verna, who went over to the side of Khmelnitsky, but was captured by the Poles and executed. This numerous family came from his three sons, the Cossacks.

The grandfather of our hero, Vasily, served the hereditary nobility and took the surname on behalf of the founder of the clan – Vernadsky. And his father Ivan taught economics and served as an official at special assignment under the Minister of Internal Affairs with the rank of a full state councilor.

It is also interesting that grandfather Vasily’s sister was the aunt of the father of the famous writer and human rights activist Vladimir Galaktionovich Korolenko. So the author of The Blind Musician is his second cousin, although I do not know whether they maintained an acquaintance.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: a descendant of the Zaporozhian Cossack leaders Vladimir Vernadsky - the creator of the science of biogeochemistry
House on Millionnaya Street (now Khalturin Street) in St. Petersburg, where V.I.Vernadsky was born/tstu.ru

In 1863, Ivan Vernadsky had a son, who was named Vladimir. The rainy climate of St. Petersburg was not very good for the child’s health, and at the age of five, his parents transported him to Kharkov – closer to the homeland of his ancestors. He also lived in Kiev for some time.




In 1873, at the age of 10, he entered the first class of the Kharkov classical gymnasium. Is it too late for first class? According to the concepts of that time, no. They went to the first grade of the gymnasium, already knowing how to read, write and possessing a whole range of knowledge – they were tested on entrance exams.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: a descendant of the Zaporozhian Cossack leaders Vladimir Vernadsky - the creator of the science of biogeochemistry
The building of the former 1st male gymnasium in Kharkov/wikipedia.org

In his memoirs about this time, Vernadsky wrote that even then he was interested in the history of Ukraine, about which his father told not quite what was written in school textbooks. On vacation in Milan, he read in an émigré newspaper about the Emsky decree prohibiting the printing of books in Ukrainian, and studied Polish in order to read Polish books about the history of Ukraine.

By 1876, the child had grown stronger, and his father decided to return to the capital of the empire – a career is easier to get closer to the throne. He placed his son in the third grade of the First St. Petersburg Classical Gymnasium – a fairly serious and high-quality educational institution, as the name shows.

Five years later, he graduated from it, and he was in his eighth graduation – given the traditionally strong composition of the students of this gymnasium, it was not easy to achieve this. After all, a lot of celebrities graduated from it – the chemist Beketov, the writer Krestovsky and many others.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: a descendant of the Zaporozhian Cossack leaders Vladimir Vernadsky - the creator of the science of biogeochemistry
Vladimir Vernadsky, gymnasium student of the First Petersburg Gymnasium, 1878/wikipedia.org




He continued his studies at the Natural Sciences Department of Physics and Mathematics at the University of St. Petersburg. He passed the exam in general chemistry to Mendeleev. Vladimir Dokuchaev, the father of Russian soil science, became his scientific advisor, who suggested to him the topic of the candidate’s thesis.

Like many talented people of that time, he was by no means an exemplary loyal subject. He quickly became a member of the populist circle (where, by the way, he met his future wife), he was even detained by the police for participating in a student gathering.

One should not be surprised – if one of the personal acquaintances of a person is Aleksandr Ilyich Ulyanov, the elder brother of You Know Who, it is difficult even to assume that the police never detained him. It is good that his friend at least did not involve him in his conspiracy for regicide …

The university usually tries not to let go of a good student even after the end of the course. After graduating from the university, Vernadsky remained there as the keeper of the mineralogical cabinet, which is not surprising – it is with geology that most of his scientific interests are connected.

Soon the university sent him to Italy, Germany and France to prepare for a professorship. In Paris, he also managed to help his teacher Dokuchaev in preparing the “Department of Russian Soils” exposition. At the World’s Fair it was given a gold medal.




In 1890 he moved to Moscow and became first assistant professor of Moscow University, in 1898 – an extraordinary professor, and in 1902 – an ordinary professor. In 1897 he defended his doctoral dissertation, also in mineralogy.

It was not only the university career that was successful, but also the general scientific one. In 1908 he was elected an extraordinary academician of mineralogy (this is something like our corresponding member), and in 1912 – and an ordinary academician (this is like a full academician).

His political career also began: in 1906 he was elected a member of the State Council from the Academy of Sciences and universities (the elections were held according to quotas). The Duma of the first convocation was quickly dissolved, but in 1908 he was elected to the State Council for the second time, already for a long time.

In 1911, his university career was cut short by a circular from the Minister of Education, Count Kasso, banning all student gatherings. The rector and two vice-rectors filed a protest – and they were also kicked out. Then a whole group of professors, including Vernadsky, left the university.




Not doing administration – more time for science. In 1910, at a meeting of the Academy of Sciences, Vernadsky made a report “The task of the day in the field of radium”, in which he outlined a program for searching for uranium ores and mastering the decay energy of an atomic nucleus.

“In the phenomena of radioactivity, sources of atomic energy are opening up before us, millions of times exceeding the sources of forces that were envisioned by the human imagination. We look with hope and apprehension at the new ally and defender,” he wrote in 1911.

But even in the literature, the famous Herbert Wells was the first to describe the use of the principle of nuclear decay in the novel The Unleashed World, and he did this only in 1914, four years later than Vernadsky. So Vernadsky is also the founding father of nuclear power.

By the way, a little later, in January 1922, on his initiative, the Radium Institute of the Academy of Sciences was established in Petrograd. Vernadsky was appointed its director and held this position until 1939. And in 1937, the first cyclotron in Europe was built and launched at the Radium Institute.




Vernadsky accepted the February revolution and took part in it as a member of the Central Committee of the Cadet Party. When Academician Oldenburg became the Minister of Education of the Provisional Government, he invited Vernadsky as his deputy. But October 25 canceled all his plans.

The ministers of the Provisional Government were arrested for nothing, and Vernadsky did not want this at all. He left for his Poltava estate, Shishaki, and began to look for a job where he would not be immediately arrested. And the offer of such a job was not long in coming.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs under Skoropadsky, the famous historian Doroshenko, wrote: “When the Ukrainian State arose in 1918, the organizer of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences was a member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, V. I. Vernadsky”. Vernadsky became its first president.

He did a lot of organizational work, gave a course in geochemistry at Kiev University. But, in agreement with the Minister of Education Vasilenko, he did not accept Ukrainian citizenship, and when Hetman Skoropadsky offered him citizenship, he refused.


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This decision of Vernadsky often raised questions from the nationally concerned part of his fellow citizens – how is it that he does not take citizenship when the hetman himself proposes? Moreover, he speaks sharply about the members of the Central Rada, calling them students who have not completed their studies and marveling at their recklessness …

The last time this topic began to be exaggerated again after the decision to place Vernadsky’s portrait on the largest Ukrainian banknote – 1000 hryvnia. They offered alternative candidates, were outraged by the already issued note – as if Volodymyr Saint was a citizen of Ukraine …

Already used to such self-appointed credentials commissions – Internet users are not sowed, they are not reaped, they are born themselves. One such was outraged by the fact that I referred the ophthalmologist Filatov to our famous fellow countrymen. This is about a man who lived in Odessa from 1908 to 1956 – well, well …

Such was the Vernadsky man – like any major scientist, he did not trust the nationally preoccupied, and the Russian no less than the Ukrainian. Withdrew from the Cadet Party, of which he was a member of the Central Committee, in particular, because of disagreements in the position on the national question.

But in the end, reason won out: the first president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences remained on the note – he did more for the country than the crowds of loudly swearing their love to it. To love the country is everyone’s personal business, and the duty of a patriot is to do everything to be respected, and with this, Vernadsky is OK.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: a descendant of the Zaporozhian Cossack leaders Vladimir Vernadsky - the creator of the science of biogeochemistry
Banknote of 1000 hryvnia, version of 2019. Obverse/wikipedia.org




The academy created by Vernadsky did not last long – Kiev was occupied by Denikin, and it was dispersed. Vernadsky goes to Rostov and Novocherkassk, meets with Denikin, but is horrified by the results of the conversation. He goes to the Crimea, hoping to go from there to England – a cruiser is already waiting for him.

But he falls ill with typhus and a month is on the verge of life and death. They persuaded him to stay there as the rector of the Taurida University. After the Reds seized Crimea, Vernadsky manages to enroll 150 white officers in the university – it saves them from being shot.

The future does not depend on him – Cremia Revolutionary Committee sends him and a number of professors to the disposal of the People’s Commissariat for Education in Moscow. They write about him separately in his description: “Despite the great scientific merits of Vernadsky, leaving him in the Crimea is politically unacceptable”.

He was sent to Petrograd, head of the Meteorite Department of the RAS Museum. But already on June 14, 1921, Vernadsky was arrested and accused of espionage – that is, imminent execution. True, he was soon released, the then president of the Russian Academy of Sciences Karpinsky was able to stand up for him before Lenin.




In 1922, Vernadsky took part in the creation of the Radium Institute, which he headed until 1939. He organizes expeditions to search for radioactive ores. And as the head of the Meteorite Department, he seeks to send Leonid Kulik’s expedition to the site of the fall of the Tunguska meteorite.

He is sent to Paris to teach a course in geochemistry at the Sorbonne. His fundamental work “Geochemistry” is published there in French. But the term of the trip ends, and Vernadsky returns, although his son and daughter have  been abroad – his son in America became a professor at Yale University.

Upon his return from Paris in 1926, he continued his creative independent work. He formulated the concept of the biological structure of the ocean, according to which life in the ocean is concentrated in “films” – geographic boundary layers of various scales.

In 1927 he organized the Department of Living Matter at the USSR Academy of Sciences. Do not confuse him with the big favorite of the party, the pseudo-scientist Olga Lepeshinskaya – by this name he meant something completely different, the common totality of all living organisms of the biosphere of our planet.




It was Vernadsky who became the founder of the modern theory of the biosphere. In our time, the role of this doctrine is only growing in connection with the successes of ecology, for which the concept of the biosphere is a fundamental moment – without it, it is impossible to assess the impact of mankind on nature.

According to the teachings of Vernadsky, the biosphere, under the influence of the achievements of science and human labor, gradually passes into a new state. Vernadsky himself suggested calling it the noosphere. If in ancient Greek the biosphere is the sphere of life, then the noosphere is the sphere of reason.

In the writings of Vernadsky, a number of specific conditions are indicated that are necessary for the formation and existence of the noosphere:

– human settlement of the entire planet,

– a drastic transformation of the means of communication and exchange between different countries,

– strengthening of ties, including political ones, between all states of the Earth,

– the predominance of the geological role of man over other geological processes occurring in the biosphere,

– expansion of the boundaries of the biosphere and spacewalk,

– the discovery of new sources of energy,

– equality of people of all races and religions,

– an increase in the role of the masses in solving issues of foreign and domestic policy,

– freedom of scientific thought and scientific research from the pressure of religious, philosophical and political constructions and the creation in the social and state system of conditions favorable for free scientific thought,

– raising the welfare of workers. Creating a real opportunity to prevent malnutrition, hunger and poverty and reduce the impact of disease,

– Reasonable transformation of the primary nature of the Earth in order to make it capable of satisfying all material, aesthetic and spiritual needs of a numerically increasing population,

– exclusion of wars from the life of society.

The last condition was considered by Vernadsky to be especially important for the creation and existence of the noosphere.




On May 7, 1941, Vernadsky writes in his diary: “They say that the German troops are on the border. I think they will not stand on ceremony with us and will use gases ..”. Love for Stalin is a fiction that no one believes. The future is alarming. I am sure in the strength of the Russian (Ukrainian, etc.) peoples. It will stand”.

During the war, Vernadsky was evacuated to Kazakhstan. He continued his scientific work, made an important report “On the geological shells of the Earth as a planet”, and on March 13, 1943, submitted to the president of the Academy a report on the need to resume the work of the Uranium Commission.

In 1943, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, “For many years of outstanding work in the field of science and technology,” V. I. Vernadsky received the Stalin Prize of the 1st degree, half of it was handed over to the Defense Fund, and half to the family members of those killed and repressed colleagues …

The scientist’s attitude to his country became so difficult that when he returned to Moscow in 1943, he made an attempt to move to the children in the United States. But at the same time, Vernadsky wanted to remain a citizen of the USSR, and it is no wonder that, despite the visit of the US ambassador, he could not carry out his plan.

On January 6, 1945, Vernadsky died in Moscow and was buried at the Novodevichy cemetery. A monument by the sculptor Zinovy ​​Vilensky was erected on his grave. But this is far from the only thing that was done to perpetuate the memory of him.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: a descendant of the Zaporozhian Cossack leaders Vladimir Vernadsky - the creator of the science of biogeochemistry
Monument at the grave, Novodevichy cemetery/wikipedia.org





Many things were named in his honor! Two minerals are vernadite and vernadskite. The Vernadsky mountains are under the ice of East Antarctica, the Vernadsky mountain range is in the north of the Kamchatka island of Paramushir, the volcanic Vernadsky mountain in the Indian Ocean, and even a crater on the far side of the moon. You don’t need to mention the asteroid – it is almost obligatory.

The Institute of Geochemistry in the Russian Federation, the Geological Museum in the same place, the University in Simferopol, the Institute of General and Inorganic Chemistry of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, the National Library of Ukraine, a research vessel – all this bears his name.

Monuments to Vernadsky stand in the Kiev academic town, in Kremenchug, in Simferopol, in Tambov, and in Poltava there are even two of them – in the agrarian academy and the technical university. In St. Petersburg, three memorial plaques are dedicated to him at once.

In the USSR and Ukraine, postage stamps were issued, I have already mentioned the 1000 hryvnia banknote. Two feature films were shot about him – Target Selection and Nabat at Dawn, and at least seven documentaries were made. In 2013, coins dedicated to him appeared both in Russia and in Ukraine.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: a descendant of the Zaporozhian Cossack leaders Vladimir Vernadsky - the creator of the science of biogeochemistry
Ukrainian postage stamp /wikipedia.org

In general, they do not spare him honors, and there is a reason. Let’s think about it …

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