Vitaly Krivenko of the Russian Federation -- an interview

02/02/1999

Vitaly Krivenko, Russian Federation

An interview by Katerina Pavlova

arranged by Wetlands International - Russia Programme

 "It’s a shame, that sometimes the subjects that we study are characterized by periods longer than our lives. Such situations demand another type of explorer – a pioneer and adventurer."

One can use these words to characterize Vitaly Grigorevich Krivenko. His work is a continuation of the best traditions of Russian scientists, who used to attain global, synthetic attitudes to the subjects that they studied. V. G. Krivenko has good reasons to call L. N. Gumilev and A. L. Chizhevsky his spiritual teachers. Having perceived their ideas about the link between award-kriv1.jpg (11203 bytes)electromagnetic fluxes in space and life on Earth, he applied them to the dynamic of wetland ecosystems. V. G. Krivenko combines deep understanding of the laws of nature with an exceptional knowledge of his own country, which makes him one of the leaders of Russian environmental science and helps to form a reasonable strategy for wetland protection all over the country. But what has his life been like? Our correspondent Katherine Pavlova tries to find it out.

KP: The Volga delta became one of the first three Ramsar sites in Russia. This coincidence looks highly symbolic, as from the very beginning your life has been connected with the area. So, it seems you feel at home in wetlands?

I grew up in a suburb of Astrakhan, which was a hundred kilometers from the Volga delta. Not far from our house there were a lot of lakes, where as child I spent all my time. We rambled through the canes, caught fish, and then, when I was fourteen, I started hunting. At that time I understood what it was like to be alone with nature. I became a part of the world where fish plashed at dawn, ducks flew, and herons cried. And I already knew that all my future life would be connected with nature and, of course, with wetlands.

I returned to the Volga delta only in 1965, after I graduated from Irkutsk school of hunting. The expectation of spending most of my time going on expeditions was not frightening for me. On the contrary, it seemed very attractive. After I came back to my hometown, the Astrakhan union of hunters, which owned vast hunting grounds in the area, offered me the position of a director. The chairman of the union was a wise man. He told me: ‘I see, you are interested in science, and we offer you a practical job. But no one can prevent you from combining both careers.’ So I took over five hunting grounds, which included almost 70% of the territories of the Volga delta. My duty was to conduct water bird counts, but I also started some projects to carry out inventories of wetland sites. Three years later I got my PhD degree.

I owe a lot to this period of my life. The Volga delta near the mouth is a sea bay, which is 40 km wide and 250 km long. This is a country of canes and open sand beaches where it is very difficult to orient yourself. It is the land where you either acquire good physical conditioning and the skills of surviving or you leave. But those who stay become true ‘sea dogs’. I stayed. I learned a lot from local huntsmen. They were really good at their jobs and had a deep understanding of nature; they did not work just for a salary, for them the job was a calling. I had to travel a lot through the wetlands, to be able to orient myself and to anchor in stormy weather. All together it was a very good school for me.

In 1969 I had to leave this land of ‘tough guys’, as I met my future wife. At that time she studied in Moscow State University, so I had to move to Moscow.

KP: Vitaly Grigorevich, the range of your scientific interests is unusually wide, and so is the geography of your expeditions. How did your travel influence your scientific views?

To answer your question I would tell you the whole story of my life. But in a few words the events unfold in the following way:

As students we often went to practical studies. In 1963, after the second year at the high school, I came to Kazakhstan, to Narzum reserve. At that time, the research & development director of the reserve, K. F.Yelkin, organized an expedition all over northern Kazakhstan. There is a geographical term for that – the Turgay depression. It is an area of lowlands, where in prehistoric times there was a sea channel connecting the ancient West Siberian Sea with the South Sea. Where once there was a sea, now there is a gigantic wetland site. I spent two years of practical studies there.

In Kazakhstan the water level of lakes varies greatly from year to year. One year can be very dry and when you come there another time, there is a flood. These changes in the conditions of wetland and water birds captivated my attention. Since then I have always been interested in the dynamic of water ecosystems. I wanted to understand the rhythm of these oscillations, and the laws they obey.

Later I worked in the upper reaches of the Lena, on the banks of Lake Baikal, in Kalmykia. After 1969, when I started working in the Central Laboratory of hunting grounds and reserves, I have been to the foothills of the Caucasus, Western Siberia, and Taimyr.

During one season I managed to visit several sites. In March I was working in the Volga delta, at the end of May I was in Western Siberia, and at the end of July I was leaving for Taimyr. I managed to stick to this timetable for three years in succession. I could see a great variety of landscapes and ecosystems. I began my journey in a desert and finished it in arctic tundra. Such a style of life gives you a lot of impressions and allows you to develop a wide understanding of the global laws of nature.

KP: In order to understand the global laws of nature one should attain a synthetic attitude to science, because this level of generalization is only possible for those who have wide knowledge in different areas of science. Who were the people whose ideas helped you to form this attitude?

I was very lucky both with my teachers and with my books. When as a student I was in Narzum reserve, and in the library there I found a book by A. V. Shitnikov which was devoted to cyclic changes in wetland sites. In the book I first met a conception that the dynamics of water level relate to the long-term changes of the climate. I thought it very interesting and important. But even now we do not use the conception of the century dynamic of the climate, and it is really a pity.

My teachers gave me some books by A. L. Chigevsky. Until the end of the 1980s those books were not widely known in our country. And when I got to know his conception that there is a link between space and the biosphere, I perceived these ideas at once. From his book I learned about another remarkable Russian scientist, M. A. Bogolepov. Even on the threshold of the 20th century he spotted the link between climatic cataclysms, which influence every aspect of life on Earth, and events in space. He had a brilliant idea that not only the sun has its impact on the earth, but so too does the wider electromagnetic activity in space.

I have also read a lot by L. N. Gumilev. All these people saw events on a large scale, and I tried to apply what I learned from their books to the research of wetland ecosystems.

KP: Did you manage to unite your conceptions into a logical system?

I think that, in my book, I achieved this goal in application to vertebrates and wetland ecosystems.

A wetland site could be compared with a man. It forms, matures, and than starts to decline, and almost dies in the end. But there come some forces, which are able to regenerate it. If we use global analysis here, it would be possible to state that wetland sites have a polycyclic type of development.

There is another example. Many scientists consider the enlarging of areas of animals, which we see nowadays, to be caused by the anthropogenic pressure or by the change of the climate, which has happened in recent time. But the vast majority of specialists do not pay attention to the fact that this global warming is a part of a thousand-year trend. I think that a conception of cyclic dynamic of the climate of the northern hemisphere gives us a clear explanation of all these events. If you handle all the problems as a whole, you are more likely to achieve an understanding of what is happening and to form the effective strategy for environmental protection. Now it is obvious that we should support the cyclic development of wetlands. We have also changed our views on the dynamic of the water regime in river mouths.

KP: You are not only a well-known scientist but also a founder of your own scientific school. Many hydrologists, climatologists, zoologists and even economists consider you to be their teacher. How did it happen?

I had a lot of teachers, and now I have a lot of students, who understand our problems and try to find the ways to decide them.

When I came to work in Moscow, I worked under the leadership of the well-known scientist V. F. Gavrin. After his accidental death in 1975, I took over the department, and since then I have had to plan the work not only for myself, but also for the whole group of researchers. We were mainly busy with protection of fishery species. Our laboratory was the only scientific center of this kind in the whole country. So I started organizing the work in Western Siberia, in the Caspian region, and at the foothills of the Caucasus. I myself did not make it to the Far East, but several researchers from our laboratory worked in Kamchatka and in the Maritime Territory. At that time I gained some experience in the organization of environmental protection. In 1982 I started work at the Institute of Environment Protection, where I have been working ever since. It is not easy to say who is my student and who is not. There were seven people who got their PhD under my supervision, but there were also a lot of others whom I helped with some advice. I often consult people who come from reserves all over the country. Perhaps it is possible to say that a new school is formed now.

KP: What was your reaction to the international prize, the Ramsar Award, you were recently awarded?

I accept the reward on behalf of my country. It is an acknowledgement of all the efforts of many people who do their best to protect wetlands in Russia. We are also very grateful to Secretariat of Ramsar Convention. Their help was decisive in many aspects. The Secretariat has very important experience and we often use it in our practice. We still have a lot to do, and for me the main aim is to protect wetlands in Russia in accordance with the terms of Ramsar Convention.

-- translated from the Russian original by Tatiana Kitaina

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