Lives of the Naturalists: A profile of Vadim Birstein, Page 1
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I wrote this as a profile for the New Yorker over the summer of l999, but it never ran, for reasons that illustrate the problems I have even with as fine a publication as the New Yorker. Some of this had to do with Vadim himself, an unusually multi-dimensional individual and in this sense an “inconvenient person,” for a profile. Magazines have trouble with stories that have more than one idea or dimension. The writer who tries to do justice to the true complexity of his subject does so at the peril of being “all over the place,” a bad quality in journalism and one that has often been applied to me, which I’ve always been rather proud of. It certainly describes me  in term of my globetrotting, but also my approach to writing, which is “loopy,” (another bad quality), i.e. “non- linear.”   Furthermore, the American Museum of Natural History  wouldn’t talk to me because of the lawsuit, so we couldn’t get their side of the story.  On top of this it became clear that while Vadim’s colleagues all said that his science was absolutely sound, very few of them liked him very much. Some felt that he should have given the method to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is after all the agency charged with monitoring the  caviar trade and thus doing what it can at the consumer end to thwart the illegal harvesting of the particularly endangered species of sturgeon. Vadim had said that he would share the method gratis with institutions involved in the conservation effort, but in the end I guess he understandably wanted something for his efforts, and the method applies to all species and is thus potentially very valuable. Some of Vadim’s colleagues felt that he was a pain in the ass, but I found him a man of tremendous intellectual integrity. I also think, however,  that being a creature of the USSR, where paranoia was the norm, he brought some of it with him into exile and had he not had a tendency to project this paranoia into his dealings over here, they   probably would have turned out much better for him. This said, I remain extremely fond of him and consider him out of the most interesting people I have ever had the privilege of interacting with. I find  the term he uses to describe himself, a neudobnyi chelovek,  extremely useful for describing a certain type of person. A neudobnyi chelovek is a troublemaker, an inconvenient person who is constantly probing and exposing things that people would rather not have to deal with. The Shamarpa, about whom I will be writing this spring, is another example of the type, and I myself identify with the term to some extent. 
       Vadim recently e-mailed me with the news that his book on the ghastly human medical experiments conducted during the Soviet Period-- The Perversion of Knowledge : the True Story of Soviet Science—has been published by Westview Press. He said that he has nothing to do with the American Museum any more, but still collaborates on scientific sturgeon work with Robert de Salle. Eric Sobel, he told me, on the night before his lawsuit was finally going to trial, was found dead in a car,  a gun in each hand and both sides of his head had been blown out. From my single encounter with Sobel, it was my impression that he was not at all the suicidal type.

Vadim Birstein : Sturgeon Geneticist, Human 
Rights Investigator, “Inconvenient Person” 

     “It isn’t easy living in this world— even in  so-called free part of it,” proclaimed Dr.  Vadim Yakovlovich Birstein  in his  heavily-Russian-accented, article-shy English. The 54-year-old specialist in the DNA of sturgeons  was contemplating the huge mess, capped by a hundred-million-dollar lawsuit, that his method for identifying species of sturgeon from a single egg of their glistening black caviar had precipitated. Vadim   (if I may, after all the time we have spent together, presume to call him by his first name) had been a  visiting scientist at the American Museum of Natural History since his arrival from Moscow in l992, and he and his colleague Dr. Robert de Salle had worked out the method  in its molecular laboratory three years ago. But now the museum  was trying to disown him.  “I’m forbidden by museum’s lawyer to meet with Robert on museum’s grounds until resolution of whole situation,” Vadim continued in a morose monotone that sounded like a Slavic version of Henry Kissinger’s. “But when that will be nobody knows. It’s absolutely weird, because we are working on three articles together. One is very important—  about cryptic, possibly new species we discovered molecularly. It looks like Russian sturgeon, ossyetra, could really be two species.” Their graduate student, Phaedra Dukakis, was shuttling documents between de Salle’s office at the museum and Vadim’s on West 59th Street.  “It’s completely surrealistic,” Vadim intoned. “How can you prevent conservation between two scientists ?”

        The world had not seemed to be giving Vadim so much trouble when I first met him, on a cruise of the Black Sea two years ago. He and I were among some 300 religious leaders, natural scientists, and environmentalists invited by Bartholomew I, the  ecumenical patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to a ten-day  floating symposium whose  purpose was to discuss how religion and science might join hands to save what remains of the Creation  and, more specifically, to come up with a plan  for restoring the acutely degraded, nearly dead body of water that we were circumnavigating. The “green patriarch” had come to believe that the Apocalypse predicted by St. John of Patmos in the Book of Revelations may already be upon us, and that it was the result of mankind’s massive failure in planetary stewardship. Vadim was invited because of his sturgeon expertise. “Sturgeons,” he told me, “were one of the glories of the Black Sea. [Note that I wrote “article-shy,” not “article-free.” Vadim does,  with no apparent logic, throw in the occasional “the” and “an.”]  There are six species in it and in the rivers that feed it and in Sea of Azov, which connects to it. During Soviet period, caviar production of Black Sea was second only to Caspian’s.” 

       Vadim and I had struck up this conservation on a shore trip to Novorossisk, half-way through the cruise. We were strolling in a grove of stunted, thousand-year-old pistachio trees.  Novorossisk is in the little stretch of the Black Sea’s coastline that has remained in Russia, or the Russian Federation, as it is now called.. The rest, at the breakup of the Soviet Union, went to Georgia, Ukraine,  Rumania, and Bulgaria, and with Turkey in possession of the southern rim,  efforts on behalf of  the sea’s stressed, vestigial  sturgeon populations, Vadim explained, are virtually impossible to coordinate.  The six Black Sea species include the three most sought-after  for caviar : the  beluga (or giant) sturgeon, the stellate sturgeon, and the Russian sturgeon, which are the sources of beluga, sevruga, and ossetra caviar, respectively. Caviar is nothing more than salted sturgeon roe. Up to fifteen percent of a sturgeon’s body weight can be roe, but you don’t know if a sturgeon has roe until you slit it open; you can’t even tell if it male or female without eviscerating it, so there terrible wastage of adults.

      As I listened to the bewhiskered, blunt-faced, then 52-year-old scientist, with his small, piercing eyes, and his tight-lipped, ovoid, vaguely piscine mouth, it occurred to me that Vadim looked kind of like a sturgeon. Don’t get me wrong— he’s a good-looking man— but it seemed somehow appropriate that he was in this line of work.  Was this an extreme case of  empathy, I wondered— a biologist coming over time to resemble the animal he has devoted his life to ? Probably not :  Vadim only got into sturgeons when he came to America, seven years ago— too little time for such a transformation.

        We walked along the Black Sea’s shore, which was littered with rusting derricks and cranes and the  listing hulls of derelict ships— deteriorating monuments to the spontaneous mass rejection of the communist system ten years ago. People here, it seemed, had just walked off the job, leaving their machines and vessels in mid-operation.    One good thing about the  drastic drop in industrial activity since the USSR’s breakup was that  factory and plant closures along the Black Sea’s rivers— the Danube, Dnieper, and Dniester—  the Don (which feeds the Sea of Azov), and the Volga (which feds the Caspian)  had  lowered their pollution levels. Vadim was hopeful that the belugas of the northern Caspian, which had not reproduced naturally in the Volga for 30 years because of its toxicity, would start spawning there again. The downside of the closures was that laid-off workers, with few alternatives for feeding their families, were turning increasingly to poaching sturgeon. 

        We spotted tossing in the surf like a toy parachute one of the disastrously successful cone jellyfish, Nemeopsis, which was introduced from the east coast of North America in  ballast water dumped into the Black Sea (in unwitting revenge, it almost seems, for the introduction into the Great Lakes of the zebra mussel from Black Sea ballast water, which has caused billions of dollars worth of damage in clogged waterpipes, encrusted shipping, etc.).  First noticed in the early eighties, the jelly has already wiped out the Black Sea’s anchovy fishery and attained a collective biomass of 9,000 million tons—  ten times the annual fish harvest of all species from the entire world. But it has no important impact on the sturgeons, Vadim told me.

         I confessed to knowing almost nothing about sturgeons, apart from the biologically nonsensical ditty of the swing era :

     Caviar comes from virgin sturgeon
      Virgin sturgeon is a very fine fish
     Virgin sturgeon needs no urging
     That’s why caviar is my dish

       Vadim told me that sturgeons belong to an  order of fish, the Acipenseriformes, that has been around longer than the dinosaurs. Throwbacks to the Jurassic, they are, as Robert Cullen writes in an  article about the Caspian Sea for last May’s National Geographic Magazine, “a cross between a catfish and a stegosaurus,” with five rows of projecting scutes, instead of the scales modern fish go in for, protecting the leathery skin of their attenuated barracuda-like bodies. The undersides of their long,  flattened snouts  bristle with whisker-like barbels which they drag along the bottoms of rivers, estuaries, and marine shallows, probing for worms, crustaeans, and other food, which they suck up like vacuum cleaners through their toothless, tubular mouths, expelling gravel and other debris through their gills.  There are 25 species of sturgeon, according to the latest thinking (which is presently being challenged by de Salle and Birstein), and two of related paddlefishes (one in the Mississippi, the other in the Yangstse). They only occur in the Northern Hemisphere;  no sturgeons swim below the Equator.  The majority are anadromous : they spend most of their lives in the ocean or at sea, and only come up rivers every few years to spawn, like the American Atlantic sturgeon, which runs up the Hudson; but some, like the Hudson’s other species, the  shortnose sturgeon, are potamodromous : they spend their whole life migrating up and down one river. Historically the two biggest species, the beluga  and the white Sturgeon of the Pacific Coast of North America, got over 20 feet long, weighed up to a ton and a half,  lived a hundred years or more,  and were among the largest freshwater fishes on the planet.   A Canadian lake sturgeon (one of the smaller species, five feet long max) caught in l952 was reputed to be 152 years old.

       The Black Sea, Vadim explained, was one of the world centers of sturgeon proliferation, but dams, pollution, and overfishing— legal and otherwise— had decimated  all six species.  By the eighties  only 300 to 1000 European Atlantic, or Baltic, sturgeons were thought to remain in the entire sea. During the Soviet era, the Black Sea’s state-controlled  caviar industry flourished, the stocks were monitored and the catches regulated. Now no one was doing that. There was only “small production, not state-controlled,”   in Rumania of caviar from the stellate and Russian sturgeons that spawn in the Danube Delta.  Poaching  was rampant on the Danube and in Ukrainian waters, at the mouths of the Dnieper and the Dniester. The Ukrainian government’s policy toward its dwindling runs of sturgeon seemed to be “to catch all they have.”

       Poaching was even more rampant on the Caspian, where the shipping and oil industries have collapsed and the former Soviet part has been  broken up into Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbajan, Dagestan, Kalmykia, and Astrakhan (only the last three of which are in the Russian Federation). Iran owns the southern Caspian, and there is no international coordination of  anti-poaching efforts  on the Caspian, either. Only 25 Border Guards police the Volga, and  many Russians on the river, which produces 70% of the Caspian’s caviar, catch sturgeon on the q.t. to make ends meet. The beaches of Kazakhstan  are full of men playing cards and tending trotlines strung with  nylon-mesh box traps known as snatchki.  When the trip-stick they have stuck into the sand is knocked over by the straining line, they know they have one. A more organized onslaught, with fleets of boats illegally netting sturgeon on the open sea, is being made by the Mafias of Azberjan and Dagestan. Two years ago in Dagestan,  Mark Jacobson reports in last March’s Natural History, “sixty-seven people were killed in a war between caviar mafiosi and local police, a clash that included the bombing of a nine-story building where Border Guards were housed.”   According to Newsweek last year, the sturgeon catch in the Caspian had gone down 90% in the last decade. Full-grown belugas are only a fading memory. The last one, a 60-year-old, 2,163 pounder, was caught in l989, stuffed and mounted in a museum in Astrakhan.  (Both banks of the lower Volga are in Astrakhan, which remains the world capital of caviar production.) Thomas Goltz, a Montana journalist traveling in Azerbajan (down the west coast of the Caspian from Astrakhan) in l991, found caviar easier to get than butter or even bread in Baku, the independent republic’s capital,  and went through a kilogram a week. In a slum of Baku (as Goltz writes in his book Azerbajan Diary)  “tons of illegal caviar were being flogged alongside any sort of gun you could ever want.”

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