150 years ago Acad. Karl Baer, a leading natural scientist of the period and founder of embryology, led his team of researchers on what has since been known to specialists in the field as the Caspian expedition. With a limited number of participants and funds, it had before it really some impressive aims and objectives. The scale and range of its studies made it one of the first comprehensive ecological research projects not only in Russia, but also in the world.
by Mikhail TSIPORUKHA, Ret. Captain 1st Class
Sailing down the Volga from Nizhni Novgorod in the summer of 1853 was a boat with members of the expedition led by Acad. Baer. As fate would have it, during the 5-day voyage the captain, and owner of the boat, fell ill with cholera. Since there were no medical establishments along the route, Acad. Baer decided to take the patient to the nearest Kazan hospital. Off the town of Sviyazhsk the boat nearly drowned in a whirlpool, but despite of all of these mishaps the leader of the party went on with his observations on the structure of the river banks, kinds of local fish, problems of navigation and other features.
When they reached Kazan, the patient was rushed to the hospital where he died shortly after. And even despite the outbreak of a cholera epidemic on the Volga, Prof. Baer decided to continue his journey. The decision was quite in keeping with his character in general - while pursuing his studies in various parts of Russia and the surrounding seas over many years he remained as persistent and selflessly dedicated as ever.
In 1812, for example, he - a 20 year old student of the Medical Department of the Derpt (now Tartu) University volunteered into the army which was fighting against Napoleon's invasion. During the French siege of Riga he worked in a field hospital even despite an epidemic of typhus and that nearly cost him his life. After the liberation of Russian territories from the French invasion he returned to Derpt in the middle of January of 1813 and resumed his college studies which he still combined with work at a military hospital.
After his outstanding earlier studies in embryology and zoology, Dr. Baer focused on the egg of the mammals and the spinal structure of vertebrate embryos. He was also in charge of comprehensive studies of the Russian North-a big and economically important region of the country. And it all started with a proposal in 1851 by Cabinet member, Count Pavel Kiselev, who asked the Academy to study the state of commercial fishing on Lake Chudskoye and off the Baltic coast. Being informed of the forthcoming expedition, Dr. Baer asked his superiors to be included. He wrote: "I am keen to trace practical applications of the findings of natural sciences." Working together with his assistant Alexander Schultz, an official from Pskov, he coped with his task in a brilliant way, pointing out that such studies "should be regarded as preparations for surveys of the major fisheries on the Caspian, which are of major national economic importance. There have long been complaints about their decline, and repeated surveys have also revealed many related abuses."
Attempts to improve the situation on the fisheries by means of legisla-
tion failed because, as Baer pointed out, "some prominent personalities became the secret owners of the fisheries, while others received big fisheries as gifts from the government."
Cabinet Minister, P. Kiselev, decided to appoint Dr. Baer head of the Caspian expedition and the appointment was supported by a meeting of the Academy of Sciences.
As for the scientist himself, he said his task consisted in "getting a comprehensive picture of the state of the Caspian fisheries, investigating complaints about their deteriorating conditions and, finally, suggesting protective measures."
...From Kazan Baer, accompanied by Dr. A. Schultz and two of their colleagues, traveled on horseback to Samara. There they were joined by a botanist Nikolai Danilevsky (Master Sc.), a graduate of the St. Petersburg University. In 1849 he was jailed for several months in the Petropavlovskaya Fortress as a member of the antigovernment Petrashevsky Circle * and was later exiled to Vologda and then to Samara. As for Dr. Baer, he was quite pleased with his choice of Danilevsky who became his chief aid who paid special attention to ichtiology (later on he published his study disproving Darwinism and his famous monograph "Russia and Europe").
On their way to Astrakhan the expedition visited the salt lakes of Elton and Baskunchak from where they sailed on two boats down the Volga to Astrakhan. On their way they inspected big fishing communities ("vatagi") and their catch. On August 12 the expedition reached Astrakhan from where its members made inspection tours to fishing communities in the delta of the Volga. In September Dr. Baer sailed across the Caspian to the Novo-Petrovskaya Fortress (now Fort-Shevchenko) on the Mangyshlak Peninsula. He remained there for two weeks because of an inflammation of his foot. But the ailment did not stop him from gathering shell-fish on the shore and making observations on marine erosion and changes in the sealevel. He was assisted by the Commander of the fortress and Dr. Schultz and Dr. Danilevsky were investigating the Tyuleniy islands with their seal-rookeries.
On their return to Astrakhan, Dr. Baer continued inspections of fishing communities in the Volga delta and on the seashore, studying the catches by different fish varieties and their size. Shortly after he took a sledge-ride of thousands of kilometers, first to Moscow and then on to St. Petersburg in order to visit his family and submit a report to Minister Kiselev with his preliminary suggestions on putting the Volga fisheries into order.
On March 1, 1854 Dr. Baer traveled back to Astrakhan along the banks of the Volga, collecting data on the latest catches and damage done by wasteful exploitation of natural resources. He took special interest in the migration of the Caspian herring which "rushed up the river as mad" so that the locals were even afraid of cooking it and used only its liver oil. Thanks to Dr. Baer the fish was reestablished in the local rations after a series of his articles in the local press. Thanks to his efforts the total volume of its sales reached 10 mln pcs in 1855 and 50 mln pcs in 1857 at unprecedented prices.
In September 1854 Dr. Baer made another visit to the Novo-Petrovsky Fort and investigated the biggest seal-fishery on Kulaly - the biggest island of the Tyuleniy Archipelago as well as several other sites. After that he made a tour of inspection to the fisheries of the town of Guryev in the estuary of the Ural. Returning to Astrakhan on board a small steamer on October 13, he traveled despite stormy weather to the Chechen Island in the Volga estuary where he conducted ground measurements and visited local fishing communities.
Later that autumn Dr. Baer inspected salt lakes in the local steppes to the west of the Volga delta, taking special interest in mounds between them. These hummocks, consisting of sand and clay crumble, which are up to 45 m high and 200 - 300 m wide, occur all along the Prikaspiyskaya Depression between the estuaries of the Kuma and Emba rivers (they were later called Baer ridges).
* Petrashevtsy - a youth organization in St. Petersburg consisting of Utopian socialists and democrats. - Ed .
After a winter in the capital, Dr. Baer sailed on May 15, 1855 from Astrakhan across the Caspian, visiting the cities of Derbent and Baku and landing near the estuary of the Kura in order to inspect the local fishing communities.
While in Baku, Prof. Baer was able to visit on board a steamer local islands some of which are consist of volcanic mud. After that members of the expedition traveled inland where they investigated the environs of Baku "studying local places of interest- rich oil wells, the famous 'eternal flames', oil eruptions from the sea and also a sunken old passenger ship".
Later still Prof. Baer and his team visited Lake Sevan in Armenia where the locals amused him with their unusual catches of fish and molluscs. Later on, in December of that same year, the expedition crossed the Caucasian Ridge along the Voyenno-Gruzinskaya Doroga (passage). Prof. Baer later recalled that "the road was covered with bare ice, and with most of it being inclined towards the Terek, our carriage often started sliding towards the edge of the precipice into which it was ready to drop. The tragedy was prevented time and again by the five local Ossetin peasants, while I myself followed them at a safe distance on foot".
In winter time, it took the expedition more than a month to travel from Tbilisi to Astrakhan. At the end of the journey they had to cross the Volga to get into the city. Prof. Baer wrote in his diary: "I hired four Kalmyk peasants to carry my luggage in two hand-carts. And I myself had to walk for quite a while. And we had to make quite a detour because the ice was very thin and there were even unfrozen patches of water on our way. We went a long way upstream for our crossing, but even there the ice was cracking under our feet and even caved in off the Peschany Island. When we approached the opposite bank, a man shouted to us to stop and not to risk our lives. He said he would send us a boat through a channel cut through the ice. And I reloaded our belongings into that boat."
In Astrakhan Prof. Baer fell ill with an acute form of malaria. But the annual report of the expedition was completed and sent to the Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of State Property.
In the spring of 1856 Prof. Baer studied the valley of the Manych River as part of the geological history of the Caspian. He named a broad strip of land between the lower reaches of the Kuma and the Don - the Manych lowland - as an addition to the hydrography of that region.
In August of that year Prof. Baer sailed around the Caspian in the company of the Governor of Astrakhan, studying the coasts - beginning from the northern and eastern ones, then the southern "Persian" one and ending up with the western coast. They voyage began and ended in Astrakhan.
And all of this time Prof. Baer was suffering from ill health, but he went on with his studies and kept writing articles about the Caspian region. In one of them he put forward his hypothesis about the underwashing of the right banks of the local rivers, flowing along the meridian, due to the forces of inertia from the rotation of the Earth around its axis (it became a geographical law bearing his name).
Feeling somewhat better at the end of 1856 and beginning of 1857, Prof. Baer resumed his studies of the fishing communities on the north-western coast of the Caspian. While in Astrakhan he was again gripped with fits of malaria, but was able to resume his studies of the fishing communities on the Volga. He returned to St. Petersburg as late as March 14, 1857-a month and a half after leaving Astrakhan.
That was the end of the Caspian expedition which marked a whole epoch in the studies of regions of Russia. These included, in addition to geographical, biological and ecological conditions, the causes of the shrinking catches offish as well as suggestions for improving the situation.
... In our tribute to the memory of the remarkable researcher, here is a quotation from the memoirs of Acad. Philip Ovsyannikov one of his close associates: "Baer is a genius as a scientist, and he is also great as a person, because of his humane and also straightforward disposition, his love of his near ones and his constant readiness for self-sacrifice. He lived not for his own sake, or the sake of his family, but for the sake of science, his country and human civilization. He was not a born Russian, but it is seldom that one meets people who were as dedicated to Russia and its interests as he was."