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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Alexander Lisitsyn

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Interview with Dr. Alexander Lisitsyn
By Tanya Levin
In Moscow, Russia
January 20, 1999

Transcript

Levin:

This is Tanya Levin. Todayís date is the 20th of January, 1999. And this is an interview with Alexander Lisitsyn. What is your patronymic?

Lisitsyn:

Alexander Petrovich.

Levin:

And where were you born?

Lisitsyn:

I was born in the central part of Moscow in the Orlaf district. It is a short distance to the area where was born Leo Tolstoy and Eugenov, famous names in Russia.

Levin:

When were you born?

Lisitsyn:

3rd of July, 1923.

Levin:

And when did you become interested in science, in studying science?

Lisitsyn:

Oh, itís a complicated history, but before the War, I was a student for the Moscow Geological Prospect Institute. Because my uncle was famous geologist in the southern part of Russia, in Novocherkassk. He was a professor of the Novocherkassk University, yes.

Levin:

What was his name?

Lisitsyn:

His name is Konstantin Ivanovich Lisitsyn. And my dream was continue his activity in field of — learn geology, yes, and before the War, I was a student of the Moscow Geological Prospective Institute. And in the period of war, I was a navigator for long range aviation, yes, bombers for the all the time of War. And after the War, I was a civilian navigator and continue our education at the Moscow Geological Prospective Institute. And in 1950 I finished education and after it I changed my interests for marine geology.

Levin:

Why?

Levin:

Oh because it was a time when preparation for the famous cruise of the Vitvaz. It was big size ship. Dr. Zhivago maybe told you about Vitvaz. Vitvaz was one of the biggest ships for the marine research. Water displacement was approximately 6,000 tons, yes. And it was a very uncommon and very interesting. That after the War, all war destroyed in Russia, you know, terrible. And people were killed and so on. And economic was destroyed, but Communists support science. It stench, but I donít know why. And it was this ship, she was built in Germany, and it was disaster reparation part of the German fleet to the Russian. And after it, in Russia, as the ship was built, thatís maybe 100 person, and it was a first big size ship special for marine research. And idea of this ship is floating scientific institute. And 70 scientists worked together at each cruise, yes. And it was one of the best ships for the Geophysical Year, yes. And of course, it was a very important step in development of geology. And there might be the first serious step for development for marine geology. And I was invited to the Institute of Oceanology.

Levin:

By who?

Lisitsyn:

Because I had communication of the people in this institute, and besides of which, it was a new field and coming. And they believed that aviators are a good — and maybe since itís an aviator and navigator and geologist, it is good for developing marine geology. But it is joking. But I donít know why, but I was invited in this institute personally by Ivan Dmitrievich Papanin. He was the chief of famous expedition at the North Pole, North Pole Drifting Station Number One. He was the leader of this expedition. And founder of our institute was Shirshov. Shirshov was the second man in this famous Drifting Station Expedition. He was a planktologist. In total this expedition, I include four mans. One for regular communication, one for plankton, another one for geophysics, and one was Popanin as the leader of this. And together with Popanin and Shirshov weíre beginning marine geology here. And I was involved in many expeditions of Vitvaz, and after it, I was sent to the Antarctic for International Geophysical Year, yes.

Levin:

Before we talk about that, about your schooling in the university, you were at the Geological Prospect Institute; did you have classes in many different fields?

Lisitsyn:

Yes, but not for marine geology.

Levin:

But for science and geology?

Lisitsyn:

No, no, no. Because it was the first steps in this country, marine geology I mean, and we developed marine geology at the Vitvaz in the Antarctic, and after it, in deep-sea drilling project. And I was a diver for Mare Piscis Deep Diving System, and so on. But it was as a first steps. And a leader of our small group, it was only five persons for marine geology here. It was in the Ď50s. The leader was Professor Bezrukov his portrait is here, Bezrukov. Bezrukov, he was a fantastic good man. And another one is Dr. Petilian. He was a marine geologist. And I was sedimentologist, yes. And beside of it, I was a man who developed a study of the suspended matter, as a source of my bottom sediments, suspended matter. And out of those, in Archian area. It was also the suspension in the atmosphere, yes. Okay and your interest is about geophysical year.

Levin:

Mm hmm [yes], but also Iíd like to know a little bit about where you were coming from when you got to the IGY. In your classes, did anyone talk about the theories of the way the Earth was put together, the way it worked? Did you learn about Wegenerís hypothesis?

Lisitsyn:

Yes.

Levin:

What did your professors say about this?

Lisitsyn:

Oh, you know that in this country we have gigamony [?] of the fixisms. It was because we have a very strange system of administration of geology in this country, Minister of Geology. And it is an administrative ministry and is very prepared official point of view, yes. And it was very a complicated for us because I was involved in propaganda for the plate tectonics together with zonashine. My article is included in this book also, yes. And we had terrible struggles against official fixism point of view. But for this purposes, we are at a nice special school for marine geologists in Gelendzhik. Gelendzhik it is a small town at the shore of the Black Sea, yes. It is a small branch of the Institute of Oceanology at the Black Sea in Gelendzhik for local research and so on. And we organized this school. It is a name might be not official, but might be itís Umbrella, Umbrella Against of Ministry of Geology. And each two years, we organized this school special for study in details and for discussing new data, which was the work in this country, for support of the plate tectonics.

Levin:

What years were these about? Were they in the Ď50s?

Lisitsyn:

No, it was the last of late Ď60s.

Levin:

And were you also using data that was coming from other countries?

Lisitsyn:

Yes. And we invited Le Pichon and Vaquier and another from — our first one was a United States and a place in Germany and so on.

Levin:

From Harry Hess?

Lisitsyn:

Yes, yes.

Levin:

Did they come? Did any of them come?

Lisitsyn:

Yes, yes they come. We had a sometimes one lecture, sometimes we discussed new data, unpublished and so on. And so it was very interesting for us. And after it, we organized several joint expeditions to the Carpathian Mountains and Kokozus [?] and Crimea together with our German and French colleagues, yes. And after it, another expedition in Alps and Pyrenees in France, yes. And with very interesting results, and we published a special atlas and book about Pangaea, about it.

Levin:

Did you think most of your data corroborated with it?

Lisitsyn:

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Levin:

Did any not?

Lisitsyn:

We compare our data, yes, our data with local and regional geologists at Kokozus and in Crimea and Carpathian with data of our foreign colleagues. And the general conclusion was that plate tectonics is excellent and that itís a real science, yes. And you know that we continue our school of marine geology, yes. The official name of this school is International School for Marine Geology. And before each meeting, we published several volumes of the thesis. This is the thesis of the school number 11, in two volumes.

Levin:

Was it difficult to get these published because of the official declaration?

Lisitsyn:

Yes, yes, yes, absolutely.

Levin:

How did you get these published?

Lisitsyn:

Itís not a problem for us here.

Levin:

And this declaration that was put out by this —

Lisitsyn:

If you want, I will present it for you, this volumes.

Levin:

Oh, thank you. The Ministry of Geology, was it as serious as the operation against —?

Lisitsyn:

I will publish first this umbrella of the Russian Academy of Science. Itís an independent organization, independent from Ministries of Geology and Government and so on and so.

Levin:

But was this declaration that they did put out, was it as difficult to work with as it was for the geneticists?

Lisitsyn:

Yes.

Levin:

When they said that Lysenko was correct Mendov was not correct. Did you have that type of problem?

Lisitsyn:

You know, this problem was associated with my family, because my father was a professor for genetics and he was a man who prepared many new kinds of the culture such as wheat and corn and so on and so on. And he was one of the first professors who was against of the Lysenko, together with Vavilov. Vavilov many times they visited our house, and I remember him personally.

Levin:

What was he like?

Lisitsyn:

Yes, and another was Professor Prianchik, who also was a good scientist who was against of Lysenko. You know it was a big group of real scientists who were involved in struggle against of Lysenko. But you know, while finished my father died, heart attacks, yes, and another Professor Zhebrok was had the terrible troubles and died in jail, yes. But time of Stalin and time of Lysenko was finished, yes. And you know it was a new state in development of our country. We was very lucky that we can develop marine geology on the independent base in good collaboration with our foreign colleagues. And these colleagues in Ministry of Geology also, but unofficial base, on the secret, best alone communication. But you know, this activity was very important, because it was the same as the influence of water and the hot sugar. And every day, many peoples changed point of view for plate tectonics. And I remember a meeting in Minsk. It was during a meeting of scientists of Academy of Science and Ministry of Geology. And Minister of Geology for the first time declared that plate tectonics is very important, and maybe it is a new way, a new branch for development of Tectonics and so forth, yes.

Levin:

Were these people in the Ministry of Geology geologists?

Lisitsyn:

He was a geologist and Minister of Geology.

Levin:

So they were politicians and scientists.

Lisitsyn:

Yes, yes.

Levin:

What did you hear about the geological, International Geological Congress that was —?

Lisitsyn:

Yes, I was involved in several congress in Moscow and Washington and —

Levin:

Because there was one where they said that plate tectonics could not be, because the geology of the land in Russia did not support the conclusions.

Lisitsyn:

It is a mistake, terrible mistake, yeah, yeah, yeah. And mostly it was propaganda, not real science.

Levin:

Why would fixism work for the propaganda of Russia?

Lisitsyn:

It is a problem, because it was official point of view. Itís very simply, yes, and it was associated with the famous name of many Russian scientists such as Archangelsky, and Shotsky, and Beloussov. Do you know name of Beloussov? He was a very active fixist? And it was tradition, and they believed that all was okay, yes. And you know, beside of it, it associated with discovery in field of marine geology, middle of oceanic ridges and magnetic anomalies and data of jartezig [?], data of the Deep Sea Drilling Project, and it was absolutely new data. And marine geology it was a source for this earthquake in geology, is part of geology. It was a push and destroyed a typical classical point of view. Because it was data not for land, but for the ocean bottom. But you remember that ocean bottom which is a two-thirds part of our planet, yes. The first time geologists studied it, maybe not in detail, but in general, and they find new irregularities, new data, and it was a useful step in the development of geology in total, not in geology of the land. But itís new era, geology of the planet as a total, not divided in land and ocean apart.

Levin:

Okay. And to talk a little bit more about the Vitvaz. You said there was about 70 scientists on board.

Lisitsyn:

Yes, and you know that after it, we continue this tradition and this idea of floating research institute. And now our institute is owner of the six new modern ships, the same size and bigger.

Levin:

Really?

Lisitsyn:

Yes.

Levin:

I think Russia has the largest boat, easily, of any nation. Why is it important to have such large boats?

Lisitsyn:

You know, it depends on many problems. Because big size ships or short ships, it is only one solution for the long distance for study or for long distance objects or field of research. Such as Antarctic. More than one monthís way to the Antarctic, and then one monthís another way. It is a very expensive and more cheap used not a small ship, but big sized ships. The second one. We have troubles with logistics, because fuel and food and so on in foreign countries, it was many years ago, more expensive than in Russia. And we had the troubles with to change the money and so on and so on, yes.

Levin:

Was it ever a problem to get permission to dock at a port?

Lisitsyn:

It is possible, but it was a very long bureaucracy and very long stories. But we had food and fuel for the long expedition for three months without problems and peopleís working together with equipment and group was the same thing. And as a boat of people we have our instruments for laboratory analysis, yes, and so on and so on. And you know that this idea developing now in foreign country also. First of all in Germany, they built Portastern [?], you know? And it is interesting that our American colleagues, now the same position as Russian geologists in period of plate tectonics. They are writing. And the size of the American ships is growing, but very slow. And more active was our German colleagues. They built very big size boat, Portastern with laboratory equipment at the boat, because our colleagues in France donít use shipís laboratory for analysis. They are writing when the expedition is finished and after itís a continuous study of this material at the shore lab, yes. But it is a mistake. You need to have analysis immediately. And you know, when we study bottom sediments and hydrothermal areas and ores at the sea bottom, we need to have analysis immediately, because each dive of the submersibles is very expensive, yes. Each day of the expedition also very expensive. But we donít know what we take by the submersibles, not without data analysis and so on. We need writing for maybe several months. But we have this data immediately. And we are preparing a special meeting before each dive, and for this meeting we preparing all kinds of analysis. And we collect it and press it together. And before the next dive, we discuss all details for last dive, yes. And it point us to the choice the best solution for each dive. But itís not with one example but not in detail, but I believe and I was one of the people who developed the idea of the floating institutes. And I believe it was a very good idea for future also.

Levin:

So when you have these 70 scientists on board, they stay on board the entire trip, rather than flying out and being replaced by a different team of scientists?

Lisitsyn:

It depends. Sometimes we are changing group. Sometimes all expedition will change expedition for the western part of Pacific, but at area of Fiji and Solomon Islands and Bismarck and so on. We changed the expedition in Singapore by Aeroflot. But another, for another times, we donít change it and this group continue research one, two, three months. But for the Antarctic expedition of the Ob, the first crew was 9 months, and the second one was 11 months. Itís terrible, of course, but no choice, because this is very long distance to Antarctica.

Levin:

And do you have all fields of marine science represented on this boat? Geology, and biology, and ?

Lisitsyn:

Yeah, yeah. You know that in this country we use name of the oceanology, not oceanography. What does mean oceanology? It is ideas about ocean. And oceanology include four branches: marine physics, marine chemistry, marine biology and marine geology.

Levin:

And so we were talking about the different fields that were on the boat, the different disciplines. Did that make for a close-knit operation?

Lisitsyn:

Typical is expedition would have between ten and 15 groups, scientific groups. And itís included not all branches, but sometime each branch divide into several smaller group. Maybe physics is special for dynamics, another one for temperature and salinity, and maybe hydrochemistry, and so on and so on. But the choice and the composition of these groups depends on the general idea. And we have a general idea maybe a study of the back arch system, yes. And after it, you are the leader of this expedition and we invite specialists for mathematics groups, specials for geophysics, and so on and so on, itís your choice. Okay.

Levin:

And who decides these funds.

Lisitsyn:

Leader of the expedition. It is his choice.

Levin:

And do the different branches cooperate closely?

Lisitsyn:

Yes, yes, yes, yes. For the solution of this general problem, yes. And we prepare special equipment for the study of the sea water, for geophysics, and so on and so on.

Levin:

And you said that it wasnít a problem to get permission to dock at a port at a different country except you had to go through the bureaucracy.

Lisitsyn:

It was a starting period and it was maybe in the Communist period in our country, because it was time of Cold War, yes. And sometime we had troubles, because local newspaper and propaganda developed ideas that weíre often these terrible spies, yes. And it was dangerous for country to invite Russians and ships and so on and so on. But now weíre long distance said it was incorrect.

Levin:

But then was it easier to get permission from countries that were sympathetic to the USSR, like Chile during Allende or Cuba?

Lisitsyn:

Sometime itís a very complicate, not for Cuba or maybe with various strong bureaucracy for the Norway maybe, yes, I donít know why. And beside of which, for Japan and practically no troubles for the United States, and for Germany, but itís depend on maybe the level of bureaucracy. If itís France, also a very strong bureaucracy in France, traditionally.

Levin:

And how were you invited to go to IGY? Who invited you to go to the expedition?

Lisitsyn:

Chief scientists or leader of expedition. And for the last maybe ten or maybe 15 years, it is tradition for us invite for our foreign colleagues for expedition with equipment, with ideas, with qualification, yes. And in our last expedition, we had sometime 30 percent of foreigners, yes.

Levin:

From what areas?

Lisitsyn:

Oh for our expedition to the western part of the Pacific, this near it was crews of Keldysh. Itís a big size ship with the submersible Mir named Keldysh. They invited our colleagues from Canada, a group from United States from Hawaii, Alexander Malahav, and group from Australia, yes. Kisrook and Beans from geological survey of Australia, and group from Tasmania, yes. And beside of which, several colleagues from India and one colleague from Czechoslovakia, of course. It was a very good team, very active and we had no troubles.

Levin:

Did you have troubles communicating with language?

Lisitsyn:

No, no, no, no. You know, our English you see is not really improved, but enough for scientific communication.

Levin:

It is interesting that you mentioned the Indian that was on board. Did you do more work with that part of the world with scientists from India during the International Indian Ocean Expedition?

Lisitsyn:

Yes, yes, because our Vitvaz was involved in International Indian Ocean Expedition. And she was one of the biggest ships for the International Expedition. And you know, in Russia was published atlas for the Indian Ocean International Expedition.

Levin:

Did you get, you got maps from Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp to put in —?

Lisitsyn:

Yeah, Bruce Heezen was my personal friend. I visited him at his private house several times. And while I lived in his house several days, and heís a very top person.

Levin:

What did you think about their maps?

Lisitsyn:

I believe it is excellent maps, very impressive.

Levin:

Did you have any questions about some of the ways they drew them?

Lisitsyn:

Oh, of course, and we discussed this question with Bruce Heezen many times, yes. But every day, we have new and new data, and every day we need change maps, it is normal. Itís all right.

Levin:

And when you worked on the Indian Ocean Expedition, you worked on it?

Lisitsyn:

Yes. Because at the Ob expedition, we started southern part of the Indian Ocean. And the first time we had a cross-section from the Arctic — from Antarctica to the Calcutta yes. This approximately 70 station, oceanographic station, the study of marine geology and suspended material and atmosphere and biology and so on and so on. Itís a full oceanological cross-section. And we published it. And the data was included in many atlases and books and so on.

Levin:

Did you hear about that one of the plans of the year was to help the people of the third world in that region? To help them find natural resources like fish to help them?

Lisitsyn:

Yes.

Levin:

You heard about that?

Lisitsyn:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Levin:

And do you think it was successful in that respect?

Lisitsyn:

I hope so, yeah.

Levin:

What was it like to work with the scientists in that region? Did you have some Indians on board Vitvaz, or [???]?

Lisitsyn:

[inaudible]

Levin:

On your boat, on the boat.

Lisitsyn:

They had a convalescent together with Norwegians and Muslims in Arctic.

Levin:

Norwegians?

Lisitsyn:

Yeah, yeah, mostly in Arctic.

Levin:

In Arctic. But did you have some of the Indian scientists [???]?

Lisitsyn:

Ah, Indian scientists, because Indian scientists invite us in expedition of India Institute of Oceanology of Indian Gua [?], yes and mostly for geophysics, yes. And we met Indian scientists in our cruises, yes, for the Indian Ocean, but for the western part of the Pacific Ocean also.

Levin:

Did you notice a difference in the equipment or the ideas of the scientists in India?

Lisitsyn:

No, no special difference, because they use practically the same equipment. And mostly they was educated in western countries, yes. And no troubles.

Levin:

And okay. And your personal work that you did in the International Geophysical Year, you were on the boat. You were on the Ob?

Lisitsyn:

Yeah.

Levin:

Okay. And what was your particular study that you did?

Lisitsyn:

I was leader of the group of marine geologists for group expedition. And Dr. Zhivago was a participant of my group. And we published maybe 100 articles about it. A part of this article was translated. And the part it was published in Russian and I personally, I published ten monographs, and five monograph was translated in England, and one monograph it was translated in Japan. And total it is the result of our research in the Geophysical Year and later. But on the boat of Vitvaz, I began my research in the Far Eastern seas. It was the first cruise of Vitvaz in Sea of Vohotsk in 1949. And I was a young scientist for this expedition. And after it I continued my research for the Bering Sea, five cruises. Thatís the Bering Sea at the Vitvaz. And results was my book about process of sedimentation at the Bering Sea. It was published in Russia, big size book. And after it was translated in Israel into English and it was published in United States.

Levin:

I was interested in this idea of the floating laboratory that you helped create. What do you think about the idea of sea laboratories, which are stable stations that are put on the sea floor, where scientists live for a long period of time?

Lisitsyn:

You mean idea of Cousteau, and his group. Yes, itís a good idea, but unhappily, very expensive. And many years ago, we had this kind of laboratory at the Gigilinrig at the depth several thousand meters. And the resources this lab are continue one or two years with very interesting results. And they started the mostly new shore processes, suspended material, influence of the sea waves, yes, and so on.

Levin:

Is there anything written about that?

Lisitsyn:

Yeah, but mostly in Russian.

Levin:

Was it the Russian Navy that was helping?

Lisitsyn:

No, no it was belonged to the Institute of Oceanology.

Levin:

Okay, thank you very much for the interview.