Irkutsk: The Research Institute Has Survived
In Irkutsk, David and I went down to the Limnological Institute, the research center for scientists who study nearby Lake Baikal. The lake is considered a great natural wonder -- it's the world's oldest and deepest, and it holds about one-fifth of the earth's fresh water. By some estimates, up to 80 percent of the plant and animal species here are found nowhere else.
Baikal is also one of the cleanest bodies of fresh water in the world. In 1995, while on the research vessel G. Titov, Gary and I watched as a scientist lowered a white disk into the water with a length of rope; we could still see the disk plainly when it was 100 feet below the surface.
At the Limnological Institute, we asked Director Mikhail Grachev what had changed since 1995. A biochemist by training, he has a dry sense of humor: when I asked him how long he'd been director of the institute, he said, "Oh, they give shorter sentences for killing a person." Appointed in 1988, he told us he had seen many changes in his tenure.
"The first amazing thing is that we survived," he said. "And, moreover, we have become much younger. More than half of our people are now younger than 35." Grachev was clearly proud of how the institute had come through the lean years of the mid-1990s, and he told us they had in recent years acquired a fair amount of new, expensive equipment. When I asked him who had paid for it, he said, "The state paid for it. Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Putin."
Grachev went on to tell us that in general, more money has flowed into the area around Baikal. Listvyanka, a small town on the lake's shore that houses the Limnological Institute's old building that Gary and I visited in 1995, was little more than a village when we saw it then. Now, said Grachev, "Listvyanka has become successful in the market economy... There's business there now: 'Want to see the Shaman stone? No problem! I've got a boat, it'll cost you just 100 rubles!'"
"It's a bit like America at the end of the 19th century," he told us. "There are some cowboys, and some gangsters."
A stroll through the corridors of the Limnological Institute reveals dozens of young scientists, some in lab coats, working in well-equipped offices. We saw the first Apple computers we've seen in Russia, as well as a plethora of test tubes, microscopes and other research tools. At the same time, the institute still has a slightly ramshackle feel to it, with homemade posters on the walls detailing the latest scientific discoveries, and a modest café on the first floor selling fish soup for 30 cents a bowl.
Tomorrow: a report from Lake Baikal, where we're joining a scientific expedition on the G. Titov, the same research vessel we sailed on in 1995.
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Posted by: Ted | October 4, 2005 08:35 PM