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The Russian Fossil Hunter

© Автор: Моисей Наппельбаум, 1938 год

Grigory Perelman ranks ninth on the list of "One hundred living geniuses" compiled by the British newspaper The Telegraph, and is known worldwide as a phenomenally talented mathematician. In his homeland, however, he is famous not so much for having found an original method for proving Poincaré's hypothesis, as for having rejected a prize of one million dollars. And in the history of Russian science, this is not the first time such a situation has happened.

In 1943 the founder and first director of the Paleontological Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Alexey Borisyak, received the Stalin Prize of 100 000 rubles for his many years of outstanding services to science. To assess the scale of remuneration we can specify that, for example, Joseph Vissarionovich's salary was 20,000 per month: he held two positions (Secretary of the Central Committee and Chairman of the CPC) and for each in the postwar years he was credited 10,000 rubles. And the average monthly salary of engineers and technicians in the same period was up to 1,200 rubles.

In spite of the fact that this was an income for about seven years of work, the war situation and a serious illness (the scientist was diagnosed with tuberculosis as a student), Alexey Alekseyevich decided to transfer the prize awarded to the "Defense Fund" of the USSR, aka the "Red Army Fund". During the Great Patriotic War, benefactors transferred voluntary donations for the needs of the front to the accounts of this non-profit organization. While Perelman's refusal of funds opposed unscrupulous methods and violations of ethical standards in the organized mathematical community, Borisyak was driven by a sense of patriotism.

But what else could be expected from the grandson of one of the heroes of the Sevastopol campaign of 1855-1856, the Russian general Vladimir Polzikov, who led the construction under enemy fire of a raft bridge across Sevastopol Bay. Another grandfather of the paleontologist was the professor of Kharkov University and one of the first researchers of the geology of the Donetsk coal basin, Nikifor Borisyak. From his first ancestor, Aleksei Alekseevich inherited his ambition and willingness to sacrifice for a common goal; and from the second, the desire to study the subsoil. His parents gave the young man an excellent secondary education, and in 1891 he entered the Mining Institute, from which he graduated five years later with a gold medal and the traditional inscription of his name on the gold board of the best graduates.

© Форпост Северо-Запад

Borisyak joined the Geological Committee as an assistant (he later worked there for almost forty years). Simultaneously, the young specialist decided to supplement his biological knowledge and took a course in zoology at St. Petersburg University. The double education in geology and zoology defined the content and breadth of his future scientific activities, which centered on the history of the Earth and life on it.

Borisyak's first research works were devoted to the geology and stratigraphy of the Donbass: he conducted a survey of the northwestern margin of the Donetsk ridge and reconstructed the physical and geographic conditions of the region, beginning in the Mesozoic. On this basis, for the first time an explanation was given for the origin of the sediments that now compose the Donetsk Ridge.

© Общественное достояние

The fundamental work "Geological profile of the Izyum county" caused lively discussions in the scientific world. Using the example of one district with the original methodology, Alexey Alekseevich showed how important is the application of historical geology in describing the stratigraphy of the land. The scientist became a doctor of sciences, and in 1911 he was elected professor of the Mining Institute. From that time until 1930 Borisyak headed the department of historical geology at his alma mater, and was the dean and acting director of the Mining Museum.

When the scientist's health was still strong enough, he intensively conducted field work. In letters to his wife, he described what emotions the appearance of mining engineers in the countryside evoked at that time:

"Everyone who sees a badge on your cap starts talking and trying to get first-hand information about ores and minerals; as a result, you go to the store, and the owner, instead of giving out the goods, invites you "to drink tea" and asks you questions. And you cannot go without uniform because you will not get any good anywhere: the other day I experienced this at the post office, entering first without uniform and returning half an hour later in all the glory of my tunic."

After Donbass, he studied Crimea, where he prepared the "Crimean Sheet" of the International Geological Map of Europe. The scientist compiled stratigraphic sections of the peninsula's shores and mountains, and established that faults and shifts were of primary importance in the formation and uplift of the entire Tauris.

Alexey Alekseyevich conducted his research under the motto: "We possess one-sixth of the land and, consequently, one-sixth of the geological material, moreover, by the grandiosity and diversity of the tectonic elements, some of the most interesting in the world. We can safely say that the solution of many basic questions of geology (lies) under our feet."

However, beginning in 1912, when due to a serious illness he was no longer able to travel on expeditions, Alexey Alexeyevich turned to fundamental problems in geology. In his views on the history of the Earth, Borisyak adhered to the theory of geosynclines (formation of giant folds of the Earth's crust with their filling with marine sediments and, in some cases, subsequent uplift with the development of mountain ranges). He significantly complemented and developed it and, as a result, he came up with a coherent concept of the history of formation of the Earth's crust, which formed the basis of the repeatedly republished "Course of Historical Geology". His lectures were attended not only by students but also by established geologists and famous scientists.

© Общественное достояние

In addition to questions of tectonics and paleography, paleontology was a constant passion of the scientist. Thanks to his efforts, from a tool to identify fossil remains of organisms for the needs of geological dating, paleontology became a "real", "big" science. Today it is a modern science about the past organic world of the Earth, capable of reconstructing the state and patterns of development of former biospheres in all their manifestations. And the relevant prerequisites for this were laid just by Borisyak.

Alexey Alekseevich got interested in fossil organisms in his student years, considering the history of the Earth in indissoluble connection with the history of the development of organic life on the Earth. Even in Crimea in 1908, he began the search for the remains of ancient animals. Then, in the Sarmatian deposits near Sevastopol, he found the hipparion fauna of mammals, which included new species of hipparion (three-toed horses), rhinoceroses, giraffes, and predators.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

In the course of the study, it turned out that they were of much older origin than all of the vertebrate fossils discovered so far. Before Borisyak, mammals of the Quaternary and Upper Tertiary periods were known for the entire vast European-Asian continent, but there was absolutely no data on more distant mammals. And it was Alexey Alexeyevich who established and described a number of older faunas (communities): Oligocene, Lower Miocene, Middle Miocene and Sarmatian.

Missing content item.

He studied in detail the most interesting representatives of this newly discovered world. For example, the largest of the land mammals, "indricotherium", named after the fabulous beast of ancient Russian legends "indrika". Today its five-meter skeleton is presented in the Paleontological Museum in Moscow.


These studies provided new insights into the history of the development of terrestrial life, indicated the centers of evolution and the ways of dispersal of many groups of animals. They determined the direction of work of major foreign scientific organizations and scientists, in particular, the New York Natural History Museum. Alexei Borisyak became known as one of the greatest paleontologists of his time.

In his essays, he described the difficulties faced by "fossil hunters" at the very beginning of the 20th century, and how difficult it was to explain to local peasants the purpose of the excavations. The common people stubbornly called them "mines", because they believed that the scientists were looking not for "prehistoric" animals, but for gold. It went so far as to say that the fossils found were "concealed, broken, and forged," expecting to obtain precious metal from them.

"Only when we managed to find a pareiosaur jaw with well-preserved teeth, and then a perfectly preserved amphibian head, both the workers and the rest of the peasants were quite convinced that a bone collection was in progress. Finding a whole pareiosaur skeleton made a very deep impression on everyone!"

Borisyak was an evolutionist and, above all, he was interested in the broad picture of the evolution of the world and organisms. He understood that it was impossible to achieve success in this field for a single, moreover, seriously ill person. Therefore, the scientist sought to establish a large-scale systematic study of fossil vertebrates in the country. On his initiative, the Academy of Sciences organized many expeditions. For more than 15 years Alexey Alexeevich was the head of the Paleontological Section of Geological Committee (now VSEGEI).

©, Алексей Борисяк, 1933 год

Trying not to miss anything important, he introduced the practice of distributing discovered fossils among different specialists. This allowed everyone to concentrate their efforts on certain species, eliminating the scattered processing of extracted scientific materials. The accuracy of the biostratigraphic work has been increased so much that the type of specialization of researchers on groups of fossils became classical and is still accepted all over the world.

The mining engineer and zoologist was decades ahead of his contemporaries in understanding the role of paleontology in geological and biological research. But the necessity of its development as an independent science led Borisyak to create in 1930 a specialized institute in the system of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. To this day it remains the largest in the world and the only specialized institution in Russia dealing with the morphology, systematics and phylogeny of fossil organisms, the study of general patterns of biodiversity formation, and the construction of a comprehensive picture of the development of life on Earth.


In 2008, the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences was named after its founder. In the year of the 135th anniversary of Aleksei Alekseevich's birth, the directorate and the scientific council of the institution petitioned the Department of Biological Sciences for this. The corresponding resolution listed Borisyak's achievements, each of which would have been enough to go down in science history with triumph: "In order to perpetuate the memory of the outstanding paleontologist-stratigrapher, creator and head of the Russian scientific school of vertebrate paleontology, founder of the Russian Paleontological Society, creator and first director of the Paleontological Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences." And also the man who, in 1943 received the most honorable prize in the USSR... and passed it on, for the benefit of the country.