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How the pilot discoverer of diamond deposits in the USSR became an outcast

Joint project of St.-Petersburg Mining museum and Forpost Nord-West.
Попугаева
© Общественное достояние

Geologist Larisa Popugayeva was not even 30 years old when she discovered the first kimberlite pipe in the USSR. This event gave rise to industrial diamond mining in the country, but the discoverer was stigmatized.

The story, in which triumph and tragedy were equally combined, began in 1923, when a daughter was born into the family of a Leningrad art critic and secretary of the district party committee. After school, the girl entered the Faculty of Geology and Soil Science of St. Petersburg State University, but with the beginning of the war she volunteered to go to the front. In 1950, she finally graduated from the Department of Mineralogy of the University.

At that time, the number one task for all Soviet geologists was the search for primary diamond deposits.

It must be said that the first diamond in Russia was discovered back in 1829. a fourteen-year-old peasant in the Perm province found it, for which he actually received his freedom. However, the next hundred-odd years, the search for crystals brought no significant success. The finds were solitary specimens. In the same Urals by 1860, only 131 diamonds were found. As a result, they had been supplied from abroad for a long time.

In the 1940s, when a number of states refused to sell the USSR stones that were a strategic raw material, the Soviet government accelerated exploration for diamond deposits. Expeditions were organized, but all the placers found were unable to meet the needs of the industry.

Природа удлиненной формы кристаллов алмаза из россыпей Урала

Leningrad specialists were united in the Central Expedition, which carried out work throughout the country. Natalia Sarsadskikh was appointed the head of the schlich and mineralogical laboratory, and Larisa Popugayeva was appointed her assistant. Together they carried out field work, lived in tents and made many kilometers of hiking routes in the Yakut taiga. They collected and washed schliches from loose sediments and crushed rocks, which were mined mainly from the bottom of rivers or on the banks, in order to find mineral satellites of diamonds.

легерь геологов
Фото © Пресс-служба компании «Алроса» . Лагерь геологов в зимней тайге

By 1953, they had identified the most promising location for research (the area of ​​the upper reaches of the Markha River in the Vilyui region of the Yakutsk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic), and a mineral, the presence of which in the rock indicated a high probability of the presence of diamonds nearby.

Pyrope is a gem found alongside diamonds in kimberlite pipes that formed at the site of volcanic eruptions. The magma breaking through the earth's crust froze, forming vertical channels with a diameter of 400 m to 1 km. They are filled with porous kimberlite rock, consisting of pyrope, diamonds (up to 10%) and other minerals. In fact, prospecting for primary crystal deposits is tantamount to finding kimberlite pipes.

алмаз
© Общественное достояние

Sarsadskikh found an unfamiliar mineral in the fields and sent it for examination to Leningrad, where it was compared with samples of pyropes from kimberlite in South Africa. The guesses were confirmed, and in 1953 a method of searching for diamonds by pyrope was developed.

However, Moscow officials refused to fund the work. Then the head of another expedition (the Tunguska-Lena expedition of VSEGEI), conducting research nearby, agreed to transfer a Leningrad specialist to his staff but only one person. Sarsadskikh herself was on maternity leave and could not go to Yakutia, so Popugayeva went on a field trip.

On August 21, 1954, the young geologist made a historic discovery: on the left bank of the Dyakhi River, she discovered a kimberlite pipe, which was named Zarnitsa. This was the first primary diamond deposit in the USSR, which served as the beginning of their industrial production in the territory of not only Yakutia, but the entire country.

киберлитовая трубка
Фото © Staselnik, Википедия

Already in 1955, using the developed method, 15 deposits were found, including one of the largest in the world, the Mir kimberlite pipe. A classified radiogram reported: “We’ve lit a pipe of peace stop tobacco excellent stop Avdeyenko stop Elagin stop Khabardin stop".

Altogether, over 200 kimberlite pipes have been identified in Yakutia to date. But what happened to the discoverer?

Проводящие неоднородности в литосфере как критерий прогнозной оценки алмазоперспективных площадей

Immediately after the discovery, serious pressure began on Larisa Popugayeva. For two months she was not allowed to leave for Leningrad. The rival Amakinskaya geological expedition, instead of congratulating her, made a claim: "Why did you dare to look for kimberlites in the territory of our group's exploration?" Under the pretext that the search for diamonds was secret, the young woman was forced to hand over all the materials to them and retroactively formalize the transfer to their state. This allowed the leadership of the Amakinsky expedition to declare to the arriving Moscow and local journalists that it was they who made the find. Sarsadskikh had to use all available contacts so that the young specialist was given her field materials, and she was able to return home.

However, upon arrival, Natalia Sarsadskikh herself accused her of dishonesty and announced a boycott. The situation worsened so much that colleagues refused to work with Popugayeva, called her "upstart" and even carried her desk out into the corridor.

But that's not all: her surname was deleted from the list of Lenin Prize winners, which was prepared in 1957 on the occasion of the discovery of the first primary diamond deposit.

витраж
Фото © Форпост Северо-Запад /

Wanting to continue to engage in science, she entered the Mining University for postgraduate school. In addition to writing a dissertation, the geologist took part in the creation of a stained glass window, which today students can observe daily at the entrance to the university. The geologist worked on the panel “Magma” in the historical building of the educational institution together with employee of the Mining Museum Vera Sycheva and St. Petersburg artist Valentina Anopova. The collective even received a patent for the invention of a new method of processing natural ornamental stones for the purpose of using them in monumental painting. The fact is that not the usual glass was used in the stained glass, but rhodonite and other gems. They are cut so thin that they can be viewed in light. Traditionally, in order to better reveal the natural pattern of the stone, the plates are subjected to grinding and polishing, but this is an extremely laborious and time-consuming process. The group created a special coating that simulates polishing, which simultaneously simplified the processing method and increased the intensity of the color and natural pattern of the stone.

In 1959, Popugayeva moved to the Central Scientific Research Laboratory of Gemstones at the Leningrad City Executive Committee, where she took inventory of all diamond deposits in the USSR.

Попугаева
Фото © Художник Борис Корнеев, 1963 год

Only in 1970 the authorship of the discovery of the first diamond deposit was officially confirmed for Larisa Popugayeva and she was awarded the honorary title of the “Discoverer”. And 7 years later, at the age of 54, she died of aortic rupture. In memory of the geologist, streets were named and monuments were erected in Yakut cities, and a diamond weighing 29.4 carats was named after her.