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November, 19, 2018

Mikhail Kozhov: the Scientist Who Was Ahead of His Time

We will tell you about the amazing man who was the first to speak about the importance of preserving Baikal – the scholar of Baikal, professor, Director of the Institute of Biology and Geography of Irkutsk State University Mikhail Mikhailovich Kozhov, in time to the 50th anniversary of his death.

One of the first Soviet films raising environmental issues in general, and the problems of Baikal in particular, was the film “At the Lake” directed by Sergei Apollinarievich Gerasimov. The events of the film take the spectator into the 1960s, when a pulp and paper mill was being constructed on the coast of Baikal. A famous scientist, Professor Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Barmin and his daughter Elena, stood up to protect the unique ecosystem of the lake.

The prototype of the leading character of the film was Mikhail Mikhailovich Kozhov, a scientist and a scholar of Baikal. This figure aroused the interest of the writer and director not by a mere chance. Back then, when ecology was by no means a “fashionable” trend of research in the USSR, Mikhail Mikhailovich bravely spoke out in defense of Baikal, protesting against the real possibility of its pollution due to the construction of an industrial facility on the coast very close to the lake.

Kozhov claimed that Baikal should be preserved in all its pristine majestic beauty and integrity, with its crystal clear waters, magnificent mountain taiga enriching the coast of the Great Lake with its unique ancient fauna and flora. Baikal in this state will be needed not only by contemporaries but also by future generations.

The true grit, integrity, civil courage was “instilled” in M. Kozhov by his difficult life.

A Start in Life

He was born on November 18, 1890 in Irkutsk province, in the village of Tutura on the Lena River. The already difficult peasant childhood was interrupted in 1900, when, having become an orphan, Kozhov had to help support the family, without obtaining a full-fledged education. At the same time, his wish to study did not decrease, and the young man managed to get permission to attend classes at the Verkholensk School of Mines. And although he did not become a miner, afterwards he passed an external degree examination to receive the title of national teacher in 1913 and began to teach children in his native village. The events of the First World War interrupted this useful activity. Kozhov was called into the army, fought on the Western Front; however, as he returned to his homeland in 1918, once again he became a participant of military operations, only now on the side of the “Red Army”, against the followers of Kolchak.

After the end of the Civil War, Mikhail Kozhov was sent to serve at the Verkholensk District Department of Public Education, where he began to work as a school instructor (May 1920 - October 1921). In 1921, the district government commissioned a talented young man to study at the Irkutsk State University, so he became a biology student. This step predetermined his fate, linking him both with the university and Baikal until the end of his life. The subject of his postgraduate research was biological resources of Baikal. One cannot find this kind of material in a reference room. Thus the graduate student became a member of a number of scientific expeditions studying the hydrobiology of the lake. As a result, He published his first monograph “To the Knowledge of the Fauna of Baikal, its Distribution and Life Conditions” and was awarded the degree of Candidate of Biological Sciences for that work. Only a year later, the talented researcher defended his doctoral thesis. In 1931, M.M. Kozhov was appointed the Director of the Biological and Geographical Research Institute at the Irkutsk University; he had been the Head of the Institute for 31 years.

The Man Who Was Ahead of His Time

The main scientific interest of M.M. Kozhov was permanent and connected with the understanding of the origin of the fauna and flora of Baikal. His approach to the solution of this problem was a complex one, involving climatology, geography, and geotectonics in the consideration of the problem, without abandoning the origin of the lake itself.

Anyway, we would like to draw your attention to Kozhov as a scientist whose statements were many decades ahead of his time.

Long before the emergence of modern systems ecology, Mikhail Mikhailovich published a book written during the most difficult years of the Great Patriotic War: “The Fauna of Lake Baikal”. It definitely expresses the awareness of the need to make Baikal studies a separate scientific direction, at the same time the book stresses the fact that it is possible to study Baikal only as an integral natural complex, as a single complicated system. Moreover, no one ever thought of such words as “environmental monitoring” back then, but Mikhail Mikhailovich and his colleagues organized a system of constant monitoring of the state of the Baikal ecosystem. We should necessarily mention that M.M. Kozhov was one of the founders of the biological station in Bolshiye Koty. By the way, his friends noted that the station became his “second home” where the scientist wrote all his major works.

The area of the biological station was the place where they began to take water samples for analysis from certain depths in 1946. Besides, annual Circum-Baikal expeditions were organized, in order to select plankton in 69 certain locations. We want to emphasize it that the environmental monitoring system of Lake Baikal implemented by M. Kozhov was unparalleled either in the 1940s or at the time when the systems of monitoring of the state of such Lakes as Michigan, Kinneret, Constance and about 50 others were created.

Basing on the long-term environmental observations of the life of the water column and bottom of the lake, Mikhail Mikhailovich was the first to formulate the basic laws of biological processes taking place in Baikal. He is also considered the founder of the Siberian school of hydrobiologists and ichthyologists.

Mikhail Mikhailovich Kozhov was the founding father of the dynasty of Baikal scholars that included his daughter – the Doctor of Sciences Olga Kozhova, and later his granddaughter — Lyubov Ravilievna Izmestyeva - who continued their father’s and grandfather’s work. The renowned scientist died on November 4, 1968 and was buried in accordance to his will in the village of Bolshie Koty, on the territory of the biological station, on the coast of Lake Baikal adored by Kozhov during his entire life.

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