Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, an outstanding Russian mineralogist, biogeochemist, historian of science, philosopher, and political figure especially concerned himself with the origin and historical development of humankind as a natural stage of the biosphere evolution, and a place of man as an “autotrophic” species in a present-day biosphere. The peak of his research work fell on in the period of great upheavals in the history of Russia. Nevertheless, his scientific career, successfully started in the Russian empire, was brilliantly continued in the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Holding high positions, Vernadsky expressed his dissent not once, but—however strange it might be—he was not subjected to repression. On the contrary, he became one of the figures of an official myth about the “coryphaei of natural science” who had come to believe in historical rightfulness of the communist ideas after a long period of hesitation. In the “pantheon of Russian science,” he was given a place of an encyclopedist of the 20th century, a thinker and a scholar who had anticipated future tendencies of science and human development.
Vernadsky was a member of the Paris Academy of Sciences (1922), Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (1928), Yugoslavian Academy of Sciences, and more than thirty 30 Russian and foreign scientific associations. All elements of an official cult were also present: an Academy collection of his works; numerous republications of writings; books devoted to his work, congresses, conferences, and seminars; perpetuation of his memory in the names of institutes, avenues and streets, metro stations, name grants, and prizes; monuments, memorial plates, and jubilee medals, and the list goes on. Harsh critics of his biogeochemical works for idealism and vitalism in the 1930s to 1950s changed into violent apologetics in the 1960s. A true renaissance of Vernadsky’s scientific work began. Since then, thousands of works have been written about his theory of the biosphere and the noosphere, philosophy, and history of science. Many people have been looking in his books for the answers to the burning questions arising at the present stage of human development. Many of his books have been numerously republished not only in Russia, but in West Europe and in the United States.
The Beginnings of Scientism and Liberalism
Vladimir Vernadsky was born on March 12, 1863, in St. Petersburg in a house in the Millionnaya Street, which starts from the Winter Palace, the main residence of the Russian emperors. His father, Ivan Vladimirovich, professor of political economy and statistics, was a chairman of the Political-Economical Committee of the Free Economical Society (Vol’noye ekonomicheskoye obshchestvo), the publisher and the editor of the magazines “Ekonomicheskiy ukazatel” and “Economist,” to which prominent Russian economists, liberal statesmen, and political men contributed. Natural science was popular in the Russian society of the 1860s and 1870s. It was seen as the means of liberation from religion and authoritative power. It’s no wonder that, from a very young age, Vernadsky’s favorite books were The Space by A. Humboldt and On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. He carried out meteorological observation, took research tours to the outskirts of St. Petersburg, collected herbariums and butterflies, participated in the publication of a hand-made natural scientific magazine in the gymnasium, and regularly read The Nature magazine. Young Vernadsky was also interested in historical books, ethical-religious writings, philosophy, philology, economics, and foreign languages; he was fond of fiction, painting, and theater. At a mature age, he could read and write in 15 languages, including Greek, Latin, and all Slavonic, Romantic, and Germanic languages. Evolution of nature, development of humankind, constitutional-democratic reforms in Russia, enlightenment of people, the role of science in modernization of the country, and the Slavonic problem all interested him since his childhood.
From 1881 to 1885, Vernadsky was a student at the Natural Scientific Department of the Physical-Mathematical Faculty of St. Petersburg University, where the flower leaders of in the Russian science gave lectures. Vernadsky took his broad scientific approach from them. The views of the intelligentsia of the postreformed Russia, who called for radical but gradual reorganization of the society, became the source of his becoming a scientist. The views were formed under the influence of the authority of science, which was growing all over the world, amazing discoveries and their technical realization testifying to the near coming of industrial society. Not only scientists themselves, but also a substantial number of manufacturers and politicians all over the world considered science the major factor in the improvement of society. It was becoming clear that the development of science was possible under a powerful state support. Vernadsky believed that it was especially important in Russia, where all scientific creative work was connected— directly or indirectly—with the state.
During a students’ meeting in St. Petersburg University on November 10, 1882, and following short-term arrest, Vernadsky got acquainted with some humanitarians, and together they created a circle of liberal orientation. Later on, many of its members became prominent scientists and politicians. Among them was S. F. Oldenburg, who was a permanent secretary of the Academy of Sciences for more than a quarter of a century, and, in fact, was its head during the period of the revolutionary shake-ups. Vernadsky was elected one of the leaders of the scientific-literary society, where Aleksandr I. Ul’yanov—an elder brother of Vladimir Lenin, the would-be head of the Soviet government—was the secretary. In 1886, Vernadsky was elected chairman of an illegal students central council of united Zemlyachestva (associations of people of the same area). Its meetings often took place in his house. Ul’yanov and other future participants of the murderous assault on Emperor Aleksandr III were also present there. In 1887, Vernadsky’s wife, Natalia E. Staritskaya, a daughter of Senator Egor. P. Staritsky, gave birth to son Georgiy V. Vernadsky, a would-be historian, professor of Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago Universityies in the USA.
The Formation of the Scientist
Vernadsky’s teacher was Vasily V. Dokuchaev, the founder of genetic soil science, professor of St. Petersburg University. Vernadsky carried out his first research in his expeditions in 1882 and 1884. In 1885, he graduated from the university and was offered the opportunity to stay there and prepare for the status of professor. His career, so successfully started, nearly broke down in 1887, when People’s Enlightenment Minister Ivan D. Delyanov suggested Vernadsky should turn in his resignation, being accused of illegal activities and contacts with terrorists. Thanks to the interference of Dokuchaev and Staritsky, the resignation was substituted by a research trip abroad. In 1888-1890, Vernadsky was writing his master’s theses in the best laboratories of Italy, Germany, France, and Great Britain. He took part in the World Industrial Exhibition in Paris, where he was in charge of demonstrating soil collections of Dokuchaev and his followers. As a result, the Department of Russian Soils got the golden medal at the exhibition.
From 1890 to 1898, Vernadsky was an assistant professor at Moscow University. He completed a master’s thesis, “On a Sillimanite Group and the Role of Alumina in Silicate” (1891), and a doctoral dissertation, “The Phenomenon of Crystalline Material Sliding” (1897). He turned the uncoordinated gatherings of the Mineralogical Laboratory of the Moscow University into a valuable museum collection, and the laboratory itself into a research institute. In his first works, Vernadsky already tried to integrate different fields of knowledge (geology, paleontology, evolution) and create important natural scientific and world outlook view conceptions. This attracted youth to him and allowed him to quickly create a powerful scientific school, which united future members of AS USSR geochemist Aleksandr P. Vinogradov, crystallographer Aleksei V. Shubnikov, mineralogist Aleksandr E. Fersman, radiochemist Vitaly G. Khlopin, chemist-mineralogist Konstantin A. Nenadkevich, and others.
Vernadksy went on numerous geological-mineralogical and soil-studying excursions in Russia and Europe and studied geological, paleontological, mineralogical, and meteorite collections in the first-rate museums of the world. The number of his Russian and foreign contacts grew intensively and, by the end of his life, it included more than 2,000 people. In 1888 and 1897, Vernadsky worked out a concept of silicate structure, put forward a theory of kaolin nucleus, made a classification of siliceous compounds more accurate, created genetic mineralogy, and determined a connection between the form of crystallization of a mineral, its chemistry, genesis, and formation conditions. He paid special attention to practical usage of minerals. In 1903, his monograph “The Basics of Crystallography” came out, and in 1908, the publication of “An Experiment With Descriptive Mineralogy” issues began.
From the beginning of the 20th century, Vernadsky occupied an important place in the scientific community of Russia. From 1898 until 1911, he was a professor at Moscow University, an assistant of the rector, and one of the founders and a professor of the Shanyavsky University. In 1906, Vernadsky was elected junior research assistant at the Imperial Academy of Sciences and appointed the head of the mineralogical department of the geological museum. In the same period, Vernadsky formulated basic ideas and problems of geochemistry and carried out the first systematic research of the elemental structure of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere. From 1907, Vernadsky carried out geological research of radioactive elements, thus starting radiogeology in Russia. He was one of the first to see it as a powerful means of providing people with unlimited energy.
In 1902, Vernadsky started a course of lectures on the history of Russian science. From that time, historical-scientific issues became an essential part of his research. In 1902, his historical-scientific study “On the Scientific World Outlook” came out. Later, he published “Studies on the History of Natural Science in Russia in the 18th Century,” “The Academy of Sciences in the First Century of Its History,” studies on the history of crystallography and soil study, and articles devoted to outstanding Russian and foreign scientists. In his historical-scientific works, Vernadsky showed the continuous transformation of the world pattern and change in the value of obtained facts and conclusions, predetermined with a complex of cognitive and social-cultural factors. He also proved the originality of the Russian science and also the necessity to follow its age-old traditions. The history of science became for him a source of a better understanding of the biospheric evolution and scienctific development as its natural continuation.
Political and Scientificce Organizational Activities
In the prerevolutionary years, Vernadsky actively participated in social-political life, which was tightly connected to him with an effort of turning the biosphere into the noosphere. In 1891 and 1892, together with a famous writer Leo Tolstoy, he founded a social fund for helping the starving in the Tambov region. In connection with the students unrest at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Vernadsky spoke in support of the reestablishment of university autonomy and regulation of the power of police inspectors at the universities. He worked out a project of the higher school reform (1901). At the time of the bourgeois-democratic revolution (1905-1907), Vernadsky took part in the organizing of the Academic Union, which demanded political liberties, constitutional monarchy, democratization of the higher school, abolition of censorship, and foundation of professional political unions of intelligentsia and nonmanual workers. At the constituent meeting of the constitutional-democratic party in October 1905, he was elected a member of the central committee. He was an active advocate of an agrarian reform, helping the starving, abolition of the death penalty, and general political amnesty. In March 1906, Vernadsky was elected as a member of the State Council on behalf of the academic curia, and in July, 1906, he resigned as a token of protest against the dissolution of the State Duma. For the second time, he was elected a member of the Council in January 1908. Together with other professors, he left Moscow University in 1911, protesting against the reactionary politics of People’s Enlightenment Minister Lev A. Kasso.
In 1911, Vernadsky moved to St. Petersburg, and in 1912, he was elected as an ordinary academician on mineralogy at the Imperial Academy of Sciences. In 1911 to -1914, he organized and headed several academic radium expeditions to the Urals, Transcaucasia, Middle Asia, and Transbaikalia; organized a radium committee (1910) and mineralogical and radiogeological laboratories (1911); and conducted a reorganization of the geological museum on the principles of evolutionism. Vernadsky called for a radical reform of research. The government supported his idea to create the Lomonosov Institute, but World War I, which soon erupted, buried the project. Vernadsky understood that without the backing of scientists, Russia was doomed to defeat. In October 1915, he became a member of the State Council once again, and in 1916, a member of the economical commission committee of the Russian Parliament economical committee, included in the parliament assembly of the Entente.
In 1915, together with other science leaders, Vernadsky organized and headed the Committee for the Studying of Productive Forces of Russia (Komissiya po izucheniyu proizvoditel’nyh sil Rossii,or KEPS), which became the base for several dozen scientific institutions in St. Petersburg. Some members of the Cabinet of His Majesty the Emperor, of a number of civil and military ministries and committees, and many scientific and scientific-technical associations of Russia were among the members of KEPS. KEPS promoted the creation of a base of raw materials and minerals of the country and working out the scientific -organizational approaches to the study of source potential of the regions. In 1915 to 1917, KEPS participated in the publication of the magazines Nature and Productive Forces of Russia and, organized 14 expeditions to different regions of the country. In 1916, Vernadsky offered a plan of establishing a network of state scientific research institutes, and at the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918, an institute of physical-chemical analysis and an institute for the study of platinum and other precious metals were organized. Other projects were fully realized in the Soviet period.
The work in KEPS stimulated Vernadsky to develop systematic research in the field of biochemistry, the theory of living substance and the biosphere. In 1916, he started working out the foundations of biogeochemistry, studying the chemical structure of organisms and its role in atoms molecular migration in the geological coverings surface of the Earth, and transformation of the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the lithosphere.
After the February Revolution of 1917, Vernadsky upheld the policy of the provisional government to continue the war and actively came out in favor of federal system in Russia. He was chairman of the committee for the academic institutions and scientific enterprises at the Ministry of the People’s Enlightenment, and an assistant minister. Vernadsky actively participated in organizing a free association for the development and spreading of positive sciences, in working out plans for creating a network of universities and research institutes, as well as new academies in Siberia, Georgia, and the Ukraine. After the October Revolution, Vernadsky became a member of the Small Council of Ministers, and on its illegal meeting on October 17,1917, he signed an “Appeal to the Citizens of Russia,” which declared the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power illegitimate. Hiding from arrest, Vernadsky left for the south of Russia, where he went through all the horrors of the civil war and repeated change of power, and came to the conclusion that the Russian people were not ready for democracy. From that time on, he kept away from politics.
During the civil war, Vernadsky was one of the founders and the first president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the rector of the Taurida University. After the Crimea had been captured by the Bolsheviks in the spring of 1921, Vernadsky returned to Petrograd, where he was arrested for a short while, but was quickly set free. He continued as head of the council of KEPS, headed both the State Radium Institute, which he had also founded, and the Committee for the History of Knowledge. He supported the studies of the atomic nucleus, aiming at the usage of the radioactive decay energy. At the same time, Vernadsky conducted intensive biogeochemical research and prepared a vast manuscript, “Living Substance,” (which came out finally in 1978). Vernadsky presented in it the first comprehensive conception of the leading role of the organic world and human beings’ activity in the transformation of the biosphere. The first results of his research were published in 1922 in Chemical Structure of the Living Substance, and also in 1922, Beginning and Eternity of Life.
The Theory of the Biosphere and the Noosphere
From 1922 to 1926, Vernadsky was abroad, giving a course of lectures at the Sorbonne, working at the mineralogical laboratory of the natural history museum and at the Pierre Curie Radium Institute, trying to find the funds for organizing an international institute for the study of living substance. In 1924, Vernadsky published The Studies in Geochemistry in French, in which he gave for the first time a systematic account of his biogeochemical views. In 1926, Vernadsky returned to Leningrad and published his famous book The Biosphere, translated into French in 1929. He organized a department of living substance, which was transformed into a laboratory in October 1928. In 1933, Vernadsky headed the meteorite committee at AS USSR.
At that time, Vernadsky formulated the main principles and problems of biogeochemistry; created a theory of the biosphere and its evolution; set problems and began quantitative research of the elemental structure of living substance and its geochemical functions; and determined the role of individual species in the transformation of energy in the biosphere, in geochemical migrations of elements, litho-genesis, and mineralogenesis. Vernadsky outlined the main stages of the biospherice evolution and its basic patterns (expanding of the life zone, increase of accumulated solar energy in the surface coverings of the Earth, intensification of biotic circulation, growth of biodiversity and informational capacity of the biosphere, cephalization, or steady growth of consciousness in animals’ progress).
Guided by the idea of Edgar Le Rou (1927), at the end of 1930-s, Vernadsky formulated a hypothesis of an inevitable conversion of the biosphere into the noosphere, i.e. the sphere of mind, and gave a brief characteristic of its features. Earlier, he had been proving the possibility of the autotrophic existence of man (1925), that is, the possibility of man’s starting to live on artificially synthesized food thanks to the usage of immense reserves of nuclear energy. Vernadsky was sure that humans would become the most mighty geological power, capable of determining predestining the further development of the Earth and its organic world.
Vernadsky understood that the development of science in the Soviet Russia was possible only under state support, and he did his best to strengthen scientific potential of the country, believing that the future belonged to scientists and the communist regime would transform under the influence of the scienctific progress. He was one of those who agreed to the loss of autonomy of the AS USSR in exchange for providing it with significant material, financial, and human resources. Although he held the position of head of a number of academic institutions in Leningrad, Vernadsky left for Moscow because of the move of the academy to the capital, owing to the decision of SNK (Soviet Narodnyh Komissarovm, a Council of People’s Commissars) and Politburo CK VKP(b) (Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks). But he held the position of the head of a number of academic institutions in Leningrad. In 1941, together with other academicians, he went into exile in Borovoe, Kazakhstan. In 1943, he was awarded Stalin’s Prize.. Half of it, he gave to the defense fund, and the rest, he distributed among his needy friends.
During the period from 1920 to 1945, penal institutions more than once prepared the materials about Vernadsky’s supposed participation in various anti-Soviet saboteur activities. To save his students, followers, friends, and staff from repression, Vernadsky sent dozens of intercession letters to the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR, to the SNK, to the Office of the Public Prosecutor of the USSR, and to the People’s Committee for Home Affairs.
Vernadsky abruptly changed his attitude toward the Bolsheviks in the middle of the 1930s, when the rhetoric of proletarian internationalism and class struggle was replaced with the ideas of concentration on the interests of the state, nationalism, and patriotism. He also liked the slogan about transformation of the USSR into the world scientific center. With the turn of the USSR into a successor of the Russian empire, he started viewing Bolsheviks as politicians who had managed to retain national independence of the country and return it to a merited place in the world. Vernadsky understood that the positive changes were bound up with the labor of millions of convicts. He believed that their work was “in the interests of the state” and that thanks to repression, the social and intellectual power of the masses could be better revealed. Most of all, he feared then that exterior forces would try to destroy “the communist Russian state” or would make it backslide from its modernization policy.
These very years became the golden age for the “scientific empire” of Vernadsky. He was the head of several academic institutions at the same time. There were dozens of venerable scholars among his followers, and still more ahead. In 1938, Vernadsky wrote about the accordance of his biosphere ideas to with the theoretical socialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and he started to treat the October Revolution as an event of geological scale, which had “beguan the transition to the state system of conscious realization of the noosphere.” Vernadsky saw the alliance of Great Britain, the USSR, and the United States and their struggle with the totalitarian regimes in Germany, Japan, and Italy as a guarantee of the victory of mind and democracy. He assured that “The ideals of our democracy are in harmony with spontaneous geological process and laws of nature.” But what democracy did he consider ours? “Western” or “Soviet”? This is not clear from the last article published in his lifetime and written for publication not only in the USSR, but in the United States. It contained an outline of his ideas about the noosphere as the final stage of the development of the biosphere, directed by society on the basis of the laws discovered by scientists.
Vernadsky died on January 6, 1945. He was sure that the coming victory over Hitler’s Germany would hasten the transition from the biosphere to the noosphere. He was buried at the Novodevich’ye cemetery.
The renaissance of Vernadsky’s ideas came in the 1960s, first in Russia, then in the West. Since 1993, The Biosphere has been published four times and The Scientific Thought as a Planetary Phenomenon three times in Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and the United States. His ideas were used in the constructing of closed ecosystems in space flights and in the grand project of creating an artificial biosphere (Biosphere-2) in Arizona. Vernadsky’s fate is typical for a scientist who started before the Revolution, then integrated into the Soviet regime, seeing it as a patron of science and the successor of the imperial ideology. Like other Russian scientists, Vernadsky treated science as means of serving the state and man, considering it the source of social and economical progress. His ideas and conceptions have gotten wide recognition in the world, and have became become one some of the theoretical grounds for the study of the history of humankind, the biosphere and its evolution, and for working out the measures of environmental protection. His ideas of the noosphere were further developed in the works by of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
- Kolchinsky E. I. (2002).”V. I. Vernadsky i bol’shevili.” In M. Heinemann & E. I. Kolchinsky (Eds.), Za “zheleznym zanevesom.” Mify I realii sovetskoj nauki (pp. 133-151). St. Petersburg: Dmitrii Bulanin.
- Sagan, D. (1990). Biopshere: Metamorphosis of planet earth. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1975). The phenomenon of man. (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row/HarperCollins/Perennial Classics.
- Vernadsky, V. I. (1998). The biosphere (rev. ed). New York: Nevraumount/ Copernicus/Springer-Verlag. (Original work published 1926)