Autumn of the Patriarch

Pavel Iustinovich Marikovskiy is Doctor of Biological Sciences, Professor of Zoology and a member of the Union of Writers of the USSR, a legendary personality and one of the most remarkable characters of the bygone epoch.

In a dim hall of his apartment, he looked like either an old fairytale man living in a forest, or a shaggy geologist from the song of the Agatha Christie group - a bushy beard and a nimbus of scraggly grey hair over a weakly glimmering bald spot. A mutt, the same scraggly and incredibly smart, bustled gaily at his feet. With a shambling gait, resting on a walking stick, the patriarch majestically sailed into his possessions. Stumbling over an hysterically hospitable mutt, I shuffled off after the professor...

People acquainted with Marikovskiy know that the Doctor of Biological Sciences, the Professor of Zoology and a member of the Union of Writers of the USSR is so unpretentious in everyday life that it is discouraging. His apartment represents simultaneously a museum of various manuscripts and paintings, a wintering place of geologists, a branch of zoo - anything but a human habitation.

Pavel Iustinovich dwells mainly on a patriarchal shielded bed. Or at the table blocked up with books, notebooks, voice recorders, magnifying glasses and some frayed, ancient, but, of course, invaluable things. The remaining space of the professor’s den is occupied by manuscripts, shelves with books, own-executed pictures, old audio tapes, folders with papers and photographs. As well as hiking knapsacks and some other belongings necessary for the professor in his expeditions. The whole apartment is lumbered up with paintings. They stand on the floor, leaned against the walls, hang over the bed and directly under the grey ceiling not whitewashed long ago. The professor hangs up his canvases on strings stretched from a chandelier to bookshelves, using a simple device from paper clips...

A tiny TV set and a prehistoric radio receiver with the same antiquated headphones are located on a little shelf at the head of the bed among writing pads and small brochures. Pavel Iustinovich listens to the Voice of America, because Mayak radio has fallen asleep in the Lord long ago.

Right from the doorstep the professor worriedly asked me:

“My dear, are you strong in computers? Tough luck, can you imagine, something has got out of order, I cannot type...”

Ninety-year-old professor Marikovskiy works on an old and battered, outdated Pentium from morning until night. He creates his brilliant books and articles using the Lexicon software program forgotten by everybody long ago...

“I have mastered Word long ago, it is good, but a cursor is very small,” the professor grieves. “I don’t see it at all, I cannot type... Be careful, here is the anthill!”

I dash aside. An intricate structure – something like a large box made of either clay or cement stands in the middle of the room (!), having leaned against a coffee table buried under a pile of books. The box has cells blocked with glass partitions. The cells communicate with each other through small corridors (or burrows?). No ants, however, are visible...

“Two females live here,” the professor became animated. “They must bring forth the offspring. The previous two anthills were ravaged, therefore they have to be restored. What a business it is...

 The professor’s first anthill was ravaged by pure accident. The second one – approximately in the same way. An old acquaintance with her daughter came for a visit to the professor. While the patriarch and his lady guest communicated in another room, a girl out of curiosity broke the professor’s favourite anthill...

“These are not regular ants, these are agricultural ants,” the professor tells me ingenuously as a child. “I have been looking after them for a very long time. And, you know, they can be wonderful earthquake predictors! Because they come in the strongest excitement and worry from any shaking, even from the light vibration under an anthill! The ants leave their underground galleries that in the wild reach the depth of 80 meters! I specifically gathered my ants from a mountainous locality with an increased seismic activity. Why can they guess an approximation of earthquake shocks? Because they are old mountain inhabitants. Prior to earthquake, they start to worry, because a total loss threatens them - all their burrows under the ground will be destroyed...”

It is a very old and sad story. The dream of the patriarch of Soviet zoology to create a biological seismic polygon in vicinity of Almaty is about seventy years old. To create a polygon in order to predict earthquakes using animals and insects...

During long years of wandering along the steppes, mountains and deserts, studying nature, animals, plants and insects, the professor passionately believed that animals and insects are able to predict natural disasters. But it was impossible in the Soviet Union to think, much less to say that there is such a science, as bioseismology. This was considered to be quackery. A scientist, who dared to raise this topic, was subjected to mockery.

“And just then the strongest earthquake occurred in China,” the professor recalls. “There, by the way, they received evidence long ago that animals can predict natural disasters. A broad campaign to monitor the animals to predict earthquakes was started in one city. Almost all the population of the city desiring to participate in the experiment was engaged in this campaign. Questionnaires were handed out to the people, and they were told how to monitor the domestic and wild animals. As a result of this experiment it was able to predict the strongest earthquake and avoid many victims! One day before the cataclysm, the people had time to leave the city...

This example inspired all the scientists involved in seismology. The Americans have convened a large international conference. Indeed, until now there is no method to predict earthquakes, despite the fact that a great number of centers, institutes, and scientists are involved in this.

Not far from us, a destructive earthquake has also occurred – to the south of Almaty, in Dzhalanash. At that time I was already in retirement, got into a car and rushed down there. I was told that the earthquake focus has been in some location not far away. One long-term resident told a very interesting thing – six months before the earthquake the marmots left this locality. He noticed this because the people came to that region to hunt for marmots... Thus, just a few marmots left six months before the earthquake. And one more interesting event happened six hours before the earthquake. The remaining marmots have left their burrows. But outside the burrow the marmots are quite helpless, any predator - either a fox or a golden eagle can catch them. Therefore the animals came running towards the place where the herd of sheep grazed and, to surprise of shepherds, huddled together at the feet of sheep! They hid from predators. This fact was of great interest to me. I was engaged in research and wrote a book about this...”

Professor Marikovskiy concluded that the most reliable predictors of earthquakes are not domestic animals, but those to which a real danger threatens in case of cataclysm. These are animals dwelling in earthquake endangered areas, in burrows, and necessarily gregarious.

“Because a sense of alarm, fear spreads quicker among animals living in families – that is a famous herd instinct,” Pavel Iustinovich explains. “In this sense, the marmots – they are very smart animals, as well as ants and some reptiles: lizards, snakes are ideal for predicting earthquakes. The latter, having a presentiment of earthquake shocks, even in winter leave their burrows and coil themselves into a ball...”

So, an idea to organize a biological seismic polygon in vicinity of Almaty leaped into Marikovskiy’s mind. In some secluded spot among the mountains, he wanted to create favourable conditions for marmots, and place for lizards, snakes and ants would be found there. A single person could well monitor all this farm business. Of course, a serious competent zoologist. Marikovskiy did not request from the authorities any huge funds for creation of the polygon. Whether do the marmots and reptiles need much money in the wild?

“I started to seek an area for biological polygon. I was given a hostile reception. All this continued until the Literaturnaya Gazeta stood up for me. The prestige of the newspaper was dangerously great for the authorities, and the chairman of the municipal executive committee began to stir and personally went to choose land. However, I have not been given what I requested, but I was glad to that plot of land which I have received. Thirty hectares near Almaty in a small gorge. There is a river there. I began to develop my biological polygon, established a trailer... But I was prevented from working. I was particularly impeded by Gvozdev, former Director of the Kazakhstan Institute of Zoology. And some chief was appointed for the biological polygon, to whom I had to obey! But he did not know a thing in zoology and in science at all!”

Marikovskiy’s undertaking was distorted in the most squalid manner. Instead of creating normal conditions for animals in their natural environment, badgers and birds were... encaged. A porcupine was brought to the territory of the biological polygon for some purpose. A fate to live in a small yard was prepared for this miserable animal. The professor did not get a chance to seek a ban on hunting for marmots, which were almost completely exterminated in our area. As a result, the biological polygon went into decline, having not started to act.

Although, after the earthquake in Spitak our local authorities somewhat revived. An interest in the biological polygon has again arisen. Biological seismic movement was restored again in vicinity of Almaty. Again in the perverted form, according to Marikovskiy.

“They put a couple of aquariums, birds and animals were encaged again, and half-educated persons were appointed everywhere!” the professor bristles. “That’s all nonsense!

One cannot help but recollect Guberman: “An idea thrown to the masses is a girl thrown to the regiment”...”

Currently, some Kazakh scientists consider biological seismology to be complete heresy. Marikovskiy is convinced that his idea was ruined for a reason. After all, if the experiment succeeds, the marmot colony led by an inquisitive zoologist will leave the whole Institute of Seismology without work...

Although we live in an earthquake-prone ten-point zone. Here all the means to predict disasters are good. Especially those that do not require high costs. There are a lot of secluded mountain places around Almaty. An enthusiast ready to put his head to the altar of science is also available...

Professor Marikovskiy impeded everybody during his whole life. He has such temper... clear – he will always say to the fool that he is a fool. And the professor just irritate some people as an encyclopedia, overfilled with all kinds of knowledge about anything and everything. By education Marikovskiy is... a medical professional. But he became a biologist, an archaeologist, a writer, an entomologist, and an ornithologist... He knows everything about birds, insects, and animals. Or almost everything. Anyway, more than a crowd of other scientists, taken together, knows. In brief, he annoys someone at all times. Especially those persons who have monopolized in science at least something and languish over that like Koschei the Immortal over his gold. Such persons exclaim struttingly: “We do not get into strange sciences!”. They just have a dislike for Marikovskiy, impudently disseminating a myth about violent crazy man.

Reaching ninety years, the professor reserved clarity of mind, good spirits and... incomparable enthusiasm! He still writes articles and books and paints superb landscapes. From day to day he is going to dash away to the next expedition. Rather, to his last expedition, as he said himself. I ask: why?

“I am going to show you now!” the professor told intriguingly and pulled me into the kitchen. “Just don’t faint...”

Indeed, there was a reason for fainting in the professor’s kitchen. Because of an unimaginable, one can say, dramaturgically picturesque disorder. In general, the lack of careful woman’s hand is felt all over the house of Marikovskiy. Ninety-year-old professor-patriarch is alone –his children live in Russia now. The only creature side by side with him (besides ants) is a senescent shaggy little dog, which snores loudly at night...

Common kitchen mess was supplemented by many formless stone slabs piled under the table. I understood their purpose a little later.

“I built up the world’s only collection of copies of rock paintings. Primitive paintings!” the professor even looked different. “Now I will go back to one more place where there are unique examples of rock paintings...”

Marikovskiy’s collection is unique, like himself. Who would have come to the idea of collecting primitive pictorial art? How is that even possible, because one cannot bring any cave dweller’s drawings together with a rock to the museum...

Professor Marikovskiy imitates primitive artists with enviable persistence. The professor carves copies of rock paintings on stone slabs – those which are piled under the kitchen table. Some of Marikovskiy’s creations (sorry, copies) are hung directly in the kitchen – above a sink and a shabby refrigerator. Surrounded by unwashed pots, time-stained little bowls and dusty furniture, rock painting looks quite ridiculous. However, very expressively.

“Oh, don’t take pictures of me so much!” the professor waived his hands to our photographer. “I have a wrinkled shirt. I, you see, still wash myself. And with great pleasure! But I don’t like ironing...”

He is terribly busy every second. Before the trip he hopes to complete his article and to start writing a new one. And he also needs to collect things and to find someone who will see after the apartment. There is nobody with whom the dog could be left; therefore, it accompanies the professor in all his journeys.

“By the way, it feels everything!” the professor told me. “When I discuss an upcoming trip over the phone with someone, it comes running to me and overhears. My trip can fail, but I hope very much to be in time...”

… For some time one rich man bought copies of rock paintings from Marikovskiy. He was interested in exotica. This helped the professor to feed his family. Now nobody seems to be interested in these copies. But the professor lives in expectation of an expedition. He will go for a new portion of rock paintings which afterwards he will carve painstakingly by repeating the movements and lines of a primitive artist on stone slabs. In the interims between study of his ants, drawing of landscapes and writing of next article on the malfunctioning computer. The indefatigable ninety-year-old professor hopes to present the world with a couple of copies of rock masterpieces.

How much time does he have?..

P.S. Professor Marikovskiy died in 2008, in Turgen. He is, in fact, one of the most remarkable characters of the bygone epoch. He was friends with Maksim Zverev (do you remember the famous “Stories about animals”?), he has written a great number of books that are very easily readable, despite their scientific and documentary character. I highly recommend “Great parliament of instincts”, “Small workers of the desert”. The list of his other works can be found in Wikipedia. I did not trace the fate of his will. Although, we communicated with him for some time prior to his death, and one funny story is associated with it.

After my publication in the Moskovsky Komsomolets in 2004, the professor made great friends with me. He persuaded me to write a thesis under his supervision. The proposal was attractive, because to defend a thesis under supervisory control of Marikovskiy is a wonder! However, I did not want to spend 2 years of life on Kazakh postgraduate course.

One day the telephone rang in my apartment. That was Marikovskiy. It is necessary to make a small digression here. The point is that the professor had one more dream to catch the Abominable Snowman. Moreover, he met someone like the Yeti during his trip to Balkhash – on a wild shore of the lake. The professor saw personally how someone of humanoid type, dark and hairy, got out of the hill and watched the two girls splashing in the water for a long time. He watched and crawled away. I wanted to suggest that this has been a Transcaucasian national, but I did not have time...

“My dear, I and my friends are going to Balkhash, a very interesting intelligent company is formed!” the professor chattered in the receiver. “But we, you know, need girls. Let’s go, ok? You may take your girlfriend along...”

It came to me that I was invited... as the bait for the Abominable Snowman! I.e. we with my girlfriend will have to gambol in Balkhash till one is blue in the face, until the Abominable Snowman comes up to us, and Marikovskiy and his fellows start catching him!

Different men made proposals to me in this life. Many of them are attractive. But such proposal that was made by late Pavel Iustinovich (cherished memory of him!) – nobody and never.

Author: Natalya Pershina (

Photo: Author's archive

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