As with the fates of many of the intelligentsia whose lives spanned the Russian Revolution, subsequent Civil War, and Soviet purges, the story of Vladimir Arsenyev is one that did not end particularly well. As a beloved explorer and author whose career bridged Imperial and Soviet Russias, it seemed for a time that Arsenyev and his legacy would survive intact. But according to Ivan Egorchev, an Arsenyev scholar, Arsenyev’s early death from a heart attack in 1930 (at the age of 58) might actually have been a blessing. It meant that Arsenyev did not live to witness his wife accused of espionage and executed in 1937, or his daughter spend nearly twenty years in prison or labor camps for “anti-Soviet statements” and other nebulous charges.
In scientific circles of the Soviet Far East, it was not just Arsenyev and his family that were enveloped by the storm. Just as the ubiquitous World War Two monuments in Russian villages illustrate how that war touched every corner of Russian society, we can look to Arsenyev’s 1921 book Across the Ussuri Kray for a snapshot of the impact the Twenties and Thirties had on the sciences in the Russian/Soviet Far East. In the preface to that book, Arsenyev lists the names of those who helped him on his expeditions: participants, consultants, and supporters. I examined the biographies of these individuals as part of the research for my forthcoming translation of Across the Ussuri Kray (Indiana University Press, autumn 2016). Of the dozen people for whom I could find records, four died outside of Russia (in exile following the Russian Civil War), three perished in Soviet prison camps, one committed suicide, and one was purged from the military. Only two appeared to transition from Imperial to Soviet Russia unscathed. The functioning apparatus of natural sciences in the region was essentially razed.
Sadly, this is a story familiar to the calloused students of the Great Purge period. It’s impossible to say what discoveries or advances Arsenyev’s friends and colleagues would have made should they have been allowed to follow their interests unimpeded; perhaps none. But past affiliations and suspected sympathies were stones around their necks, and these capable, curious naturalists were left exposed.
When the storm found them it was not kind.