Scientist Vladimir Fialkov Focuses on the Future of a Unique Natural Wonder: Crystalline Lake Baikal

updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Buryat Mongols who fished Lake Baikal before the Cossacks arrived in the 17th century believed the waters to be a sacred inland sea. It was home to their god Burkhan, whose daughter, the River Angara, flowed from the lake. According to ancient Buryat legend the entrance to the Kingdom of Justice lies beneath Baikal under a holy rock near the Angara's source.

Viewed from the surface of Lake Baikal, Vladimir Fialkov's brown and red scuba "dry" suit is clearly visible as he finishes his work 100 feet below and slowly kicks his way up through the lake's icy, crystal waters. "Brrr," he shivers, hoisting a metal pail full of measuring instruments and slimy sponges over the side of the research ship G. Titov. Peeling off his hood, the 46-year-old hydrologist points out hundreds of small crustaceans clinging to the sponges. Holding up a tiny violet-colored shrimp, he lets out a whoop. "I've seen this only two or three times in my 24 years here," he says. "It is a rare species, one we were afraid would be lost forever."

Vladimir Fialkov is an environmental crusader, struggling to save one of the Soviet Union's great natural wonders from industrial pollution by two nearby pulp mills. He is one of 110 scientists at the Institute of Limnology of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Siberian Branch, a cluster of concrete buildings perched above the shipbuilding village of Listvyanka on Baikal's southern shore. The institute studies the chemistry, biology and ichthyology of Siberia's freshwater lakes, particularly Baikal—which, long before the Chernobyl disaster raised newer concerns, had become a symbol of ecological endangerment to all Soviets. "The ecosystem here is one of the oldest and most fragile in the world," says Fialkov. "Even the smallest chemical particles will lead to mutation in organisms that have taken millions of years to evolve."

Baikal lies at the end of an hour-long drive from the city of Irkutsk over a roller-coaster asphalt road that cuts a swath through the towering cedar, larch and fir trees of the taiga, land once roamed by Siberian tigers and still home to the famed Barguzin sable. In late morning the lake lies hidden under a blanket of mist, which the sun soon shreds into ribbons, revealing an azure sea surrounded by craggy snow-covered mountains. Called Siberia's Blue Pearl, Baikal is a mile-deep canyon that holds 20 percent of the world's and 80 percent of the Soviet Union's fresh water, more than all the Great Lakes combined.

It is impossible to overstate the uniqueness of the 400-mile-long, 50-mile-wide lake. The Baikal chasm, created 25 million years ago, is fed by 336 rivers and drained by one, the Angara. A bucket of water dumped into the lake will circulate for 400 years before emptying completely through the Angara. Of Baikal's 2,681 species of flora and fauna, 84 percent are endemic, among them the world's only freshwater seal, Baikal sturgeon, omul (akin to whitefish) and the golomyanka, a glassy, translucent fish found in extreme depths, whose fatty oil locals use to treat arteriosclerosis. Baikal's filtration system is the epishura, a tiny crustacean that devours all decaying matter, cleansing the highly oxygenated waters to preserve the lake as a living museum of ancient life forms.

Vladimir Fialkov first laid eyes on the sickle-shaped lake in 1963, when, at age 22, he joined an amateur diving expedition. The middle child of a trading-company worker and a housewife, "Vadim" spent his early years in Omsk, where the family lived after evacuation during World War II from their native Kharkov in the Ukraine. As a boy, Fialkov had taken his first step toward his future occupation by answering an ad by the Seamen's Club inviting children to meet a group of divers. "One of my favorite books had been Zolotovsky's Underwater Craftsmen," he recalls. "When I got there they showed us a Jacques Cousteau film. I was hooked." Fialkov became a diver, a skill he kept up when he took his first job at a furnace plant. Dissatisfied with the job, he then enrolled in the Kharkov Mining Institute, but that didn't sit right either. "I was frustrated. I wanted to do something that would give me a closer connection to nature. That was when my friends invited me to go diving at Baikal."

The lake worked its magic on Fialkov instantly. "I knew when I first saw it I would not leave," he says. He was hired as a professional diver by Professor Mikhail Kozhov, who was conducting a study of Baikal for Irkutsk State University. The professor encouraged Fialkov to enroll in his new five-year program in hydrology. At the university he met Larissa, now his wife of 21 years, who works at the Intourist Hotel in Listvyanka.

Accepted as a junior scientist at the institute after graduation, Fialkov suddenly found himself in the midst of the Soviet Union's most heated environmental controversy. State planners had picked the lake's south shore for construction of the Baikal Pulp and Paper Combine, a cellulose plant that used the pure water to produce the tough cord needed for airplane and auto tires. The plant would dump its effluent into the lake. It was the final straw for those already worried about Baikal's fate. For years floating lumber from paper mills had choked the river's tributaries. The seals had been hunted to near extinction. "I dived near the plant after it was built in 1967. Baikal was dying," says Fialkov. "We all felt a responsibility."

Baikal's plight galvanized the environmental consciousness of Fialkov's generation. Writers and artists took up the cause. Mikhail (And Quiet Flows the Don) Sholokhov denounced the paper mills early on at the 1963 Communist Party Congress. Director Sergei Gerasimov produced a film, By the Lake, about the 12-year environmental battle. Suddenly millions of citizens, in letters to Pravda and Izvestia, were venting their outrage about Baikal, as well as the destruction of the country's forests, rivers and lakes by rapacious industry and careless planners. "The Soviet Union is now facing the same environmental problems the U.S. did at the turn of the century," says Professor Nick Robinson, an authority on Soviet environmental law at Pace University Law School. "A strong conservation movement has existed since before the Revolution, but they are just now in the process of creating a federal EPA."

At Baikal, pressure finally forced the state to build a triple purification system for the plant that cost more than the plant itself. The state also made the lake area a nature preserve.

Still Fialkov worries. Another pulp combine, built upstream on the Selenga River, Baikal's biggest feeder, continues to operate, as does industry in the lake watershed.

That situation may soon change. According to Soviet environmental law expert Dr. Oleg Kolbasov, a special congress of experts on Baikal, convened by Politburo member Yegor Ligachev in December, recommended that both mills be closed. "We don't want to control pollution," insists Fialkov. "We don't want any pollution at all." Like the Buryats before him, Vladimir Fialkov believes that the entrance to the Kingdom of Justice lies beneath Lake Baikal.

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