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By Yaroslav RENKAS, Cand. Sc. (Hist.)
Inscribed in letters of gold into the annals of Russian history are many famous dynasties remembered for their priceless contributions to the progress and prosperity of this nation. Ringing the bell with almost each one of us today are the names of the three Botkins brothers (a writer, a painter and a therapist), of the Danilevskys brothers (a biochemist, a physiologist and a sociologist), of the two Kovalevskys brothers (one-the founding father of comparative embryology, physiology, and the founder of evolutionary paleontology) and of the Vavilovs (a geneticist and a physicist)... A prominent place in this list belongs to the Orbeli dynasty and its two prominent sons-academicians Leon and Iosif Orbeli and Professor Ruben Orbeli - whose scholarly achievements in their respective fields received international recognition. Their life stories are traced in a recently published monograph (N. Grigoryan. Science Dynasty of the Orbeli. - NAUKA, 2002.-522 pp. with illustrations), which has caught the eye of both-the scientific community and the general public.
The central idea of the author is to demonstrate the fact that serving spiritual values in general and science in particular has been the creed of the Orbeli family since the start of the 12th century. Since then this family tradition has been passed on from generation to generation. Thus, the grandfather of the future three great scientists-an archpriest in the Armenian Church-left many writings on church history. Their father- a man with excellent university education-is remembered as a theorist and practitioner of jurisprudence. Their uncle, a leading neuropathologist in Tbilisi-was the author of many studies on psychiatry and ethnography, a participant of many congresses of Russian natural scientists and physicians.
And the Orbeli were well known not only in their native Transcaucasian region, but also in St. Petersburg. Six generations of the family have resided in the northern Russian capital since the 19th century and to this day. The most outstanding figures on their family tree have been Prof. Ruben Orbeli- the founder of undersea archeology in this country, Leon Orbeli, who created evolutionary physiology, and Academician Iosif Orbeli - a famous oriental scholar, archeologist, art historian and philologist. Having completed their higher education in St. Petersburg, they chose the "Northern Palmira" as
the place of their permanent residence. Their many children-doctors and candidates of physics and mathematics, technical, medical, historical and other sciences and the authors of scores of important scholarly studies and publications. Thus for nearly two centuries the metropolis on the Neva has been and remains the scene of the family tradition of the Orbeli-the tradition of serving the cause of science.
A large section of the book traces the family correspondence of the Orbeli which has been published for the first time, covering a period of 40 years (1894 - 1936). It sheds light on the basic family values of the Orbeli "clan" which have been strikingly manifested in the personalities of the three brothers-men of high moral and ethical standards totally devoted to the ideals of humanism. Of particular interest in this respect are the letters of their father- Abgar Orbeli, which present a comprehensive concept of bringing up a harmonious personality. His letters offer important advice and directions to the young people who found themselves in the capital of the Russian Empire-a major center of science and culture. In his letters the father constantly reminds his children of their duty of mastering knowledge-a task calling for exceptional mental concentration without wasting time on all sorts of social gatherings and circles. He teaches his kin on how to make the best of their family material resources while sparing no money on things like scientific books, research instruments and equipment, decent clothing and visits to theaters. The letters also offer practical advice on the making of good friends and maintaining proper relations with them. Letters from the sons contain interesting details about their tutors-the famous Russian scientists like the Academician Ivan Pavlov, a physiologist, the lawyer Nikolai Tagentsev, a literary expert and linguist Nikolai Marr, Professor Mikhail Pavlovsky, a hystologist, and literary expert Vladimir Nikolsky, to name but a few.
This correspondence between the head of the family and his sons sheds light on his own conception of upbringing and education of the young. In his letter to Leon on his winning a gold medal in a student contest he wrote: "Accept my parental congratulations. I pray to God that you contribute to the scholarly legacy of mankind more and even more important works thus winning yourself a proper position and recognition among your friends and beyond." In a letter of October 26, 1899 to his other son, Ruben, he wrote: "a person must, above all, be engaged in a true and serious cause to which he devotes all of his thoughts and attention... He must work in a productive way and thus fulfill his sacred duty."
These fatherly messages, filled with deep thoughts and lofty ideas, con-
stantly remind his children of the importance of unflagging dedication to the main ethical values. And letters from their mother, Varvara Orbeli (born Princess Argutinskaya-Dolgorukaya), are brimming with tender love, and concern for the wellbeing of her dear ones living away from the paternal house. She also urges them to do their best in their studies, passing their free time in a worthy manner and devoting the bulk of their time to science.
This correspondence, which sheds new light on the Orbeli family circle, is of a considerable historical-cultural value, offering documentary proofs of the traditional family links, the close links between Russia and Armenia in the fields of science and education, supporting the view of our leading historian Academician Dmitry Likhachev, that both St. Petersburg and Moscow were major centers of Armenian and Georgian culture before the 1917 Revolution.
Most of the letters cited in the book belong to Ruben Orbeli, making it clear why his carrier in science took so much time and efforts to become a reality.
As a youth, the oldest of the brothers received brilliant education at the St. Petersburg University and later continued his studies in Jena and Bonn in Germany. But he found his true calling only at a mature age, and there were several reasons for that. As different from Leon and losif, Ruben failed to find a proper tutor at the university. Jurisprudence, which was his first choice, failed to arouse his genuine interest and even in his student years he took a critical stand on it. This could be one of the reasons why he failed to defend his thesis for the Masters' Degree in due time- something that was a blow to his father. And it took Ruben Orbeli some fifty years to find his true calling in life.
It all started in the 1920s when the EPRON (Expedition for Special Underwater Operations) took interest in the history of diving. In 1934 Ruben Orbeli was commissioned to conduct studies of the history of development of underwater gear and the range of operations they had to perform. That was a difficult, but feasible task for a researchers who was in command of 11 foreign languages (old and new): Latin, Greek, German, French, English, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Russian, Armenian and Georgian.
In his studies the researcher turned to the rare originals of Homer, Socrates, Herodotus, Strabo, Euripides, Theophrastus and Aristotle and also availed himself of the early Oriental, French, German and English folklore as well as substantial iconographic material. As a result he was able to trace not only the "social background" of men who became divers, but also the tasks and conditions of their work and the gear and equipment they had at their disposal. Dr. Orbeli submitted all
the original texts to a linguistic and terminological analysis, and he studied and analyzed the works and manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519), gaining a deep insight into the "creative workshop" of the great Italian, demonstrating the logical succession in the progress of his studies related to the technique and methods of undersea operations.
When he later speculated about his analytical studies of ancient sources, Ruben Orbeli wrote that "they can only be compared in all fairness with operations involving gradual submersion to the seabed and with searches for deep-sea life. History, and history of technology in particular, is similar to undersea research. Specialists in the field will know what I mean".
The first target of studies on the Black Sea conducted in 1933 - 1940 by teams headed by R. Orbeli was the ancient town of Chersonesus, or Chersonese (6th century B.C.)-a focal point of, first, Greek, and later Roman, Skythian, Sarmatian and Byzantine cultures. Members of the expedition also made a sensational find-they found on the bottom of the Bug a carved oak boat. According to specialists, the age of the oakwood was 350 years and the boat remained in the river for 2,500 years.
These remarkable achievements were marked by a special message from the President of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Academician Vladimir Komarov, to the head of the EPRON Central Directorate: "I welcome your scientific discoveries on the seabed, in particular the find of an ancient boat in the Bug river; accept my congratulations on these really impressive achievements and I wish that these studies to be continued in general and those of R. Orbeli in particular, as investigations of great importance..."
In the following years research expeditions were sent to Theodosia, Koktebel and to the region of Kerch where a number of ancient structures were unearthed in the coastal zone.
On the basis of his studies of a large volume of publications on the history of undersea (diving) operations from ancient times up to the 1930s and his own deep-sea studies Orbeli was the first to raise the question of the need to set up a new discipline- undersea archeology (hydroarcheology).
As fate would have it, the fruitful activities of the scientist were put to an end by his early death-after an emergency evacuation from the Leningrad blockade in 1943. But, as has been proved by subsequent developments, his cause had a great future. This was demonstrated among other things, by the First International Conference of Undersea Archeologists in Cannes in 1955, by the establishment of the World Confederation of Undersea Operations, by the launching of more than 2,000 specialized research ships and floating labs which are engaged in the studies of seas and oceans in all regions.
As for the scientist's other brother- Iosif Orbeli - his letters stand out for their vivid and dramatic language. As a stylist, he could rival many of the recognized experts in the field. His fundamental studies attest to his profound knowledge in philology, archeology, ethnography, history of arts, etc. This must have been the result of the seven years (1903 - 1911) of his studies at the St. Petersburg University where he simultaneously attended two faculties-the historical-philological and of the oriental languages.
As a follower of the school of oriental studies of Academician Nikolai Marr and following the example of his elder brothers, Iosif lost no time in plunging into scholarly research. By the time of his graduation he was the author of nine major works which appeared in prestigious publications like the "Proceedings of the Russian Academy of Sciences", "Notes of the Oriental Department of the Russian Archeological Society" and "Journal of the Ministry of Public Education".
In his student years Iosif Orbeli took part in an archeological expedition to Western Armenia (ancient settlements Ani and Wan) which studied the histo-
ry, architecture, epigraphy, folklore and ethnography of the Caucasus of the Middle Ages.
It was at an ancient settlement site that Iosif made his ultimate choice in favour of Oriental studies for the rest of his life. After his subsequent visits to Western Armenia he wrote and published several scholarly works, including "Brief Guide of the Ani Settlement" (1910), "Catalogue of the Ani Museum of Antiquities" (1910), "The Ruins of Ani. History. Present Conditions. Excavations" (1911). Unfortunately, further studies of this kind in Ani had to be abandoned because of the tragic events in Armenia (1917 - 1918) in which Turkish invaders took part. The ancient site was lost once and for all both for Russia and for Armenia. Being a leading expert on the material culture of Armenia, Caucasus, Iraq and Turkey, Iosif Orbeli lamented the tragic conflict as a personal blow and a setback for science.
In the eventful biography of Iosif Orbeli the author of the book under review lays emphasis on the years from 1920 to 1951 when the scholar held various administrative posts at the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. In the words of Orbeli himself Hermitage became the goal of his life-not just a museum but a scientific and cultural center in which he carried out his main studies.
His range of administrative and scientific studies covered the development of a scientific concept of the structure of the museum, organization and conduct together with the Academy of various events dedicated to significant events in the history of world culture, jubilee exhibitions, protection and preservation of cultural treasures and intense organizational and administrative work. Iosif Orbeli established a basically new approach to the preparations for and the conduct of exhibitions. His main idea was that holding them without a concrete historical and cultural context deprives them of their meaning. In his note of January 29, 1929 to the Hermitage Council he pointed out: "Just as it is meaningless to try and split up the crowd into people with beards, fat guys and blondes, it seems to be quite obvious that one can not simultaneously divide the museum collections into monuments of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, carved stones, monuments of the Middle Ages, weaponry and monuments of the Caucasus, Iran, Byzantium, etc. This kind of classification is not scientific and is simply impossible..."
The historical-cultural concept of organization of the structure of the museum suggested by Orbeli was supported by a number of prominent scholars. Academician Vasily Struve, for example, wrote: "In connection with Orbeli's memorandum on a transfer to the Oriental Section of objects from other sections, which have noth-
ing to do with the East, I would like to express my full support for Orbeli's line of reasoning that museum items should be divided according to the historical-cultural principle." He also pointed out that Iosif Orbeli was the last in the line of Russian and Soviet art experts who became the pride of world science. Within this context it was even more difficult to understand his dismissal from the post of the director of the Hermitage in 1951. This could have been part of an official ideological campaign by the authorities directed against Nikolai Marr and Orbeli's brother Leon whom he refused to denounce.
A large section of the book under review traces the life and work of the oldest brother in the Orbeli dynasty-Leon, a student of the celebrated Russian physiologist and Nobel Prize winner Ivan Pavlov. For a period of 36
years-from 1900 to 1936-they were bound together by common research and unbroken personal friendship. And it was Leon Orbeli who was elected Member of the Academy at the personal suggestion of Ivan Pavlov (1955). He believed that Orbeli's studies of the adaptive-trophic functions of the sympathetic nervous system were worthy of a Nobel Prize. In his letter to the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences of December 22, 1931 he wrote that Leon Orbeli was working on "a theme of exceptional importance-the fundamental problem of trophic innervation which could not be resolved by physiological research for more than half a century".
A report on the results of these studies presented at an international congress in the United States aroused general interest and Leon Orbeli was invited to lecture on this subject in several American universities.
Relying on his own theoretical background and the experience of cooperation with Ivan Pavlov and prominent foreign scientists, Leon Orbeli started building his own school of physiological research right from the beginning of his scientific and professorial activities. His prestige in science, combined with his personal qualities- kindness, honesty and readiness to help people in need-attracted to him many young brains. Like his teacher Ivan Pavlov, he readily shared his knowledge and experience with his young co-workers.
What came to be known as the Orbeli school in science was formed in the first half of the 1930s within the walls of the First Leningrad Medical Institute (now St. Petersburg Medical University named after I. Pavlov) and
the Institute of Natural Science named after P. Lesgaft. Those were the best years in the life of Leon Orbeli when he was not overburdened with organizational and administrative duties.
By applying the principles of evolutionary physiology to the studies of higher nervous activity, Orbeli was able to form a comprehensive picture of the functions of the central nervous system, integrate all data on the physiology of cerebral cortex, cerebellum, on the physiology of sensory organs and the vegetative nervous system into a comprehensive doctrine of coordinations and regulations in the body. This school is functioning today and its followers are successfully developing research in the most promising areas of physiological studies. Orbeli's views have since received many confirmations as was demonstrated, for example, by recent international conventions of physiologists: in Glasgow (1993) and St. Petersburg (1997).
When the Department of Biological Sciences was established at the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1939 Leon Orbeli became its first head. In this capacity he did his best to promote research in this field and also made public statements against official persecutions launched for political reasons against members of this school and whole areas of research. From 1939 to 1948, for example, he staunchly defended research in genetics and Academician Nikolai Vavilov from ideological attacks by Trofim Lysenko - a stand which cost Orbeli his high position in the Academy. In the course of this ideological campaign in 1950 the then authorities denounced him as an "anti- Pavlovian"-an enemy of the scientific views of Ivan Pavlov-his father in science.
The Orbeli brothers provided a tangible contribution not only to Russian, but to world science. Their work and achievements offer an example of selfless dedication to the humanistic traditions of many generations of our scientists, an inexhaustible source of knowledge for future researchers.
The author of the book ends up his chronicle of the Orbeli family with a quotation from the Russian classic Anton Chekhov: "Such men... in all times and in all societies, apart from their merits as scientists and administrators, also had great educational importance... Their lofty ideas, devotion to the honor of their country and science... the wealth of their knowledge and zeal... their fantastic trust in science make them in the eyes of the people into devotees who personify the supreme ethical potential."
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