Skulduggery among Russia's old bones

Disappearing fossils leave a trail of unanswered questions.

The faded Gothic building that houses Russia's scandal-ridden Paleontological Institute is a musty labyrinth of dimly lit corridors that sometimes end abruptly or plunge into a murky stairwell. Crowded along the walls, cabinets bulge with fossils and jumbled heaps of ancient rock, assorted skulls, and dinosaur bones. It is the perfect setting for a whodunit.

And there is a mystery here.

Over the past decade hundreds of unique fossils, potentially worth millions of dollars, have vanished from the 200-year-old collection of the institute, which is known by its acronym PIN.

A few Russian paleontologists, cautiously backed by a group of Western colleagues, have accused the institute's directors of master minding the heists and using the proceeds to set up private companies. Those same firms, they allege, are now ravaging Russia's fragile natural fossil deposits and collaborating with PIN insiders to fake the "expert certificates" required by Russian law to export scientifically important specimens to lucrative Western fossil markets.

"We have foxes guarding the hen house," says Larissa Doguzhayeva, a leading PIN researcher who says she was demoted and had her salary cut after she started investigating the thefts several years ago. "In the past decade, those in power started privatizing the state property under their control and using it to enrich themselves. That's the only explanation for what happened here at PIN."

No one denies that massive thefts did take place at PIN, mostly in the chaotic and poverty-stricken 1990s, when scientists' salaries dropped below subsistence level. Many experts left the institute, and some started fossil-exporting businesses. But beyond that, says PIN director Alexei Rozanov, "the allegations are abhorrent, the worst kind of lies." He refuses to talk further, saying only that "the police have not made any charges based on this, nothing at all."

In December 1996, a reporter for the science journal Nature asked PIN deputy director Igor Novikov why the institute had reported almost none of the fossil thefts from its inventory to police. Novikov said there was little point in doing so, since "we cannot expect much help in such cases from the police, either Russian or Interpol." One case that was reported remains unsolved, although police concluded it was an inside job.

Arkady Zakharov, a former PIN scientist who founded a company called Russian Fossils, says the issue of thefts is a red herring launched by political forces who want to discredit capitalism. "The main issue is not a few items that were stolen years ago," he says. "It's about private property that is gathered and restored by companies that work in a normal way. Scientists like Doguzhayeva think our property should be expropriated."

Countries around the world regulate paleontological finds in a number of ways. In the US, rules vary according to who owns the land where the item is found. In Canada, the state has the right to buy any fossil determined to be scientifically valuable.

Ms. Doguzhayeva, a top expert on ammonites, or prehistoric mollusks, says she became alarmed one day in 1996 when Mr. Zakharov brought a German fossil dealer named Joachim Wordemann to see her. "They offered to buy a big collection of ammonites I had just gathered in field work," she says. "I told them it was state property, and asked them to leave my office."

A few weeks later, upon returning from a conference abroad, she found the collection had been stolen. "There is no doubt it was an inside job," she says. PIN director Rozanov showed no interest in the disappearance, she says, and refused to report it to the police.

Zakharov, the scientist-turned-merchant, denies that the visit to Doguzhayeva's office ever took place.

In a separate incident, Mr. Wordemann, the German fossil dealer, was arrested by Russian authorities in St. Petersburg in 1999 and charged with trying to transport a truckload of partially undocumented fossils into Finland.

By the mid-'90s, some Western paleontologists began to notice valuable specimens from the world-famous PIN inventory turning up on private markets in Europe and the US. One day in 1994, Rupert Wild, curator of the State Museum for Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany, was amazed to see a unique 240-million-year-old amphibian skull available for private sale. So he asked the dealer - the same Wordemann - if he could borrow it. Back in his office, under special lighting, Dr. Wild found a partially erased Soviet catalog number from PIN stencilled on the piece. The skull was later returned to Russia.

An informal working group of seven Western paleontologists, including Dr. Wild, was created to help identify and recover stolen Russian fossils from crooked dealers. It compiled an extensive list of missing items that included rare dinosaur skeletons, mammoth tusks, remains of the extinct cave bear, and Doguzhayeva's ammonites. But the group ran up against a brick wall after asking PIN directors to confirm other suspected thefts.

"Numerous lines of evidence point to an organized group operating within PIN, with direct access to PIN collections, well developed contacts with foreign commercial dealers, and the facility to move stolen items through Russian customs," said the group's 1998 report. Without cooperation from PIN, the Western scientists have been able to do little since. "We were met with such opposition by the Institute in Moscow, which we were naively trying to help," says Prof. Michael Benton of Bristol University, one of the group's members. "That in itself is interesting."

Even Doguzhayeva, the whistle-blower, says the pillaging of PIN's collections has probably ended. The same people have moved from burglary to business, she alleges. Russia's rich fossil grounds are being ruined by ruthless predators, working in league with rogue scientists, who smash the sedimentary strata with machinery and cart fossils away by the truckload. "The last time I went to search for ammonites, near Shilovka on the Volga River, I was stunned by the destruction," she says. "I wept for days."

Last January the Ministry of Culture, which has authority over art and antiquities in Russia, asked Doguzhayeva to examine a collection of 12,000 ammonites recently dug up in the Volga region by Mr. Zakharov's Russian Fossils company. An expert from PIN had already certified the batch, potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars, as "scientifically worthless" and therefore eligible for export. "I was flabbergasted," Doguzhayeva says. "You could have written several papers about some of those specimens."

But Zakharov tells a very different story. He says all excavations are carried out with the participation of scientists, who are given free access to any really interesting finds. "Maybe some fossils are unique, and should be in a museum, but how many examples of a particular type of ammonite does Doguzhayeva need?," he says. "According to her, they should all belong to science, as in Soviet days. She cannot get used to the idea that we have a market economy now, and these fossils are my private property." Zakharov concedes that his company pays experts from PIN to evaluate fossils and certify them for export, but denies any conflict of interest. "The experts would be paid whether they certify the fossils or not," he says. "We have to pay them because the Ministry of Culture can't afford to."

At least one top PIN official remains a "good friend," says Zakharov, though "there is emphatically no business relationship." And he acknowledges that his main foreign partner is Wordemann, but he insists that the German dealer's legal misadventures were "all his own doing."

For Zakharov, the case of the stolen PIN materials is a police matter and none of his affair. The real problem today, he says, is the Soviet mind-set of government officials who cannot tolerate the idea of modern commerce in fossils. Doguzhayeva, whose angry resistance has prompted the Ministry of Culture to block the export of his ammonite collection, is "totally subjective." He says, "She is against business. How can she be allowed to have so much influence?".

Doguzhayeva has a different view. "A few people enriched themselves by looting our nation's heritage," she says. "They want us to forget the past, accept them as normal businessmen, and agree that all is right with the world. I can't reconcile myself to that."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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