We lost a scientist, a mentor, a sage, and a dear friend when Mikhail Nikolaevich Gromyko passed away on May 1 this year.
From the left: Eugeniy Smirnov, Mikhail Gromyko and Anatoliy Astafiev
Misha has been a part of my life since I first arrived in Russia some twenty-eight years ago, in a time of turmoil. The Soviet Union had just dissolved, there was financial chaos, and it was unclear what to expect from the government in Moscow. Our joint Russian-American project was also a mess: a person from Moscow assigned to oversee the project had revealed himself to be a thief, many people were jostling for opportunities, and with no Russian language skills, it was nearly impossible for me and my American colleagues to figure out who to listen to or who to trust. But Misha Gromyko was the Assistant Director of Science for Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik, and I soon learned that for our project to survive, we would have to rely on him and Zhenya Smirnov, the resident tiger biologist, to provide sound guidance we could trust. Even without an ability to communicate directly, we could sense that Misha was a man of integrity and humility, and a committed scientist: his only goal was to make the project succeed, so that in turn the zapovednik could succeed. In those early days, when fuel was rare, vehicles in disrepair, and stores largely empty, I had to rely on the magic of Misha and Zhenya to keep our project on track. They rarely failed.
I learned what an Assistant Director of Science at a zapovednik should be by watching Misha Gromyko. I have judged all subsequent people in that role using him as the golden standard – whether it be in Sikhote-Alin or elsewhere.
Struggling to learn the language, I also judged my progress by how well I understood Misha. I was in his office regularly, asking for advice, which was always given and often with a dose of humor. His phrases were playful, often with double meanings with some philosophy mixed in. This left my head hurting as I tried to make sense of it all. I would return home after meeting with Misha, fumbling with my Russian dictionary as I tried to make sense of a few key phrases of his. At a gathering in those early days, I toasted my Russian hosts with the usual apology for my Russian language skills, while noting that when I finally understood Misha Gromyko, I would understand the Russian soul. As was so typical of Misha, he jumped up with that sly smile of his to note, “But I’m not Russian, I’m Belorussian!”
Even when Misha stepped down from his post as Assistant Director of Science and resumed his duties as a staff scientist, he was seldom alone in his office. It seemed like nearly every time I went to the zapovednik to seek his advice, there was someone else already there, doing the same. Misha’s office was still, and would always remain, heart of the zapovednik. If you wanted to know something about Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik, whether it be history, ecology, politics, or your own project, Misha was the person to ask. And everyone knew that.
Mikhail Nikolaevich was a damned good zapovednik scientist. He understood the value of monitoring, with most of his life’s work being the creation and then maintenance of monitoring systems for Sikhote-Alin, whether it be tracking vegetative profiles, fires, oak die-offs, or the devastating effects of typhoon LionRock. He was an “old school” ecologist and natural historian - terms I use with the greatest of respect. He understood the value of being “out there” in the forests, of learning by experience, and meticulously collecting field data to understand the environment we are trying to protect. As elsewhere in the world, there seem to be fewer and fewer of these types of dedicated field scientists, which makes me worry for the protected areas of Russia. But Misha did his best to support and improve those around him. Stories abound of how Misha took care of younger staff members, graduate students, and undergraduates, teaching them, and showing by example how to care for your work, and your co-workers.
And that was perhaps the most important characteristic of Misha Gromyko. More than anything else, Misha was a man who cared about the people around him. He always had time for you, no matter who you were. He seldom used the word love, but he gave it freely to most everyone.
Upon hearing of our loss, Jon Slaght contacted me. He’d known Misha since 2000, and like everyone else often sought him out for advice and conversation. Jon wrote, “Misha was a moral compass for the zapovednik; an example of what a reserve scientist should be, and an embodiment of the wonder, appreciation, and curiosity one should have for the natural world to work there.”
And now, the employees of the Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik mourn the loss of their friend and colleague, the people of Terney mourn their departed neighbor, and the scientists of Russia who knew of him and his work all recognize that a giant has moved on. We can only try to follow his moral compass, humbly caring for the people around us and the natural world we so depend upon.
May 5, 2020.