Stanchinskiy, Vladimir Vladimirovich

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(b. Moscow, Russia, 20 April 1882; d. Vologda, Russia, 29 March 1942), ecological energetics, biocenology.

One of several talented Soviet biologists whose full potential was not realized, Vladimir Stanchinskiy nevertheless pioneered the study of energy flow through natural communities. This new approach to ecology arose from the application of Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadskiy’s biosphere theory to field biology. Stanchinskiy’s other important contributions to ecology were his move away from the rigid biocenosis concept to the idea known today as the ecosystem, and his emphasis on long-term in-depth studies of how individual ecosystems work. He was twice arrested and charges with political offenses; he died during his second imprisonment.

Early Life Stanchinskiy’s father was a chemical engineer and factory inspector. The family moved from place to place, and as a result Stanchinskiy, although born in Moscow, finished his schooling in Smolensk in 1901, 350 kilometers west of Moscow. His university education was no more settled than his schooling: having enrolled at Moscow University to study under the ornithologist Mikhail Aleksandrovich Menzbir, he was expelled in 1902 for political activity. He moved to Heidelberg University in Germany and gained his doctorate there in 1906. Since this degree was not recognized in Moscow, he had to enroll at Moscow University once more, where he soon passed his exams. He was then employed in various teaching posts, and from 1915 to 1917 saw service in the army. For a time he was a member of the Menshevik Party, but gave up politics late in 1917 when the Bolsheviks came to power.

Subsequently, during the civil war, Stanchinskiy was back in the Smolensk area, working in the Education Commissariat (Ministry). He quickly became prominent locally, setting up the Smolensk Society of Physicians and Naturalists, and also participating in the foundation of Smolensk University, where he became professor and head of the Zoology Department. Much of his published work up to 1926 concerned ornithology, beavers, and the other fauna of the Smolensk area.

Steppe Studies It was at about this time that Stanchinskiy’s interests appear to have changed direction. Nineteen twenty-six is notable as the year when Vernadskiy’s book Biosfera was published. Although some of his ideas had appeared in print earlier, the book was the first comprehensive presentation of the biosphere theory. Vernadskiy emphasized the transfer and transformations of energy and chemical substances between the various component parts of the planet, and the importance of living organisms in these geological processes. As a biologist Stanchinskiy responded enthusiastically, and determined to apply Vernadskiy’s ideas to ecological fieldwork, particularly regarding energy transfer. Vernadskiy took a holistic view of the biosphere, and this too is reflected in Stanchinskiy’s understanding of natural communities.

Much of Stanchinskiy’s early ecological fieldwork was conducted in the Smolensk area with his students from Smolensk University. The main natural habitat in that part of Russia is forest, but forest was not ideal for applying Vernadskiy’s ideas. In 1926 Stanchinskiy participated in a commission charged with guiding scientific research at the famous Askaniya-Nova estate in southern Ukraine, a short distance north of the Crimea. Private owners had developed this as a botanic garden, animal reserve, experimental farm, and gigantic sheep ranch before the 1917 revolution, and it still contained about 40,000 hectares of virgin steppe (prairie). Stanchinskiy was soon convinced that grassland was much more suitable than forest for research into ecological energetics since all the organisms, both plants and animals, could be collected whole and their energy content measured. Part of the steppe had been withdrawn from agriculture in 1888, and an official zapovednik (nonintervention nature reserve for scientific research) was set up in the 1920s.

In 1929 he was appointed science director of the zapovednik. He soon also became head of the Department of Vertebrates at Kharkov University in southern Ukraine. During the summers his colleagues and students from both Kharkov and Smolensk universities would come to Askaniya-Nova to carry out ecological fieldwork. Meanwhile Stanchinskiy set up and directed a Steppe Institute at the zapovednik.

Ecological Energetics and Biocenology The field studies conducted at Askaniya-Nova from 1930 to 1933 aimed to describe as fully as possible the energy content of each trophic level (green plants, herbivores, carnivores, and so on) in the steppe community, how these contents varied through the year, and how energy flowed between the trophic levels. In fact the entomologist Sergey Medvedev was already making similar measurements there from 1927. A variety of steppe types was studied, both at Askaniya-Nova and in other parts of southern Ukraine. The wet and dry weights of the different plants were measured weekly, invertebrates were collected and weighed in a special device (called a biocenometer) invented by Stanchinskiy, the microclimate was measured, and the soils studied. A permanent transect was set up. The aim was to measure the primary and secondary productivity of each natural community.

Stanchinskiy’s other main contribution to theoretical ecology concerned the concept of the biocenosis. At a time when ecologists were still mostly working in the separate areas of animal, plant, freshwater, and marine ecology, the classification of natural terrestrial communities tended to be undertaken by botanists (phytosociologists) applying a taxonomic approach, in other words, with the assumption that there exist distinct communities (biocenoses) that can be described, named, and classified much as species of plants and animals can be.

Along with his conviction that natural communities should be studied holistically, giving equal emphasis to all groups of organisms at all trophic levels, Stanchinskiy began to question the traditional concept of the biocenosis. Not all natural communities could be fitted easily into a biocenotic classification: there was too much variation within each biocenosis, and too many intermediates between them. In a paper published in 1933 Stanchinskiy developed a more flexible concept of the biocenosis that was similar to what Arthur Tansley was to term the ecosystem two years later.

In the early twentieth century, ecology in Russia was making the important transition from the expeditionary to the stationary approach. Much useful information, especially concerning the geographical distribution of species, was being collected by expeditions, but this was not a suitable way of gathering the long-term monitoring data necessary for understanding how natural communities function. Research stations in zapovedniks were first set up in Russia in the years around 1900, but it was Stanchinskiy’s Steppe Institute that clearly demonstrated the tremendous scientific benefits, especially for ecology, to be derived from long-term stationary studies. He also made use of the comparative principle implicit in the zapovednik system: the zapovedniks were intended to contain self-sustaining samples of virgin nature, serving as a baseline with which to compare the artificial communities created by farmers and foresters. By this means it was hoped to improve the efficiency of agriculture and forestry by maximizing the conversion of solar energy to useful products. So Stanchinskiy included both natural vegetation and managed areas in his studies.

First and Second Arrests At this very productive stage in his career, Stanchinskiy began to face opposition from Trofim Denisovich Lysenko and Isay Izraylovich Prezent, who were later to inflict much damage on Soviet genetics. The first branch of biology they interfered in was ecology, and at a conference in Kiev in 1930 Prezent publicly criticized Stanchinskiy and expressed doubt as to whether ecology deserved to be called a science at all.

In the following year a commission, including Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov, visited Askaniya-Nova, and within a few days it had been decided to use the site for an Institute of Acclimatization & Hybridization. Lysenko and Prezent themselves visited Askaniya-Nova in 1933. Although the results of three years’ study of ecological energetics had been analyzed and were ready for publication, this was canceled on the grounds of being “not relevant.” Stanchinskiy’s Steppe Institute was closed down and he was assigned the task of developing the theory of acclimatization of animals. So ended the study of ecological energetics at Askaniya-Nova, and it was only in the 1950s that the subject was resumed seriously in the Soviet Union, thanks to Vladimir Nikolayevich Sukachev.

The pressure on Stanchinskiy’s group intensified in August 1933 when several of them, including Sergey Medvedev, were arrested. Some of those detained admitted to counterrevolutionary activities, and fingers were pointed at Stanchinskiy. Anticipating what was likely to happen next, he resigned, but was arrested in November. He made a “confession,” probably to protect his family. In February 1934 he was sentenced to five years corrective labor. He also lost his academic posts, and resigned as editor of the Zhurnal ekologii i biotsenologii (Journal of ecology and biocenology). It is likely that at least part of the motivation for his persecution was the official view that his scientific research did not support communist plans holding out rather unrealistic prospects for agriculture and particularly the role to be played in it by acclimatization of alien plants and animals. Lysenko and Prezent were also against the use of mathematics in biology, and one of Stanchinskiy’s groundbreaking innovations was to show how a complete natural community could be described and explained in terms of mathematical regularities in the energy flows between trophic levels.

Stanchinskiy’s “imprisonment” was not in fact so harsh, since his detention was at a collective farm where he worked as a veterinarian. Here he was allowed to continue scientific work and write books. He was released prematurely in 1936. For some time unable to find employment, in 1937 he was eventually found a suitable post by his old acquaintance Grigoriy Leonidovich Grave as science director at the Central-Forest Zapovednik near Nelidovo, 300 kilometers west of Moscow.

No longer allowed to teach, Stanchinskiy now devoted his energies to research, concentrating on the role of decomposers in soil. An important publication at this time was an article on the organization of scientific research in the zapovedniks—a form of institution that the Russians had been developing since the 1890s.

By August 1940 he was once more attracting suspicion, and his second arrest followed in June 1941. He was taken to Nelidovo and accused of spying and making anti-Soviet remarks to colleagues at the zapovednik. It may not have helped his case that he was a former Menshevik and had also studied in Germany. The sentence was eight years in corrective labor camps. The following year he died at Vologda. With respect to both his sentences Stanchinskiy was rehabilitated in 1956 and 1957.

A Missed Opportunity Stanchinskiy’s scientific talents, drive, and administrative abilities are undoubted, and it is tragic that his scientific output was disproportionately small, owing to political interference. There are parallels with Vavilov, who had similar skills and was arrested shortly before Stanchinskiy on similar charges. Both men died after about a year in imprisonment. In terms of scientific and administrative skills Stanchinskiy and Vavilov were of comparable stature.

Had Stanchinskiy been given full rein, there is little doubt that he would have established the foundations of ecological energetics and built up an impressive body of measurements in the 1930s. He might also have been given more credit for developing the ecosystem concept. It is a moot point how independent were the developments in both fields in the Soviet Union and in the West. Certainly several Soviet ecologists visited the West at this time, and Stanchinskiy was acquainted with work in the West; moreover British and American ecologists were receiving Russian ecological publications and citing Russian work—including Stanchinskiy’s (in 1939). Energy capture by crops was already being measured in the United States by Edgar Nelson Transeau in the mid-1920s, and ecological energetics was developed again in the United States by ecologists such as G. Evelyn Hutchinson, Raymond L. Lindeman, and Chancey Juday around 1940. They too acknowledged Vernadskiy as the inspiration for their work, but appear not to have known about Stanchinskiy.



“K metodike kolichestvennogo izucheniya biotsenozov travyanistykh assotsiatsiy.” Zhurnal ekologii i biotsenologii 1 (1931): 133–137. On quantitative methods for studying steppe biocenoses (including the biocenometer).

“O nekotorykh osnovnykh ponyatiakh zoologii v svete sovremennoy ekologii.” In Trudy chetvertogo Vsesoyuznogo c”ezda zoologov, anatomov i gistologov [Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the zoologists, anatomists, and histologists], edited by Ivan Ivanovich Shmal’gauzen. Kiev and Kharkov: Gosmedizdat USSR, 1931. On certain fundamental zoological concepts in contemporary ecology (including ecological energetics).

“O znachenii massy vidovogo veshchestva v dinamicheskom ravnovesii biotsenozov.” Zhurnal ekologii i biotsenologii 1 (1931): 88–98. On the importance of biomass for the dynamic equilibrium in biocenoses.

“K ponimaniyu biotsenoza.” Trudy Sektora ekologii Zool.-biologicheskogo instituta pri Khar’kovskom universitete1 (1933): 20–37. On the biocenosis concept (anticipating Tansley’s “ecosystem”).

“Teoreticheskiye osnovy akklimatizatsii zhivotnykh.” Trudy Instituta sel'sko-khozyaystvennoy gibridizatsii i akklimatizatsii zhivotnykh v Askanii-Nova1 (1933): 33–66. The theory of animal acclimatization.

“Zadachi, soderzhaniye, organizatsiya i metody kompleksnykh issledovaniy v goszapovednikakh.” Nauchno-metodicheskiye zapiski Komiteta po zapovednikam 1 (1938): 28–50. Aims and methods of multidisciplinary research in state zapovedniks.


Bailes, Kendall E. Science and Russian Culture in an Age of Revolution: V. I. Vernadsky and His Scientific School, 1863–1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Boreyko, Vladimir Evgen’evich. Don Kikhoty: istoriya, lyudi, zapovedniki. Moscow: Logata, 1998. Biographical sketches of prominent ecologists and nature conservationists.

Mirzoyan, Eduard Nikolaevich. Etyudy po istorii teoreticheskoy biologii. Kiev, 2001. One chapter on Stanchinskiy.

Nechaeva, N. T., and Sergey Ivanovich Medvedev. “Pamyati Vladimira Vladimirovicha Stanchinskogo (k istorii biotsenologii v SSSR).” Byulleten’ Moskovskogo obshchestva ispytateley prirody, Otdel biologicheskiy 82 (1977): 109–117. Stanchinskiy’s life and work, especially at Askaniya-Nova, by two biologists who worked with him there; with a list of Stanchinskiy’s works.

Shtil’mark, Feliks Robertovich. History of the Russian Zapovedniks, 1895–1995. Edinburgh: Russian Nature Press, 2003.

Weiner, Douglas R. A Little Corner of Freedom: Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachev. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

———. Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia. 2nd ed. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. The best source in English on Stanchinskiy.

Geoffrey H. Harper