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Fersman and the Kola Peninsula

Academician V I Vernadsky among his young students at Moscow University. Vernadsky is sitting in the centre and Fersman is standing on the right. Photograph taken in 1911/2.

In the last of his trilogy on the great names of 20th Century geochemistry*, Geoffrey Glasby# remembers a Wollaston-winning giant of Soviet Earth science.

Geoscientist 18.7 July 2007

Aleksandr Evgenievich Fersman, one of the leading geologists of the Soviet Union during the inter-war years, is best remembered today for his efforts to survey and prospect for mineral resources - notably the huge urtite deposits of the Kola Peninsula. Fersman also made major contributions in mineralogy and geochemistry and was in his day a well-known populariser of geology. In awarding Fersman the Wollaston Medal in 1943 ~, Herbert Leader Hawkins, President, described him as ‘one of the greatest in the great company of Russian geologists.’

A E Fersman (at the centre) during the geological excursion to the Kukisvumchorr apatite deposit located (Photo courtesy of Prof Y L Voytekhovsky at KSC)

Aleksandr Evgenievich Fersman was born in St Petersburg on 8 November 1883 to a family that valued both art and science. His father, Evgeny Aleksandrovich, was an architect and his mother, Maria Eduardovna Kessler, a pianist and painter. Their son graduated from the Odessa Classical Gymnasium in 1901 with a gold medal and entered the Mining Academy at Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. Finding the mineralogy course dull, he had a mind to study art history instead - but was dissuaded and subsequently studied physical chemistry - notably the properties of crystals.

Fersman’s father was a general in the Tsarist army and promotion took him and the family to Moscow in 1903 where, in 1904, Fersman became a doctoral student of V I Vernadsky1 who was to be a major influence. Fersman continued his crystallographic work, for which he was awarded the Gold Medal for Young Scientists by the Mineralogical Society2. Then in 1908, he began postgraduate work with Victor Mordechai Goldschmidt (not to be confused with Victor Moritz Goldschmidt, founder of modern geochemistry) at Heidelberg University. Goldschmidt sent Fersman on a tour of Western European jewellers to examine natural diamond crystals, resulting in a joint monograph. While a student in Heidelberg, Fersman also visited the French mineralogist François Lacroix in Paris and came across pegmatites for the first time on Elba3,4,5,6.
Map of the Kola Peninsula showing location of Apatity which was the base for Fersman’s 1921 expedition (map of kola peninsula - MSN Encarta mht) In 1910, Fersman returned to Russia as curator of mineralogy at the Russian Academy of Science’s Mineralogical Museum. Nine years later he became the Museum’s director, following his election as an Academician. Fersman also became Professor at the People’s (Shanyavsky) University, Moscow and in 1912 taught one of the world’s first courses in geochemistry (Bailes 1990). He also helped found Priroda (Nature), a popular scientific journal to which he contributed throughout his life.

After the Revolution (1917) and 1914–18 war, Fersman realised the importance of developing the country’s natural resources, particularly its minerals. Expeditions were organised to remoter parts of Russia; Fersman himself led several: to the Kola Peninsula, Central Asia, Altai, Transbaikal, the Caucausus and the Crimea7; but most of these are not recorded in the western literature. After the Revolution, contacts with the west became limited and most Russian scientific literature went untranslated, making it sometimes difficult to trace Fersman’s activities. However, we do know that in 1921, Fersman led a major expedition to the Khibiny massif in the Kola Peninsula.
Large single crystal of brown fersmanite (Ca4(Na,Ca)4(Ti,Nb)4(Si2O7)2O8F3) in a quartz matrix taken from the Khibiny Massif, Kola Peninsula, Murmanskaja Oblast'

Apatite for change

Rapid industrialisation in the Soviet Union began following J V Stalin’s ascension to power in 1924. By the beginning of the first Five-Year Plan for Soviet industry in 1927-29, mineralogy and geochemistry had already acquired high national status7. From 1922-34, the Soviet Academy of Sciences organised over 250 expeditions to study geology, geochemistry and mineralogy throughout the USSR. Fersman was particularly associated with the Khibiny and Lovozero massifs in the (notoriously inaccessible) Kola Peninsula. These are among the greatest deep alkaline massifs in the world, rising to 1050m above the surrounding taiga and separated by Lake Umpyavr.

Khibiny, at 1300km2, is the larger, western massif; Lovozero (650km2) lies to the east. The Murmansk Railway, which threads its way from Leningrad to the Arctic port of Murmansk, had been built in 1915-16 (by prisoners, most of whom died during the construction) and passed between Lake Imanda and the Khibiny massif. In 1920, a special train was sent to assess the viability of the line. And so began Fersman’s first encounter with the Kola Peninsula.

Academicians Vladamir Vernadsky (1863-1945) and Alexander Fersman (1883-1945), founders of the Russian school of geochemists in the later stages of their lives (Fersman 1958, P 356) As a direct result of this visit, Fersman and his colleagues decided to investigate the region – despite its inaccessibility and severe climate, swarms of insects and lack of roads, paths or habitation; and notwithstanding all the difficulties and hardships brought on by post-war famine and poverty. Year after year, with groups of young mineralogists, geochemists and petrologists, Fersman and his colleagues concentrated all their energies on Khibiny and its mineral wealth, attracted less by the region’s stark beauty, or the number of mineral bodies they found, than by the unusual geochemical processes displayed in the rocks.

The decisive event that led to the economic exploitation of Khibiny was the discovery in 1923-25 of a deposit that turned out to hold 60% of the world’s apatite resources. Scientific work on the economic development of Khibiny began in 1929. A railway line was laid to the deposit, a site chosen for a future town and mines, and enrichment plants constructed. Bringing ore deposits of this magnitude into play in this remote region posed gigantic logistical problems. In December 1929 an industrial combine was founded, which withing five years led to the development of a great industrial centre located 150km from the ice-free ports of the Arctic Ocean. The speed of development can be judged by the fact that two million tonnes (Mt) of apatite-nepheline rocks were mined in 1934, with a projected output of 7Mt for 1937. The region remains a major source of minerals today.

The year 1929 also saw the founding of Khibinogorsk township, named after the Khibiny mountains surrounding it. It was renamed Kirovsk in 1934 and is presently the home of the joint stock company Apatit, the largest mining and concentrating enterprise in Europe. The nearby settlement of Apatity was founded in 1935. Earlier, in 1930, Fersman founded the Kola Science Centre as the Khibiny Alpine Station of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Fersman was its director for the next 15 years. Now called the Kola Science Centre of the Russian Academy of Science, it comprises 10 resesearch institutes, with headquarters in Apatity.

V I Vernadsky as young man (Vernadsky 2007) At Khibiny, there is a central ring of melteigite-urtite which is younger than the main nepheline syenites and was mainly emplaced along major faults some 360-380Ma8. Within the urtite are lenses rich in apatite. Six of these lenses are presently mined in enormous open-cast pits or in underground mines where the near-surface ores are exhausted11. At present, 11Mt of ore are mined from these deposits annually – comprising 8% of total world phosphate production10. Recently, a number of new publications on the Kola alkaline deposits have updated our understanding of these important formations9,11,12 and highlighted some negative aspects of mining9 that were never before of concern within the communist system, where production was everything.

Fersman as mineralogist

Russia’s great mineral museums trace their origins to Peter the Great (1672-1725), who donated his personal collection (a small set of stone objects acquired abroad) to the first state museum in Russia, the Kunstkammer. This ultimately developed into the main national depository of minerals, the Fersman Mineralogical Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Under Fersman’s leadership (from 1919), museum activities were directed towards solving practical economic problems, researching the country's mineral deposits and developing research and laboratory techniques.
In 1934, the Soviet Academy of Sciences (museum included) moved to Moscow. Thirty railway carriages were required to move more than 60,000 specimens, and it took three years of energetic work to reestablish the museum. By 1937, in time for the 17th International Geological Congress in Moscow in which Fersman played an important organisational role7, the exhibitions were open again.

The 17th IGC showcased Soviet geologists’ considerable achievements (Milanovsky 2004). However, 1937 was also the year of Stalin’s Great Terror, when Soviet people feared contact with foreigners and were suspicious of them – an atmosphere that could not help but cast a shadow over the Congress and its excursions. Nevertheless, the excursion to Karelia and the Kola Peninsula has been described in glowing terms13.

Fersman was first and foremost a mineralogist and at Khibiny he found he had unique opportunities. In 1926, he reported the occurrence of about 90 minerals in the nepheline syenites and their contact zones, based on the collection of over six tonnes of samples over a distance of about 3000km during a period of five years by parties ranging from two to eleven men14. A new mineral, fersmannite, was discovered and named in his honour15,16,17. The mineral fersmite was also named for him18,19. Fersman named no less than 19 new minerals himself, many of them from the Kola Peninsula3. Wall9 has remarked that there are more mineral species at Khibiny than anywhere else in the world. So far, 360 well-characterised minerals have been identified from there, out of a total of 3700 accepted mineral species worldwide.

A E Fersman after his geological expedition to the Khibiny Mountains in 1922 (Photo courtesy of Prof Y L Voytekhovsky at KSC) This diversity arises from the extreme variation in chemical composition of the nepheline syenites (in particular, their high Zr, Nb, REE and Ti content) and the many pegmatites associated with the second ring complex. Pekov20 has subsequently reported about 1000 mineral species from the Kola Peninsula, and estimated that this region is the type locality for 180 mineral species. The Khibiny complex is the type locality for 130 of the 180 type minerals – the extensive mining there being responsible for this avalanche of discoveries - and Yakovenchuk et al.12 have published a magnificent book on the minerals of the Khibiny alkaline massif.

Fersman also continued his early interest in pegmatites. He visited localities in the Urals, Transbaikal, Karelia and the Kola Peninsula21 and recognised the successive stages of their formation. His book Pegmatites, vol. 1: Granite-pegmatites (1931), reached its third edition in 1940. In the Kola Peninsula, the rich pegmatite bonanza results from unusual igneous intrusions, some rich in alkali metals (especially sodium) and poor in silica and aluminum - producing agpaitic pegmatites.

In the early 1920s, Fersman devoted himself to a study of the distribution of the chemical elements in the Earth's crust. Fersman worked out the percentages for most of the elements and proposed that these quantities be called "clarkes" in honour of F W Clarke, the pioneering American geochemist22 (although Fersman calculated them in terms of atomic percentages). Fersman was also interested in the ways in which elements are combined and redistributed in the crust, coining the term "technogenesis" for the role of humans in this process.
Statue of A E Fersman in Apatity

Vox pop

Fersman published extensively, including specialist and popular books. Geochemistry for Everyone2 (1958) is of particular interest because it emphasises how the Russian school of geochemists made extensive use of geochemistry to solve practical problems – quite a different approach from that of V M Goldschmidt, whose Geochemistry23 was published at almost the same time (1954). Fersman received major honours, including the Lenin Prize (1929), the Stalin Prize (1942, for the study of ‘useful minerals of the Kola Peninsula’), the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London (1943 - one year before Goldschmidt) and the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. The Russian Academy of Sciences has an award for outstanding achievements in mineralogy and geochemistry named for Fersman, and he is also remembered in the name of the research vessel, RV Geolog Fersman.

Fersman died in the Soviet Georgian city of Sochi on 20 May 1945, the result of bad health and overwork over a number of years4. He was best known for his work understanding and exploiting the Soviet Union’s mineral wealth, but he also maintained wide scientific interests throughout his career. He was also a great populariser of geology and had many administrative responsibilites through which he furthered the geological sciences in Russia.

Fersman’s status in his home country can perhaps best be judged in the words of Academician V A Obruchev21, who wrote in his obituary: “…we have lost a big man, a man tireless in work and in quest, a man with a limitless range of interests and boundless potentialities and talent, a trail-blazer in science, a fine orator and populariser, and with the priceless gift of infecting all around him with his dynamic energy and enthusiasm.”


I thank Dr G A Cherkashov, Professor R J Howarth, Professor K -H Wedepohl and Professor Y L Voytekhovsky for their helpful comments, Dr Sue Bowler for editorial assistance, and Professors Y L Voytekhovsky of the Kola Science Centre, RAS, Apatity and M I Novgorodova of the Fersman Mineralogical Museum, RAS, Moscow, for sending me a number of outstanding photographs for inclusion in this article.

Related interest

  • The history of the Fersman Mineralogical Museum
  • Milanovsky, E E 2004 Three sessions of the International Geological Congress held in Russia and the USSR (1887, 1937, 1984) Episodes 27, 101-106


~The presentation of the Wollaston Medal to Fersman was made to a Mr A M Krainsky, Attaché to the Soviet Embassy, who received it on behalf of the recipient (Quart J Geol Soc Lond XCIX; xlv-xlvi )

#Dr G P Glasby, Department of Geochemistry, GZG, Goldschmidtstr 1, University of Göttingen, Germany: g p glasby@talk21 com

* Geoff Glasby’s other features in this series featured Viktor M Goldschmidt and Lawrence R Wager – see Geoscientist 17.3 March 2007 pp22-27, and 17.12 December 2007 pp20-25.

Selected works by A E Fersman

  • Precious and Semi-Precious Stones (1920)
  • Geochemistry in Russia (1922)
  • Chemical Elements of the Earth and the Cosmos (1923)
  • Three Years beyond the Arctic Circle (1924),
  • Geochemical Migration of the Elements (Fersman 1929)
  • Mineralogy for Everyone (first edition 1928, fifth edition 1935)
  • Four volumes on Geochemistry between 1933 and 1939 (e.g Fersman 1933)
  • The Scientific Study of Soviet Mineral Resources (1935)
  • The Search for Mineral Deposits on the Basis of Geochemistry and Mineralogy (1939)
  • Minerals of the Urals (vol. 1, elements and sulphides) (editor, 1941).
  • Twenty-Five Years of Soviet Natural Science (1944)
  • The March of Soviet Science (1945)
  • Reminiscences about Minerals (1945)
  • Two books on geochemistry published posthumously in English (1952).
  • Geochemical and mineralogical methods of prospecting. U.S. Geological Survey Circular 127: 1-37 (1952).
  • Geochemistry for Everyone (1958)


  1. Bailes, K E 1990 Science and Russian culture in the age of revolution V I Vernadsky and His Scientific School, 1863-1945 Indiana University Press, Blumington and Indianapoplis, 238 pp
  2. Fersman, A 1958 Geochemistry for Everyone Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow 454 pp
  3. Spencer, L J 1947 Fersman (Alexandr Evgenievich) (1883-1945) Mineral Mag 28: 191-192
  4. Anon 1947 Fersman (Aleksandr Evgenievich) Mineral Mag 28, 191-192
  5. Anon 2003 The Unknown Fersman, The 120th anniversary of A E Fersman dedicated Novgorodova MI (ED), Moscow, 248 pp
  6. Krüger, P 1979 Aleksandr Evgen’evic Fersman (1883-1945) In: Guntau, Martin, ed Biographien bedeutender Geowissenschaftler der Sowjetunion Schriften der geol Wiss , Berlin 14, 145-152
  7. Fersman, A E 1935 The scientific study of Soviet mineral resources Martin Lawrence Limited, London, 149 pp (translated from Russian and edited by C P Dutt)
  8. Kramm, U , Kogarko, L N , Kononova, V A and Vartiainen, H 1993 The Kola Alkaline Province of the CIS and Finland: Precise Rb-Sr ages define 380–360 Ma age range for all magmatism Lithos 30, 33-44
  9. Wall, F 2003 Kola Peninsula: minerals and mines Geology Today 19, 206-211
  10. Anon 1998 Phosphate Recovery Phosphorus availability in the 21st century Management of a non-renewable resource Phosphorus & Potassium Issue No 217 18 pp
  11. Wall, F and Zaitsev, A N Eds 2004 Phoscorites and carbonatites: from mantle to mine the key example of the Kola Alkaline Province Mineralogical Society of Great Britain & Ireland, London 498 pp
  12. Yakovenchuk, V N , Ivaniuk, G Yu, Pakhomovsky, Ya A and Men'shikov, Yu P 2005 Khibiny Edited by F Wall Laplandia Minerals, Apatity, Russia 472 pp
  13. Hurlbut, C S 1939 Mineralogical observations on the Northern Excursion of the XVII International Geological Congress Am Mineral 24, 134-144
  14. Fersman, A E 1926 Minerals of the Kola Peninsula Am Mineral 11, 289-299
  15. Labuntsov, A N 1929 Fersmanite – a new mineral from the Khibiny Tundra Doklady RAS 12, 297-301 (In Russian)
  16. Lacun, A 1931 Fersmannite Am Mineral 16, 92
  17. Sokolova, E , Hawthorne, F C and Khomyakov, A P 2002 The crystal chemistry of fersmanite, Ca4(Na,Ca)4(Ti,Nb)4(Si2O7)2O8F3 Can Mineral 40, 1421-1428
  18. Bonstedt-Kupletskaya, E M and Burova, T A 1946 Fersmite – a new calcium niobate from the pegmatites of Vishnevy Mountains Doklady RAS 52, 69-71
  19. Fleischer, M 1947 Fersmite Am Mineral 32, 373
  20. Pekov, I 2001 Kola Peninsula: The greatest mineral treasure in Russia today Mineralogical Record (Fersman Mineralogical Museum, Moscow) Jan/ Feb
  21. Spencer, L J 1946 Memorial of Aleksandr Evgenievich Fersman Am Mineral 31, 173-178
  22. Clarke, F W 1924 The Data of Geochemistry U S Geol Surv Bull 770: 841 pp
  23. Goldschmidt , V M 1954 Geochemistry Clarendon Press, Oxford 730 pp
  24. Statseva, A 2003 The town in the middle of the Yukos storm The St Petersburg Times July 29, issue 888 (56)
  25. Kojenikov, A 2002 The Great War, the Russian Civil War and the invention of Big Science Science in Context (Cambridge University Press) 15(2), 239-275
  26. Krementsov, N 2006 Big revolution, little revolution: science and politics in Bolshevik Russia Social Research 73, 1173-1204
  27. Muir Wood, R 1960 Geology versus dogma: the Russian rift New Scientist 12 June, 234-237
Josef Stalin, born Losif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, 18 December 1878 – 5 March 1953) was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee from 1922 until his death in 1953.

Historical perspectives

Joseph Stalin became General Secretary of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party in 1922 and leader of the Soviet Union in 1924, following the death of Lenin. Under his direction, a highly ambitious programme of state-guided industrialisation was undertaken, relying on Gulag labour camps and slave prisoners. This policy was a major factor in the victory of the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a world power. It helped modernise the backward Soviet economy, but at huge human cost; millions died as a result.

A key part of the industrialisation started in Khibiny late in 1929, when the world's largest and highest-quality apatite deposit was discovered. Sergei Kirov lost no time capitalising on this find, convening a summit of geologists to assess mining prospects while simultaneously ordering the creation of a new town, Khibinogorsk, so that mining could begin26. However, Kirov was one of the principal architects of the Gulag and the new town formed part of his plans9 (Wall 2003). Between 1930 and 1932, nearly 48,000 people were sent to work the area. Khibinogorsk (renamed Kirovsk after Kirov was murdered) was designed as a labour camp of detainment and death and is now said to be a city built on bones24.

In the 1920s and 30s, Soviet scientists were the first to successfully accomplish the transition from ‘little science’ to ‘big science’ on a national scale25,26. Their government's commitment to the development of science was unprecedented and the Bolsheviks spared no effort in building up the education and research systems. Scientists became a privileged elite. As Hurlbut (1939) has pointed out, the leaders at that time were well aware that the development of natural resources was of prime importance for the USSR. Geology was favoured and no expense was spared; prospecting frequently went far beyond what would be economic in a capitalist country. This massive programme involved the survey and prospecting of 20 million km2 of Soviet territory over a 10-year period in which geochemistry – and A E Fersman – played a major role7.

This programme began to establish the Soviet Union as a resource-rich country. Working geologists in the Soviet Union far exceeded their counterparts in Western Europe in number at that time. In the 1950s for example, more than half the world’s Earth scientists (in the broadest sense), numbering between 100,000 and 200,000, worked in the Soviet Union27. This figure had probably already been reached in the 1920s or 30s. As a result of this heritage and these experiences, Russian colleagues still like to boast that they make the best field geologists in the world.