Salicicola Translations


to the 85th anniversary of his birth
Yu. K. Vinogradova, A. G. Kuklina, M. G. Pimenov,
A. K. Sytin, R. V. Kamelin, B. A. Yurtsev
Bot. Zhurn. 2005, 90 (1): 125-137
to the 60th anniversary of his birth
and 35th anniversary of scientific and social activity
G. M. Proskuryakova, B. A. Yurtsev
Bull. MOIP, Otd. biol. 1980, 85 (4): 97-104
Translated and compiled by I. Kadis


A. K. Skvortsov was born on February 9, 1920 in Zhelanya (Ugra District, Smolensk Oblast) and spent his early-childhood years in that village. It was Alexey's father, Konstantin Alexeyevich, who became his first teacher of botany and mentor in plant collecting. He taught him how to identify plants using Mayevsky [a standard guide to the plants of European Russia] and how to collect herbarium specimens. The father, who fought in World War I, was a doctor: initially a rural general practitioner, later he became a prominent psychiatrist and psychotherapist in Moscow. In his youth he had been an avid herbarium collector and had a good knowledge of the Russian European temperate flora. He often took his son with him on his walking tours and boat trips, which of course stimulated the boy's interest in the flora and botany in general. His grandmother (Father's mother) taught Alexey elementary school subjects including scriptures.

His mother, Yevgeniya Ivanovna (her maiden name wasYastrebova) received her education in one of Moscow's grammar schools (gymnazia). The parents belonged to the last intelligentsia generation of the pre-revolutionary time. After Alexey was born, they had a daughter, Yevgeniya.

In 1929, when Alexey was almost ten, the family moved to Moscow; however, until 1940 they spent summers at their rural house. (The house was burned down by the fascist occupants in 1942.) The urban life did not promote Alexey's interest towards plants, neither did the botany class in the secondary school. However, high school provided an excellent foundation in math and chemistry. He graduated in 1936.


Driven by the family tradition, Alexey became a student of the 2nd Moscow Medical Institute. Though he took a very intensive half-year introductory course of general biology taught by L. Ya. Blyakher, he remained indifferent towards the subject. It was the histology class that inspired his keen interest. This class was taught by B. I. Lavrentyev, the head of Histology Department, a man of great charisma and a gifted lecturer, who was very popular among students. In each of his lectures, he skillfully included the most recent results of scientific research among classic morphological descriptions, so that all structures were presented as alive and functional.

During the junior year, the clinic residency started. By then Alexey's scientific interests were already formed, and they lay in the field of histology. His research debut took place within the student research group, which was very active at the time. His first research work was dedicated to the adrenal innervation disorder linked to specific childhood infections. At the same time, during his sophomore year, Skvortsov started collecting herbarium specimens, which he continued to do throughout his life.

In June 1941, when the graduation exams were in full swing, the war began. Alexey was not drafted because of his severe nearsightedness. Upon graduation he served as a physician: first in Ryazan, and then in one of the military hospitals in Kirov (Vyatka). Late in the summer of 1943, upon the victory at Kursk, which marked the turning point of the war, the government took decisive steps towards science advancement. The Academy of Sciencesopened post-graduate schools for all disciplines including those most useless during the war time. Some most capable young scientists were even recalled from their military duties upon recommendation of members of the Academy. In 1944, by the initiative of B. I. Lavrentyev, A. K. Skvortsov was invited to Moscow; however, Lavrentyev died soon after that. His death in February of 1944 at the age of 52 became a great and unexpected sorrow for A. K. Skvortsov. Skvortsov became a postgraduate student at the Research Institute for Cytology, Histology, and Embryology of the USSR Academy of Sciences. This institute, founded by N. K. Koltsov, used to play the leading role in the advancement of biological research in the country. Now G. K. Khrushchov, the director of the institute, supervised his work. Skvortsov had to change the research subject for a study of the microscopic structure of the spleen in primitive vertebrates. Khrushchov was a man of broad knowledge and great indulgence: he wouldn't terminate any initiatives, neither in the field of zoology, nor botany, even those that obviously trespassed the limitations of the study program. Thus Skvortsov was able to complete and publish his first botanical research works while being a postgraduate student. These were descriptions of steppe vegetation fragments at the northern limit of the steppes' range, that is, in the extreme south of Moscow Oblast, south of the Osetr River.

The war was still going on; meanwhile, the laboratory work was just being initiated. On the other hand, an excellent opportunity opened for Skvortsov to enhance the biological component of his education, which of course could not have been sufficient upon graduation from a medical institute. While working on his dissertation, he took full-length courses of general zoology and botany at the Moscow University; he attended V. V. Alekhin's course on geobotany [ecology of plant communities] and worked his way through the Major Practical Study at the Department of Geobotany under the guidance of P. A. Smirnov. He also improved his grasp of foreign languages. From 1944 to 1948 Alexey practically completed a second graduate program.

The spirit of high-quality research and, at the same time, a democratic atmosphere dominated the institute at that time. Relationships among all the staff, from professors to postgraduate students, were particularly warm and informal at the experimental biostation in Kropotovo (on the Oka River, near the Town of Kashira). Problems and controversial subjects in biology could be discussed either at the lunch table on the veranda, or on the pile of old logs stocked under the linden trees, or else during a weekend spent on a drift sand island on the Oka. Often times Skvortsov talked with Ye. N. Volotov, the station director, and also with V. V. Sakharov, a man of distinguished benevolence, infinite dedication to science, and great pedagogic talent. In spite of a considerable age difference, the friendship with V. V. Sakharov lasted since then for many years--until Sakharov's death.

A. K. Skvortsov's Candidate Thesis, tailored to Khrushchov's scientific pursuit, was dedicated to the evolutionary study of the spleen vascular system. Though the foundation of the work was a study of the spleen in fishes, it also embraced lines of this organ's evolution, reaching as far as mammals and birds. Skvortsov defended his thesis in the spring of 1948 at the Institute for Evolutionary Morphology, with the Council chaired by I. I. Schmalhausen.

In the summer of 1948 Skvortsov traveled to the Caucasus to collect material for his new research project: comparative histologic study of blood and connective tissue in mammals.

He collected and analyzed a significant amount of material and published two articles in the Academy Reports. However, after the infamous August session of the VASKhNIL [All-Union Academy for Agricultural Science], the scientific and moral atmosphere at the Institute sustained drastic change. The Laboratory of Genetics was liquidated, its scientists and staff fired, among them many older friends and colleagues, whom Skvortsov deeply regarded. The comparative histology of the connective tissue and blood fell outside the range of acceptable subjects, tagged as being "too far away from practical necessity" and "the science for science itself". The topic was excluded from the official research plan. An extensive general article on the evolution of the spleen structures, submitted by Skvortsov for publication in the Izvestiya AN SSSR, was never published. At the same time, it became obvious that within the institution it would not be possible to further pursue floristic studies or any research concerning plant evolution.


A. K. Skvortsov's professional life in botany began in 1951, when he was forced to leave the Institute for the Denezhkin Kamen Preserve in the Urals. During the year he spent there, he completed a floristic study of the preserve and wrote the Flora of the vascular plants for the area together with L. I. Krasovskiy, who had been working there before. In 1952 Skvortsov was offered the position of Senior Research Scientist at the Higher Plants Department to participate in the construction of a new botanic garden at the Moscow University. Also in 1952, he married Galina Alexandrovna Pokrovskaya, then a postgraduate student of a famous genetic scientist B. L. Astaurov. They had twin boys in 1954. The marriage has been a happy one.

Beginning a new career proved difficult. It took time for Skvortsov to define the direction of further work in the new botanic garden. However, from the mid-50's he settled down, his life becoming more organized and productive. During the wintertime, he was engaged in herbarium study, often leaving Moscow for Leningrad and spending months in the Botanical Institute there. In spring and summer he conducted field observations in remote regions as well as around Moscow. He collected numerous plants for the Botanic Garden expositions, dendrarium, and nursery.

Skvortsov stayed at the Garden until 1972. There he developed and curated the Systematics Section. At the same time, he was lecturing on some theoretical questions of the systematics at the Higher Plants Department of the University. But his most important achievement during that time was the treatment of the genus Salix within the USSR and adjacent countries' territory. He defended his Doctorate Thesis on this subject in 1966 at the Moscow University and published the corresponding monograph in 1968.

In this book A. K. Skvortsov demonstrated groundlessness of more than a hundred willow "species" mentioned in the literature. For all of the accepted species, he showed geographic areas, which he was able to compile upon an enormous-scale study of herbarium material. He succeeded in considerably expanding the range of characters that had been traditionally in use when distinguishing between willow species. What made it possible were his regular field observations: he developed the ability to discriminate between objects of his study at any stage and during any season of the year. He debunked numerous "hybrids" that had contributed to the infamous reputation of the difficult genus among taxonomists. He delimited actual ranges of polymorphism for taxa; discovered new, reliable diagnostic characters for species. Another important achievement of the monograph, which without doubt can be considered classic, was a proposal of an in-depth, thoroughly justified concept of the evolution and phylogeny of the studied genus; a concept that fits well with biogeographic and paleogeographic data concerning the climate and landscape evolution of the northern temperate belt during the Cenozoic era.

In 1970 his book was nominated as prize-winning by the Moscow Society of Naturalists (MOIP), and in 1999 it was translated into English and published in Finland.


Upon defending the thesis, in autumn of 1966, Skvortsov was offered the part-time position as head of the Herbarium at the GBS (Main Botanic Garden in Moscow) by the Garden's director, Acad. N. V. Tsitsin. In 1972 he invited Skvortsov to make a full-time commitment as head of the USSR Flora Department at the Main Botanic Garden. With this promotion, Skvortsov's working style did not change, though the work became more intensive. In 1974, he was elected Chairman at the Moscow Branch of All-Union Botanical Society. (In this capacity, he became the successor of Prof. A. A. Uranov, who had presided over the Moscow Branch for many years until his death.) In 1982 A. K. Skvortsov received the title of Professor. Since 1987, he abandoned the administrative position of the department head and became the head research scientist at the Garden, while remaining the scientific curator of the Herbarium until 2003. In 1989 he was nominated to receive the USSR National Award for his contribution to the production of the USSR Arctic Flora.

The shortage of science financing during the 90's hit many research institutions and the Main Botanic Garden was not an exception. At the same time, new possibilities for international cooperation emerged. During the most difficult time, in 1992-1994, A. K. Skvortsov, with support of the American colleagues, received a significant grant from the American Geographic Society for the field study of the flora of the Lower Volga Basin. At that time Skvortsov experienced a remarkable boost of scientific creativity and reached a new level of generalization. In 1999 he received the title of Professor Emeritus.

In his later years A. K. Skvortsov's prime scientific interest has moved significantly towards the study of birches. Like in his willow study, he provided a new treatment for the birches of this country, where, for the first time, each of the species acquired a rather detailed area map.

Skvortsov identifies the field of his major scientific interest as vascular-plant systematics with a focus on willows, birches, as well as the family Onagraceae. He is also the author of a few articles on grasses, particularly, on embryo morphology and prophyll homology in Poaceae. By publishing these articles, Alexey Konstantinovich has payed tribute to his long-standing special interest. (Its foundation was laid during his youth at P. A. Smirnov's Major Practical Study Class.) He also has accumulated vast material on poplars, but barely started assimilating it. In 2002 he received the V. L. Komarov Award from the Russian Academy of Sciences for the series of works on the systematics of willows and birches.

Contribution to the Theoretical Systematics

From 1967 A. K. Skvortsov generalized in a number of publications on historic and theoretic aspects of systematics, particularly, the species theory. He wrote polemic articles in support of Darwinism. His intention was to provide evidence for the existence of species as real entities rather than just products of abstract logic and philosophy. According to his approach, populations should be the only grounds for understanding species as well as infraspecific categories; no one should attempt to promote single specimens, forms, or varieties to the taxon status. Skvortsov also expressed original views in the field of karyotype studies. He has named depoliploidization, that is, reduction of the chromosome number by a certain factor, as one of the possible ways of karyotype evolution. Thus the origin of diploids from polyploids could be possibly explained. Though theoretically this phenomenon is considered possible by geneticists, it is not currently accepted in karyosystematics.

Skvortsov has been trying to emphasize the importance of systematics as the discipline of theoretic biology that occupies the central position among other disciplines. Therefore, he has been pursuing with keen interest all recent developments in biology that can enhance systematics, including genome molecular analyses. However, he has never found it possible to obtain some kind of a universal tool that could provide answers to any questions in the field of systematics.

Being a determined Darwinist, Skvortsov reflects that any attentive and thinking naturalist inevitably realizes the crucial role of selection in evolution. Unlike general macroevolutionary hypothetic processes, which have been reconstructed using logical interpretations of facts that tend to be speculative, the microevolutionary processes are not only evident in nature, but literally tangible, palatable with all human senses.

Skvortsov came to this conclusion during the years of field observations on willows. Being particularly sensitive to individual variations in willows, trying to assign to a certain species each individual clone he encountered within an area rich in willows, Skvortsov then developed his original method, which he called the "taxonomic profile method." It proved to be rather effective and enabled him to come up with important conclusions as regards variability range and taxonomic significance of characters, the extent of their genetic determination and adaptive modifications. As a result of his research, the range of characters traditionally used by salicologists has been significantly augmented. Here the keen and sensitive eye of the naturalist is akin to one of an artist working on a landscape, which confirms his idea of the proximity of systematics and visual arts.

Trips and Collections

Alexey Konstantinovich is a man of vast erudition. His started his career in botany with field floristic surveys with emphasis on the distribution of forest-steppe communities and discovered new types of plant communities in southern Moscow Oblast and the neighboring Ryazan and Tula Oblasts. From 1946, the territory of his surveys began rapidly enlarging. In the 70-90's, while working at the Main Botanic Garden, he had a truck for distant field trips at his disposal; yet he continued his on-foot field walks, either alone or with a few companions.

Skvortsov has surveyed the flora of most remote regions of the former Soviet Union: the Kola Peninsula and Karelia; the Northern and Polar Urals and Republic of Komi; Baltic Republics and Kaliningrad area; the chernozem oblasts (Lipetsk, Kursk, Belgorod, Voronezh); non-chernozem European area; the Southern Urals and Mugodzhary; the Lower Volga Basin; Byelorussia, Moldova, and Ukraine (the Carpathians and Trans-Carpathia, Ukrainian Polesye and Podolia, Crimea Peninsula, Donetsk Coal Basin); the Caucasus (Northern Caucasus as well as Transcaucasia--Abkhazia, Adzharia, western and eastern Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), Kazakhstan (southern mountainous part and Central Hummocks area as well as the River Emba); Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, Tadzhikistan (including the Pamirs), Turkmenia (the Kopet-Dag), the Altai and West Siberian steppe, Baykal, Buryatia and Dahuria, central Yakutia, the Maritime Province, southern Sakhalin. Abroad he visited the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway); Central Europe (Austria, Germany, Poland); the US (New England, the Appalachians, the states of Missouri, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Alaska); India (Kashmir, central and eastern Himalayan piedmont, and the tropical area); and finally, he has traveled in China.

Wherever and for whatever time period he went, he always returned with herbarium collections. He has collected at least seventy or eighty thousand herbarium samples. Of these, some twenty thousand constitute his own collection of plants from Central Russia and the Lower Volga; twenty-five thousand are his contribution to collections of willows, poplars, birches, and the Onagraceae Family; many samples are preserved with general collections from the Crimea, Caucasus, Siberia, foreign and introduced flora; some ten thousand are yet to be sorted, labeled, and mounted.

During A. K. Skvortsov's tenure, the Herbarium of the Main Botanic Garden grew from 60-70 to 560 thousand sheets. Two series of exsiccatae were started: Plants of the European Russia and Trees and Shrubs of the Natural USSR Flora. Exchange was established with a vast variety of partner institutions both in this country and abroad. On average, the Herbarium was augmented by some 14-15 thousand sheets per year, of which 3-4 thousand came from abroad.

Alexey Konstantinovich wrote a book about the herbarium work, in which he deliberately united topics that had been usually considered separately: purely practical directions concerning techniques of maintaining a herbarium along with genuinely principal questions of systematics as well as problems of history and organization of science.

Achievements in Introduction

While working at the Main Botanic Garden, Alexey Konstantinovich, together with his staff, conducted experiments on plant introduction, which he had started at the University as early as the late 1950's. He approached problems involved with the study as an evolutionary biologist rather than just a selectioner. His primary aim for any introduction, rather than trying to acclimatize a certain genotype, has been establishing a genetically heterogeneous stable population that could serve a genetic pool for subsequent selection of valuable characters. The approach proved to be successful and lead to creation of a blue honeysuckle domesticated population and later an apricot hardy in Moscow. Though the blue honeysuckle is considered everywhere in Europe to be bitter, inedible, Skvortsov obtained edible fruit on a honeysuckle originating from the Pyrenees in just two generations.

Corylopsis and Fothergilla (Hamamelidaceae) planted by him in Moscow have been successfully growing and blooming. Platanusoccidentalis, Caryacordiformis, C. ovata, C. laciniosa, Castaneadentata proved to be hardy and reached a large size. The European beech from the Crimea never suffered winter damage during 25 years.

According to Alexey Konstantinovich, successful introductory work is hardly possible without understanding of microevolution. And the only way to gain this understanding, to watch the processes of microevolution, is making direct observations in nature. Even during this age of science specialization, a biologist cannot be a narrow-minded specialist, but rather a naturalist and simply a plant-lover.

Pedagogic Work

Many generations of scholars consider themselves students of A. K. Skvortsov. Taxonomic research under his leadership has employed his original method: a combination of empiric observations in nature with subsequent cultivation of plants in the botanic garden. The method has proved to be efficient for making correct taxonomic decisions.

Typically he would offer postgraduate students research topics concerning the study of plant microevolution. The study of goldenrod (Solidagovirgaurea) has shown that plants brought from different parts of its area retained the differences developed at their original habitats even when grown in the uniform environment of a botanic garden. Another example is the study of prickly cucumber (Echinocystis) that was naturalized in this country from North America after World War II and has rapidly spread northward while developing physiological adaptations to new environment. Plants grown from Ukrainian seed just started flowering while those coming from seed collected around Vologda had already completed their cycle and died off. The subject of yet another study has been a plant constantly enduring harsh impact of natural selection: Cytisusruthenicus growing in the sand-dune areas of the Don River Valley. It's only in interhillock depressions that the seedlings of this plant can appear. Of them, mostly the rapid growers with the longest internodes survive, those best adapted for sand blanketing.

These are just a few examples of research on the variability of plants undertaken under the leadership of A. K Skvortsov. To estimate the overall scope of his pedagogic influence, suffice it to say that a total of 26 Ph.D. theses have been defended under his guidance, and five of his pupils have become Doctors of Biological Science: A. N. Berkutenko, V. A. Nedoluzhko, Yu. K. Vinogradova, M. S. Ignatov, and V. A. Sagalaev.

Popularization of Science, Editorial Work, and Conservation Advocacy

A. K. Skvortsov has played an active role in the life of scientific community both in this country and abroad. He has been on editorial boards of such widely known journals as BotanicheskiyZhurnal [The Botanic Journal], Flora, Byulleten GBS [Bulletin of the Main Botanic Garden USSR/Russian Acad. Sc.] Vast erudition and constant interest to general problems in biology and its connections with other disciplines naturally brought Alexey Konstantinovich to Priroda [Nature] Magazine. He joined the editorial board in 1971 and soon took on a challenging assignment becoming the deputy editor at the biology section. He has worked at this capacity until now, published many original articles and book reviews tailored for most diversified audience, in accordance with the mission of the popular-science magazine. As a conservation advocate, Skvortsov proposed organization of a national park in the Ugra River Valley (Kaluga Oblast) back in 1980. After long negotiations and with the help of local grassroot organizations, the park has been established, though it does not yet include the Ugra River reaches in Smolensk Oblast.

Scientific Quest, Harmony, Integrity

A. K. Skvortsov is a man of highly developed aesthetic sensitivity. Be it a herbarium specimen or a canvas in an art gallery, he studies both equally meticulously and attentively. He takes deep interest in the history of his country, particularly that of its ancient Slavic territories, the Russian olden times. He is an avid book collector and art (painting and architecture) devotee. He has always been in quest for new impressions in the field of arts. When coming to a city unknown to him, Skvortsov starts from the city museums, particularly art collections.

He is equally sensitive to the ways people express their thoughts, the art of written speech. Times and again Skvortsov spoke out for high language standards in scientific publications, insisted that exact expression of a thought is impossible without mastering the language arts. Here is a sample that provides some idea of Skvortsov's ability in fine arts: a dedication inscribed by him on a copy of Guide to the plants of Moscow Oblast (1966).

A modest token, as a friendship band,
Accept, o Yurtsev, with thy gracious hand,
So in the land of Boreas and Aurora
Perhaps you don't forget the Moscow flora!

Alexey Konstantinovich started his scientific career at a field quite different and remote from botany. Similarly to other renowned botanists, such as R. K. Marschall-Bieberstein, G. S. Karelin, D. I. Litvinov, D. P. Syreishchikov, he approached botany through the "amateurishness"--and acquired the highest and immaculate professionalism. Having many remarkably productive, event-abundant years behind, Alexey Konstantinovich does not appear to us as a venerable patriarch of the Russian botanic science, though this attire belongs to him by way of right. Rather, he is an energetic modern person, who is, at the same time, wise, indulgent, tolerant to many imperfections of our age. Rare qualities of his personality--harmony and integrity--enable Skvortsov to stand up against the impact of technogeneous vacuum, which is absorbing the living world on the Earth. His firmness has been especially valuable during years of total loss of moral and other guidelines in the society. In this capacity, his personality much surpasses the limits of botanical science and belongs not only to the scanty botanic community. As far as the universality of knowledge and self-sufficiency, this character seems to come to our age right from the 18th century: it was then possible for medical doctors to become botanists and for botanists to be, at the same time, naturalists whose encyclopedic knowledge was combined with humanism in its broadest sense.

We wish Alexey Konstantinovich many years of good health and spirits!

The following species have been named in honor of A. K. Skvortsov:

Festuca skvortsovii E. Alexeev,
Salix alexi-skvortsovii A. P. Khokhr.,
Legousia skvortsovii Proskur.,
Circaea x skvortsovii Boufford,
Potamogeton skvortsovii G. Yu. Klinkova,
Poa skvortzovii Prob., and others.

Publications by A. K. Skvortsov

Translation I. Kadis
26 Feb 2006

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