I wrote this as a profile for the New Yorker over the summer of l999, but it never ran, for reasons that illustrate the problems I have even with as fine a publication as the New Yorker. Some of this had to do with Vadim himself, an unusually multi-dimensional individual and in this sense an “inconvenient person,” for a profile. Magazines have trouble with stories that have more than one idea or dimension. The writer who tries to do justice to the true complexity of his subject does so at the peril of being “all over the place,” a bad quality in journalism and one that has often been applied to me, which I’ve always been rather proud of. It certainly describes me in term of my globetrotting, but also my approach to writing, which is “loopy,” (another bad quality), i.e. “non- linear.” There was also a problem with the editor, who had worked on some of my most famous pieces for Vanity Fair in the eighties and is one of the most brilliant and hard-assed editors in the business. I would describe her approach as “pit-bull editing.” She appropriates the piece and tears it to shreds and won’t let go of a single word until she has thoroughly masticated it— a stressful experience for the writer, but often worthwhile. But in this case, she overdicked with the piece and got herself into a Humpty-Dumpty situation where she tore it apart and couldn’t put it back together. Furthermore, it turned out that she had a mental block against DNA and molecular biology and felt very uncomfortable about the scientific sections, no matter how many times they were explained to her. Furthermore, the American Museum of Natural History wouldn’t talk to me because of the lawsuit, so we couldn’t get their side of the story. And it is possible that the New Yorker may not have been keen on a running piece that showed the museum, a national treasure that has provided the magazine with so many wonderful stories over the years, in a bad light. On top of this, as I did several futile rewrites at my editor’s behest, it became clear that while Vadim’s colleagues all said that his science was absolutely sound, very few of them liked him very much. Some felt that he should have given the method to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is after all the agency charged with monitoring the caviar trade and thus doing what it can at the consumer end to thwart the illegal harvesting of the particularly endangered species of sturgeon. Vadim had said that he would share the method gratis with institutions involved in the conservation effort, but in the end I guess he understandably wanted something for his efforts, and the method applies to all species and is thus potentially very valuable. Some of Vadim’s colleagues felt that he was a pain in the ass, but I found him a man of tremendous intellectual integrity. I also think, however, that being a creature of the USSR, where paranoia was the norm, he brought some of it with him into exile and had he not had a tendency to project this paranoia into his dealings over here, they probably would have turned out much better for him. This said, I remain extremely fond of him and consider him out of the most interesting people I have ever had the privilege of interacting with. I find the term he uses to describe himself, a neudobnyi chelovek, extremely useful for describing a certain type of person. A neudobnyi chelovek is a troublemaker, an inconvenient person who is constantly probing and exposing things that people would rather not have to deal with. The Shamarpa, about whom I will be writing this spring, is another example of the type, and I myself identify with the term to some extent.
Vadim recently e-mailed me with the news that his book on the ghastly human medical experiments conducted during the Soviet Period– The Perversion of Knowledge : the True Story of Soviet Science—has been published by Westview Press. He said that he has nothing to do with the American Museum any more, but still collaborates on scientific sturgeon work with Robert de Salle. Eric Sobel, he told me, on the night before his lawsuit was finally going to trial, was found dead in a car, a gun in each hand and both sides of his head had been blown out. From my single encounter with Sobel, it was my impression that he was not at all the suicidal type.
Vadim Birstein : Sturgeon Geneticist, Human Rights Investigator, “Inconvenient Person”
“It isn’t easy living in this world— even in so-called free part of it,” proclaimed Dr. Vadim Yakovlovich Birstein in his heavily-Russian-accented, article-shy English. The 54-year-old specialist in the DNA of sturgeons was contemplating the huge mess, capped by a hundred-million-dollar lawsuit, that his method for identifying species of sturgeon from a single egg of their glistening black caviar had precipitated. Vadim (if I may, after all the time we have spent together, presume to call him by his first name) had been a visiting scientist at the American Museum of Natural History since his arrival from Moscow in l992, and he and his colleague Dr. Robert de Salle had worked out the method in its molecular laboratory three years ago. But now the museum was trying to disown him. “I’m forbidden by museum’s lawyer to meet with Robert on museum’s grounds until resolution of whole situation,” Vadim continued in a morose monotone that sounded like a Slavic version of Henry Kissinger’s. “But when that will be nobody knows. It’s absolutely weird, because we are working on three articles together. One is very important— about cryptic, possibly new species we discovered molecularly. It looks like Russian sturgeon, ossyetra, could really be two species.” Their graduate student, Phaedra Dukakis, was shuttling documents between de Salle’s office at the museum and Vadim’s on West 59th Street.
“It’s completely surrealistic,” Vadim intoned. “How can you prevent conservation between two scientists ?”
The world had not seemed to be giving Vadim so much trouble when I first met him, on a cruise of the Black Sea two years ago. He and I were among some 300 religious leaders, natural scientists, and environmentalists invited by Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to a ten-day floating symposium whose purpose was to discuss how religion and science might join hands to save what remains of the Creation and, more specifically, to come up with a plan for restoring the acutely degraded, nearly dead body of water that we were circumnavigating. The “green patriarch” had come to believe that the Apocalypse predicted by St. John of Patmos in the Book of Revelations may already be upon us, and that it was the result of mankind’s massive failure in planetary stewardship. Vadim was invited because of his sturgeon expertise. “Sturgeons,” he told me, “were one of the glories of the Black Sea. [Note that I wrote “article-shy,” not “article-free.” Vadim does, with no apparent logic, throw in the occasional “the” and “an.”] There are six species in it and in the rivers that feed it and in Sea of Azov, which connects to it. During Soviet period, caviar production of Black Sea was second only to Caspian’s.”
Vadim and I had struck up this conservation on a shore trip to Novorossisk, half-way through the cruise. We were strolling in a grove of stunted, thousand-year-old pistachio trees. Novorossisk is in the little stretch of the Black Sea’s coastline that has remained in Russia, or the Russian Federation, as it is now called.. The rest, at the breakup of the Soviet Union, went to Georgia, Ukraine, Rumania, and Bulgaria, and with Turkey in possession of the southern rim, efforts on behalf of the sea’s stressed, vestigial sturgeon populations, Vadim explained, are virtually impossible to coordinate. The six Black Sea species include the three most sought-after for caviar : the beluga (or giant) sturgeon, the stellate sturgeon, and the Russian sturgeon, which are the sources of beluga, sevruga, and ossetra caviar, respectively. Caviar is nothing more than salted sturgeon roe. Up to fifteen percent of a sturgeon’s body weight can be roe, but you don’t know if a sturgeon has roe until you slit it open; you can’t even tell if it male or female without eviscerating it, so there terrible wastage of adults.
As I listened to the bewhiskered, blunt-faced, then 52-year-old scientist, with his small, piercing eyes, and his tight-lipped, ovoid, vaguely piscine mouth, it occurred to me that Vadim looked kind of like a sturgeon. Don’t get me wrong— he’s a good-looking man— but it seemed somehow appropriate that he was in this line of work. Was this an extreme case of empathy, I wondered— a biologist coming over time to resemble the animal he has devoted his life to ? Probably not : Vadim only got into sturgeons when he came to America, seven years ago— too little time for such a transformation.
We walked along the Black Sea’s shore, which was littered with rusting derricks and cranes and the listing hulls of derelict ships— deteriorating monuments to the spontaneous mass rejection of the communist system ten years ago. People here, it seemed, had just walked off the job, leaving their machines and vessels in mid-operation. One good thing about the drastic drop in industrial activity since the USSR’s breakup was that factory and plant closures along the Black Sea’s rivers— the Danube, Dnieper, and Dniester— the Don (which feeds the Sea of Azov), and the Volga (which feds the Caspian) had lowered their pollution levels. Vadim was hopeful that the belugas of the northern Caspian, which had not reproduced naturally in the Volga for 30 years because of its toxicity, would start spawning there again. The downside of the closures was that laid-off workers, with few alternatives for feeding their families, were turning increasingly to poaching sturgeon.
We spotted tossing in the surf like a toy parachute one of the disastrously successful cone jellyfish, Nemeopsis, which was introduced from the east coast of North America in ballast water dumped into the Black Sea (in unwitting revenge, it almost seems, for the introduction into the Great Lakes of the zebra mussel from Black Sea ballast water, which has caused billions of dollars worth of damage in clogged waterpipes, encrusted shipping, etc.). First noticed in the early eighties, the jelly has already wiped out the Black Sea’s anchovy fishery and attained a collective biomass of 9,000 million tons— ten times the annual fish harvest of all species from the entire world. But it has no important impact on the sturgeons, Vadim told me.
I confessed to knowing almost nothing about sturgeons, apart from the biologically nonsensical ditty of the swing era :
Caviar comes from virgin sturgeon
Virgin sturgeon is a very fine fish
Virgin sturgeon needs no urging
That’s why caviar is my dish
Vadim told me that sturgeons belong to an order of fish, the Acipenseriformes, that has been around longer than the dinosaurs. Throwbacks to the Jurassic, they are, as Robert Cullen writes in an article about the Caspian Sea for last May’s National Geographic Magazine, “a cross between a catfish and a stegosaurus,” with five rows of projecting scutes, instead of the scales modern fish go in for, protecting the leathery skin of their attenuated barracuda-like bodies. The undersides of their long, flattened snouts bristle with whisker-like barbels which they drag along the bottoms of rivers, estuaries, and marine shallows, probing for worms, crustaeans, and other food, which they suck up like vacuum cleaners through their toothless, tubular mouths, expelling gravel and other debris through their gills. There are 25 species of sturgeon, according to the latest thinking (which is presently being challenged by de Salle and Birstein), and two of related paddlefishes (one in the Mississippi, the other in the Yangstse). They only occur in the Northern Hemisphere; no sturgeons swim below the Equator. The majority are anadromous : they spend most of their lives in the ocean or at sea, and only come up rivers every few years to spawn, like the American Atlantic sturgeon, which runs up the Hudson; but some, like the Hudson’s other species, the shortnose sturgeon, are potamodromous : they spend their whole life migrating up and down one river. Historically the two biggest species, the beluga and the white Sturgeon of the Pacific Coast of North America, got over 20 feet long, weighed up to a ton and a half, lived a hundred years or more, and were among the largest freshwater fishes on the planet. A Canadian lake sturgeon (one of the smaller species, five feet long max) caught in l952 was reputed to be 152 years old.
The Black Sea, Vadim explained, was one of the world centers of sturgeon proliferation, but dams, pollution, and overfishing— legal and otherwise— had decimated all six species. By the eighties only 300 to 1000 European Atlantic, or Baltic, sturgeons were thought to remain in the entire sea. During the Soviet era, the Black Sea’s state-controlled caviar industry flourished, the stocks were monitored and the catches regulated. Now no one was doing that. There was only “small production, not state-controlled,” in Rumania of caviar from the stellate and Russian sturgeons that spawn in the Danube Delta. Poaching was rampant on the Danube and in Ukrainian waters, at the mouths of the Dnieper and the Dniester. The Ukrainian government’s policy toward its dwindling runs of sturgeon seemed to be “to catch all they have.”
Poaching was even more rampant on the Caspian, where the shipping and oil industries have collapsed and the former Soviet part has been broken up into Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbajan, Dagestan, Kalmykia, and Astrakhan (only the last three of which are in the Russian Federation). Iran owns the southern Caspian, and there is no international coordination of anti-poaching efforts on the Caspian, either. Only 25 Border Guards police the Volga, and many Russians on the river, which produces 70% of the Caspian’s caviar, catch sturgeon on the q.t. to make ends meet. The beaches of Kazakhstan are full of men playing cards and tending trotlines strung with nylon-mesh box traps known as snatchki. When the trip-stick they have stuck into the sand is knocked over by the straining line, they know they have one. A more organized onslaught, with fleets of boats illegally netting sturgeon on the open sea, is being made by the Mafias of Azberjan and Dagestan. Two years ago in Dagestan, Mark Jacobson reports in last March’s Natural History, “sixty-seven people were killed in a war between caviar mafiosi and local police, a clash that included the bombing of a nine-story building where Border Guards were housed.” According to Newsweek last year, the sturgeon catch in the Caspian had gone down 90% in the last decade. Full-grown belugas are only a fading memory. The last one, a 60-year-old, 2,163 pounder, was caught in l989, stuffed and mounted in a museum in Astrakhan.
(Both banks of the lower Volga are in Astrakhan, which remains the world capital of caviar production.) Thomas Goltz, a Montana journalist traveling in Azerbajan (down the west coast of the Caspian from Astrakhan) in l991, found caviar easier to get than butter or even bread in Baku, the independent republic’s capital, and went through a kilogram a week. In a slum of Baku (as Goltz writes in his book Azerbajan Diary) “tons of illegal caviar were being flogged alongside any sort of gun you could ever want.”
Iran’s caviar, considered the world’s best, is not legally available in the U.S., but like Cuban cigars, it has ways of getting in. But for the past few years Iran has been unable to fulfill its foreign caviar contracts with Persian sturgeons and Russian sturgeons (known as chalbash in Persian) from its own waters, so the Iranians have been buying from the Russians, and Iranian caviar was now frequently diluted with roe from the North Caspian. As the commercial stocks were depleted, Vadim told me, there was a lot of substitution going on of caviar from other species, some inferior, some rare and endangered. All kinds of stuff labeled beluga, sevruga, and ossetra was being shipped to the lucrative and easily duped American market, where caviar has become trendy, especially with the flush new Wall Street crowd.
One of the few cases of caviar fraud to be successfully prosecuted, whose details Vadim was personally familiar with, involved the poaching, between l985 and l990, of some 2000 white sturgeons from the Columbia River in Washington and the passing off of more than 3300 pounds of their salted roe as imported beluga or ossetra by Arnold Hansen-Sturm, the fifth-generation owner of the Bergen, New Jersey-based Hansen Caviar Company. Hansen is one of the most venerable importers in America. “Only Romanoff has been in business longer, which makes it even sadder,” Vadim told me. In l993 Hansen-Sturm was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for obstruction of justice and conspiring to violate the Lacey Act, which deals with illegal traffic across state borders. The white sturgeon ranges along the Pacific Coast from the Gulf of Alaska to Baja California. It was fished to commercial extinction by the turn of the century, like the sturgeons of the Hudson, to supply Europe, particularly Germany, with caviar, the Atlantic sturgeon having disappeared from the Rhine and other German rivers. There are only three sizeable populations of white sturgeon left. One is in the Columbia River, and it was in no position to lose two thousand of its adults. It takes something like fifteen years for a white sturgeon to reach reproductive maturity..
The two poachers had been operating out of a cheap hotel room in Vancouver, Washington, when they were accidentally stumbled on in November, l990. They had given the manager $900 in cash— a month’s rent in advance— and told her they didn’t want the maid or anybody else coming into the room. The manager suspected they were making amphetamines, but they what they were doing was whipping up caviar from roe of white sturgeon they had caught themselves or bought from sportsfishermen along the Columbia. When a batch was ready, they would send it by Federal Express to Sturm-Hansen in Bergen. By the time they were arrested, they had made 67 shipments for which Hansen, according to the company’s books, paid them $247, 176 under the table. But unfortunately for them, two bank robbers had also paid cash for another room in the same motel. They held up the bank in nearby Dollars Corners, but the package of cash they made off with contained an exploding dye pack, which went off, and when they deposited some of the red-stained bills in a bank in a nearby town, the teller notified the FBI, which traced the money through the deposit slip to the motel. The manager told the FBI about the suspicious behavior of the poachers, and the FBI, thinking they were the bank robbers, put them under surveillance from a nearby motel room. After a few days the FBI realized what they were doing and turned the matter over to the Washington Department of Fisheries and the National Marine Fisheries Services, two agencies that look into resource-related crimes, and after a two-year investigation, the poachers and Sturm-Hansen were arrested. Sturm-Hansen had been paying them $100 a pound for their caviar and selling it for many times more to such clients as the Rainbow Room, the Waldorf Astoria, and Pan American Airlines. Beluga retails for up to $600 a pound, so the scam netted him potentially over a million and a half dollars.
After Vadim and Robert de Salle developed their molecular method for identifying sturgeons from their roe, in l996, they mail-ordered some of Hansen’s “beluga” caviar, tested it, and determined that it wasn’t beluga. Sturm-Hansen was on probation for his white-sturgeon caper, and he still hadn’t cleaned up his act. Vadim and de Salle tested two batches of Hansen caviar, and both were mislabeled. “The tests were part of a survey we were conducting to see how the method worked,” Vadim explained. “All together, we tested twenty-three samples of caviar, most from gourmet stores in Manhattan, and found that five were mislabeled.” Particularly distressing was a lot labeled “malossol,” or lightly salted, beluga, which “more profound DNA examination led us to initially conclude was Siberian sturgeon, a species that is being wiped out by poachers. The illegal catch of Siberian sturgeon on the Ob River alone in l994 was 250-300 tonnes [metric tons], about the annual take for all of Siberia in previous years.” But now Vadim wasn’t sure of his and de Salle’s identification. “Later, more intensive tests reveal that we cannot yet discriminate between Siberian, Italian, and Persian,” he explained. “There is so much overlap in the region we sequenced.” Even more distressing was a lot represented as Caspian ossetra by its Russian supplier that turned to be ship sturgeon, a species already extinct in the Aral Sea and down to the wire in the Caspian.
Vadim at this point was chairman of the Sturgeon Specialists Group of the IUCN— the World Conservation Union— and was spearheading the campaign to get the entire order red-listed. He knew in grim detail the status of each of the 27 species. That the European Atlantic (aka Baltic) sturgeon was down to a tiny population in the Gironde River, near Bordeaux (plus the one in the Black Sea). That no catch had been reported in 25 years of any of the three shovelnose sturgeons of Central Asia (none of them get to be a meter long, but they are thought to be closest, evolutionarily speaking, to the ancestral sturgeon). He knew that the Persian sturgeon was up against the wall, as were the Adriatic sturgeon, the Amur, kaluga (one of the big ones, it gets up to four meters), Yangtze, Sakhalin, green, pallid (it swims in the Mississippi and is loaded with PCB’s), and Alabama (of the Mobil River basin). Vadim had been attracted to sturgeons for purely scientific reasons. The basic biogeographical questions that scientists have been puzzling over for the last two hundred years— how they dispersed and the relationship between the Old World and New World species— are still unanswered. As the introduction to Sturgeon Conservation and Biodiversity, a collection of technical articles co-edited by Vadim, explains, the Acipenseriformes are “the most speciose group of living fossil fish.” Unlike other ancient, primitive fish like the coelacanth of the Comoros Islands or the pirararucu of the the Amazon basin, there are 27 versions to look at and compare. But very quickly Vadim realized (as is common in the natural sciences these days) that the first order of business was the fishes’ survival. . He and de Salle had developed their method as a tool in their evolutionary research. But now it was proving to have an unexpected forensic application, to be providential for the conservation effort.
That June, l997, three months before we met, thanks to no small degree to Vadim’s efforts, at the tenth meeting of the parties, in Harare, Zimbabwe, the IUCN listed the entire order on its CITES Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It wasn’t an Apppendix 1 listing, which would have imposed a total ban on international traffic in caviar and other sturgeon parts, but an Appendix 2 one— controlled trade. Vadim reasoned that a total ban would have spawned only more black market activity and more poaching, as had happened with ivory, leading to more accelerated extermination of the fish. The method that Vadim and de Salle had just developed played a crucial role in the listing. As Vadim explained, “We realized the number of sturgeon species is not clear, that there is a crisis in modern systematics. To save the animals, we first need to define what to save. The variation of appearance within species is unbelievable. For example, Persian sturgeon, which lives mainly in the southern Caspian. A few years ago a guy published a paper that Persian sturgeon are also in Black Sea. But latest data suggest these may be separate species.” At one point in its deliberations a member of the Sturgeon Specialists Commission had asked, “How are we going to identify the caviar ?” and Vadim stood up and said, “We have the method. Here it is,” and with that the commission had voted to go ahead with the listing.
Stories about how these two scientists were going around DNA-testing caviar from Manhattan boutiques and dealers finding that 30% of it wasn’t what they said it was ran in the Talk of the Town, the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice. The American Museum basked in the publicity. At that point, Vadim seemed to be the enemy of the caviar dealers, the scourge of an industry that promoted poaching, smuggling, consumer fraud, and the disappearance these extraordinary, hundred-million-year-old bottomfeeders. But within a year he had become the dealers’ ally, as they battled with the overzealous U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had been put in charge implementing the CITES treaty.
To understand how Vadim could have jumped through this rather difficult ideological hoop, you have to know about his equally passionate commitment to human rights, the investigations into the abuses of the Sovet penal system that he has been quietly conducting for years, his intense loathing of the arbitrary and hearthless use of power by state bureaucracies, inculcated during the forty-seven years he lived in Soviet Russia. I didn’t learn about this dimension of Vadim until he and his wife Kathy and his daughter Irisha (affectionate dimunitive of Irina), who was visiting from Moscow, came up for the weekend at our home in the Adirondacks the January after our Black Sea cruise. At Sunday breakfast, as we looked out at a Russian fairyland of white birches and snow-bent firs, he told me, “I am member of Moscow intelligentsia. My family lived for last three generations in Moscow. This is unusual for Jews. According to Russian law, decreed by Catherine the Great, Jews could only live in Pale [the Pale of Settement, in what is now Poland and western Ukraine] with two exceptions : those with high education— university diplomas— or highest level of merchants. The universities had quotas for Jews— only 6% in late czarist period. My grandfather, Avady Davidovich Birstein, was among those. He came from Vietebsk, the native town of Marc Chagal, in Belorussia, and graduated from Moscow University at the end of the century with a degree in medicine. Jews could only graduate from medical or law school. But if they converted— Jewish intellectuals usually converted to Protestantism— no problem. Leo Semyonovich Berg, famous scientist, my hero, who started systematic sturgeon work, became biologist only because he converted.
“My grandather,” continued Vadim, “pioneered stomach surgery in Russia. My grandmother was also doctor. During First World War they worked for progressive Institute of Traumatology, operating on wounded. It was huge building with hospital and spacious apartments for staff in downtown Moscow. After Revolution the institute moved somewhere else, and the hospital rooms were turned into more apartments. Grandfather died in l922, but our family stayed in apartment until l963. I grew up in former Institute of Traumatology. We shared apartment with four other families. Law under communism was one room per family.”
Vadim’s father, Yacov Avedivitch Birstein, was a zoologist who specialized in crustaceans. (Conversion was no longer necessary in communist times, not that Yacov Avadevich went to synagogue any more than his parents had. The Birsteins were, Vadim explained, “Democratic liberals who didn’t care about religion.”) “Before Second World War he went on scientific expedition to Caspian Sea and got involved with introduction of long burrowing sand worm from Black Sea that was beneficial to sturgeons. So as a boy I already knew about these very interesting fish. Then another group of scientists decided to destroy this group of scientists. The genetics and evolutionary biology for which Moscow University was famous were exchanged for voodoo. Stalin proclaimed Trafim Lysenko chief state scientist. Lysenko was an agronomist who was completely ignorant of genetics and biology He rejected whole notion of competition within species. Like good communist, he believed that new members of same species are created to help each other out. Father and his colleagues were declared enemies of the people. I spent my childhood waiting every night for KGB to come and arrest him. They never did, but he lost his appointment at the university, and my grandmother lost her right to practice medicine in anti-Jewish campaign of 47, when there was widespread propaganda that Jewish doctors were poisoning people.”
Vadim graduated from the University of Moscow in l966, then did postgraduate work in classic genetics on Drysophila fruit flies. After a brief stint as a forensic analyst of old icons for the Institute of Restoration of Works of Art, he was hired by Koltsov Institute of Developmental Biology. He married a Moscow chemist in l970, they had Irisha, and divorced 78. Then he married a biologist, also from Moscow, who had two children.. “In early seventies I became involved in human rights movement,” he reminisced. “I was mainly involved in activities of Moscow group of Amnesty International. With friends I created system of how to answer during KGB interrrogation and organized lectures on this topic, which was very important because it saved many people from being arrested. We also created system of sending food parcels to orphanages in Poland when martial law was declared in l981. I hid political cartoonist friend underground for four years. All my friends were dissidents and refuseniks. Some were in labor camps, and I helped their families, which was dangerous. Two artist friends had an exhibition of anticommunists in Venice and one of them had made a portrait that was recognizably me. This was not the type of academican the KGB appreciated. I was in KGB term neudobnyi chelovek, an ‘inconvenient person,’ a troublemaker. I was brought in twelve times for questioning. In l975 my book on amphibian genetics was at publishing house, being prepared for publications. . But when I went to see my editor she said there is no manuscript. It disappeared. The organs took it. My second book, on evolution of DNA and chromosomes of vertebrates from sharks to mammals, almost followed same fate. This time KGB took all clearance documents needed to publish, not actual manuscript. Only after 3-year fight was it finally published. By then it was almost Gorbachev’s time— l987.”
Vadim was getting ahead of himself, so he backtracked. “In l984 my contract at Koltsov Institute of Deveopmental Biology was not renewed. I tried to find job at other institutes, at Academy of Sciences, at Moscow University.” But he was turned down everywhere, black-listed by the KGB even though “according to Soviet constitution everybody must be provided with job if at high professional level. The only job I could get was as a janitor, but if I had taken it I would never have been hired again by any institution. And if you didn’t have job, KGB could arrest you as a parasite. That is how it made all dissidents outlaws.”
Things were closing in for Vadim. “It was absolutely clear that the next time KGB came, I would be arrested. So I simply disappeared behind Arctic Circle for three years.” Vadim found a small institute on the Barents Sea, north of Norway, that unaware of his dissident activities and was looking for a geneticst, and with the Moscow police hot on his trail, he left his wife (they would divorce in l989) and stepchildren and immersed himself in the DNA of Arctic marine organisms. His book was published, and the following year, l988, he returned to Moscow and defended it for his doctorate. The following year the USSR was no more. “I was member of international commission of finding out what happened to Raul Wallenberg, the wealthy Swedish businessman and diplomat who saved many thousands of Jews in Budapest,” he went on. “A liberal minister of the interior wanted to get to bottom of Wallenberg question and by his personal order I and colleague who had spent two years in labor camps were allowed to look at KGB archives for Stalin period, which were still closed. The Nazis didn’t allow the Hungarians to surrender, so the Soviets treated them terribly when they took Budapest. Their approach to Wallenberg was to simply arrest him. He was taken to Lubyanka prison and after being interrogated there for several years he died in l947, supposedly of heart attack. I could find only two references to Wallenberg in the archives. The rest of his file had been removed. But at least I proved he was in Soviet captivity.”
There was a lot of information, however, about other foreigners who had been in prison with Wallenberg and had never been heard of again, and because the Americans and the British had not released much information about their operatives who had the misfortune of falling into Soviet hands, the archives were of great interest. “It was like putting together mosiac,” Vadim recalled. “There were some very bad guys, like Eichmann’s guy in Rumania, Gustav Richter, and some great spy stories. A French Resistance guy who was caught by the Germans and was about to be shot, when he was freed by his lover, a Rumanian partisan. Then the Germans caught her and he freed her, but then he was kidnaped by Soviet Secret Service and condemned to 25 years of solitary confinement, mostly in secret Vladimir Prison,” where many of the most prominent enemies of state, foreign and domestic, were incarcerated. Vadim was allowed to spend a week examining its archives. He became a specialist in foreign prisoners of the late Stalin and early Cold War periods.
He also traced the terrible fates of brave colleagues— “scientists who refused to cooperate with the pseudoscience of Lysenko and his ‘professors’— usually Communist party functionaries who falsified the results of their experiments or received their degrees for work completed by others.” This is from a draft of a paper he brought to the Adirondacks titled “Remembering the Past : Biomedical Experiments Were Not Just in Nazi Germany.” As he writes, “Those of us who have lived under totalitarian regimes understand that in every situation there is a choice for a scientist : to take part in a state crime or not.”
Vadim pieced together the fiendish career of Grigory Mairanovsky, a biochemist and doctor who headed MGB Laboratory Number 1 in the thirties and forties and who was Stalin’s answer to Joseph Mengele. “Mairanovsky worked on poisons, using humans,” he explained. “He made possible the murder in London in October, l978, of dissident Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov with small poison bullet. Mairanovsky started with mustard gas, then he searched for chemical with taste that could not be detected afterwards. He tried digitoxin on ten prisoners. Eventually he found a preparation with all the desired properties, called C-2 for carbylominechloride, that could be shot in a small bullet from an umbrella, walking-stick, or ballpoint pen.. He conducted ‘truth experiments’ with ricin, a toxic protein from castor oil seeds that is supposed to make you trusting and open. He extracted ‘truthful testimonies’ from his subjects over a two-year period.
He also experimented with hypnosis. Most of his test subjects were foreigns prisoners who had been condemned to death by Paragraph 58 of the Soviet criminal code, which deals with spies and saboteurs. His superior Pavel Sudoplatov recalled names of 150 prisoners who died from his experiments. The Ukrainian nationalist A. Shomsky was killed by Mairanovsky with curare in summer of 1946, as was Archbishop Romzha of Ukrainian Uniate Church. Many of his victims were Jews. In the end Mairanovsky became a victim himself, of Stalin’s final campaign of sweeping purges. Three weeks before Stalin’s death he was charged with illegally keeping strong-acting chemicals and was sentenced to 10 years in Vladimir Prison. I found his prison card in the archives. Upon his release in l961 he was ordered to leave Moscow and spent last 3 years of his life as head of a biochemical laboratory in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, small autonomous republic on Caspian. The most surrealistic detail is that Mairanovsky was Jewish. He may have inspired the propaganda about Jewish doctors poisoning their patients that cost my grandmother her job.”
After three months the KGB, whose management still included many of the officials who had persecuted Vadim, got nervous and put a stop to his research. In l991 Vadim was invited to a human rights conference in New York. The New York-based Wallenberg Committee asked him to spend two or three months examining their archives and incoporating his research into it. “I jumped at this opportunity,” Vadim went on. In Moscow he had already met Kathryn Buraczynski, an American woman of Polish and Irish descent who was computerizing the committee’s files and was doing her own Wallenberg research. They got married and Vadim “simply stayed in New York. I joke that bringing together Kathy and me was last good thing Raul Wallenberg did.” He pointed out that he is “not technically an emigre. That is other process.”
Vadim had already published one paper on sturgeons, and anticipating that he might not be returning to Moscow, he brought with him “small collection of samples” of the fins, flesh, and blood of various species. “I thought how could I be most useful to American scientific community with my knowledge of Russian and my contacts with the Russian Academy of Sciences,” he recalled, “and decided that sturgeons were the most promising field. I came to Robert de Salle with problem of their phylogeny. Nothing is known about relationships of species, evolution of whole group, how Russian species related to Chinese species. He got interested.” De Salle was co-director of the American Museum’s molecular laboratory, and even though he was an entomologist, he decided to work with Vadim on sorting out the order. They wrote up a grant proposal and in l992 received a small grant from the museum to pursue their phylogeny research.
Vadim traveled to China, Rumania, the Caspian, Astrakhan, Krasnodar (on the Sea of Azov) and collected freshly-caught specimens. He got samples of the three Central Asian shovelnose species, which are extinct or on the verge of extinction in the wild, from the Moscow Aquarium, which had an excellent collection of sturgeons that has since disappeared. He ran into a brick wall trying to get records from the Soviet period; “all information on sturgeons was still top secret.”The grant money ran out, and Kathy kicked in $15,000 from her savings so he could continue. He corresponded with other sturgeon specialists, who sent him material. There are about 400 worldwide, and 300 of them came to a conference on sturgeon conservation and biodiversity, hosted by the American Museum, that Vadim organized in l994. The Hudson River Foundation, which has fought valiantly to bring back the river’s two species (the shortnose is in pretty good shape, but the Atlantic still isn’t), contributed $65,000 for the conference, and the comedian Bill Murray, who lives on the Hudson, opened it with a hilarious routine and then wrote a check for ten thousand dollars that enabled Vadim to start the Sturgeon Society, a one-man advocacy group that Vadim runs out of his office on 59th Street. It has a board, but Vadim does everything. He is the chairman, the editor of the Sturgeon Quarterly, he sends out the appeals and press releases.
. As a result of the conference, Vadim “involved a lot of people in collecting of samples,” and by the end of l994 he had assembled the first data base for all 27 species. He co-edited the papers for a state-of-the-art book on Acipenseriformes biodiversity and conservation available from Klewer Academic Publishers for $200. Vadim was invited to chair the IUCN’s Sturgeon Specialists Committee. Things were clicking.
Once he had the data base, it was a natural step to develop a PCR method for distinguishing the various species of Acipenseriformes. The PCR (for polymerase chain reaction) method is at the cutting edge of the new field of DNA forensics. It has been used to identify the bones of the Romanoffs, to flesh out the phylogeny of sea turtles and crocodiles, to catch Japanese whale fisherman in the act of committing an Appendix 1 violation of the CITES treaty. Vadim explained how it works : “PCR method is a common procedure developed 10 years ago for amplification, which is the numerous replication of a specific region of DNA. For framing this specific part you need to have primers, which are artificially synthesized pieces of DNA. The commonly used primers are ones that are already known in the literature, but in our case we made specific primers for each of the three big commercial species, beluga, sevruga, and ossetra. We looked on the citrochrome B gene of mitochondrial DNA for the diagnostic mutation, the species-specific change in the nucleotide squences. For instance, for beluga, at one point C [for cytazene] is substituted for P. All the other 26 species have P (phimene). So you have unique primer that only attaches to DNA of beluga, otherwise no reaction takes place.”
The Hudson River Foundation gave Vadim and de Salle an additional small grant to develop PCR method. It was a painstakingly slow process. They started with 200 nucleotides and ended up expanding the search to 800. It wasn’t until May, l996 that they announced, in a letter to scientific journal, Nature, that they had a way of identifying the three species from a single egg of their roe. “Our method is a simple, cheap, but powerful approach to identifying species,” Vadim explained, “something that could be applied to all species in principal. That’s why specialists were very excited by anouncement in Nature. We received many letters of congratulation : ‘So nice what you did.’ ‘Really something artistic.’ ‘Something sophisticated that’s easy to use.’”
Vadim was on a roll. In just four years he had become a star, a big beluga, as it were, in the small pond of sturgeon specialists. He had reached that heady point of his career where everything was bearing fruit. He was making full use of his new opportunities, of energy and talent that had been suppressed for years, pulling out all the stops that he had been stopped so long from pulling. But soon he would hit all-too-familiar snags.
After our weekend together, a year and a half went by before Vadim and I spoke again. I called him at his office. He sounded at loose ends and even gloomier than usual. “Honestly I am in big fight with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which is stopping all shipments of caviar to U.S, and is destroying small business of family caviar dealers. Fish and Wildlife is in charge of enforcement of CITES treaty. . A few extremely ambitious people who are trying to make their small careers took our unpublished data and supposedly created their own method of caviar identification. But it’s scientific nonsense what they did. Their method is junk. It hasn’t been reviewed by any scientists and it cannot be used to identify anything. They don’t have enough samples or sequences. But they have been stopping all shipments on basis of their result. Step by step dealers got fed up. One went to court in November and hired me as consultant.”
The office of Birstein Computer Services, which is also the headquarters of the Sturgeon Society, is on the tenth floor of a nondescript, easily missed building off Columbus Circle, down the hall from J.L.De Cunha, Bowmaker and the untitled, voluptuously upholstered door to an international escort service; many of the girls, Vadim told me when I went to see him a few days later, are from Bulgaria. A high row of bookshelves divides the office into a small reception area and an inner sanctum, where there are two high-powered computers and Vadim’s extensive library on the KGB and the erstwhile Soviet Empire.
Vadim’s problems, he explained, began with the museum, which felt that, having supplied the laboratory and the initial grant that led to the development of the method, it should have all the rights to it. De Salle, being on the museum’s staff, had no choice but to cede his rights, but Vadim, who was only a visiting scientist, a vague, unsalaried position with laboratory and library privileges, balked. He felt that having brought the idea and the samples to the museum, he should have a piece of the action. Moreoever, he had promised the European patent to the Karl Schmitz-Scholl Fund for Environmental Policy , a German organization “that gives prizes to people working on international environmental law and was promoting our work. My only interest in money was to fund our experimental work,” he explained, and after three months of wrangling with the museum’s lawyers, he decided to let the museum have the American patent, and the Karl-Schmitz-School Fund the European one.
The Fish and Wildlife Service was aware of the existence of the method because of its role in getting the sturgeons listed on the CITES treaty and because of the press it had been receiving, and it wanted the method badly, so that it could start policing the caviar coming into the country when the treaty went into effect on April 30, l998 and “every country was supposed to do something,” as he put it. Several of its agents approached Vadim and de Salle and told them that the service wanted to license their method for a fee, but first they needed to analyze it to see if it was appropriate. After they sent a letter promising that the information would be kept confidential and would not be used, Vadim and de Salle sent them their unpublished sequences, but withheld the information on the primers. Then the agents met with Vadim and de Salle separately, “KGB style,” as Vadim put it, and pressured them, arguing that it was their patriotic duty to give up the method. This time there was no talk of licensing. Vadim refused, and the museum’s lawyers forced de Salle to hand over the primer information, which it gave to the service without Vadim’s knowledge or consent. In November, l997 the service announced that it had its own method for identifying “all species” of sturgeon and paddlefish from a single egg of their caviar. But it wouldn’t reveal what the method was or how it had been developed. Vadim felt that he had been ripped off, and he knew that the service’s claim was “physically impossible. Our method only allows you to tell whether or not the caviar is beluga, sevruga, or ossetra. We have not yet sequenced the other 24 species, and to do that you need to have ten of fifteen samples of each species. When working with such material you need to be able to prove that a particular mutation is characteristic of the species, and to do that you have to have a lot of genes to work with. Some of the species live in two or three seas. But the Fish and Wildlife Service only has a small collection of no more than ten species, most of which are American.”
The following May the service started analyzing at its forensic laboratory in Ashland, Oregon the caviar coming into JFK airport and detaining the shipments that according to its method were mislabeled. That December the Times ran article on the “caviar cops,” Special Agent 248 of the Fish and Wildlife Service Richard Rothe and Special Agent 523 Edward Grace, who had seized two tons of Caspian Sea beluga caviar, “some of which flunked DNA testing and will be destroyed.” Agent Grace called himself “the voice of the sturgeon who has no other voice.” The agents “who are enforcing the regulations can easily test the DNA of a single egg, revealing whether the caviar is, in fact, the grade, provenance, and variety promised on its label.” A companion article reported that a Stamford, Connecticut- based company, GINO International, had been busted for smuggling thousands of pounds of sturgeon roe through Poland. Zachary W. Carter, the United Attorney for the eastern district of New York, (who months later would successfully prosecute the cops who sexually assaulted Abner Louima) was quoted as saying that the United States was “the world’s leading importer of caviar. [Most knowledgeable sources say that Europe and Asia import roughly an equal amount.] More than 80 tons with a wholesale value of $1,889,911 legally enters the country, and who knows how much more enters undetected in suitcases, shipping containers, and through the mail. Nine tons come in to New York alone between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.”
This really pressed Vadim’s buttons. He felt that the small, family-run caviar dealerships were being unfairly victimized. “There is no verification at the country of origin, so they have no way of knowing what they are getting. They have to take the distributors’ word. Bad guys should be caught, but government has no right to use lousy science for this purpose.” He compared Fish and Wildlife’s “so-called method” to the “politically motivated pseudoscience” that marred the DNA evidence in the O.J. Simpson trial.
We walked east on 59th Street until we got to Park Avenue, where there is a small restaurant called Caviarteria, and met with its owner, Eric Sobel, a second-generation New York caviar dealer. 38 and full of moxy, Sobel is making the most of caviar’s new trendiness.
He has other restaurants in the Soho Grand Hotel, Grand Central Station, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, and South Miami Beach. On November 9, l998, he told us, “Special Agent Sam Labrandi came into my warehouse and seized portions of two shipments of caviar. He said they failed our DNA test. He released the beluga but claimed there’s some beluga in your ossetra and said your sevruga is ship sturgeon, and he seized 1500 pounds of my caviar, worth almost a million dollars retail. We said what DNA test ? We never heard of this. Show us your samples. He said we didn’t mark the jars, but we’re making an example of you and taking the whole shipment. So we slapped restraining order against the federal government and forty-eight hours later brought a hundred-million dollar action, and then everything began. Our lawyers, Drobenko and Piddubny, said who’s the world’s leading expert on the DNA of sturgeon and got hold of Dr. Birstein. He told them that Fish and Wildlife’s method is an unproven test that hasn’t passed the Daubert Principal [review and validation by other scientists]. Without going through the Daubert Principal, anyone can say anything . 160,000 pounds of caviar came into the U.S. in l998. Fish and Wildlife’s lab bank consists of 2.2 pounds of samples and they never went to the source– Astrakhan and the government-controlled caviar-producing plantin Sheilat, Iran.. The whole thing is a scam.
“On January 7 and 29 we brought in two more shipments and Fish and Wildlife seized the ossetra portions of both,” Sobel went on, “alleging they were not Russian but Siberian sturgeon.
We had undisputable papers from the government of Russia proving this caviar was caught in the Lower Volga basin and there are no Siberian sturgeons in Astrakan. They require a different water temperature. We brought in real Siberian sturgeon from a French farm and asked Fish and Wildlife to test it and they refused. Out of 32 samples of ossetra the museum disagrees all 32 of Fish and Wildlife’s test results.In a preliminary hearing, the director of their lab, Steven Fain, said he didn’t have to have an exact DNA match. The government had given him the right, if the computer couldn’t come up with an exact match, to make his own subjective call. On top of this someone in Oregon or the U.S. Attorney’s Offfice changed the names of the January seizures from Gueldenstaedtii (Russian sturgeon) to Baeri (Siberian) and manually altered the sequences.
[Later Vadim showed me the pages of their report where this had been done. He insists that Fain doesn’t have the information or the expertise to be able to distinguish between Russian and Siberian.] This is Keystone Cop stuff. I feel like I’m dealing with a bunch of petty criminals from high school. How can you release the results of a test that took a million taxpayer dollars to develop that say ‘most similar to’ and change the names to whatever you feel like ? It’s ludicrous. Three days ago we submitted papers to federal court demanding an immediate hearing on the basis of newly-found evidence that the government has manipulated evidence. We’ve caught them in the middle of a lie, that’s what happened. I said to the head of the U.S. Attorney’s forfeiture division, Mr. Hui, I’m giving you one chance pay us $800,000 plus our legal fees, bringing it to $1.1 million, and we won’t embarrass you before the world.”
At Vadim’s request, Robert de Salle had tested the confiscated January shipments at the museum’s lab, and his results were completely different from Fain’s, so now the museum was involved. It was the government’s word versus the museum’s. . When the museum, which had just got $30 million from the federal government for its new plantarium— realized that it had been placed in an adversarial position in a hundred-million-dollar lawsuit against the government , it wasn’t at all happy. Vadim, who was already on shakey ground because of the patent dispute, was really in its bad books. “I’m a trouble-maker,” Vadim said with a helpless, dejected shrug. The latest Kafkaesque twist is that, Vadim claims, the museum’s lawyers have repudiated De Salle’s results.
I had been looking forward to visiting the museum, one of my favorite places, and watching Vadim and de Salle test some caviar in the lab— maybe some of Hansen’s, and seeing if Sturm-Hansen was still conning his customers. My family has a three-generation association with the museum : my great uncle was a trustee, the type specimens of a small, irridescent-blue butterfly called Shoumatoff’s hairstreak after my father, who caught them on Jamaica in the thirties, are kept in a glass case in the Entomology Department. I wrote about the insect for its magazine, Natural History, have read from my nature writing in its auditorium, and am in frequent touch with its scientists on natural-history and ethnological matters. Vadim suggested that with my connections, I could set up a meeting with the two of us and the museum’s director, Helen Futter, and straighten everything out. So I called her office and asked if we could come in and talk to her and get permission for the test to be performed on caviar having nothing to do with the ongoing suit. A few days later a second vice-president in charge of communications, who knew nothing about the situation and had never heard of Vadim, got back to me. As for my request, he said that Mrs. Futter was not available, but he saw no problem with doing a test, but when I called a few days later to schedule the visit, he said that actually it wasn’t such a good idea. Could I just pop into the lab and see where it’s done then ? I asked. You know how it is with journalists : we need scenes to make our subject come to life. He said that shouldn’t be a problem, but a few days later he told me, “Dr. Birstein didn’t do the wet work. He was never in the lab and he was never on staff. He was an unpaid research associate. I don’t see what the museum has to do with your profile of him.”
I reported this to Vadim, who said, “That is true. I am really a thinking tank. I can discuss every step of the method and I know how to do it, but I don’t do the actual testing myself.” I called Robert de Salle to see if he would be willing to test some caviar, and he said, “I don’t want to do any more diagnostic work in the lab. I have science that I’m doing and that’s forensics. I was sucked into the last round.” Beyond that, he refused to say anything without permission from the museum, so I called the flak back and asked if it would be okay to talk to Dr. de Salle not about the method or the lawsuit, but about Vadim and sturgeons in general, but that was out, too.
“There is no need to talk to Dr. de Salle about sturgeons. You can just read his articles.”
“You can do the test in any DNA lab,” the flak reminded me. But Vadim was reluctant to do that because he had signed over the American patent to the museum..
Stymied, Vadim and I decided to cruise the caviar dens of Brighton Beach and eat smuggled caviar with the Russian Mafia. Two years ago, Vadim had told me lurid tales of caviar smuggling by the Brighton Beach Mafia. A hundred and fifty tons were coming in to the U.S. without the custom duties of up to 50% being paid on them. A lot of it was from sturgeon poached on the Caspian and from rivers in Siberia by former KGB with Kalashnikovs, in collusion with the Ministry of Fisheries, “an old Mafia structure created 30 years ago that in Soviet days was the owner of everything in the sea, a many billion-dollar business. [This is from my notes.] It imposed legal quotas and had its own nets and controlled all plants which produce caviar, which is now disappearing to Brighton Beach, where Mafia has small packaging plant that repackages it and distributes it to shops in metropolitan area.”
But now “situation is quite different since CITES treaty went into effect last year,” Vadim told me. Yelstin had dissolved the Ministry of Fisheries, calling it the most corrupt structure in Russia, and Vadim had no evidence of criminal activity by its successor, the Russian Department of Fisheries. The smuggling to Brighton Beach, moreover, was “small issue compared to whole issue of implementation.” As far as he was aware, it was only small-time, artesanal smuggling, individuals bringing in a dozen tins in suitcases, “just tip of iceberg.” The black market in New York was insignificant because one could buy caviar legally and it was plentiful. “Now I don’t believe any number. Some caviar is smuggled, and Fish and Wildlife putting out of business all these legitimate small dealers will have no impact because if the Russian producers cannot send their caviar here, they will send it to Europe or Asia. This crackdown is anti-productive. They did not give the industry time to prepare, and it will not help the fish. ”
From my perspective— that of a third-generation American of Russian descent who had grown up in a verdant, opulent exurb of Westchester County, Brighton Beach Avenue, with its deafening el blotting out the sky; marginal, wasted Latinos lurking on the corners; squalid little businesses like Tarot, Psychic, Magic Corsets, immigration help in Cyrillic; dingy, rundown apartments with names like the Zamora— was depressingly grim and tacky. You didn’t need the eye of a Diane Arbus to capture the scene; all you had to do was point and shoot. But Vadim saw it completely differently. “This is communist dream of how capitalist society should be,” he explained.. “Even in Moscow there are no shops with such variety of goods. First thing you notice in Russia is how oppressed the people look. Here the people are much more relaxed. But it is still a ghetto, a small place with a high concentration of criminal activity.. Most only speak Russian and they are afraid to go to the police because in Russia the worst thing you can do is be in the hands of the police because they can do absolutely anything they want to you, for their fun. That is why it is so easy to control these people, because they are still with that mentality.”
We first went to Rasputin, a flamboyantly restaurant and cabaret popular with the Russian Mafia, but it only comes to life on Friday and Saturday nights; nothing was happening on Wednesday at lunchtime. About the only action was at a place on the boardwalk called Volna (Wave.) We took one of the outdoor, umbrella-shaded tables. A light, warm, clammy rain was sifting down. Several tables away a portly man of Eastern European provenance who looked like a colleague of Sidney Greenstreet or Peter Lorre— vain but seedy, with slicked-down hair, a carefully groomed moustache, and a suit that was a la mode in l964— stole furtive looks at us. Immediately to our right three small-time businessmeni sat talking about sleazy deals and draining a caraffe of vodka. One of the deals was about caviar. “I need to meet Grigory. He has a delivery coming in this afternoon,” one of them said. Their Russian was spiced with occasional
words of English like “root canal.” One of them noticed that I was taking notes in my little Red Chinese notebook (Vadim was holding forth on the history of caviar), and he and one of his cronies got up and walked out to the railing of the boardwalk where they could talk out of earshot. When he returned he said to me in Russian, menacingly, “Your business was disbanded.”
A disheveled lowlife who looked to be in his early twenties and had fresh bruises on his face and arms came up to them and opened a cheap black briefcase so they could see what was inside. They shooed him away. A few hours later we passed him several blocks away, staggering and weaving, without the briefcase. His face had been beaten to a bloody pulp.
A blousy, busty, blonde waitress with gold-filled teeth brought us the menus. I ordered the grilled sturgeon and a four-dollar portion of caviar. The fish was Canadian lake sturgeon— good, strong meat that you were supposed to slather with a sweet black currant sauce. The caviar was big, red salmon eggs. “That’s why it’s so cheap,” Vadim said. We asked the waitress if she had any black caviar, and she brought us a yellow tin for $90 and a smaller one for $50. “This is domestic Russian caviar, not for import,” Vadim told me. “The stuff you can talk them down in Moscow to a fifth the price. It is produced by Russian Caviar, the main company. All it says is ‘Caviar of sturgeons.’ You are not required to identify the species in Russia. It could be anything. It must have avoided Customs and Fish and Wildlife Service because species of caviar entering U.S. has been required to be identified for last twelve years. Once it has entered country it isn’t Customs or Fish and Wildlife’s business, but Food and Agricultural Administration’s. Coordination of F & W and of FAA is nonexistent. This is smuggled caviar on open market. It looks like FAA is not doing its job.”
We found the same small tins in a nearby supermarket selling for $30, and big tins of generic malossol for $25. “I don’t know nothing,” the manager said nervously when we asked him where he had got them. “I just sell. I only been in business three years. You should ask M & I International Food, down the street. They’ve been in business for years.”
The people in Brighton Beach were instinctively unhelpful. It was a hassle finding someone who was willing to give us change for the parking meter, let alone anyone who would tell us where he got his caviar. The M & I International Food market had three other brands in glass jars, so we could see the eggs. One said Russian Caviar malossol packaged for export. Another said Russian Caviar from the Joint Stock Company, Astrkahn. The third said zernistaya caviar from the Caspian Sea. Zernistaya simply means that the eggs are separate; they have not been mashed.
I asked the woman behind the counter what kind of sturgeon the zernistaya was from. “This is beluga,” she said. How do you know when the species isn’t identified ? I asked. “From size of eggs,” she said. “Such big eggs are beluga.” Vadim explained to me that caviar has traditionally been identified from the size and color of the eggs, but that this is completely unreliable. Big eggs could be kaluga, or even American white sturgeon if it was a scam, besides which the egg size varies with the age of the fish : they are smaller when the fish is young, reach their peak size at middle age, and shrink again as the fish grows old.
The woman suggested we talk to the manager, who assured us the caviar was beluga and that he had the papers to prove it. We asked to see them, and the manager said, “Let me call my boss,” and he disappeared. We waited half an hour. Still no manager and no boss. “How can this caviar go through Customs without species name ?” Vadim asked. “That’s why he disappeared. He was put out to have to deal with us but was unusually polite, still polite. He didn’t say any bad words yet. He was pretending to help us and he disappeared.”
We went into a fish store across the street. It was selling for $70 113-gram jars of grey-black caviar that the girl behind the counter said was beluga, and for $45 bigger yellow-green caviar that she said was ossetra from Astrakhan. I asked where she got it from. “My business is only to sell,” she snapped. She was a feisty young woman from Azberbajan. The manager came over. “It’s coming like this from wholesaler,” he explained, and refused to give us the wholesaler’s name. “As long as you’re asking for official documents, where is your journalist card ?” the girl asked. “Why are you asking these questions ? Do you want to bring agent ?”
“This big yellow-green stuff is definitely not ossetra from Astrakhan,” Vadim told me when we were back on the street. “This is exactly the type of caviar that should be tested with molecular method.”
And this was definitely not the milieu in which I wanted to sample what I had already decided would be my last taste of caviar. I had already begun to educate my palate with the fresh, absolutely delicious caviar at Caviarteria. Eric Sobel had brought us small dishes of beluga, sevruga and ossetra. “Beluga eggs are big and creamy,” he explained, “and when they break, their liquid is clear and greyish, as is the liquid of sevruga, but sevruga eggs are saltier and they are the smallest. Ossetra eggs are more brownish, nutty, and firmer-grained, and their liquid is yellow. You don’t need a DNA test. Anybody with a tongue and two eyes can differentiate them.”
According to Caviar : The Resource Book, by V.I. Sternin and published in Moscow, you can tell ordinary fish caviar that has been dyed black by “the absence of the melting feel in the mouth and the noticeable ‘pop’ of the eggs…. Beluga never pops…. [The popping leaves] an obvious taste of egg membrane; and sometimes the strong presence of introduced flavors.” Ossetra, especially from the Caspian, can have a grassy or muddy off-taste which contributes to its distinctive “nutty” bouquet. “The interior viscosity of the eggs is important to the ‘mouth-feel.’ The best caviars feel like a pleasantly viscous liquid.” Equally important is the “exterior viscosity” : “the eggs should roll down a gently sloping surface.”
According to an article in the Times last year, each type of caviar has its own way of bursting between the tongue and the roof of the mouth. “Caviar never tastes the same. Its flavor varies from fish to fish, region to region, season to season. That is part of its allure.” The market had been “glutted with stale, substandard caviar shipped before more stringent import regulations took effect last April.” A significant amount has been coming from China, and a growing amout from farm-raised sturgeon in Russia and France. Caviar is rated by the Iranian grading system : there are triple 0, double 0, and 0 beluga; A and B-rated ossetra; and Sevruga 1 and 2. The Times food critic Florence Fabriquant is even more instructive. “Fresh caviar,” she writes, “should glisten upon close inspection. The eggs should be luminous, pert-looking, and consistent in size and color. If you notice a difference in size or color, it is a tip-off that other caviar has been mixed in. It should smell fishy. The grains should be firm but not rubbery or tough. Smashed grains may mean that the caviar has been mishandled or frozen. Hard grains mean that it has been pasteurized, which destroys its integrity. The best way to eat it is with a small bone or mother-of-pearl spoon. Metal spoons impart a metallic tang. Slip the caviar into your mouth. As it sits on your tongue, pull a little air into your mouth, close your eyes, and without hesitation crush the eggs by forcing them against the roof of your mouth. The immediate taste should be oceanic. The middle sensations should evoke earthy things like fruit, nuts, even truffles. The final sensation should be a slight brininess, tinged with the sort of coppery nuance of a Belon oyster. The overall impression is the balance of the disparate sensations in the mouth. The final equation lingers; don’t rush to a conclusion.”
At what point in time, I asked Vadim, did caviar begin to inspire such prose, did it become associated truffles, champagne, and other indulgences of people of wealth and taste ? He told me that a good history of caviar has yet to be written. There is archaeological evidence that Greek colonists along the Sea of Azov were eating sturgeons by the second century, B.C.. The Romans ate Adriatic sturgeons, and presumably their roe. In England, all sturgeons belonged to the king, so caviar never took off until quite recently. Russians didn’t get into it until Ivan the Terrible conquered the lower Volga, so the sturgeons there were blissfully undisturbed until the early sixteenth century because the Muslims along the river didn’t care for them any more than Jews did. Caviar was consumed by Russian peasants as well aristocrats; it didn’t have any particular cachet. Even in the darkest days of the Soviet period, caviar was readily available and was considered no more of a delicacy than vodka. It didn’t become popular in Europe until the nineteenth century, with the industrial revolution and the expansion of transatlantic trade. The Hansen Company opened offices in New York and St. Petersburg. The days when sturgeon running up the Hudson and the Columbia had been so thick that Indians had trouble paddling their canoes were soon over. So great was the love of caviar in France that its industry collapsed due to lack of native product by the l950s.
Thus informed, I was ready for my Last Taste. This took place at Petrossian’s, the famous restaurant on 58th and 6th Avenue whose caviar, Vadim told me, is absolutely reliable. You get what you pay for, and the beluga is triple 0, the sevurga first class, and the ossetra grade A. Present were Vadim and, to render third and fourth opinions, a photographer from a magazine that celebrates the rich and famous, who himself has a highly-developed taste for the good life, and a savvy and attractive young woman from the magazine’s advertising department. The photographer and his companion had been to a party and were already a little drunk. A tree with small dishes of the Big Three was brought on, with tall, thin glasses of chilled Stolichnaya to wash it down with. As the photographer inserted a spoonful of beluga into his mouth, he quoted the opening paragraph of Lolita about “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap at three on the teeth,” and he pronounced caviar “the ultimate indulgence, more than coke.” His companion, who was at first put off by the thought that the eggs had been “ripped out of the belly of a living mother,” found the beluga “liquid and buttery. I couldn’t cherish its texture. It melted in my mouth before I could relish its crunchiness.” Unlike most Americans, who as Vadim remarked, “like everything big” and tend to go for beluga (which is generally considered the top of the line in caviar), we decided we liked the smaller eggs best. The ossetra wasn’t crunchy either, but more velvety and fishy. The sevruga was brinier, stronger, more aggressive. Vadim like the ossetra best, and the rest of us concurred : the ossetra was arguably better in this particular instance. One of us (I won’t say who), after the fifth round of Stolys, suggested that there was “definitely a sexual dimension, a cunnilingual element” to the ingestion of caviar. “You know what it really tastes like ?” he proposed. “Pussy.”
Apart from the advertising woman, who said demurely she wouldn’t know, the rest of the table, the waiter, and the two young men splurging on caviar at the next table all thought there was something to this analogy, however off-color (which is actually not so off-the-wall considering the lipids and amino acids these rich reproductive fluids probably share). Our neighbors, who described themselves as “dot.coms,” were in a euphoric daze, celebrating what one of them said had been “the best day in our careers.” They were in “direct-access trading, providing customers with execution systems that allow them to compete with traders like Morgan Stanley.”
Vadim was in a less decadent and celebratory mood. “I have one thing to say to elitist public,” he declared. “There has been some recent hype about caviar, but it’s over : there is no caviar. You’re extinguishing one of the oldest species in the world. Wake up.”