This is a fascinating book. The story of "love, life, and death" of Alexey Feodosievich Wangenheim (1881–1937) a Russian meteorologist who in 1929 became the director of Soviet Union's Hydro-Meteorological Service. Amongst other contributions, Wangenheim, together with his subordinate Sergei Petrovich Khromov, had helped introduce into the meteorological community from the Soviet Union the "Norwegian theory" (i.e., the Norwegian cyclone model) developed within the Bergen School of Meteorology. One of the early contributors to the Norwegian theory was the Swedish meteorologist Tor Bergeron (1891–1977) who has been invited to lecture Moscow in 1930 and 1932. Bergeron's lectures had a considerable impact on the progress of meteorology in the Soviet Union. Inspired by these lectures, Wangenheim translated some of Bergeron's papers and Khromov published a paper in a scientific journal (lead by Wangenheim) entitled "New ideas in meteorology and their philosophical implications". Khromov will also publish in 1934 the first textbook in Russian on the Norwegian cyclone model, largely based on Bergeron's lectures. Khromov's paper raised the attention of other members of the Hydro-Meteorological Service of the Soviet Union who pointed out that Lenin's works are not mentioned in the article. To aggravate the matter even further, Stalin's works were not, as recommended, cited by Khromov in his paper. As a consequence, Wangenheim ended up being accused of promoting a theory that was "the heap of rubbish deliberately spread by enemy hands" and also of organising and leading counterrevolutionary sabotage work in the Hydro-Meteorological Service. Interestingly, in the accusation (i.e., promoting the Norwegian cyclone model one of the cornerstones of weather forecasting) the sabotage appeared as aimed at depriving the Soviet Union agriculture of the means to forecast the weather in general and droughts, in particular. 

In 1934, after being hailed previously by Stalin as a national hero (for example, Wangenheim organised in 1932 the first conference on the influence on climate on humans, perhaps the first such conference in the world), Wangenheim was arrested and deported to a Soviet prison camp. He will spend the next three years on the Solovetsky Islands, the site of the first Gulag. In the Solovetsky Islands, Wangenheim worked in the library of the prison and even lectured on meteorological subjects, like "the conquest of the stratosphere." From Solovetsky, Wangenheim wrote letters to his daughter Eleonora (1930–2012). These letters containing puzzles, or detailed descriptions and drawings of the flora and fauna of the Solovetsky Islands, were intended to play a role in the education of Eleonora (who would later become a paleontologist). In 1937 the events took a sinister turn. Wangenheim was executed together with other prisoners in November 1937 and then buried in a mass grave. 

 Drawing from a letter of Alexey Wangenheim to his daughter Eleonora. [via  Wikipedia Commons ]

Drawing from a letter of Alexey Wangenheim to his daughter Eleonora. [via Wikipedia Commons]

To me, the book was a page-turner, part history, part reportage, part biography. I highly recommend this book about "a man, neither a scientific genius nor a great poet, who was interested in clouds and did drawings for his daughter, caught up in a history that was an orgy of blood [i.e., the Great Terror (1937–1938)]."

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AuthorBogdan Antonescu
CategoriesBook Review