Leonid A. Kulik

He braved the isolated swamps and rivers of Central Asia to expose one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th Century...

"The results of even a cursory examination exceeded all the tales of eyewitnesses and my wildest expectations," wrote Leonid Kulik, remembering his first glimpse of the Tunguska destruction. He stood on the bank of the Makirta River at the end of an exhausting journey. As far as he could see upstream and downstream, the riverbank was littered with the trunks of trees uprooted and pushed down in one direction as if smashed by a giant's hand. There was still snow on the ground, and the dead and decaying branches and limbs were outlined in stark relief. Small hills stood out, he later wrote, "picturesquely against the sky and taiga, their almost treeless snow-capped tops stripped bare by the meteorite whirlwind of 1908."

Leonid A. Kulik was born in 1883 in the city of Tartu in Estonia which was later to become part of the Soviet Union. He studied at the St. Petersburg Forestry Institute and later in the Physics and Mathematics Department of Kazan University. He served in the military during the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. Between these two conflicts, he ran afoul of the law and spent a short time in prison for revolutionary activities.

After World War I he taught mineralogy in the city of Tomsk and in 1920 took a position at the Mineralogical Museum in St. Petersburg (later renamed Leningrad). At the Museum he devoted much of his time to a new discipline: the acquisition and study of meteorites. In 1921 Kulik was charged with the task of locating and examining meteorites that had fallen within the Soviet Union. While preparing for this expedition, he came across an account of an explosion in Tunguska, Siberia, reprinted from an old newspaper:

...a huge meteorite is said to have fallen in Tomsk several sagenes from the railway line near Filimonovo junction and less then 11 versts from Kansk. Its fall was accompanied by a frightful roar and a deafening crash, which was heard more then 40 versts away. The passengers of a train approaching the junction at the time were struck by the unusual noise. The driver stopped the train and the passengers poured out to examine the fallen object, but they were unable to study the meteorite closely because it was red hot...

Strangely enough the story turned out to be wrong in almost every detail, but even so, Kulik had never heard of this impact before and it caused him to go searching for additional old newspaper accounts. By piecing these stories together he determined that the event, which he felt sure was the result of a meteorite fall, must have been enormous. Kulik decided to see if he could find the site during his trip.

During his first expedition Kulik only managed to figure out the general location of the blast area, not actually visit it. Afterward Kulik continued to collect stories about the event.

Reports from the Site

A geologist sent this account which was told to him by a local herdsman: "Fifteen years ago his brother, who was a Tungus and could speak little Russian, lived on the River Chamb'e. One day a terrible explosion occurred, the force of which was so great that the forest was flattened for many versts along both banks of the River Chamb'e. His brother's hut was flattened to the ground, its roof was carried away by the wind, and most of his reindeer fled in fright. The noise deafened his brother and the shock caused him to suffer a long illness..."

Entnographer I. M. Suslov interviewed the family who had been sleeping twenty-five miles southeast of the blast site when the event occurred. The entire group was thrown down by the force of the blast and several knocked unconscious. The wife reported that when they awoke they found "...the forest blazing around them with many fallen trees. There was also a great noise." Some of the children described "A terrible storm," Suslov continued, "So great it was difficult to stand upright in it, [that] blew down the trees near their hut."

Despite resistance from some of his colleagues who questioned the value of a trip based on rumors told by backwoods peasents, Kulik used these and other reports to convince the Academy of Sciences to fund a second expedition.

The 1927 Expedition

The 1927 expedition had been planned for the spring. This would mean they would reach the area before the ground in the region became a swamp and the mosquitoes intolerable. Even taking these precautions the journey was difficult going since Kulik was still not sure of where the exact blast site was and the maps they were using were inaccurate.

The first leg of their trip was accomplished by using the Trans-Siberian railway. Kulik and a research assistant traveled from Leningrad to the remote station of Taishet. From there they used horse drawn sleds to make their way up the Angara River to Keshma, a small village where they purchased more supplies.

From that point on the way grew ever more difficult. The land became more rugged. Deep gulches and steep hillsides blocked their path. Their compasses became confused by the high latitude. It took until the end of March to reach the tiny village of Vanavara located on the Stony Tunguska River. Vanavara was the last outpost of civilization before the expedition plunged into the primitive forest-swamp where Kulik was sure the meteorite had fallen.

In the village Kulik hired a guide named Ilya Potapovich and started interviewing locals about what they remembered about the blast. He found that many of the local people did not like to discuss the event. They believed that the fiery body that had fallen was a visitation of the god Ogdy. Ogdy had cursed the area by smashing trees and killing the animals. No man now approached the site for fear of being cursed by the god.

This story only peaked Kulik's interest and he soon set out on horseback, with the guide, to find the fall. An unusually heavy snow blocked their path, though, and they were forced to return to the village and await better weather.

On April 18 the expedition set out again with pack horses. This time they followed the course of the river. They took three days to reach the hut of Okhchen, a friendly herdsman, located on the Chamb'e river. By that time both Kulik and his assistant were suffering from infections and lack of proper food. Only the belief that their destination was only a short distance away kept them going.

They left the horses at Okhchen's home and loaded their supplies onto reindeer for the last portion of the journey. After two days of following the bank of the Chamb'e due north they came to the Makirta river and saw the first evidence of the Tunguska blast. The already exhausted party marched northward into the devastation, sometimes having to hack their way through the dead entangled limbs and branches of the fallen trees. As they traveled closer to the center of the area Kulik noticed that the trees had been burned from above. He was sure it was the work of a sudden flash of intense heat, not a forest fire. The scientist speculated that what the meteorite had "pushed ahead of it was doubtless a giant bubble of superheated atmosphere, hotter than the blast of any earthly furnace..."

Starting Over

They traveled for two more days through the destruction when suddenly his guides, Potapovich and Okhchen, apparently fearful of Ogdy's punishment, refused to go forward. Kulik was forced to return to Vanavara and hire new guides.

Using the river to get to the site.

On April 30th, Kulik, with his new helpers, set out again for the fall site. This time the party, aware of the difficulty of marching through the forest, built rafts to carry them along the Chamb'e and Khushmo rivers toward their destination. The water courses were swollen with the spring melt and it was necessary to navigate several rapids.

It had been three months since the expedition had left Leningrad. No word had come back from Kulik, and his colleagues began to fear the worst. Was the scientist lost or dead in the uncharted Siberian wilderness? Or had he simply not sent word back because he was embarrassed about finding nothing?

Back in the field the expedition had gone as far as they could by water and headed north on foot finally reaching the ruined forest on May 20th. For a week they cut though the tangle of dead tree limbs and marched toward the center of the fallen wood. Kulik finally set up camp near the mouth of the Churgima River believing that the crater he sought must be just beyond the next ridge in a marshy basin his guides referred to as the Southern Swamp.

Impact Zone

From this camp Kulik made daily trips out across the dead forest until he circled the entire area. From his observations he could see that on every side of the swamp the fallen trees lay with their tops pointing outward. That meant that the center of the swamp was the fall point of the meteorite for which he was searching. Instead of finding a giant crater, though, Kulik saw a standing forest of what looked like telephone poles. Each trunk stood straight and tall, but charred and stripped of its branches.

In the very center of this forest Kulik found a peat marsh blasted and tortured into a fantastic landscape. "The solid ground," wrote Kulik, "heaved outward from the spot in giant waves, like waves in water." He also found dozens of "peculiar flat holes" ranging in size from ten feet to fifty feet in diameter. Each was several yards deep.

Kulik carefully documented and photographed the area and decided to return on a later expedition and probe the holes with digging equipment in an attempt to locate fragments of the meteorite he thought might be beneath them.

Realizing that nothing more could be done on this trip and that the group had only three or four days of food left, Kulik decided to leave. It was a good decision. The summer thaws soon made traveling increasingly dangerous. The expedition set out and after nine days, having supplemented their diet with ducks, fish and local plants, they arrived back in Vanavara at the end of June.

Kulik returned to the Academy with enough photographs and documentation to convince even his most skeptical colleagues that something amazing had happened along the Tunguska river. He led two more expeditions back to Siberia, one in 1929 and another in 1938, but was never able to establish that the culprit in the blast was a meteorite. Even today the exact cause of the explosion is unknown.

Kulik continued to work on the problem until, while fighting for his country in World War II, he was captured and died of typhus in a Nazi prison camp on April 24th, 1942.

The success of Kulik's expedition wasn't in solving the mystery of the Siberian blast of 1908, but in proving to the world that objects have, and continue, to fall from space and can have a devastating result on Earth. This knowledge has led to a better understanding of how these impact events effect life on our planet and how they might explain such mysteries as the death of the dinosaurs.

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Copyright Lee Krystek 1997. All Rights Reserved.


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