Dr. Vadim J. Birstein, a Russian-American who arrived in the United States in 1991, is a historian and molecular geneticist and is recognized as one of the world’s greatest authorities on the endangered sturgeons. Born in Moscow and educated at Moscow State University, he received his Candidate of Sciences Degree in 1971, and Doctor of Sciences, in 1988. Until the end of 1998, he was a Leading (Senior) Research Scientist at the Koltsov Institute of Developmental Biology, Russian Academy of Sciences. In 1989, he gave lectures on comparative cytogenetics at the universities of Pisa and Naples (Italy), in 1990, at Moscow State University, and in 1991, at Uppsala University (Sweden).
He is the author of over 150 scientific papers published in such journals as Nature, Nature Genetics, Systematics and Evolution, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Copeia, Journal of Heredity, Biologisches Zentralblatt and many others, as well as International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence and the Wilson Center’s e-Dossier, of three scientific books, two history books, and a book about his father, the prominent zoologist, Jacob A. Birstein, and the life of Moscow intelligentsia from the 1920s to 1970s. He is also the first author of a textbook in Russian on the scientific study of old easel and wall paintings, Technology, Study and Conservation of Paintings and Murals.
In 1988, his first scientific book in Russian entitled Cytogenetic and Molecular Aspects of Vertebrate Evolution (Moscow: Nauka Publ., 1987) was published. After analyzing available data on karyotypes, DNA content and genomes of all groups of vertebrates, Birstein concluded that the longitudinal structure of chromosomes in fishes and amphibians differs from that in the higher vertebrates, i.e. amniotes (reptilians, birds, and mammals). A rough translation of this book into English under the title Birstein, V. J. Vertebrate Evolution: Karyotypes, Chromosomes, and Genomes, is available at the Smithsonian Institution Library, Washington, D.C.; call number: QL607.5.B56 1991a). Birstein defended this book as his Doctorate Thesis, and the book received an award from the Moscow Society of Naturalists—the oldest Russian scientific society, established in 1805.
Since coming to America he has been a Visiting Scientist at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY, where he has collaborated with Dr. Rob DeSalle on a long-term sturgeon phylogeny project. In conjunction with this work, Drs. Birstein and DeSalle elaborated a method of caviar identification via DNA analysis in 1995 which was patented in the United States and Europe. From 1993-96, Dr. Birstein was an Adjunct Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
His work on sturgeons also led him to become the Chairman of the Sturgeon Specialist Group of IUCN (World Conservation Union). While Chairman, Dr. Birstein worked closely with TRAFFIC Europe, the German Ministry for the Environment, the World Bank, the WWF and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) legal staff to list all sturgeon species on the CITES Appendixes and promote legislation to ban the importation of the caviar of endangered sturgeon species into the United States. In addition, Dr. Birstein was First Editor of Sturgeon Biodiversity and Conservation published in 1997 by Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, which was the proceedings of the 1994 “International Conference on Sturgeon Biodiversity and Conservation” which he organized and co-chaired in New York. He was also First Editor of Sturgeon Stocks and Caviar Trade Workshop published by the IUCN in 1997, the proceedings of a workshop in Bonn (Germany) that he chaired in 1995.
In addition to his scientific activities, Dr. Birstein is a historian and long-time human rights activist. In the 1970s-80s, he was an individual Amnesty International member in Moscow and since 1989 has been a researcher for the Russian human rights group the International Memorial Society (Moscow), created by Academician Andrei Sakharov and the well-known Russian human rights activist, Sergei Kovalev. In 1990, as a Memorial member, he participated in a visit of Russian and Polish historians to the Katyn forest, where in 1940 the NKVD executed thousands of Polish officers.
He is an expert on the subject of foreign prisoners in the Gulag, the fate of the Swedish Diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and Soviet doctors’ experimentation on humans. In 1990-91, he was a member of the International Commission on Raoul Wallenberg created by Raoul Wallenberg’s half-brother Professor Guy von Dardel and participated in the Commission’s study of prisoner cards in Vladimir Prison and materials at the then secret Special, now Military Archive in Moscow. In the 1990s, he has published three articles about his research on Raoul Wallenberg in the Russian press. Currently, he continues publishing papers on Wallenberg in the Russian and international press.
In 1991, he was a Visiting Scholar at the W. Averell Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union. In 2001, he published his first history book, The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science (Westview Press). In December 2004, a paperback version of this book was published by Basic Books, which is still in print. He has given seminars on this book at Princeton, Harvard, and Washington (St. Louis) Universities and appeared in the documentary Poisons-Discover Magazine produced in 1997 by Powderhouse Productions, Inc. (Somerville, MA). In 2010, he also gave an interview about NKVD experiments on political prisoners sentenced to death for the German documentary Mengeles Erben – Menschenexperimente im kalten Krieg (Mengele’s Heirs – Human Experiments in the Cold War) directed by Dirk Pohlmann (German TV station ZDF).
In 2012 English publisher Biteback Books published Dr. Birstein’s second history book, SMERSH: Stalin’s Secret Weapon, Miltary Counterintelligence in WWII, which received the inaugural St. Ermin’s Intelligence Book Award, beating out 33 other nominated books. In 2012, Dr. Birstein gave talks about his SMERSH at the International Spy Museum (Washington, D.C.; audio record) and at a meeting of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (New York, NY). In 2013, a paperback of this book was published. The book was also translated into Polish and published in Poland in 2013; the Russian version of SMERSH will appear in 2017.
Recently, Dr. Birstein, together with his colleague Ms. Susanne Berger, prepared a detailed list of questions to Russian archives on the still unanswered questions in the Raoul Wallenberg case. Many of these questions were included in House Resolution 58 introduced by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, into the 115th Congress. The Resolution calls on Russia to open its archives to assist Wallenberg researchers to finally settle the question of Raoul Wallenberg’s fate.
Currently, Dr. Birstein is working on books on the story of Raoul Wallenberg in Moscow prisons in 1945-47 and on Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1930s-40s. These books are based on published and unpublished archival documents mostly declassified during last 15 years and available, primarily, only in Russian.
Dr. Birstein is a member of the American writers’ Authors Guild.