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Official website of Saint Petersburg State University.
  1. During the restoration of the First Cadet Corps, St Petersburg University archaeologists have found more than 10,000 unique artefacts that can tell about the life of St Petersburgers in the 18th century. Among the unusual objects are sturgeon bones, which will help not only enrich knowledge about the fauna of the past, but also might restore the population of the Red List species.

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    Since 2019, St Petersburg University has been restoring the Corner Chambers of the Alexander Menshikov Palace on the Universitetskaya Embankment and the building of the First Cadet Corps that was a later extension. During the work, the experts managed to identify the exact shades of the façade of the Menshikov Palace. Its walls were graphite-grey, and they were decorated with white jamb lining, mouldings and pilasters with capitals made of light yellow dolomite. Another unique find was an 18th century ice storage room – a wooden food store, miraculously preserved in the basement of the building.

    Experts from the Lebedev Laboratory of Archaeology, Historical Sociology and Cultural Heritage at St Petersburg University are taking an active part in the work. They have been meticulously sifting through the filling from the spandrels between floors, consisting of centuries-old dust and debris. As a result, they have managed to find more than 10,000 unique artefacts of that period: handwritten documents; coins; shoes; fragments of dishes and ceramics; wigs; and much more. Some of them were presented in December at an exhibition in the Twelve Collegia building.

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    These finds are of great importance. For example, before they were made, our knowledge of the uniforms of the Russian army during the period of Empress Anna Ioannovna had been much more modest.

    Kirill Shmelev, a research associate in the Laboratory of Archaeology at St Petersburg University

    ‘Many items known exclusively from descriptions have been identified. Unfortunately, further work on attribution of collections is now suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. I am sure that the finds will bring us many more surprises in the future,’ says Kirill Shmelev, a research associate in the Laboratory of Archaeology at St Petersburg University.

    One of the unique things among the many items of military uniforms found in the First Cadet Corps was a gaiter of the first half of the 18th century. The men's military fashion of that time involved wearing stockings. At some point, following the English fashion, gaiters made of dense fabric become part of the uniform. They protected the stockings and the tops of the shoes from moisture.

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    ‘In the Russian army, gaiters were officially introduced in 1712. However, there is one detail: this garment was made in various parts of the army locally according to the description. They were usually made from old tents. That is the reason why we had a knowledge of what gaiters looked like solely from descriptions and images. The earliest surviving items date to the period of Catherine the Great’s rule. This is the first item that can be confidently dated to the beginning of the 18th century,’ emphasises Kirill Shmelev.

    In addition to the artefacts, the archaeologists have discovered interesting biological objects. Among them are a huge number of oyster shells, which in the 18th to first half of the 19th centuries were widely eaten even by poor residents of St Petersburg. Only later did they become a delicacy.

    Other similar finds from the 18th century might be of practical importance. For example, the collection of fish bones of the sturgeon family collected during the work was handed over to a research group that is engaged in a project to restore the Baltic sturgeon population that became extinct at the end of the 20th century. The results of molecular genetic analysis of bones are expected by the end of the year.

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    Sturgeon species bones. Photo by Igor Tarasov

    ‘These studies will help to find out which subspecies of sturgeon was eaten in the Menshikov palace,’ said Igor Tarasov, an associate in the Laboratory of Archaeology at St Petersburg University. ‘If it belonged to the Baltic or Ladoga population of the Atlantic Sturgeon, the genetic material can be used to restore it. In any case, we will receive important information on the history of fishing for this valuable fish species. This will help us understand whether it provided at least part of the needs of St Petersburg’s population or it did not amount to much and the sturgeon served there was brought from other regions of the Russian Empire.’

    Another find is still a mystery to the scholars. This is the skull of an animal, presumably a calf or goat, that was found in the wall of the building. Next to it, they found the remains of a textile product – a headwear or a wig. In the nearest future, the skull is planned to be handed over to biologists at St Petersburg University for further research.

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  2. Irina Shtangeeva is a researcher at the Department of Soil Science and Soil Ecology, St Petersburg University. She has studied the ability of wheat and couch grass to accumulate toxic substances. Both  plants were capable  of absorbing various chemical elements from contaminated soils. Although the plants were able to accumulate high concentrations of toxicants, they could survive under negative environmental conditions. Interestingly, the plants accumulated toxicants in the aerial parts thus removing them from contaminated soils. This ability of couch grass and wheat to phytoextract toxic metals  can be used for effective cleaning of soils. The research findings were published in the journalEnvironmental Geochemistry and Health.

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    At present, ecologists often use phytoremediation method for soil decontamination and wastewater treatment. It is a complex of remedial measures in which the key role is played by green plants. Phytoextraction is one of the directions of this method, which makes it possible to remove certain toxic trace elements from contaminated soils using plants-hyperaccumulators. This method is relatively inexpensive. It also does not destroy the soil. However, usually one such a plant is able to accumulate only one element in its aerial parts.

    ‘In my opinion, the search for new  plants that can accumulate one metal is a dead-end job,’ says Irina Shtangeeva, researcher at the Department of Soil Science and SoilEcology, St Petersburg University. ‘Soil is usually contaminated with more than one toxic trace element. For the successful use of the phytoremediation method, it is therefore important to find such plants that will accumulate a large amount of various toxic elements in the aerial parts without significant damage to plant development.’

    The experiments have shown that wheat and couch grass can be promising candidates for the aims of soil remediation. Irina Shtangeeva found that wheat is able to survive in the most adverse conditions and it also efficiently accumulates various substances from the soil. Couch grass is one of the most common weeds in vegetable gardens. It also grows well near the streets with heavy traffic. It is distinguished by its vitality and the ability to accumulate a large amount of different trace elements.

    ‘Nowadays, you can find a lot of research about the plants capable of accumulating cadmium, nickel, selenium and some other trace elements, the so-called heavy metals. However, many other potentially toxic metals and metalloids are not well-studied,’ says Irina Shtangeeva. ‘That is why I have chosen for my work "unpopular" trace elements that are still little known in the context of phytoremediation: bromine, europium, scandium, thorium, and uranium. Wheat and couch grass have shown the ability to efficiently accumulate all these trace elements simultaneously. As a result, their content in the contaminated soil decreases.’

    What happens to the plants after they have absorbed metals from the soil? As Irina Shtangeeva explains, they can be used in the future. In Germany, Switzerland, the USA and some other countries, there are commercial companies that accept these plants for processing and extract the trace elements from them for use in industry.

    The scientist emphasises that it is also important to take into account the specific time of cutting the plants. As her other studies show, plants are affected by the circadian rhythm. The concentration of metals in plants can change with the time of day. For example, plants that were collected at noon can contain more contaminants than plants collected in the morning or evening.

    Another important factor that helps to make the phytoextraction process more efficient is the use of bacteria. Experiments of Irina Shtangeeva demonstrated that seeds treated with Cellulomonas bacteria allow plants accumulating more metals from contaminated soils. It is quite likely that the bacteria are able to transfer metals into a more available for plants form.

    The research has been supported by a grant from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (project No 18-53-80010).

  3. The fourth International Conference 'Bioinformatics: from Algorithms to Applications' (BiATA 2020) is held annually by St Petersburg University ('The Center for Algorithmic Biotechnology' at St Petersburg University). It has been successfully completed.

    Held online, this year BiATA has attracted four times more participants than usual. The organisers also noted a significant increase in the number of researchers from Russia. The Chairman of the Conference Programme Committee, Associate Director of the Center for Algorithmic Biotechnology of the Institute of Translational Biomedicine at St Petersburg University Alla Lapidus believes that this is a sign that bioinformatics in our country is reaching a new level.

    Russia is home to unique natural sites that have not yet been explored. However, BiATA 2020 demonstrated the research that our scientists conducted on microbiots of Lake Baikal, the White Sea, the taiga forests of Siberia and more. I am sure that the number of these projects will only increase in the future.

    Alla Lapidus, Associate Director of the Center for Algorithmic Biotechnology of the Institute of Translational Biomedicine at St Petersburg University

    Over the years, the conference has evolved into a full-scale platform to bring together major developers of software products for the analysis of modern biological data and researchers supplying primary data from around the world.

    Although the topics of the reports are extensive, ranging from the decoding of the human genome to a wide range of metagenomic research, there is one thing that unites them all: huge amounts of data, the interpretation of which requires reliable and easy to use software.

    Alla Lapidus, Associate Director of the Center for Algorithmic Biotechnology of the Institute of Translational Biomedicine at St Petersburg University

    On the first day of the conference, the Director of the Australian Centre for Ecogenomics at the University of Queensland (Australia), Professor Phil Hugenholtz, a leading expert in taxonomy, made a presentation on the problems of systematics of simple single-celled prokaryotes in the era of big data. According to the scientist, the modern classification of microorganisms does not take into account almost 85% of all microbiological diversity such as uncultivated microorganisms, which cannot be cultivated in the laboratory. 'In developing a new genome-based systematics, we used the existing classification of microbes obtained in laboratories. In the first stage, we divided up polyphilletic groups – a set of species that have several common ancestors. Then it was necessary to take into account the evolutionary divergence – the divergence of features of related groups during evolution,' explained Professor Hugenholtz.

    As a result, scientists managed to obtain a fully systematised classification of bacteria that takes into account all evolutionary processes. It turned out that out of hundreds of thousands of bacteria genomes available for study, more than half required a change in the classification of bacteria. The changes affected both the higher ranks – departments, and the lower ranks – genera. For example, the genus of anaerobic Clostridium bacteria was divided into a hundred new isolated genera.

    Artem Babaian from the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada) spoke about a large-scale project – Serratus. It is aimed at finding new coronaviruses in public databases, which is especially relevant in the current epidemiological situation. 'The main problem is that we still do not have a complete understanding of biodiversity and the nature of viruses. Besides, there are very few fully deciphered genomes in the public domain. Therefore, in order to identify new coronavirus sequences, we analyse all available data on both already known and completely unknown viruses. This is more than 3.4 million samples of biological material from around the world that still need to be deciphered,' said the researcher.

    Collection of RNA-virus genomes, and first of all coronaviruses, is possible through a new development of the Center for Algorithmic Biotechnology at St Petersburg University. CoronaSPAdes, special assembler to collect spades (St Petersburg Assembler), is a flagship product of the Center. Artem Babaian noted that the new tool helped Serratus to optimise the assembling process. Unlike other software products, the assembler takes into account all the features of the RNA-virus genome structure. The coronaSPAdes is a result of many years of research at the Center for Algorithmic Biotechnology at St Petersburg University. The developers Dmitry Meleshko and Anton Korobeynikov say that without this research the creation of the assembler would have been impossible.

    The conference participants had an opportunity to learn to work with one of the innovative software tools MGnify as part of the workshop ‘Analysis of metagenomic assemblies using MGnify’. Rob Finn, Lorna Richardson and Alexandre Almeida from the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) explained the specifics of working with the MGnify to novices in bioinformatics. By the end of the conference the participants had learned not only to collect complex metagenomic data, but also to annotate the sequences obtained after the assembly, describing them functionally and taxonomically.

  4. Scholars from the Lebedev Laboratory of Archaeology, Historical Sociology and Cultural Heritage at St Petersburg University are investigating the place where one of the battles of the Great Northern War took place. This work might result in a comprehensive reconstruction of the battlefield near the village of Krivoruchye.

    The archaeologists from St Petersburg University have found two rare Swedish bastion redoubts from the Great Northern War on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland. The fortifications were detected at the north-eastern end of the Soikinsky Peninsula, which is in Kingiseppsky district of Leningrad Region on Cape Kolgompya.

    Ground redoubts consist of an inner platform, an earth rampart with a breastwork (parapet), and a ditch. The length of each side of the southern fortification is about 59 metres, which corresponds to 200 Swedish feet (at the end of the 17th century, this measurement unit was 29.69 centimetres). The northern redoubt has been badly destroyed – only the eastern corner with sections of the inner platform, rampart and ditch have been preserved.

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    The topographic map of the southern redoubt by Andrei Gorodilov (the Institute for the History of Material Culture, the Russian Academy of Sciences)

    The appearance and design of the fortifications make it possible for archaeologists to date them without doubt to the 17th to 18th centuries. Also, in the area around the fortifications, lead bullets and a fragment of a hand grenade case, characteristic of that time, were found.

    The vicinity of Cape Kolgompya is associated with a series of events in military history. The most significant of these was the battle in October 1708, which was the final stage of the campaign of the corps under General Georg Lybecker. In August 1708, he set off from Vyborg, which then belonged to Sweden, to capture St Petersburg. There were several attempts to conquer the new capital during the Great Northern War, but this one can be considered the most striking.

    The corps moves along the Swedish Royal Road, which is substantially the same as the present-day Vyborgskoe shosse. Then they begin to bypass St Petersburg from the east. In the area of the present-day village of Korchmino, 30 August sees a battle with the Russian troops to seize the Neva River crossing site.

    Kirill Shmelev, a research associate in the Laboratory of Archaeology, St Petersburg University

    ‘As a result, the Swedish corps smashes the enemy, crosses the river and goes deep into Ingria. This was possibly the last success of General Georg Lybecker during the campaign. The fact is that Ingria was already severely devastated by the war – it could not provide a large army. Then Georg Lybecker makes a decision: to go west, to the Baltic states, the better part of which still belonged to Sweden. However, on the way to the city of Narva, the corps was blocked by the Russian troops. It was therefore decided to evacuate the corps by waterways. A squadron was sent to perform this mission,’ says Kirill Shmelev, a research associate in the Laboratory of Archaeology at St Petersburg University.  

    The Swedish corps moved north, on the coast of the Gulf of Finland, and camped near the village of Krivoruchye, located on the Soikinsky Peninsula. This is the reason why the battle that took place there has several names: ‘The battle for Soikinskaya Farm’; and ‘The battle at the village of Krivoruchye’. Cape Kolgompya became the centre of concentration of the Swedish squadron. The evacuation was complicated by the fact that it was rather shallow nearby – the ships could not approach the coast. However, the chosen site had a significant advantage over the others – the distance that had to be covered by boats was much less there, and the small space at the tip of the cape was convenient to defend, when covering embarking.

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    Spherical lead bullets (it should be noted that bullets with an unremoved sprue, as in the picture, are considered characteristic of the Russian army of the 17th to early 18th centuries)

    Meanwhile, the Russian troops under the command of Admiral Fyodor Apraksin continued closing with the enemy. Before embarking, the Swedish army had to destroy their horseflesh.  In total, about 6,000 horses were slaughtered. This was because it was impossible to take the animals with them and they could not allow the horses to be taken by the enemy.

    The redoubts we found had been constructed to protect the evacuation of the corps: they covered the only passage to the tip of the cape. The fortifications were defended by units of captive Saxons converted by the Swedes. In general, Lybecker had a hard time with them during the campaign – a significant number of them deserted and surrendered to the Russians. However, covering the embarking troops, they acquitted themselves heroically: from two battalions a little more than a hundred people were taken prisoner. They remained steadfast to the last.

    Kirill Shmelev, a research associate in the Laboratory of Archaeology, St Petersburg University

    The Russians captured the redoubts, but they had fulfilled their function: most of the Swedish corps had embarked. Despite the fact that Fyodor Apraksin was an admiral, he had only ground forces at command. He also had no serious artillery. The available artillery were not enough to blast the ships, which were several hundred metres from the coast.

    Interestingly, unlike most major battles of the 18th century, there are no images of the battle near the village of Krivoruchye. The only exception is the medal coined by order of Peter I in honour of the winner in the campaign, Fyodor Apraksin. On one side, it is decorated with a portrait of the admiral. On the other is an image of ships with fighting foot and horse figures in the background and the inscription in Russian: ‘Храняï сïе неспитъ — лучше смерть, а не неверность’. This can be translated as ‘keeping this does not sleep; death is better than unfaithfulness.’

    There are a lot of written accounts of the battle, both from Swedish and Russian sources. There is also a well-known monument of folk culture related to the events of 1708: the old Izhorian rune Kolkopään sota (‘The War in Kolgompya’), which tells about the battle of the Swedish king with the Russian army at Cape Kolgompya.

    The closest constructive and chronological analogues of the Cape Kolgompya fortifications are in Ukraine (redoubts of the Battle of Poltava in 1708) and in Sweden (redoubts of the Battle of Stäket in 1719). The latter were built to protect Stockholm from the Russian landing force and coincide with the fortifications on Cape Kolgompya in most of their dimensional and structural features.

    The study of fortification of the early modern period is one of the important areas of research in architecture, military history and archaeology. For the most part, the attention of scholars is attracted by fortresses and other large constructions. Field fortifications are studied much less. This is due to the fact that they are less prevalent and worse preserved.

    The archaeologists from St Petersburg University plan to continue investigating the battle site. In particular, they are going to study the sea floor near Cape Kolgompya and find the burial sites of the combatants. Additionally, they are determined to find out the exact location of the Swedish coastal camp. All this work might result in a comprehensive reconstruction of the battlefield.

  5. The restrictions associated with the spread of the coronavirus have resulted in the decrease of the volume of recyclable material collection at St Petersburg University. However, even during the lockdown, University students and staff continue separate waste collection, participate in eco-webinars, and share best practices with other activists.

    During the pandemic, 4 of the 14 stationary eco-points at the University continue to be fully functional: recyclable materials can still be taken to the containers located in halls of residence. However, according to Natalia Popova, Head of the Environmental Department at St Petersburg University, the situation on the market for separate waste collection remains the same. Despite the challenging situation, the counterparties have not changed the list of processed raw materials and are ready to accept all waste fractions in the same volume.

    How to start waste sorting - read in an interview with Ekaterina Nadtochii, an ecologist and an activist of the ‘EcoSPbU’ community.

    Although the results of the separate collection during the pandemic have been much less than expected, the total volume of waste that the University sends to the landfill, rather than recycling, continues to decrease. During the first half of the year, 7,725 m3 of waste was removed – almost 25% less than in the first half of 2019, and 37% less than the average for the last five years. The statistics are only partly due to the imposed lockdown when University students and staff studied and worked from home for several months. The main reason is that the amount of waste that the University takes out to the landfill has been steadily decreasing over the past five years.

    Even during the lockdown, University students and staff continue to have an eco-friendly lifestyle. Since the beginning of the year, students and employees of the University have handed over about 140,000 roubles worth of recyclable materials. Due to the fact that they have been collecting this waste in containers for subsequent processing, there is no need to take such waste to the landfill. This, in turn, has saved the University about 290,000 roubles.

    Compared to 2019, the collection of waste paper has significantly increased: in the first half of the year, more than 22 tons of paper were collected. Also, the students handed over more than two tons of glass, 1.39 tons of type 1 plastic, and about 40 kg of aluminium. The main contribution to the collection of recyclable materials was made by the students living in the halls of residence of the Peterhof campus.

    During the pandemic, I have been collecting my waste in only one place – in my room in the hall of residence. Now it has become noticeable how much garbage accumulates in just one day. I have been practicing separate collection since my first year at the University, so now, I cannot give it up at all.

    Aleksandr Danilevskii, a master's student in the academic programme ‘Software and Administration of Information Systems’

    To make it easier for University students and staff to be involved in the collection of useful resources, the University regularly purchases containers. So, at the beginning of 2020, bins for separate waste collection appeared in two halls of residence on Vasilyevsky Island: 25 Shevchenko Street, and 20, building 1 Korablestroitelei Street.

    Throughout the academic year, the University engages students and staff in a separate waste collection programme. It holds usually a variety of green workshops, film screenings, contests and community cleanup days. Due to the pandemic, the plans of University students and staff have altered, but the environmental events at the University have not been stopped. Despite the fact that the main events have been rescheduled for the autumn, students have held webinars, where they discussed films and books on responsible consumption. Also, the University students have taken part in the All-Russian video forum dedicated to the trends of sustainable development in university education. To see the announcements of new online meetings and detailed information on eco-projects at St Petersburg University, visit the student group ‘EcoSPbU’ on the VKontakte website.