The discovery of rich deposits of diamonds in Yakutia in 1954 was an event of global importance. While our country could not provide itself with this military strategic raw material on an industrial scale, the purchase of diamonds abroad was the subject of political intrigues and pressure.
This landmark discovery has changed the global balance of power, giving impetus to scientific and technological progress. This discovery played a significant role in the fact that our country became a leader in the space industry and allowed Gagarin to become the first cosmonaut on the planet.
Search for diamonds. How it all began
Diamonds began to be sought in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s, although the first surveys were conducted as early as the 19th century. But there was no scientific search methodology, there was no understanding of how to search for a primary diamond deposit.
With the beginning of the Cold War and the refusal of Great Britain in the supply of diamonds, the problem became acute, it was already a matter of state security. Geological groups were sent to all parts of the country to search for deposits in the utmost secrecy.
In Yakutia, the Amakinskaya Expedition was engaged in the search for diamonds, which received quite a large amount of funding, including airplanes. In the village of Nyurba, a geological base was built with all the necessary laboratory equipment, but years of exploration did not lead to significant results.
In the 1930s, the state had to spend millions of rubles annually buying diamonds abroad. About 50 kilograms of industrial grade diamonds were purchased every year, but this was, at best, enough for 50% of the industry’s needs. Then diamonds were mined mainly in Brazil and the British colonies of South Africa. The diamond market at all times was too narrow and specific, even with the availability of funds it was not always possible to purchase the right amount of precious crystals. The purchase of large lots of diamonds was a real sting operation - the USSR used a front company in Portugal for these purposes. But in 1939, with the beginning of the Second World War, British intelligence closed this loophole.
In 1942−45, the Soviet Union, taking advantage of the military alliance with the British Empire, has purchased almost 6 tons of diamonds from the UK that somehow provided the Soviet industry with industrial diamonds during the Great Patriotic War. For comparison, the US industry in the same years purchased exactly 20 times more diamonds.
With the onset of the Cold War, the situation has again deteriorated. The United States imposed an embargo on the supply of industrial diamonds for the USSR. Industrial diamonds had to be purchased illegally at black-market prices through a chain of middlemen in Belgian Congo.
Sarsadskikh and Popugaeva
At the Leningrad Scientific Research Institute, Natalia Sarsadskikh’s group, together with her husband Aleksandr Kukharenko, came very close to the African method of searching for diamond deposits by pyrope, bright red stones, inseparable satellites of diamonds.
They, as indicators, point to a kimberlite pipe — places where, in ancient times, volcanic gases came from the depths of the earth, coming to the surface along with subsoil riches, including diamonds... Finding transparent diamonds is not so easy, but bright red pyropes are immediately visible. In the summer surveying season of 1953, Natalia Sarsadskikh and Larisa Popugaeva took off together to search for pyropes.
The task was not easy, even for men - 400 kilometers through dense taiga, through swamps, fighting off clouds of midges and occasionally wild animals, carrying all their belongings on themselves, washing rocks in icy Yakut rivers and streams ... besides Natalia was expecting a child.
Pyrops favored Larisa, at one of the stages they split up to survey as many sites as possible, and pyrops were found at Larisa’s site. True, then they were not yet sure that they were the same ones, as it turned out later in Leningrad, when compared with African samples, a small diamond was found there among the rocks.
It was clear that they were on the verge of a great discovery, success had to be consolidated, but in the 1954 season Natalia could not go because of her daughter's birth. Larisa refused to go without her, she was afraid not to cope, and she herself had reasons to stay in Leningrad, she was expecting a child…
Everyone was urging her - both the leadership of the central expedition and colleagues. She knew well the search area, which Natalia Sarsadskikh theoretically calculated; she had the necessary experience and knowledge, she had an incredible capacity for work and an excellent analytical mind. The call of duty overpowered personal, that was the way she lived.
The first diamonds of Russia
For the sake of the country's interests she had to sacrifice her child. Together with lab assistant Fyodor Belikov, Fedyunya, they set off for the route, taking with them a stray dog Pushok from the village.
They worked with incredible perseverance, as she wrote later, "burning the candle at both ends," examining so thoroughly that they did not exceed 2 km per day. Sometimes by the end of the day Larisa was so exhausted to return to the campfire that Fedyunya had to bring her in his arms.
Finally, their efforts were rewarded - on August 21. Blue earth opened to them under the turf. With a scattering of pyrope and, as it turned out, of diamonds. Those were kimberlites and the first kimberlite pipe found in Russia, symbolically called Zarnitsa (Lightning).
In tribute to Discoverer
Larisa Grintsevich-Popugaeva suddenly died on September 19, 1977, she was only 54 years old. A diamond was named after her, a memorial pillar was placed next to the Zarnitsa with the text of a note that they left with Fedyunya on August 21, 1954 at the site of the first deposit. In Udachny in 2004, a monument was erected in honor of Larisa Popugaeva.
Now in Yakutia, more than 90% of all diamonds in Russia are mined, and ALROSA is one of the world leaders in the search and mining of this precious stone.