The Heroic Story of Nikolai Vavilov and The Saviors of the Seeds

This article is a transcript of Campfire Stories: Astonishing History podcast Episode 4. You can listen to it on YouTube, Buzzsprout, or wherever you get your podcasts.

A man, Nikolai Vavilov, stands over a desk in a suit, holding up a scientific print. His desk is covered in plant samples
Dr. Nikolai Vavilov

Near what is now St. Petersburg, Russia, Pavlovsk Experimental Station still stands today. The treasures that it guards are invaluable, but if any common thieves managed to break through its iron gates, they would likely be disappointed at their haul. Pavlovsk Station is part of the Institute of Plant Industry and it’s the world’s oldest seed bank.

It’s cousins include the Svalbard Doomsday Vault in Sweden, the Millennium Seed Bank Project in the U.K., the Australian Grains Genebank, and the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Colorado.

But the first seedbank in Pavlovsk was no easy feat to put together or to preserve. In fact, it cost ten human lives to create and save it.

Nikolai Vavilov’s Early Life

Nickolaj Ivanovic Vavilov, better known as Nikolai Vavilov, was born in 1887 in Moscow. His father was a merchant and he had three siblings, Sergey, who would later become a famous physicist, Alexandra, who became a doctor, and Lydia, who studied microbiology before her death from smallpox, so whatever this family did in science class really worked. Vavilov’s father grew up in poverty in a rural village, and he often suffered from famine, both natural and man-made, caused by crop failures and food rationing. But he had built himself a new life through textile selling. The family grew up wealthy, in a nice town house in the capital city.

But through his father’s stories, young Nikolai Vavilov developed a passionate desire to end famine in Russia, and across the world, a pursuit that would lead to a very ironic and tragic end.

In 1891, when Vavilov was four, crops across Russia were devastated by an early winter. Merchants exported grain that did survive for profit, leaving the people hungry. Tsar Alexander III, the father of Tsar Nicholas II whose terrible fate is covered in Episode 2, did very little to help. He distributed “famine bread” made of moss, weeds, and tree bark, and shockingly the people weren’t super satisfied with this weak attempt at a solution.

The nobility continues to enjoy imported delicacies while the people starved, which is a classic recurring theme in history that often leads to revolution. It is likely that despite young Vavilov’s privileged upbringing, he witnessed some of the terrible famine and disease that killed half a million Russians when he was a child.

The 1700s to 1900s were filled with famine. British colonial mismanagement killed 10 million people in India. The Great Hunger in Ireland, now often considered a genocide, killed a million Irish and sent another 2 million emigrating, most to America. Irish-American here, checking in. In China, Brazil, Ethiopia, and Rwanda hundreds of millions people were added to the worldwide famine death toll.

A Dream to Feed the World

Russia was desperate to modernize their agriculture, and Vavilov was determined to make sure it was done scientifically. He studied at the Petrovsky Agricultural Academy, the hub of this brand new field, don’t know if you heard of it, its pretty niche. It’s called genetics. Vavilov made quite an impression on his classmates, energetically debating with them during lunch while eating food in the wrong order, and occasionally pulling out his pet lizard from his breast pocket mid-sentence.

In 1910, Vavilov graduated determined to put a stop to these famines, an Russia was now the largest grain exporter in the world. His senior dissertation was on snails as pests. He took a job with the Bureau for Applied Botany and the Bureau of Mycology (the study of fungi) and Phytopathology (plant disease) for two years.

Then from 1913 to 1914, he pulled the classic graduate move of backpacking Europe, except unlike most college students, he was travelling with British biologist William Bateson to study plant immunity. Bateson was one of the most important men in the history of genetics, actually being the one to name the field, and he worked extensively with a team of female scientists from Cambridge University. Young Vavilov was eager to visit and learn for him.

But in 1914, World War I broke out, and Vavilov hunkered down in Russia with his new wife Yekaterina Sakharova. He was soon called away however, straining their marriage, to investigate a strange illness among Russian soldiers in Persia who were suffering confusion and dizziness. Vavilov quickly deduced that moldy wheat was the culprit, and then he figured he was already, he might as well collect some plant samples as bullets rained around him, unshaken, slipping the samples into his trusty jacket pocket, which at this point no longer contained a lizard.

Vavilov holds a young boy, his son
Vavilov holds a young boy, his son
Vavilov and his son

When he returned, he and Katya had a son Oleg in 1918 but the marriage ended, largely because of Vavilov was more dedicated to seeds than to his family. Vavilov married a lentil specialist and the assistant head of the seed collection, Elena Ivanova Barulina, and stayed with her for the rest of his life. She may have been more understanding of the job, as a fellow seed person. Vavilov’s second son, Yuri, was born in 1928.

In 1917, Vavilov became a professor of Agronomy at the University of Saratov, as the Russian revolution took place. While the royal Romanov family met met their fate and ended Russia’s empire, Vavilov continued his work. He was excited about the fact that peasants who had traditionally been kept away from education could now join his research teams.

He left the university in 1920, the same year that he made a name for himself at the All-Russian Congress of Plant Breeders with a paper on the common ancestors of plants and how traits were passed down to modern varieties. He became the director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences (with the acronym VASKhNIL that I assume rolls better off the tongue in Russia) located in Leningrad, which was a network of research institutions.

Most of Vavilov’s research revolved around what is called the “center of origin” of plants. It had been less than 100 years since Charles Darwin had published his book On the Origin Of Species and shocked the world with the idea of traits in plants and animals being controlled by what we know call genes coded into DNA. Vavilov believed that in order to develop the best possible versions of plants, he needed to understand their oldest ancestors, and these plant ancestors were scattered across the world.

Vavilov began to go on trips to collect seeds from across the world. And he had an idea that would change the course of his life, and many others. A global seed bank that could protect samples of plants from war, chaos, and disaster, natural or man-made.

If mankind could preserve the plants in all the steps of their evolution, they could understand how to evolve them further into crops that would survive pests, drought, disease, and early winter.

He slowly started to build the world’s largest collection of plant seeds in Leningrad, and his expeditions took him across five continents. He believed that his work was “a mission for all humanity”. While he did this, he helped establish the Soviet Union’s network of 400 scientific institutes. Many students were the children of the peasant class, helping to bring their family out of poverty in this new post-revolution world.

Vavilov wears a traveling outfit and shakes hands with a man in a turban
Vavilov wears a traveling outfit and shakes hands with a man in a turban
Vavilov during his travels

Vavilov had dinner with the Emperor Ras Tafari in Ethiopia. He fought off deadly spiders and scorpions that engulfed his tent by lamplight. He survived a plane crash and fought off lions in the Sahara desert until he and the pilot were rescued. He ventured into conflict zones in Afghanistan’s mountains. He collected poppy in China, coffee in Africa, soybean from Korea, fruit in South America, oats in Spain, tea in Japan.

Vavilov was also the first scientist to develop the law of homologous series in variation, along with his students from Saratov Institute. The paper was published on June, 4, 1920.

The paper was “appreciated by the qualified breeders as a great scientific achievement comparable with the Mendeleev’s periodic Law of the chemical elements.”

Which I cannot figure out how to translate into non-plant-talk, but they the seed people seemed to think was very important.

Vavilov was also a member of the Soviet Central Executive Committee, which you may remember for giving the order to execute the Romanov family, although he was not there for that meeting as far as I can tell. He was also the President of the All-Union Geographical Society, the Soviet equivalent of the Royal Geographical Society in England that sent Robert Falcon Scott on his Antarctic missions, so we have all kinds of connections today. Vavilov also won the newly established Lenin prize for his work.

Vavilov crouched on the ground, looking at the camera
Vavilov crouched on the ground, looking at the camera
Vavilov collecting samples

In the 1930’s, Vavilov convinced the International Congress of Genetics to hold their seventh annual congress in his home town of Moscow in 1937. Both the International Congress and the Communist party agreed to the idea in 1935 and Vavilov was elected chairman of the International Congress.

But in 1936, the Communist Party changed their mind and canceled the event, which was postponed until 1939 and held in the much more friendly spot of Edinburgh. The Communists also forbid Vavilov from going abroad, and an empty chair was placed onstage at the opening ceremony to represent him. Despite all his achievement, Vavilov said of himself :

“Me, I’m nothing special. It’s my brother Sergey who’s the brilliant one.”

It wasn’t an easy time to do this work. Russia underwent waves of famine, revolution, and unrest. But Vavilov dreamed of improving farming and creating hearty super plants that would end world hunger. As the son of a peasant farmer, Vavilov was able to connect with traditional farmers across the world and gather both their seeds and their expertise. A Kazak agronomist who had helped Vavilov collect wild apple seeds said,

“He figured out everything from little more than a day in the field.”

The King of Pseudoscience: Trofim Lysenko

Trofim Lysenko scowls in a portrait
Trofim Lysenko scowls in a portrait
Trofim Lysenko

But as is the case in most dictatorships, one day you’re in favor, and the next day you’re out. Now let me introduce you to seed rebel and pseudoscientist Trofim Lysenko, a young Ukrainian pea farmer. His peas survived the winter, and this was a very big deal in the seed community, and it earned him praise from the Communist party.

But just because water falls on my head doesn’t mean it’s raining. I may have walked under a gutter, or maybe I’m being splashed by a car. Ok, bad example, but what I’m trying to say is just because something seems like it should be true, doesn’t mean that it is, and this is a concept Lysenko could have used some help with.

A painting of Gregor Mendel, a monk wearing an apron as he examines pea plants in a garden
A painting of Gregor Mendel, a monk wearing an apron as he examines pea plants in a garden

Now I’m going to throw everyone back to about sixth grade biology. Do you remember the monk Gregor Mendel who did experiments with pea plants? In case you need a little refresher, he figured out the basics of plant genetics by cross-breeding peas with different traits, like height and color. He realized that when he crossed a green plant with a yellow plant, the result would always be a yellow plant. Mendel developed the idea of “dominant” and “recessive” traits.

This is the same principle that says a parent with brown eyes and a parent with blue eyes are far more likely to have a child with brown eyes because if the baby receives one gene for blue eyes and one gene for brown eyes, they will always have brown eyes.

If you remember filling out those Punnett squares, you can thank Gregor Mendel and of course Mr. Punnett. Mendel actually failed the tests to become a science professor and only published a single paper on this topic, but ended up being one of the most influential scientists of all time, if you need that pick me up after a less than stellar AP test score.

Vavilov then met Lysenko and supported his research, even though Vavilov believed Lysenko was not a great wheat and pea grower, which I have to imagine is a huge diss in the seed community.

Trofim Lysenko heard Mendel’s theory, and said, nah, that doesn’t seem right to me, and he resurrected the idea of acquired characteristics instead. This was the idea that if a plant or animal gained a trait during its life, it could be passed to the next generation. In the case of peas, Lysenko promoted the idea that if you soaked peas in cold water, their offspring would be resistant to cold weather. Which is not true but The Soviets loved this idea and Lysenko’s movement, very humbly called Lysenkoism.

The Soviet’s were resistant to science, but they liked Lysenko’s idea, and this combined with Stalin’s policies into a deadly result. Joseph Stalin was one of history’s cruelest leaders, and he took over from Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union when Lenin died in 1924. I could and probably will make an entire episode on the life and iron rule of Stalin, but I’ll quickly cover the basics that apply to this story. In Stalin’s twisted nightmares of a vision, he dreamed of controlled state with a command economy, meaning the entire country’s economic system was controlled by the government. Think about any policy that Ron Swanson would hate, and that’s probably what Stalin wanted to do.

In order to create this, he forced the country into rapid industrialization and to catch up with the rest of the Western world. He also forced the agricultural industry into collectivism. This meant there could be no more individual farmers farming their own land that they owned.

Everyone farmed for the state, and the state could do with the crops what they wanted, which was usually keep it for themselves.

He used this shift to punish Ukrainians, in particular as they had resisted his rise to power. This led to a massive famine in 1932, in Ukraine the famine is known as “Holodomor”, and this was followed by the “Great Purge”, where Stalin systematically executed 700,000 “enemies of the state” and imprisoned over 1 million. Many of these “enemies” were intellectuals, scientists, and political activists.

An artistic depiction of Vavilov examining plants in a field
An artistic depiction of Vavilov examining plants in a field
A depiction of Vavilov on the show “Cosmos”

Vavilov criticized Lysenko’s theories. Which turned out to be a bad move, because Joseph Stalin liked Lysenko. And if my little Stalin crash course taught you anything, let it be that you did not want to be on Stalin’s bad side.

Stalin was responsible for much of the famine that had tortured the Soviet Union in the 1930s. He decided that Vavilov was the perfect person to take the fall for him.

Vavilov’s processes of breeding plants took a long time to create usable food, but of course he was doing this for research purposes, not feeding the country. Stalin didn’t care.

Lysenko was whispering in Stalin’s ear about using Vavilov as a scapegoat. Then one day at the Kremlin, Vavilov, never one to waste time, was rushing around the corner of the hallway. Another man rushed around the other direction, and they collided, Vavilov’s papers flying through the air and scattering across the floor. Vavilov had knocked down Joseph Stalin.

After this incident, Vavilov’s pace of work quickened even more. Colleagues tried to warn him that there would be trouble for him if he continued this research. One told him, “Comrade, they are going to arrest you!” Vavilov replied,

“Then we’d better work that much faster.”

Look, I didn’t lie when I said this guy was passionate about his plants.

A group of scientists posing for a portrait
A group of scientists posing for a portrait
Vavilov’s team

Stalin appointed Lysenko to a Central Committee of the Communist Party, and the group called Vavilov in for a report. This was the perfect opportunity for Lysenko to paint Vavilov as an elitist, out of touch, scientist. When Vavilov told them that his team hadn’t yet figured out how to distinguish a pea from a lentil through protein analysis, Lysenko said, and I don’t know why this translation makes it sound like Lysenko is an American cowboy, but Lysenko said,

“I reckon anyone who tries them on their tongue can tell a lentil from a pea.” Vavilov, very tired of this nonsense, replied, “Comrade, we are unable to distinguish them chemically.”, to which Lysenko said, “What’s the point of being able to distinguish them chemically if you can try them on your tongue?”

The committee, with their anti-science bent, thought this was a terrific insult, mostly because many of them had no scientific background and were sick of these well-educated elitists embarrassing them. But Stalin resisted Lysenko’s pleas to get rid of Vavilov, still worried that a sudden disappearance of the world-famous scientist would be noticed by the rest of the world.

Lysenko set up an event at Vavilov’s own institute as the final nail in the coffin. Lysenko’s supporters packed the room, outnumbering Vavilov’s few remaining friends. Lysenko once again repeated his theory of soaking peas in ice water and the crowd went wild. Vavilov knew he was sealing his fate as he defended his position, questioning Lysenko on his lack of evidence. Lysenko pushed back at Vavilov, hammering home how few people were there to support him, but Vavilov refused to back down, stating,

“We shall go into the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions.”

After the conference, Vavilov told his colleagues to request transfers immediately, and gave them his personal permission to denounce him in order to protect themselves. A dozen of his most loyal colleagues and friends stayed with him at the Institute.

Vavilov was arrested on one of his plant-gathering expeditions on the Russian-Ukrainian border, at the very beginning of World War II on August 6th, 1940.

His family and friends had no idea what had happened to him. Like many political prisoners, he seemed to simply disappear.

Vavilov refused to confess to any crime. The Soviet Secret Police interrogated Vavilov for over 1,700 hours. I use the term “interrogated” loosely, as you can imagine what went on in Stalin’s prison with one of his most brutal guards. Reports say that Vavilov’s legs were so swollen that he could only crawl across his cell floor and collapse at the end of the sessions, until he would be woken suddenly in the middle of the night for the next one. He signed a confession.

A mugshot of an older Vavilov with several long scars on his cheeks
A mugshot of an older Vavilov with several long scars on his cheeks
Vavilov’s mugshot, showing scars on his face from mistreatment

Vavilov was put through a sham trial and was sentenced to death. He sat in solitary confinement for months in Moscow. In 1941, he was shocked to hear that the prisoners were being moved. Hitler had sent its troops to invade Russia.

In his moments outside, he started to see the devastation that the war was already having on the country, as planes and shells, and troops passed him. And one can only imagine that his mind wandered to the question what was happening to his dear colleagues in Leningrad.

The Siege

In 1941, things for the facility took a very dark turn, as it did for much of the world. It was the Siege of Leningrad, the city that today has the more friendly name of St. Petersburg. The Nazis marched on the city and the Soviet Red Army locked them into a stalemate and regular hails of shelling and fighting. Its two million people were held in limbo and this struggle would end up lasting 28 months, or close to 900 days. And cut off the food supply to its almost 2 million residents. Thousands of Soviets would end up starving to death.

Stalin had ignored the importance of the treasure held at the seed bank. But Hitler did not. As Hitler’s troops marched on the facility, the scientists scrambled to move a large portion of their collection to a secret underground vault. There were hundreds of thousands of samples of plants (every source seems to claim a different number but safe to say it in the 15,000 to 400,000 range) and seeds at this point, and they were under serious threat. About 40,000 of these were edible food crops.

You may be thinking, what was so special about these plants in particular? If Vavilov collected them, then couldn’t they just be collected again? But with all the plants in one place at the Institute, the cross-breeding was the key. By studying and combining these plants from across the world, they were creating crops that were pest resistant, adaptable to different climates, unlikely to succumb to natural famine.

There were nine scientists left: Georgi Kriyer, Alexander Stchukin, Dmitri Ivanov, Liliya Rodina, G. Kovalesky, Abraham Kameraz, A. Malygina, Olga Voskrensenskaia, and Yelena Kilp and they retreated to the basement vault with their most precious seeds. They not only had to protect them from the Germans, but also their starving Soviet neighbors. of the most important samples and took them to the basement.

Left without their leader, they had to rely on each other to keep to their mission: to protect the seeds for the future of humanity.

With bombs and shells falling, dead littering the city, blockade combining with cold, cut off from the rest of the country and the world, it’s not hard to imagine that these scientists thought this could be the end of the world. It was the apocalypse that they were preparing for.

A depiction of Vavilov’s team during the Siege (Cosmos)

Months passed. They were surrounded by a cornucopia of rice, wheat, corn, beans, and potatoes. But they never touched a grain of it. Winter came, turning the unheated building into a damp, freezing prison. The windows were shattered and the botanists boarded them up. Without coal, fuel, or firewood, they collected cardboard, paper, debris from outside to burn to survive the negative 40 degrees.

The potatoes were especially vulnerable to cold. They took turns on 24-hour guard over their precious starch. Starving rats shared their hideout, and leaped on their sorting table, scattering the seeds. Yelena Kilp shot at them. The team was down to two slices of bread a day for rations. They mourned Vavilov, who they were sure was dead.

Meanwhile, Vavilov’s death sentence had been commuted to twenty years in prison, but it didn’t last long. Vavilov wrote to the government,

“I am 54, with a vast experience and knowledge in the field of plant breeding. I would be happy to devote my myself entirely to the service of my country. I request and beg you to to allow me to work in my special field, even at the lowest level.”

But Vavilov would never return to work. By 1943, he was dead. Records indicate that he was admitted to the prison hospital a few days before his death with lung inflammation, weakness, dystrophy, and edema. Some believe he may have starved on the diet of “frozen cabbage and moldy flour”, a tragic end for the man who dedicated his life to ending the very thing that may have killed him.

During the endless days and nights, the group picked out some of the most important samples and had them smuggled out of the city into the Ural mountains. They worked by flickering lamplight to sort and catalogue the samples.

The Siege of Leningrad

Hitler expected the siege to be over soon. He had invitations printed for his victory party at a famous hotel in the city. He worked to retrieve famous paintings from the Hermitage Museum and then then he put together a special SS team, the Russian Collector Commandos, to take the seeds. One in three residents of Leningrad had died during the siege, but this still didn’t break the city.

Alexander Stchukin, the peanut specialist, died at his desk with thousands of nuts uneaten. Georgi Kriyer, the medicinal plant expert, and Dmitri Ivanov, the rice collector died soon after. There were thousands of packets of edible rice with Ivanov that he had not touched. In the end, all nine of the remaining scientists starved to death surrounded by edible plants to preserve the collection, driven by a mix of patriotism, fear, and probably some peer-pressure from Stchukin’s example.

The siege ended in January 1944. Hitler never got his hands on their seeds or the city. And when the collection was rediscovered, not a single sample had been eaten.

Save the Seed Bank!

The world did not end, as many feared during the second World War and its nuclear end. But the seeds that the scientists saved were necessary. In fact, in 1979 it was reported that “80% of all the Soviet Union’s cultivated areas are sown with varieties” from Vavilov’s collection. Their sacrifice even reached their allies across the Atlantic. Here in the United States, many of our crops today are cross-bred with the samples the scientists saved.

The data from Vavilov’s 115 expeditions to 64 countries across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North and South America is still used today to track how crops developed from wild plants and how they continue to change today. Russian geneticist Ilya Zacharov, described Vavilov as “a person of inexhaustible energy and unbelievably efficiency”. Vavilov was often quoted as saying,

“Time is short and there is so much to do. One must hurry.”

Ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan, who wrote a biography on Vavilov, said

“All of our notions about biological diversity and needing diversity of foods on our plates to kepe us healthy sprung from his work 80 years ago. If justice be done, he would be as famous as Darwin.”

In 2010, the land that the Experimental Station sits on was in the process of being sold to land developers who planned to demolish it to build private homes. It would have been impossible to move the collection because of agricultural regulations and the technical problems with uprooting thousands of plants.

Later that year, Russian President Dmirty Medvedev tweeted that they were “scrutinizing” the issue. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ignored the public outcry. But in 2012, the Russian government announced that they would be taking formal action to protect the station.

Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in 2002 (Dag Terje Filip Endresen/Flickr)

In the end, the Soviet Union and Stalin’s decision to ignore and then kill Vavilov may have been a contributor to their downfall. Lysenko remained a prominent agriculture until 1967 when there was another famine, and he was publicly denounced. In 1991, the Soviet Union fell.

Vavilov died in the city of Sartov, which today has a street named after him and a new memorial unveiled in 1997. In the square near it, opposition rallies are often held. There is another monument near the entrance to the cemetery in Saratov where he is buried.

America author Elise Blackwell wrote a fictionalized account of the death of the scientists in a novel appropriately named Hunger. The band The Decemberists also sang about the death of the scientists in their song “When the War Came”:

“We made our oath to Vavilov / We’d not betray the Solanum / The acres of asteraceae / To our own pangs of starvation.”

A stamp featuring a portrait of Vavilov and wheat
A stamp featuring a portrait of Vavilov and wheat
A memorial stamp for Nikolai Vavilov


Cosmos, Possible Worlds By Ann Druyan · 2020

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