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

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

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.

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.

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

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 during his travels
Vavilov crouched on the ground, looking at the camera
Vavilov collecting samples

“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,

The King of Pseudoscience: Trofim Lysenko

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

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
A depiction of Vavilov on the show “Cosmos”

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.

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

“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.

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
Vavilov’s mugshot, showing scars on his face from mistreatment

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.

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)
The Siege of Leningrad

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.

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

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

Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in 2002 (Dag Terje Filip Endresen/Flickr)
A stamp featuring a portrait of Vavilov and wheat
A memorial stamp for Nikolai Vavilov

Sources:

https://www.rbth.com/blogs/2014/05/12/the_men_who_starved_to_death_to_save_the_worlds_seeds_35135#:~:text=During%20the%20siege%20of%20Leningrad,for%20a%20post%2Dapocalyptic%20world.

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Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Gather round, campers, and let me tell you a story! We cover the best true tales of mysteries, histories, true crime, and real heroes from all over the world.