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Martyred by Monsters

Nikolai Vavilov’s life would make a chilling film about how visionary science and intrepid intellectual adventure in Soviet Russia blackened into a vicious persecution and a martyr’s death. Educated in the years following the rediscovery, in 1900, of Gregor Mendel’s laws of heredity in peas, Vavilov was by the 1920s the principal champion of Mendel’s genetics in the USSR. He was a prodigious collector of plants and seeds from foreign regions, and a powerful leader in the vast complex of Soviet agricultural research. Highly respected abroad, he was elected to full membership in the Soviet Academy of Sciences at the unprecedentedly young age of forty-two, and was awarded the Lenin Prize, one of the Soviet Union’s highest honors, for his scientific accomplishments.

Yet from the late 1920s, Vavilov ran increasingly afoul of the plant breeder Trofim Lysenko and his powerful political allies. A neo-Lamarckian, Lysenko insisted that hereditary changes in plants could be induced by modifying their environment and that the Soviet agricultural future should be built on that theory. At a meeting of the Communist Party’s Central Committee in 1939 he bluntly told Vavilov, “I do not recognize Mendelism,” dismissing it as “rubbish and falsehood.” In August 1940, Vavilov was arrested and swallowed up in the NKVD prison system without notice to his family or colleagues. He was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to twenty years in a labor camp, but he died, still in prison, in January 1943, the victim of prolonged malnutrition.

Peter Pringle’s The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, the first full-scale biography of the man published in English, is a revealing account of Vavilov’s remarkable career and brutal downfall. A seasoned journalist of foreign affairs and the Moscow bureau chief for The Independent during the period of the Soviet collapse, Pringle knows well the operations of the Soviet state. His book is original and important, not least because of the sources he has managed to exploit. They include papers in the possession of Vavilov’s family; his official correspondence and research files that were not destroyed by the secret police during their search for evidence when he was arrested; and the state’s case files on Vavilov, including his interrogations and the accusations of the informants who fingered him. Pringle’s account of the brutal politics of Lysenko’s campaign against Vavilov is gripping, but his book is all the more valuable for its informative rendering of Vavilov’s life as well as what led to his death.

Life is short, we must hurry,” Vavilov was wont to say. He was the child of well-to-do bourgeois parents who lived on the outskirts of Moscow. The family combined a sympathy for social reform with a commitment to a Russian echo of the Protestant ethic—temperance, hard work, self-discipline, modesty, and achievement. (Of his three siblings who survived childhood, two sisters became physicians and his brother, Sergei, a prominent physicist.) Vavilov added a dash of formal comportment to the family standards, almost always wearing a three-piece suit, even on the high mountain passes and sultry jungle trails of his expeditions. His father, a successful manufacturer, insisted on treating his workers fairly—his company won a medal at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 “For Efforts in Making Workers’ Life Comfortable”—and he supported the movement for democratization that led to the failed revolution of 1905.

In 1906, passionate about science, Vavilov enrolled in the Petrovskaya Agricultural Academy. At the “Petrovka,” he became an enthusiastic student of Mendelism and of genetic selection as a means of breeding better crops. He also embraced the school’s progressive reformism, which sought to deploy science to raise agricultural productivity. Vavilov confided to his diary that he wished to “commit his life to understanding nature for the betterment of humankind,” pledging to “work for the benefit of the poor, the enslaved class of my country, to raise their level of knowledge.” He became involved with a fellow student, Yekaterina Nikolayevna Sakharova, whom he married in 1912. She was plain, serious, “even stern,” Pringle writes, but he was attracted by her intelligence and literary erudition.

In 1913, Vavilov and his wife left for twenty months in Western Europe, where he acquainted himself with leading biologists in Germany, France, and England, visiting and talking extensively in particular with William Bateson, the director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution, who had coined the word “genetics” and who was the leading advocate of Mendelism in Britain. Returning home upon the outbreak of World War I, Vavilov completed his doctorate at the Petrovka and was eventually sent to the Persian front to investigate why Russian soldiers were falling ill after eating the local bread (the reason was the infiltration of the bread wheat by a poisonous ryegrass).

The mission to Persia enabled Vavilov to undertake his first plant-hunting venture—an expedition in September 1916 into the Pamir Mountains, a majestic but treacherous range in the border regions of Afghanistan and what is now Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan. He expected that plants flourishing in its high fertile valleys might contain genes that would confer resistance to disease and to extremes of temperature and drought. His small party braved a forbidding glacier, slippery ice bridges, and narrow trails along the steep mountain faces. “We managed to keep going only by a common lowering of expectations; by indifference to all that happened,” Vavilov recalled. The wheat he found in a valley at seven thousand feet

exceeded our wildest expectations; gigantic rye up to four and a half feet tall and with rigid culms [stalks], large ears and large grains and among it absolutely original forms of so-called non-ligulate rye, undoubtedly initially established there…. This rye was distinguished by unusually large anthers and large pollen; no doubt an endemic plant! For the sake of it alone, it was worth coming to the Pamirs.

Pringle writes that the expedition fixed the course of Vavilov’s life work—research into the origins of cultivated plants, the evolution of the world’s staples, and Soviet crop improvement. Vavilov pursued his program briefly in Saratov, a grain port on the Volga, and then, from 1920 on, at the Bureau of Applied Botany, in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks had made life unpleasant for the bourgeoisie in Saratov. “We are not overly optimistic here,” Vavilov had written. “The only way to survive and preserve lives and institutions is with a camel’s endurance.” When he arrived in Petrograd, the bureau was a shambles, impoverished by the war and the civil war then raging, forcing the staff to battle for furniture, flats, and food. Vavilov’s father had fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, and now a number of artists, writers, and scientists were leaving for the West.

Vavilov, however, had several reasons to remain. He and Yekaterina had a son, but the marriage was moribund, and in Saratov he had fallen in love with Yelena Barulina, one of his students. She would join him in Petrograd (where the couple kept their relationship secret for six years, until Vavilov and his wife divorced). Vavilov was well aware, as Lenin had made clear, that Soviet Russia needed scientists and engineers, including many from bourgeois backgrounds. In 1919 the government had authorized extra rations of food and fuel for scientists, partly to discourage its experts from emigrating. Building on initiatives that dated back to before the revolution, it also soon provided abundant support for research, including the creation of new research institutes in some of the abandoned houses and palaces of the aristocracy.

Though not a Communist, let alone a Party member, Vavilov was reformist enough to admire the aim of the Soviet state and he saw great opportunities for science under the new order’s commitment to its support. On a trip to the United States in 1930, he would try to persuade two talented young émigré Russian biologists, both of whom were working in the laboratory of the famed geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan at the California Institute of Technology, to return home, insisting that the prospects for science overrode the material deprivations and suppression of liberty. He failed with one, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and succeeded with the other, Georgy Karpechenko, who would also eventually fall victim to Stalin’s purges.

Vavilov argued that the science of genetics and the diverse plant resources he was gathering would together help make Russia a world-class scientific power, enable the transformation of its agriculture, and dramatically improve the food supply of its people. Vavilov’s bureau moved to handsome quarters, a palace on St. Isaac’s Square that had housed the tsarist ministry of agriculture, and it established an experimental farm at Pushkin, about sixteen miles into the countryside on the extensive grounds of the tsar’s summer palace of Tsarskoye Selo.

Pringle writes that Vavilov quickly turned his bureau “into a vast plant breeding empire.” He pursued his goals with inexhaustible energy, corresponding with leading geneticists on both sides of the Atlantic, calling his staff to meetings far into the night, and shouldering a heavy set of administrative responsibilities. They included not only the directorship of his own institution, eventually renamed the All-Union Institute of Plant Industry, but also the presidency of the new Lenin Academy of Agriculture, and oversight of dozens of agricultural experiment stations and research institutes across the Soviet Union. “My cranium will soon explode from these layers of rubbish on all sides,” he wrote a friend in 1930, complaining about the eighteen posts he then held.

Pringle points out that Vavilov was adept at working within the Soviet bureaucratic system. If he failed to gain support from a relevant government agency, he was able to appeal to Nikolai Gorbunov, Lenin’s former personal secretary and the executive secretary of the Council of People’s Commissars, which controlled all government agencies. As one of a group of “trustee” experts in their disciplines, Pringle notes, Vavilov was able to “affect almost the entire institutional development of plant science.”

Vavilov’s access to power enabled him to organize his subsequent expeditions and become the world’s leading practitioner of international plant collecting. In 1922, facing the threat of famine from poor harvests, the Soviet government sent him to the United States, where, using gold and platinum in lieu of Russia’s worthless currency, he purchased two tons of seeds from American companies and persuaded Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration to ship most of it to the port of Riga. In 1924, he led a plant expedition to Afghanistan, the first Russian scientific expedition into that country, according to Pringle, a five-thousand-mile journey on horseback that took him beyond the Hindu Kush to the border with British India. “We cleaned out all of Afghanistan,” he told a friend. In 1926, he ventured to Abyssinia, expanding the trip into a year-long journey from Morocco and Algeria to Lebanon, and on to Syria, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan as well as what is now Iraq. He spent the latter half of 1929 gathering plants and seeds in western China, Japan, Formosa (Taiwan), and Korea. And in 1932, he led his last expedition, this one to Central and Latin America.

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