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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.

As a research scientist, Vavilov did little work in genetics as such. His investigations were based largely on his abundant field observations rather than on controlled experiments in the laboratory, and even they declined as his administrative duties grew. He tended to draw on his data to advance theoretical generalizations. Prominent among them was a law that he proposed in 1920 claiming that traits such as stem size and leaf size occur similarly in the various evolutionary stages of all closely related species and families. Had the law been correct, it would have transformed the classification of plants, but it was not, as Vavilov himself eventually conceded, because similarities in the appearance of plants do not necessarily rest on similarities in their underlying genotypes.

Another arresting speculation was that the major crops came from natural “centers of origin.” This conviction shaped Vavilov’s expeditions, leading him to search for locales with the greatest diversity of types and valuable genes. While the idea did not hold up with its original sharpness, Vavilov’s study of 1926, The Centers of Origin of Cultivated Plants, is a classic in plant geography.

Vavilov’s principal and lasting scientific achievement was the collection of plants and seeds that he gathered from around the globe—his “World Collection,” as he called it. He shipped tons of material from each expedition, and by the 1930s he had collected between 250,000 and 300,000 specimens, including bred and wild plants, grains and fruits, flax, cotton, and medicinal herbs. During the 1930s, his institute distributed some five million packages of seeds to research, breeding, and other agricultural institutions, and they in turn placed 254 new varieties into production, many of them matched to the Soviet Union’s specific climate zones. In 1940, together with sixty coauthors, he was preparing a multivolume international manual on the theory of plant breeding and with eighty collaborators he was compiling a botanical overview in twenty-two volumes of the USSR’s cultivated plants. Two volumes of the former and seven of the latter had been published by the time of his arrest.

Vavilov’s formidable power in Soviet biology and agriculture stimulated resentments, some from practical breeders, many of them contemptuous of formal academic science, others from within the scientific community. Critics charged that he spent too much time traveling, that his World Collection was a waste of resources, that he gave excessive attention to abstract research, and that his programs had little practical impact on Soviet agricultural improvement. Several disastrous harvests had put a premium on improving agricultural production; so did Stalin’s program of agricultural collectivization then underway, which was supposed to turn the USSR into one of the world’s largest grain producers. In 1931 Vavilov, promising to raise substantially Soviet agricultural productivity, announced that it was imperative to keep theoretical research “tightly linked to production.” Partly to this end, as Pringle notes, he took a keen interest in the research of Lysenko.

Lysenko is now commonly regarded as no more than a pseudo-scientist, but a close look at his research, which Pringle brushes over, reveals that his early work on plant improvement fell within the mainstream biology of the day and won him a place in established scientific lecture halls. Eleven years younger than Vavilov, Lysenko was the son of a peasant in the Ukrainian town of Poltava. Illiterate until he was thirteen, he learned no foreign languages, which meant he could not read the major scientific literature of the West.

Still, he was intelligent, ambitious, and dedicated to plant improvement; he studied on his own, obtained practical experience with plants at an experimental station near Kharkov, and trained part-time at the Kiev Agricultural Institute, gaining a degree in agronomy in 1925. Two years later Pravda touted him as a “barefoot scientist,” reporting that he had demonstrated how fields that were customarily allowed to lie fallow in winter could be used to grow peas and oats for animal fodder. Vavilov sent a representative to check into Lysenko’s work. He found Lysenko a “fearless and undoubtedly talented” experimenter, but he added that he was an “extremely egotistical person, deeming himself to be a new Messiah of biological science.”

Lysenko was quickly convinced that the road to Soviet agricultural salvation lay in his discovery of the process that he termed iarovizatsia, from the Ukrainian iar, which means “spring,” or, in English translation, “vernalization.” His initial claim was that the germinal development of plants is affected by environmental factors, notably temperature. But he soon went further, holding that by suitable treatment, winter wheat, for example, which was normally sown in the autumn, could be modified in its development process so that it could be planted in the spring, thus avoiding the hazards of harsh winters and producing higher yields. Lysenko won national attention when, in the summer of 1929, Pravda reported that his father had planted “vernalized” winter grain, which had been subjected to cold temperatures, in spring and reaped a superabundant harvest—triple the ordinary yield, according to an ensuing assessment by a special commission.

A few years later Lysenko took his Lamarckian position, proclaiming that vernalization affected not only a plant’s development but also its genetic makeup. Lysenko’s initial work contributed to studies of the effect of temperature on plant development, then a topic of high interest among plant physiologists and far from a settled branch of science. Many scientists valued his investigations into the developmental effects on seeds of exposure to different temperatures. Lysenko was instrumental in establishing vernalization, in this physiological sense, internationally as an important research topic (indeed, “vernalization” remains a standard term in plant physiology).

However, a number of Soviet scientists dissented from his contention that vernalization would be—or was—practically applicable in large-scale agriculture. At the time, a neo-Lamarckian outlook had adherents in Soviet biology, as it did among Western biologists, but Soviet Mendelians, who were likely the increasing majority, found no merit in his neo-Lamarckian theory. Lysenko’s insistence that vernalization could induce hereditary changes in plants or any other organism contradicted the Mendelian view that genes are largely stable.

Vavilov appreciated Lysenko’s youthful enthusiasm for plant breeding, his energetic devotion to work in the fields, and the reminder in his theories that environment as well as genes shape the organism. More important, he saw in vernalization a means of making his World Collection immediately useful by exploiting the method to test its member plants for their adaptability to different regions in the USSR. After a visit to Lysenko at his institute in Odessa, Vavilov wrote to his own vice-director:

Lysenko’s work is remarkable and forces us to take a different view of many things. It is necessary that the World Collection is worked through with vernalization.1

Like other scientists, however, Vavilov doubted that vernalization would be practically useful in agriculture other than for plant breeding and, as a staunch Mendelian, he considered Lysenko’s neo-Lamarckian views utter nonsense. Privately, he mocked him, but he refrained from attacking him openly on the issue.

Lysenko’s power in Soviet science was growing, Pringle emphasizes. He was highly regarded among the so-called vydvizhentsy, officials who were often poorly educated and owed their jobs to Stalin’s policy in promoting proletarians into the ranks of experts; he had an effective “political minder, promoter, [and] publicist,” Pringle writes, in Isaak Prezent, a former political commissar in the Red Army, who cast his scientific ideas in increasingly ideological terms. When experts questioned as statistically unreliable his data purporting to show that vernalization produced higher crop yields, Lysenko dismissed the criticism as exemplary of obsolete bourgeois science that was about to disintegrate in the face of the new “theory, experience and practice” on the state farms.2 And he had the increasing support of the man who counted most in Soviet Russia. When Lysenko remarked at a conference in 1935 that he was not an academic or an orator, “only a vernalizer,” Stalin applauded, “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko, Bravo!”

Disputes about which direction to take in science, which theories are right or wrong, are common in modern scientific nations. In democratic societies they are fought out in public forums, leaving the losers, with some exceptions, to continue their lives, free of disgrace, imprisonment, or death. But in Stalin’s Russia, where collectivization had not yielded crop miracles, and agricultural science had fallen under the control of political functionaries, Lysenko disparaged critics of the government’s agricultural policies as unpatriotic, bourgeois, saboteurs, and class enemies. In 1936 the purge trials were beginning. Vavilov told a young geneticist that “to be in opposition to Stalin’s views, even in the areas of biology, is not pleasant business.”

By late 1936, Vavilov was running out of patience with Lysenko. During a congress of the Lenin Academy in December, where Lysenko delivered a lecture titled “On Two Directions in Genetics” and made clear which direction he preferred, Vavilov jumped to his feet, expostulating, “You can refashion heredity?” To which Lysenko retorted, “Yes, heredity.” Less than two weeks later, Vavilov was attacked in the press for his adherence to Mendelian genetics, a doctrine that, because of its use by Nazi eugenicists, was now denounced as fascist.

In the spring of 1938, Lysenko, already the recipient of the Order of Lenin, the highest Soviet accolade, became head of the Lenin Academy, which made him officially Vavilov’s boss. Lysenko resented Vavilov for his privileged background, superior education, and scientific training. Pringle finds that by now he had turned into “a monster, an arrogant, self-important party hack” interested only in Vavilov’s “humiliation as a scientist and in his total defeat.” Vavilov refused to concede, telling a meeting at his institute that his views were those of world science, not of fascists. Any foreign book a person might consult, he said, ran contrary to the teachings of Lysenko’s institute:

Would you order that these books be burned? We shall not stand for this…. We will go into the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions.

By then Vavilov had been wondering for several years how long he could avoid arrest. In 1930, the secret police had begun opening dossiers on a number of agricultural experts to develop evidence that they were attempting to sabotage farm production. On March 11, 1930, the agency established a security dossier on Vavilov, Operational File No. 006854. It also began arresting people from his institute, coercing some of them to become informers, especially against their boss. One of them accused Vavilov of personally organizing “wrecking activities” in plant selection and seed production. Over the years similar evidence against Vavilov came to fill 136 files.

Pringle summarizes the many reasons why Vavilov was imprisoned, including his opposition to Lysenko’s scientific and agricultural theories, his cosmopolitanism, and his high standing in international science. But these were not criminal offenses. The NKVD had to fabricate a case against him. The stated indictment was “Treason to the Motherland,” including “wreckage” of the economy and “sabotage” of the Soviet cause, counterrevolutionary activities, and espionage. The penalty was death by firing squad.

The case was to be built by Alexander Khvat, age thirty-three, Vavilov’s chief interrogator. Vavilov was questioned almost four hundred times over some 1,700 hours. Almost all the sessions were stenographically recorded and, while the faithfulness of the transcript is unknown, it amounts, Pringle says, to “the most complete [record] of any released by Soviet state security for this period.” Khvat, who was known for using coercive methods, kept Vavilov standing during prolonged periods of sleep deprivation. He forced Karpechenko and Vavilov, long-standing friends as well as colleagues, to confront each other, cruelly eliciting baseless statements from each that Vavilov had established an “anti-Soviet ring” at his institute and recruited Karpechenko into it. But while Khvat managed to extract several damaging acknowledgments from Vavilov, he failed to obtain an admission of espionage. And as his admirers would later emphasize, Vavilov never recanted his belief in Mendelian genetics. Karpechenko was executed. Vavilov was kept under terrible conditions until his death.

In 1948, responding to attacks against Lysenko from inside and outside the Soviet Union, Stalin gave him and his neo-Lamarckian theories a ringing endorsement. Some three thousand biologists were purged from research institutions across the country and were replaced by Lysenko’s followers. In 1955, with Stalin now dead, a branch of the USSR Supreme Court rescinded Vavilov’s conviction, finding that the evidence against him was suspect and that he had “never engaged in counterrevolutionary activity.”

Lysenko did not lose his main posts until after Khrushchev was ousted in 1964. The institute in Leningrad was renamed the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry and biologists began rebuilding genetics in the Soviet Union, which Lysenkoist repression had shattered for a generation. Today conservation biologists everywhere treasure Vavilov’s World Collection as a great resource for research and an indispensable storehouse of biodiversity.


Vavilov and the Famine December 4, 2008

  1. 1

    Nils Roll-Hansen, The Lysenko Effect: The Politics of Science (Humanity Books, 2005), p. 160. Roll-Hansen delineates Lysenko’s science and the serious attention given it in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

  2. 2

    Roll-Hansen, The Lysenko Effect, p. 127.

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