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…

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