I recently picked up a book from the bargain section of Borders which looked interesting though I wasn’t sure I’d ever read it, Peter Pringle’s The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov – The Story of Stalin’s Persecution of one of the Great Scientists of the 20th Century. But after the first page or so I found myself unable to leave this tragic story of a “martyr for genetics”. Though he was Russian and brought up in a home that, as the authors notes, began and ended with prayer, he himself was not religious. He writes in a letter once, “My family adheres to old traditions of which I disapprove.” He was a scientist and that was, unfortunately, his only truth. Ironically enough he was attacked at one time for this adherence to genetics by the communist party’s chief of agriculture Yakovlev who:
“…lashed out at the ‘bourgeois,’ ‘negative,’ and ‘idealistic’ disciples of genetics….He compared genetics to religion: the concept of the immortal gene and the immortal cell in which the genes were supposed to reside was the same idea, he said, as religion’s ‘body and soul’. He singled out Vavilov by name as the leader of this politically unacceptable science…”
Vavilov was eventually persecuted by Stalin, a hater of genetics, for his alleged anti-Soviet activities. In fact, when he was finally arrested and interrogated throughout the night for a series of days he finally confessed “of being a member of the rightist organization existing in the system of the USSR Commissariat of Agriculture since 1930.” It is not known why he did this, the author suggests that he hoped to receive a lesser charge. After all, the organization he admitted of being a part of never existed, it was completely fabricated by his enemies.
Though I am in no way a supporter of Soviet Russia the tragedy of this great scientist is manifold including even Stalin’s Russia as one journalist notes here:
“…the negative effect of Stalin’s anti-Mendelian crusade damaged perhaps irreparably the Soviet Union’s capacity to fight the Cold War. Soviet agriculture was never able to match its U.S. counterpart in terms of improving yields. In that sense, you could say the persecution of Vavilov led directly to the fall of the Soviet Union, which people often attribute to the space race or industry or oil. The irony is that it was agriculture finally that killed off the Soviet Union because the Communists had to import grain from the United States. Unfortunately, you can’t grow peas in the desert, as Vavilov understood…”
Ironically enough the American corn breeder Paul Mangelsdorf is quoted in the book as saying:
“It is quite fortunate for us that the free world should now begin to reap substantial harvests, both scientific and utilitarian, from the very work which Vavilov’s own country disdained as ‘impractical’.”
I still wonder how much of this book I really understood, from “vernalization” to Lamarckism to genetics and so forth. The one thing I’ll admit to having no knowledge of was Nikolai Vavilov himself, I had never heard of him before. But the Vavilov presented by author Peter Pringle was, in my miserably weak knowledge of science, a man who had a dream to use science for the good of everyone, who worked ceaselessly at creating one of the world’s first seed banks (which survived the 28 month-long siege of Leningrad and WWII), working all the time at trying to achieve his life dream of ending famine. “Life is short,” he was known to say,” we must hurry.”
It is with some irony that he died in a prison, of starvation.
The book opens with a quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
“You would have to have no love whatever for your contry, you would have to be hostile to it, to shoot the pride of the nation – its concentrated knowledge, energy and talent! And wasn’t it exactly the same…in the case of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov?”