On a hazy afternoon in March 1927, a Russian scientist was walking through the dense forests of Abyssinia, ducking under low-hanging branches and stopping to inspect the wild coffee trees lining his path. Accompanied by a group of local guides, the young traveller had been hiking for weeks through the gorges of eastern Africa, keeping a close watch for armed bandits or stalking leopards. Leaving the forest, the group slowly made their way to the bottom of a canyon, clinging from tree to tree to prevent hurtling off the steep slope. Down below, the Blue Nile glistened with the reflection of the afternoon sun and the blinking eyes of a float of crocodiles.
When they were ready to cross the river, the men unslung their rifles and began shooting into the water, continuing for hundreds of rounds. The river was turbulent with the thrashing mass of crocodiles before turning a deep crimson, their bodies floating belly up. Pushing the crocodiles aside with the butts of their rifles, the men waded across the river towards the highlands to complete the aim of the expedition—to collect an assortment of seeds to bring back to their extensive seed repository in the Soviet Union.
The leader of the seed-scavenging expedition was an adventurous young botanist called Nikolai Vavilov. Back in the USSR, he had witnessed first-hand the series of famines that had plagued the Soviet Union, the result of continuous war, outdated farming methods, and a hostile climate in which huge swathes of land languished in the permanent grip of ice and snow. Parents were forced to forage for acorns and tufts of grass to feed their children while peasants fled their villages in search of food. As mortality rates soared, bodies accumulated outside hospitals, left in decomposing piles in the absence of anyone with enough strength to bury them.
In the late 1920s, Stalin announced his first five-year plan, aiming to revolutionise agriculture through the collectivization of farms and plant-breeding programmes. Far from its intended effect, the chaos of collectivization ushered in yet another, more devastating famine. Harvest yields plummeted and bodies weakened. In 1929, a full 90 percent of the entire wheat crop in Soviet Ukraine had frozen to death in an exceptionally harsh winter. Yet Stalin still expected a bumper harvest. And as the head of a botanical research centre tasked to improve Soviet agriculture, Nikolai Vavilov was expected to make this happen.
Vavilov was born in 1887 in the rural village of Ivashkovo, on the outskirts of Moscow. His love of science began from an early age. As a child, he catalogued the creatures living in the rivers and birch forests surrounding his village and preserved his favourite plants in his own herbarium. In more serious scientific schemes, Nikolai and his brother Sergei converted their room into a makeshift laboratory. They had gotten hold of crystals of potassium permanganate along with a bottle of sulfuric acid, a dangerous combination. Pouring the acid over the purple crystals set off an explosion which was powerful enough to damage the vision in Nikolai’s left eye, leaving him with blurred vision for the rest of his life.
Their father was the son of a peasant, and had risen from poverty by riding the wave of industrialization, making a small fortune in the textile industry. Despite his father’s wishes for his sons to study business, Vavilov’s interest in science and living creatures led him to enrol at the Petrovskaya Agricultural Academy in Moscow. Among his fellow students, Vavilov made a name for himself as an endearing eccentric. At lunch in the canteen, his friends laughed as they watched him inhale his ice cream, gulp a few spoonfuls of soup, then say a hasty goodbye before tripping over himself in his rush to squeeze in a language class before the next lecture. His professors regarded him as one of their most outstanding students and treated him as an equal. In 1911, he completed his prize-winning thesis on the important, if mundane, topic of field slug ecology and embarked on a two-year tour around Europe, where he worked alongside prominent plant geneticists. Genetics was a novelty in the scientific world: just a decade previously, the idea that units of heredity could be passed down through generations was practically unknown.
Much of what science understands about inheritance can be traced back to the work of Gregor Mendel. Known today as the father of genetics, during the mid-19th century, Mendel was an obscure Moravian monk with an intellectual curiosity and a passion for gardening. Over an eight-year period, Mendel carried out his now famous pea plant experiments from the quiet walled garden of the monastery. He discovered that traits are inherited from parents to offspring as independent ‘particles’—something which would later come to be known as genes. Mendel realised that not all genes are expressed equally. Some genes are ‘dominant’ and will mask the expression of the weaker, ‘recessive’ genes. He published his findings and sent annotated copies to renowned scientific institutions and to a handful of famous biologists.
The paper was met with indifference by the scientific community, being cited just four times from its publication in 1865 to 1900. It took other scientists to reach similar conclusions in the early 20th century, 15 years after Mendel had died, for the paper to finally be unearthed and appreciated. The rediscovery of Mendel’s findings had a profound impact on a British biologist named William Bateson, who devoted his career to studying Mendelian inheritance, earning the nickname ‘Mendel’s bulldog’ for the ferocity with which he defended Mendel’s research. A belligerent man with a permanent scowl and a drooping moustache, Bateson brought the concept of the gene to scientific attention, making major breakthroughs in the new science and even giving it the name ‘genetics’.
On his European tour, Vavilov studied under and developed a friendship with Bateson, whose enthusiasm for Mendelian genetics couldn’t help but rub off on the young scientist. Bateson not only popularised Mendel’s principles, but also their practical applications. His theories on how genetics could revolutionise agriculture and feed the hungry resonated with the young and idealistic Vavilov, who had already set himself the colossal task of eradicating famine and poverty on a global scale. Vavilov reasoned that if genes gave rise to traits such as disease resistance, and some recessive alleles were hidden by dominant alleles, careful cross-breeding could unmask those traits and improve Russian agriculture. He knew that these ‘hidden genes’ couldn’t be found in domesticated plant varieties but in their wild ancestors, growing in the most remote, uninhabited regions of the world.
The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 brought Vavilov’s academic European travels to an abrupt end. He hurriedly packed his bags and caught a train to Moscow, sending the rest of his belongings by boat. Sailing over the North Sea, a German mine sunk the vessel and with it, Vavilov’s suitcases, bulging with botanical textbooks and plant specimens. Fortunately, he had made such a favourable impression on his hosts that they sent an array of plants to replace Vavilov’s sunken treasure. Arriving home, Vavilov was spared from active service thanks to the ill-fated childhood chemistry experiment and was instead sent to Persia, tasked with helping the Russian army by solving a botanical conundrum. Along the Persian front, soldiers were displaying a strange set of symptoms: difficulty walking in a straight line, dizziness, and a general feeling of drunkenness. Strangely, the symptoms appeared not after sharing a bottle of vodka but after eating the local bread. Even before leaving for Persia, Vavilov knew what the problem was—he had already come across wheat infested with poisonous ryegrass, which produces symptoms of alcohol intoxication when eaten—but he accepted the assignment eagerly, keen to use the trip as an opportunity to collect specimens of rye and its genetically rich wild relatives.
From Persia, Vavilov travelled through the stunning glacial valleys of the Pamirs, in the first of what would be many foraging expeditions. The safest and most straightforward paths into the mountains were blocked by an uprising of tribesmen. The nomads were refusing the tsar’s demand that they assist the overwhelmed Russian forces against the German army. The only course left was a perilous route directly through a glacier spanning 30 kilometres. Although local officials advised against such recklessness, all for the sake of a few seeds, Vavilov packed his three horses with scientific equipment and set off with his guides into the series of icy chasms.
The team advanced slowly across the edge of the glacier, avoiding the deep fissures and cracks in the centre. They navigated precarious paths along perpendicular cliffs several thousand feet high. It would have been a challenging expedition for an experienced mountaineer with technical equipment, never mind a Russian plant collector in a three-piece suit, clutching his camera and magnifying glass. Turning a corner along the cliffs above the Pyandzh River, two eagles darted out of their nest, spooking Vavilov’s horse. Vavilov lost the reins and gripped onto the mane as he dangled above an abyss, a precipitous 1,000-metre drop into the ravine below. He described this near-death experience in his travel notes with cheerful understatement: ‘such moments… prepare a scientist for everything unexpected. In this respect my first expedition was especially useful’. After a steep climb and wading through the rapids of a mountain river, the group emerged onto the lush, green valleys of rural Tajikistan. Vavilov could hardly contain his excitement when he found wild wheat almost 5 feet high with particularly large pollen and huge grains. To collect samples of this plant alone, Vavilov wrote, the trip had been worth it.
In 1916, Vavilov returned from his travels to Moscow with news of worsening food shortages playing on his mind. Already meagre harvests had dwindled further as portions of Russia’s most fertile territory were lost to Germany and millions of peasants were dispatched from farms and drafted into the army. Refusing to be distracted from the growing turmoil and his own empty stomach, Vavilov spent long days working at the Agricultural Academy with the contagious enthusiasm that he was becoming known for.
The following year, Vavilov was offered a full professorship in agronomy at Saratov University, a rare achievement for someone in their early 30s who had completed their doctorate just five years prior. Although he was making strides professionally, the communist revolution was tearing Vavilov’s world apart. Arriving in Saratov a month after the October Revolution, Vavilov found the Bolshevik-controlled port city overflowing with starving refugees, orphaned children, and rats spreading typhus. News reached Vavilov that the new Soviet government had confiscated the family home and forced his father to flee the country or face imprisonment. Distracting himself from his father’s departure, he worked increasingly long hours. For the next 18 months, Vavilov slept on the floor of his laboratory and woke before sunrise. Each morning he would tend to the crops on the experimental farm, a bare field located seven miles from the university, which had been set aside for agronomists to test their new plant varieties. In the dry, black earth, he planted more than 12,000 hybrids of wheat and barley in the first year alone, patiently replanting the crops whenever the opposing sides of the civil war stampeded through the field.
Vavilov quickly became the most popular professor at Saratov University, as undergraduates jostled for space in the lecture hall to hear him talk about the exciting new developments in genetics. With Vavilov on the teaching staff, it became one of the few places in the country teaching genetics in combination with botany and agriculture. Vavilov had also published groundbreaking research on plant variation and genetics. Delivering a lecture describing his ‘law of homologous series of genetic variability’, Vavilov explained how the same characteristics can be found at different evolutionary stages of closely related plants. By identifying a series of characteristics in one species, plant hunters could expect to find the same characteristics, and the genes which give rise to them, in other related species. The audience erupted into a standing ovation and newspaper articles reporting on the lecture compared him to the great Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev. In response, the government promised to provide Vavilov with funds and everything else he needed for his important scientific expeditions. Vavilov had become not only a national hero but an internationally renowned scientist, propelling the country to the forefront of genetics, hot on the tails of the United States and Germany.
At the end of 1920, Vavilov was promoted to director of the Institute of Applied Botany in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). The previous director, the plant biologist Robert Regel, had died of typhus the previous year. Shortly before his death, he had written to the Commissariat of Agriculture, recommending Vavilov as his successor. Vavilov was not only ‘the future pride of Russian science’ but an especially agreeable person, belonging ‘to a category of people of whom you won’t hear a bad word from anybody at all’. The Institute, under its new leadership, was envisaged as a scientific centre for testing and improving crop varieties to prevent future famines. It was also to be the home of Vavilov’s grand new project: A vast seed collection, acting as a genetic library, a repository of useful genes which he could use to breed new, superior plants. Arriving at the Institute, Vavilov quickly realised that he was at the helm of an institution devastated by poverty. The rooms were in a state of complete disrepair, a chaotic mess of dust and broken furniture. The pipes had burst, and the existing stock of seeds devoured by the starving masses.
The Institute was not alone in its state of neglect; the whole city was in ruins. Hospitals had been abandoned, public transport was at a standstill, and there was an atmosphere of hopelessness among the dwindling population. Leading academics didn’t escape the clutches of poverty and hunger. In Petrograd, seven out of the Academy of Science’s 44 members died of starvation. Even Ivan Pavlov, a national treasure famous for being the country’s only living Nobel laureate, had to scavenge for firewood and food. Laboratory animals disappeared from their cages and appeared on dinner plates. Lab equipment was repurposed to make moonshine in exchange for food on the black market. Hunger wasn’t the only obstacle academics faced. Scientists returning from a conference or a field trip often found their laboratories looted and houses occupied by refugees from the countryside.
Among the despair and destitution lay empty institutions and stately palaces, their previous occupants having fled the country or succumbed to starvation. Seeing an opportunity, Vavilov moved the Institute from the original ramshackle building into an impressive 19th century palace in St Isaac’s Square, originally built for an esteemed nobleman. He also found a plot of land for an experimental farm in the nearby village of Pushkin in the grounds of the tsar’s summer palace. With his researchers working more comfortably, Vavilov’s next task was to replace the stock of seeds that had been eaten by Petrograd’s starving residents. He travelled to the U.S., whose material comforts must have been an unbearable contrast to the deprivations in his home country. Over the next four months, he criss-crossed the continent, giving lectures, forming friendships with geneticists, and amassing a colossal number of seeds. A total of 20,000 seeds, weighing a hefty two tons, were posted to the Soviet Union, with another 61 boxes in his personal luggage. Especially promising was the native corn seed he had acquired from a Native American reservation, the only corn variety successfully grown in northern Wisconsin’s short season, which Vavilov believed would be capable of surviving in the USSR’s frigid northern regions.
In the summer of 1924, Vavilov led an expedition into Afghanistan, scouring the country for plant varieties in regions where few foreigners had travelled to before. Early in the trip, Vavilov was forced to fire the Russian interpreter when it became clear that not only was he in a permanent state of semi-inebriation, but completely ignorant of the local language. Vavilov took it upon himself to become the group’s interpreter and woke before dawn each day to memorise Farsi phrases and grammar. In a matter of weeks, he could converse with the mountain-dwelling locals of the Hindu Kush, adding another language to the handful that he had mastered.
Though the route was more navigable than Vavilov’s first venture to the Pamirs, this expedition was far more dangerous. Travelling through Herat towards Kabul, the group heard news of Europeans fleeing the region due to a rebellion of tribesmen which had the potential to overthrow the Afghan leader, Ammanulla Khan. Vavilov was determined to continue, and was thrilled to discover a high-yielding species of wheat with an unusually tough stalk. The group proceeded along ravines and stony trails towards the province of Nuristan, where they encountered one obstacle after another. The horses’ feet continually became stuck in fissures between the rocks, causing one of the horses to fall and hang above a precipice, its pack falling off the cliff into the river below. Stony landslides and repeated bouts of malaria added to their difficulties. On the trek between the settlements of Vama and Gursalik, the local guides, who had been appointed to the research team to ensure their safety, absconded when they heard talk of bandits ahead. Unaccompanied, the group proceeded to the city of Jalalabad, where they found early-ripening forms of sugar cane and a species of black lentils previously unknown to botanists.
Over five months, the adventurous agronomist covered a distance of 5,000 kilometres, almost all of it on horseback. Loaded with samples and unique plant specimens, Vavilov and his colleagues boarded the slow train back to Moscow. Stopping en route in the city of Tashkent in Soviet Uzbekistan, Vavilov was asked to give a lecture at the Central Asia University. The lecture hall was packed, crammed with students eager to hear from the talented geneticist. They were surprised to discover not the eloquent plant enthusiast they were expecting, but a pale, languid figure who was sweating profusely and clinging to the podium. The audience only later discovered that he had been suffering from an attack of malaria but had insisted on giving his lecture, despite feeling seriously ill and running a temperature of above 40º Celsius (104º F).
Vavilov once again returned to a country undergoing serious political upheaval. Lenin had died, Stalin had gained control, and the little freedom that scientists enjoyed was diminishing. For the first time, his application to leave the country for a scientific expedition was rejected. It was also proving difficult to gain permission from foreign countries, reluctant as they were to grant a visa to a Soviet scientist on official Bolshevik business. Vavilov went on a ‘charm offensive,’ rubbing gregarious elbows with influential administrators, and by the summer of 1926, he was given permission for an expedition which would take him through northern and eastern Africa and the Middle East. During the year-long trip, he swam in the Dead Sea, drank tea with the emperor of Ethiopia, crossed crocodile-infested rivers, encountered armed bandits, and, of course, collected seeds—lots of them. From East Africa alone, he sent 120 parcels filled with seeds and plant specimens to his Institute in Leningrad, including drought-resistant varieties from the valleys of Mesopotamia and a species of high-yielding, hard wheat that was previously unknown. Already the Institute’s seed bank was nearing 250,000 seeds, becoming the most extensive repository in the world.
Back in Leningrad, Stalin was busy shaking up Soviet science. His belief that science should serve the state was creating an environment in which scientific data was commended not on its accuracy, but according to its reinforcement of communist dogma. In Stalin’s eyes, ‘real’ science was applied to benefit the population; ‘pure’ science was an anti-communist indulgence. Bourgeois specialists who spent too much time theorising and writing papers needed replacing with capable peasants, willing to get dirty in the fields for practical solutions.
On 7 August 1927, the official communist paper Pravda had found just the man Stalin was looking for. They published a report on a young peasant agronomist named Trofim Lysenko, who had reportedly invented a method of botanical ‘shock-therapy’, in which he could train seeds to grow earlier in season and survive the arid, inhospitable farmland which formed much of the USSR. Here was a practical researcher, proclaimed Pravda, toiling away in the fields for a solution to the food shortages, while the so-called specialists sat comfortably, theorising from their ivory towers.
Lysenko and Vavilov were two peas from very different pods. Lysenko was born into a peasant family, had only learned to read in his teenage years, and received no university education. In their demeanour, too, the men were far from alike. Lysenko was shy and serious, described by one journalist who was certainly not mincing his words as ‘stingy… and insignificant of face’, who ‘gives one the feeling of tooth-ache’. In terms of their scientific views, Lysenko rejected the ideas of modern genetics that Vavilov had made his life’s work as bourgeois propaganda, used to emphasise individual differences and bolster class divisions. Genetics, Lysenko believed, formed the basis for the superiority of the wealthy classes, who would assert that they possessed finer genes to reinforce the social hierarchy. Instead of Mendelism, Lysenko adhered to Lamarck’s—now widely rejected—theory of the ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’, which suggests that individuals have the ability to modify their features during their lifetime and bestow these features onto their offspring. If giraffes need to feed on tall trees, they would simply grow a longer neck and, rather conveniently, give birth to long-necked youngsters. According to Lamarckism, nurture, rather than nature, was the driving force for evolution.
Lysenko’s ‘shock-therapy’ experiment involved chilling seeds to ‘trick’ them into thinking that the winter season had already passed and encouraging earlier germination, in a process he named vernalization. This technique was already well known to farmers and had been used for years. Despite this, Lysenko took credit for the discovery. He then took the theory one step further, claiming that these characteristics could be inherited, so that a single dose of ‘shock-therapy’ was sufficient to produce decades of bumper yields. Just in case this wasn’t enough to save the starving Soviet throngs, he asserted that his methods could even transform one species of plant into another. Just as lowly peasants could be transformed by the glories of communism into respectable comrades, communist science would allow useless weeds to remodel themselves into respectable, belly-filling rice and wheat. Although much of Lysenko’s data was downright fraudulent, or pseudoscientific at best, they had the advantage of being ideologically pleasing, and most importantly, promised miraculously fast improvements to agricultural yields.
At first, Vavilov defended Lysenko’s experiments with an open mind and an optimistic desperation. Despite his belief that a single experiment using an individual plant hardly formed the basis for a scientific theory, Vavilov badly wanted vernalization to work. If seeds could be grown at any time of the year, his seed bank would become significantly more valuable. It is also possible that Vavilov saw something of himself in Lysenko’s unshakeable enthusiasm, long working hours, and obsessive interest in plants. His colleagues, however, were not so easily persuaded. The British cotton breeder, Sydney Harland, who was visiting the USSR at Vavilov’s invitation, spoke at length with Lysenko and reported that he ‘found him completely ignorant of the elementary principles of genetics and plant physiology… to talk to Lysenko was like trying to explain differential calculus to a man who did not know his twelve times table’.
In 1929, at 42 years of age, Vavilov was elected a full member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, becoming its youngest-ever member. Undoubtedly at the pinnacle of his career, he nevertheless faced mounting criticism from the class of uneducated ‘scientists’ backed by Stalin. They complained that Vavilov was spending too much time abroad, classifying plants and writing papers on genetic diversity instead of focusing on the crisis at home. Furthermore, he was becoming increasingly implicated in a tense dispute in Soviet biology between those who supported Lamarckism and those who followed the Western science of Mendelian genetics. As the debate wore on, Lysenko would become the face of the Lamarckists while Vavilov would come to represent the geneticists.
Meanwhile, the bickering botanists on both sides of the debate were under mounting threat from the regime. Especially harsh weather, combined with the spectacular failure of Stalin’s plan of collectivization, resulted in the loss of 12 million hectares of winter wheat between 1927 and 1929. As the already meagre food rations diminished further, Stalin ordered his secret police to find scapegoats. In response, the Soviet secret police, the OPGU, announced that it had exposed a counter-revolutionary organisation which had been working to sabotage Soviet agriculture and undermine Stalin’s five-year plan. Various scientists and officials involved in food production were rounded up, given a show-trial and executed. Others were luckier—their lives were spared in exchange for becoming an informant for the fictitious ‘anti-Soviet organisation’, which, the OPGU had decided, was being run from within the Institute of Botany and masterminded by Vavilov. The OPGU opened their file on Nikolai Vavilov in the spring of 1930. By the end of the decade, it would contain 136 reports of his agricultural sabotage, mostly obtained from the torture of detainees or from information gathered by a growing network of informants working within the Institute, who were acutely aware that their survival depended on providing the OPGU with incriminating ‘evidence’. Other ‘evidence’ came from transcripts of geneticists who had testified against Vavilov. Strangely, the transcripts were dated several years after the scientists had been shot.
With members of Vavilov’s staff disappearing from one week to the next, things could hardly get any worse. Then, at the beginning of August 1931, the Kremlin issued an impossible target for the development of new crop varieties. The 12 years that had been set for plant-breeding programmes would be cut to just four years. Of course, the government stated, this timeframe would be inconceivable in even the most agriculturally advanced countries. The Soviet Union, however, with its much more efficient system of collectivized farms, was fully capable of this more ambitious target. A panicked Vavilov wrote to the agricultural Commissar for a compromise. He could cut down the plant breeding programmes at the Institute to ten years, but no less. The more politically expedient Lysenko, however, accepted the new deadline with his usual ingratiating enthusiasm. By 1934, he announced that his method of vernalization had increased wheat yields in Soviet Ukraine by 40 percent. Evidence for this bumper harvest was nowhere to be found, but by then it didn’t matter. The Commissar of Agriculture was so pleased with Lysenko’s attitude that he ordered trials for vernalized crops throughout the country.
As Lysenko gained more favour in the Kremlin, he became increasingly confrontational, launching a series of tirades in speeches and newspaper columns against “class enemies” intent on sabotaging the collective farms. He targeted the geneticists in general, and Vavilov in particular, for their deliberate pursuit of a useless science in order to undermine Soviet agriculture. For the most part, Vavilov kept quiet. This was partly because he was still hoping that despite Lysenko’s ignorance, his work may prove useful for Soviet agriculture. He was also keenly aware that people who clashed with Lysenko tended to suffer severe consequences. Nikolai Maksimov, the first scientist to criticise Lysenko publicly, had already been arrested. In addition, Lysenko’s former boss, Andrei Sapegin, who had made an example of Lysenko when he discovered that he had fabricated his wheat yield data, was promptly fired, arrested, and imprisoned for two years.
Many of the Soviet Union’s senior scientists were confined to gulags across the country, giving Lysenko access to the top positions in Soviet agriculture. Formally in charge, Lysenko pressured Vavilov to reject his own research and publicly acknowledge ‘Lysenkoism’. For Vavilov, this was a step too far. Being branded a ‘class enemy’ and ‘saboteur’ was one thing, but to be coerced into rejecting Mendelian genetics was another. Animosity between the two reached a fever pitch, until for the first time in his life, Vavilov lost his temper. Vavilov’s colleagues recalled hearing raised voices coming from Lysenko’s office. They entered the room and saw Vavilov holding Lysenko by his suit collar, blaming him for allowing other countries to overtake the USSR in genetic research. Lysenko, clearly petrified, screamed that he was untouchable and would expose Vavilov’s aggression to government officials.
Friends and colleagues noticed the strain that these confrontations were placing on Vavilov. The intrepid explorer who had once hiked hundreds of miles through hostile terrain had aged rapidly in a matter of months. He became short of breath when walking up stairs and looked constantly exhausted. ‘The old sparkle went out of his eyes’, staff at the Institute recalled, ‘and he lost his usual slightly ironic cheerfulness’. By the summer of 1940, Vavilov had come to terms with his inevitable arrest. Despite living just minutes away from his office, he would call his wife as soon as he arrived or left the Institute so she would know if he had been apprehended on his walk home. Occasionally, he felt more optimistic, convinced that the arrest of a popular international figure was sure to create awkward questions for the Kremlin. With growing confidence, Vavilov asserted to a colleague that the government ‘wouldn’t dare’ arrest him and boldly set out his work plan for the year ahead; an ambitious list of the twelve books and articles that he would write, many on the subject of the application of genetics to agriculture.
In August 1940, Vavilov and a handful of his comrades set off for Soviet Ukraine on what was to be his last plant-collecting expedition. Travelling through Kiev towards the Carpathian Mountains, Vavilov became reanimated, practically jumping out of the car to gather samples of rye, barley, and oats. Returning to the hostel that evening, Vavilov found four secret service agents in dark suits and matching fedoras waiting for him. Giving him no time to collect his belongings, the men told Vavilov that he was needed urgently in Moscow, steering him into the black sedan. His colleagues watched the car drive him away, certain that it would be the last time they would ever see him.
The interrogations began in the early hours of the morning on 12 August 1940. The chief interrogator was Lieutenant Alexander Khvat, a member of the secret police well-known for his brutality. After an especially unnerving session in which Vavilov was forced to stay awake for ten consecutive nights, Vavilov signed his first confession. He admitted belonging to an anti-Soviet organisation which had carried out widespread ‘wrecking activity’ to undermine Soviet agriculture, but refused to confess to Khvat’s accusations of spying. When his interrogator pushed him to give the names of his co-conspirators, Vavilov named those he knew had already been exiled or executed.
Unimpressed with Vavilov’s half-hearted confession and evasive descriptions of sabotage, Khvat increased the intensity of the interrogations. Dishevelled and unshaven, the warder would drag Vavilov back to his cell each morning, throwing his body against the cell door, recalled the artist Grigory Fillipovsky in 1968. He ‘was no longer able to stand and had to crawl on all fours to his place on the bunk. Once there his neighbours would somehow remove the boots from his swollen feet and he would lie still on his back in his strange position for several hours’.
Vavilov became weaker and emotionally tormented, plagued with thoughts of his looming execution and of his grieving family. In the spring of 1941, after eleven relentless months of interrogation, Vavilov signed another confession, admitting to establishing an ‘anti-Soviet ring’ which had been working undercover within the Institute. This time, he gave Khvat what he wanted—three names of his close colleagues, all of whom would soon be arrested and shot. To finish up the case and give it a scientific veneer, the secret police decided to set up an ‘experts commission’ who would attest that Vavilov’s scientific work was deliberately designed to cripple the country’s food production. The team of experts was vetted by Lysenko, who personally saw to it that each member shared his contempt for Vavilov. A scathing report was written by the secret police, on behalf of the experts, who were coerced into signing it. One of the experts admitted that he disagreed with parts of the report but signed it anyway. ‘This was the kind of situation when it was frightening to refuse to sign it’, he would later explain.
On 9 July 1941, in a show trial which would last less than five minutes, with no witnesses or lawyers present, Vavilov was sentenced to ‘suffer the supreme penalty—to be shot—and for all of his personal property to be confiscated’. He was transferred to Butyrskaya prison for the death sentence to be carried out. From death row, Vavilov attempted to keep his spirits up by arranging for the inmates to give each other lectures on their interests and areas of expertise. One by one, they took it in turns to give talks from theoretical chemistry to the timber industry, speaking in whispers so that they wouldn’t attract the attention of the guards. He wrote furiously—desperate letters to his contacts in the upper echelons of the Soviet system, pleading for his life—along with a book about the history of worldwide agriculture. Months later, he finally received a response. His sentence was commuted to 20 years’ hard labour in a Siberian gulag, where his specialist knowledge could be put to good use. The advancing German army, however, meant that he was instead transferred to a prison in Saratov, the city where he first made a name for himself and just 25 kilometers away from his wife and son. However, living in the dank conditions of Saratov Prison, where dysentery was rife and food was scarce, Vavilov’s health quickly deteriorated. On 26 January 1943, Vavilov died of starvation and was buried in an unmarked mass grave, a palpable irony for a man who dedicated his life to relieving hunger.
The disappearance of such an internationally renowned figure didn’t go unnoticed. Winston Churchill contacted Stalin personally to find out what had happened to Vavilov, but the government was determined to keep everyone, including Vavilov’s family members, in the dark. Soviet secret police would deliberately spread disinformation to keep relatives in a perpetual state of fear and confusion. Desperate for answers, Vavilov’s son Oleg travelled to the police headquarters. He was informed of his father’s passing, but the police refused to disclose the cause of death or the site of his burial. Oleg returned to the prison to search for his father’s name among the gravestones of the adjoining cemetery, probing the graveyard wardens and passersby for information. He found no answers but reports of his prying made their way to the Kremlin.
Giving up, Oleg, an aspiring scientist in his own right, returned to his studies at Moscow State University. He had just completed his thesis on cosmic rays when he went hiking in the Caucasus Mountains with some university colleagues. At the last minute, another professor from the university—Ivanovich Schneider—decided to join. Schneider taught Marxist-Leninist doctrine, and was suspected of being an undercover agent for the secret police. Schneider and Oleg were alone when, Schneider reported, an avalanche caused the snow to give way beneath Oleg’s feet, sending him plunging to his death. Months later, Oleg’s body was found beneath a blanket of snow by his wife Lidiya, a deep wound with the shape of an ice pick in his right temple.
Vavilov was gone, but his staff at the Institute were determined to continue his work at the seed bank. In 1944, the Institute’s fields containing the potato collections were in flames as bombs rained over the city during the Siege of Leningrad. Fearing that the whole seed collection could be lost in a single attack, the staff planned to evacuate five tonnes of seeds on a train heading into the Ural Mountains. When the train failed to arrive in Leningrad, the researchers divided up the seeds and prepared them for long-term preservation. The Institute’s windows flashed as shells exploded around them but the Institute itself somehow remained unscathed. Only later would they learn that the bombers were under strict orders from Hitler to avoid St Isaac’s Square; he had his sights on the nearby Astoria Hotel as the ideal venue for a celebratory banquet and was planning a victory speech from one of its balconies. Unable to evacuate the seeds, the botanists boarded up broken windows and took it in turns to guard the collection from rats and starving civilians. During the 900 day siege, 28 of the institute’s staff succumbed to starvation while standing guard, surrounded by food. These individuals sacrificed themselves so that Vavilov’s seeds, and the genes they contained, could be preserved for future generations.
Over the following two decades, a complete ban on the practice of Mendelian genetics was imposed and opponents of Lysenko were fired. In 1940, he was appointed director of the Institute of Genetics, an astounding achievement for someone who doubted the very existence of genes. His influence survived the death of Stalin and the Khrushchev era, the isolation of DNA from cells, and the discovery of its double-helix structure by Watson and Crick (based on earlier discoveries by Rosalind Franklin). The influence he still held in Soviet Russia, however, was very different to how he was perceived abroad. At a celebration for the Academy of Sciences 20th anniversary in the summer of 1945, Lysenko opened the proceedings with a speech on biological research. To the amusement of the attendees, Lysenko described his understanding of sexual reproduction, describing how the sperm and egg ate each other, belching out the undigested material to form the offspring. Eyes met and shoulders shook in attempts to stifle laughter. The following year the Russian expat Theodosius Dobzhansky translated some of Lysenko’s writings into English, hoping that the American response would be so withering that it would pave the way for Lysenko’s downfall. Translating Lysenko’s writings, Dobzhansky declared, was ‘one of the most unpleasant tasks I had in my whole life’.
With criticism mounting and an anti-Lysenko movement gaining pace, Lysenko’s luck seemed to be finally running out. In 1957, he would prove to be his own undoing with another breeding programme which again, promised miraculous yields in an improbably short time frame. He claimed he had developed a feeding and cross-breeding regime that increased milk production so successfully that the USSR would soon overtake the U.S. By 1965, it was clear that his bovine breeding programme was a spectacular failure. Average milk yields had dropped from 7,000 kilograms to less than 4,500 and were continuing to fall with each generation. Lysenko’s reputation was in ruins and he was removed from his position at the Institute of Genetics.
In 1955, Vavilov’s reputation was eventually restored during the process of de-Stalinisation. Krushchev granted Vavilov a retroactive pardon for his life sentence and scientific papers bearing Vavilov’s name gradually returned to libraries. Freed from the constraints of censorship, over thirty books covering Vavilov’s life and work were published in Russian in the 1980s, and he continues to be celebrated not only as a brilliant geneticist, but a martyr for scientific truth.
Of the eleven seed banks Vavilov established across the Soviet Union, the main collection in St Petersburg still stands. It remains one of the largest repositories of seeds and planted crops anywhere in the world, eighty percent of which cannot be found elsewhere. Over the past few decades, the institute has sent seeds of these forgotten varieties to France and Ethiopia, where war and industrialisation has led to the disappearance of native plant species. At a time when increasing temperatures, flooding and wildfires threaten global food security, Vavilov’s collection will play a crucial role in feeding future populations.
After Lysenkos’ death in 1976, researchers had the freedom to revisit Mendelian inheritance, but after almost three decades at a standstill, the USSR would never regain its international standing in the field. Just as Lysenko, with Stalin’s support, believed that the plasticity of organisms would enable their socialist utopia, they tried to mutate science to fit into a Marxist mold. Ultimately it would lead to the deaths of scores of people—not just Nikolai Vavilov and his son, nor the hundreds of scientists also persecuted for their pursuit of ‘pure’ science, but the tens of millions who died in yet one famine after another—a scientific tragedy with an unthinkable human cost.