The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin’s Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century
Peter Pringle, New York: Simon and Schuster
2008, 384 pages
“Life is short, we must hurry.”
In seed banks from Ethiopia to Saskatchewan hangs the portrait of a man who is virtually unknown to most of us. His dream to rid the world of famine ended in a Stalinist prison, but his legacy of the world’s first large-scale seed bank endures today.
The man is Nikolai Vavilov and his remarkable story – one of intrigue, politics and idealism – is the subject of two new books. The first is written by British investigative journalist Peter Pringle, and the other by American ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan. Although both books tell the story of Vavilov’s life, Pringle’s is a full biography told by a seasoned storyteller, whereas Nabhan’s focuses on the significance of Vavilov’s fieldwork. Each will appeal to different readers, but both illuminate what Vavilov’s pioneering work emphasized: The diversity of our food plants keeps us alive. And as Nabhan reminds us, that diversity is seriously threatened.
Both books recount Vavilov’s life. He was born in 1887 to a merchant family in Czarist Russia – a time and place defined by extremes of both wealth and poverty, alongside recurrent famines and mounting revolutionary fervour. While studying plant pathology at university, he began travelling to obscure parts of the world to find the origins of “landraces” or heritage crops, and to gather seeds.
He worked with local agronomists and farmers, whom he considered to be the true experts.
Vavilov’s goal was nothing less than to try to prevent famine. The key, he reasoned,was to draw on the vast genetic diversity of crops to increase yields, and to improve resistance to diseases and climatic changes through crossbreeding. Before he was 20, Vavilov had begun to accumulate what was to become the largest collection of seeds in the world, a collection that Pringle emphasizes was never “a dead herbarium,” but rather “a living museum of cultivated plants.” This collection remains active at the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg.
Nabhan’s Where Our Food Comes From is a narrative of two journeys: Vavilov’s early 20th century seed expeditions across five continents, and the author’s own, which retraced the scientist’s original route. As Nabhan reminds us, political, economic and environmental issues today are closely interconnected, and directly affect the ability of people around the world to feed themselves. This tightening web of international interdependence also means that food disasters are no longer localized.
In The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, Pringle looks at the internecine conflicts and politics that existed between different schools of scientific thought in Russia in the early 1900s, and particularly at the rise of Vavilov’s rival, the “young, ambitious Russian peasant” Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko’s anti-genetic biological theories dominated the Soviet Union until the mid-1950s. Maintaining that the “immutability of the gene was in compatible with Darwinism,” he waged wars in the press and garnered favours with Stalinists in order to remain top dog of the Soviet science world. Some even accuse him of Vavilov’s murder.
Today, as Nabhan discovered during his travels, the players may have changed, but the threats to seed diversity persist. Seed patenting and genetic engineering by powerful corporations threaten to change the face of agriculture forever. Nabhan compellingly reminds us that all our food starts with seed. And those who control that seed
essentially control the food we eat, and with it, our health and well-being.
Vavilov’s fate was unspeakably cruel and ironic. As Pringle describes, when Stalin came to power and famine stalked Russia yet again, Vavilov’s work came under scrutiny. In need of a scapegoat to explain the scarcity, and goaded on by the Lysenkoists, Stalin blamed Vavilov and threw him in prison. The man who changed the way we think about plants and seeds died there – of slow starvation – in 1943.
Heather MacAndrew produces documentary films on Vancouver Island, where food security is an issue of growing concern.