The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century

The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century

by Peter Pringle

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In The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, acclaimed journalist and author Peter Pringle recreates the extraordinary life and tragic end of one of the great scientists of the twentieth century.

In a drama of love, revolution, and war that rivals Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, Pringle tells the story of a young Russian scientist, Nikolai Vavilov, who had a dream of ending hunger and famine in the world. Vavilov's plan would use the emerging science of genetics to breed super plants that could grow anywhere, in any climate, in sandy deserts and freezing tundra, in drought and flood. He would launch botanical expeditions to find these vanishing genes, overlooked by early farmers ignorant of Mendel's laws of heredity. He called it a "mission for all humanity."

To the leaders of the young Soviet state, Vavilov's dream fitted perfectly into their larger scheme for a socialist utopia. Lenin supported the adventurous Vavilov, a handsome and seductive young professor, as he became an Indiana Jones, hunting lost botanical treasures on five continents. In a former tsarist palace in what is now St. Petersburg, Vavilov built the world's first seed bank, a quarter of a million specimens, a magnificent living museum of plant diversity that was the envy of scientists everywhere and remains so today.

But when Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin took over, Vavilov's dream turned into a nightmare. This son of science was from a bourgeois background, the class of society most despised and distrusted by the Bolsheviks. The new cadres of comrade scientists taunted and insulted him, and Stalin's dreaded secret police built up false charges of sabotage and espionage.

Stalin's collectivization of farmland caused chaos in Soviet food production, and millions died in widespread famine. Vavilov's master plan for improving Soviet crops was designed to work over decades, not a few years, and he could not meet Stalin's impossible demands for immediate results.

In Stalin's Terror of the 1930s, Russian geneticists were systematically repressed in favor of the peasant horticulturalist Trofim Lysenko, with his fraudulent claims and speculative theories. Vavilov was the most famous victim of this purge, which set back Russian biology by a generation and caused the country untold harm. He was sentenced to death, but unlike Galileo, he refused to recant his beliefs and, in the most cruel twist, this humanitarian pioneer scientist was starved to death in the gulag.

Pringle uses newly opened Soviet archives, including Vavilov's secret police file, official correspondence, vivid expedition reports, previously unpublished family letters and diaries, and the reminiscences of eyewitnesses to bring us this intensely human story of a brilliant life cut short by anti-science demagogues, ideology, censorship, and political expedience.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451656497
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 07/02/2011
Edition description: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Peter Pringle is a veteran British foreign correspondent. He is the
author and coauthor of several nonfiction books, including the
bestselling Those Are Real Bullets, Aren't They? He lives in New York

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The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century
By Peter Pringle
Simon & Schuster Copyright © 2008 Peter Pringle
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743264983


Ukraine, August 6, 1940

The black sedan, a Soviet version of the American Ford, hurtled along a dirt road from Chernovtsy spreading clouds of dust over the ripening wheat fields. Inside the car were four men dressed like government officials in dark suits and ill-fitting fedoras.

As the road started to climb into the Carpathians near the border with Romania, the men met another car coming down the hill toward them. The car was limping along with a puncture, but when the black sedan stopped it was not to offer help.

"Where is Academician Vavilov?" one of the four men shouted from the car window. "We must find Academician Vavilov."

In the second car was a young botanist, Vadim Lekhnovich, a member of a Commissariat of Agriculture expedition led by the Soviet Union's chief geneticist and plant breeder, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. It was August 6, 1940. Europe was in flames, the Battle of Britain was engaged, but western Ukraine was basking peacefully in the summer sun. The botanists had been in the fields looking for rare specimens of wild grasses that could be bred into new forms of wheat able to withstand the inhospitable climates of the northern steppes.

For Lekhnovich, the intensity of the men in the black sedan, even the rude one who was shouting, had broken into theirpeaceful pursuit of plant hunting, but the urgent request for Nikolai Ivanovich did not seem out of the ordinary. Vavilov was an important scientist who was frequently summoned to Moscow at short notice.

"Nikolai Ivanovich is with the others, collecting specimens," Lekhnovich called back. "Is there an emergency?"

The man in the black sedan glared and spat out an answer.

"Academician Vavilov has important official documents about grain exports. They are needed immediately at the Commissariat of Agriculture."

The cold, demanding voice was suddenly unsettling. This was no idle bureaucrat.

"Where is Academician Vavilov?" the man demanded again.

"Tell us where we can find him."

"He is with the others, in a field farther up the mountain -- " Lekhnovich began, but before he could finish, the black sedan accelerated away, the dust billowing.

Lekhnovich coaxed his crippled vehicle back down the mountain to Chernovtsy and the university hostel where they were all staying.

At dusk, Nikolai Ivanovich returned with his botanists to the hostel. The four men in the black sedan were waiting for him. As he got out of his car, the door of the black sedan opened, and one of the men jumped out. He began talking earnestly with Nikolai Ivanovich, who then got into the sedan and it drove off. The guard at the hostel, who had overheard the conversation, reported to the botanists that the men told Nikolai Ivanovich he was needed urgently in Moscow. He had gone with them, saying that he would return.

Shortly before midnight, two of the four men returned to the Chernovtsy hostel. They carried a note for Lekhnovich from Vavilov, penned in his own distinctive handwriting.

"In view of my sudden recall to Moscow, hand over all my things to the bearer of this note. N. Vavilov, August 6, 1940, 2315 hours."

The two men insisted, politely but firmly, that all Vavilov's belongings should be put into his suitcase, not leaving anything out, not even a scrap of paper. They said that Vavilov was already at the airport and was waiting for his belongings before flying to Moscow.

Lekhnovich and another of the botanists, Fatikh Bakhteyev, did as they were told. As they packed the papers, even scraps of Vavilov's notes, they wondered why Nikolai Ivanovich had not been given a chance to pack his own bag, or, more importantly, to give instructions to the staff on how to continue the expedition in his absence. They decided that one of them should accompany the bags to the airport to get the orders directly.

Bakhteyev volunteered to go. They took the luggage out to the car where the men were waiting, one of them already at the wheel. Bakhteyev started to explain why he had to go with them and began to get into the car. But as he opened the door, one of the men forced Bakhteyev out of the way, pushed him to the ground, and jumped into the sedan as it drove off.

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov had disappeared into Stalin's prisons.Copyright © 2008 by Peter Pringle


When I was a correspondent in Moscow in the last days of communism, I lived on a street named for Dmitry Ulyanov, Lenin's brother. Other streets nearby were a Who's Who of the old USSR and its socialist allies, even Ho Chi Minh. Many of the names meant nothing to me. Ulitsa Vavilova, Vavilov Street, was a mystery until one day a Russian friend told me the story of the Vavilov brothers.

The street had been named for Sergei Ivanovich Vavilov, a physicist of great renown. He became Stalin's president of the Academy of Sciences at the end of the Second World War and oversaw the beginnings of the Russian atomic bomb project. But it was Sergei's older brother, Nikolai, who was an even greater scientist and who was actually more famous, my friend said. Nikolai Vavilov was a botanist and geneticist, a plant breeder, an intrepid explorer, and an organizer of science. He had an ambitious plan to end famine throughout the world. He wanted to use the new science of genetics to breed varieties that would grow where none had survived before. The key was a treasure trove of genes he was sure he could find in the unknown and wild types that had been ignored by our ancestors as they started farming more than ten thousand years ago. To cultivate these crops, the early farmers selected the seeds of plants that looked strong and yielded more grain -- visible characteristics. But Vavilov was looking for the complex properties, such as the ability to withstand extremes of temperature and resistance to pests.

In the 1920s, Nikolai Vavilov roamed the world hunting for these wild varieties of wheat, corn, rye, and potatoes. He built the first international seed bank of food plants, a magnificent collection of hundreds of thousands of botanical specimens, a living library of the world's genetic diversity that would preserve species from extinction and could be used to breed his new miracle plants.

Nikolai's fame spread far beyond Russia, my friend told me. He was a leader of the biological world of the early twentieth century. His seed bank was the envy of his colleagues in Europe and America and they came to work with him at his plant breeding Institute in Leningrad.

In the first years after the 1917 revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin understood the ultimate economic power of Nikolai Vavilov's dream -- to push Russia into the forefront of world food production -- and he supported Vavilov's expeditions. But Lenin died in 1924, and his successor, Josef Stalin, had a very different priority. Russians were starving. Stalin's forced collectivization of Russian agriculture had disrupted the harvests, and a widespread famine would claim millions of lives. The shortage of food was also a constant threat to the revolution.

Stalin gave Vavilov three years to produce his new miracle plants -- an impossible task, as Vavilov knew. To breed improved varieties using the new science of genetics took ten to twelve years. Impatient and ruthless, Stalin charged the geneticists like Vavilov with treason, called them "wreckers" and "saboteurs." They were jailed or executed. Vavilov died of starvation in 1943 in jail. "Just imagine," said my Russian friend, "the man who wanted to feed the world died of hunger in Stalin's prisons."

For many years in the Soviet Union you couldn't read Vavilov's scientific papers or even mention his name, my friend continued. But after Stalin died in 1953, Vavilov was "rehabilitated" -- pardoned -- and his reputation as a great scientist restored. The street near my Moscow home was named for his brother, Sergei, but Nikolai Vavilov is the one who is remembered all over Russia today. He has many memorials and plaques where he lived in St. Petersburg, and where he died in prison in Saratov on the Volga.

"And so, there you have it," my Russian friend had concluded, "a Shakespearean tragedy about two brothers, two brilliant scientists caught in revolution, civil war, and Stalin's terror, where one is destroyed by the regime and the other becomes a tool of it."

The story of the Vavilov brothers, like so many other seductive Russian sagas, leaves the listener wondering how much is true, and how much folklore. What began for me as idle curiosity about a street's name turned into a long and fascinating path of discovery about the violent birth of genetics in Russia, a path that would also reveal an intimate portrait of a bourgeois Russian family trying desperately to survive revolution, civil war, and Stalin's terror.

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov was a bogatyr, as the Russians say, a man of incredible powers, a Hercules. He was indeed an international figure, a fearless explorer, a plant hunter who saw more varieties of food plants in their place of origin than any other botanist in his time. His collection of seeds from five continents captivated the scientific world.

In the early years of the genetic revolution, Vavilov changed the way scientists looked at their new bounty -- the world's vast store of valuable plant genes. Now, in the age of biotech agriculture it seems obvious to us that if you want to create a better, sturdier variety of corn or wheat, you should explore the total genetic diversity of the botanical kingdom for those exotic genes. But back then, as scientists debated the practical use of Mendel's laws of heredity and the words "gene" and "genetics" had only just entered the vocabulary,Vavilov' concepts were radical and innovative.

Before biotechnology and even before Watson and Crick had broken the genetic code, Vavilov laid out a grand plan for "sculpting" plants to human needs, for synthesizing varieties unknown in nature. He opened the eyes of the world's plant hunters and breeders to new ways of applying their expertise, forcing them to think outside the limits of a single academic discipline -- botany -- to include geography, biochemistry, taxonomy, and archaeology. His contributions to pure science were not as profound as Darwin's or Mendel's; he did not expound a revolutionary theory, or new laws of nature, but in a more practical way his research would eventually contribute directly to the food supply of millions of human beings around the world. With his astonishing breadth of knowledge and outstanding capacity to organize a vast amount of material, he set the scene for the exploration and preservation of the earth's genetic resources -- its biodiversity -- not just in Russia but across the planet. He was one of the great scientists of the twentieth century.

People found Vavilov irresistible. As he scoured the world for exotic genes, the energetic Russian cut a dashing, impressive figure, far from the common image of the plant breeder in dungarees and soil-caked boots. He was a man of medium height, stocky and well proportioned. He was handsome, with brown eyes, heavy eyebrows, and a carefully clipped mustache. His dark hair was brushed straight back in a way that added to his incongruous elegance. Wherever he was, in the city or the jungle, he insisted on dressing like a tsarist professor, in a finely tailored three-piece, double-breasted dark gray suit, white collar and tie, and a felt fedora. In the tropics he exchanged the fedora for an imperial pith helmet. He was almost always cheerful, had a deep, Robesian voice and seemingly inexhaustible energy. He was agile, his walk light and fast, he worked all hours, needed little sleep, and could endure physical hardships for long periods, the perfect mettle for a plant hunter.

Like most young biologists of his day, Vavilov followed Mendel's laws of inheritance and bred his new plants accordingly. But he had a young, ambitious rival, a Russian peasant horticulturalist named Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko claimed, falsely as it turned out, that he could "train" plants by changing their environment, and that these changes would be inherited in the next generation. Lysenko promised Stalin he could meet the demand for new varieties of crops in three years, not a decade like Vavilov. For this and other reasons, Stalin supported Lysenko's work. Vavilov's battles with Lysenko resulted in what has been called the "biggest fraud in biology." Certainly it was the most vicious anti-science campaign of the twentieth century. When Nikolai Vavilov was compelled to choose between Lysenko's anti-science speculations and the theory of genetics he knew to be true, he declared, "We shall go into the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions."

In the West, there have been several histories of science analyzing Lysenko's speculative claims, but Vavilov's scientific achievements, his exploration of the world's botanical diversity, his dream of ending famine, and the intimate and, in the end, tragic story of the Vavilov family in revolutionary Russia have barely been told. There have been many accounts of Stalin's prisons, but the official archives now available on Vavilov's arrest and interrogation are among the most complete from that era.

Vavilov's son, Yuri, an eighty-year-old physicist living in Moscow, has published selected texts in Russian of his father's secret police dossier -- a classified file that he was given as the only direct relative of a pardoned victim of Stalin's terror. Yuri Vavilov is also the keeper of the family archive, the custodian of boxes of scientific papers, as well as letters and photographs that amazingly survived his father's arrest.

Relatives, friends, and colleagues, including some who courageously hid papers from the secret police, have added invaluable reminiscences that give details of Vavilov's life beyond his scientific contributions. The original notes and reports of his expeditions were destroyed by Stalin's agents, but most of a manuscript he was writing at the time of his arrest survived. It was to be called "Five Continents," a chronicle of his plant hunting expeditions. Remarkably, eight volumes of his official letters survived the nine-hundred-day German army siege of Leningrad and were found, after the war, in the basement of his Institute. The breadth of this archive reflects an astonishing life, especially for one who could not live it to a natural end.

Yuri Vavilov has carried the burden of his father's murder with much the same stoicism that his father summoned during his stand against Stalin. At our meetings in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Yuri produced his father's legacy, piece by piece, including Nikolai's love letters to Yelena Barulina, Yuri's mother. The one journey we were unable to take was to his father's final resting place. Nikolai's body was dumped, with the bodies of other prisoners, in an unmarked mass grave.

A decade after my conversation about the street named Ulitsa Vavilova, I boarded a train in Moscow bound for the Vavilov ancestral home, the village of Ivashkovo, about sixty miles west of Moscow along the old trade route to the Baltic Sea. Today, it is a typical northern Russian village, with its rolling farmland and birch forests, its wooden cottages with intricately carved shutters, a shop, a school, and a crude concrete war memorial to those lost in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. A whitewashed Orthodox church dominates the village, its dome and golden onions having survived weather and conflicts and even seventy years of communism.

In midsummer, when the trees are in full leaf and the village paths are overgrown with wildflowers, Ivashkovo appears to be a charming, even peaceful place. But like many rural communities in Russia, the pastoral beauty hides a violent, wrenching history. The families who survived were tough, resolute people who had learned how to endure incredible hardships.

In the sixteenth century the land and its serfs were owned by aristocratic and greedy boyars; in the seventeenth century the village was pilfered by Polish troops. The villagers -- freed like other serfs across Russia in 1861 -- enjoyed a brief respite before the Great Famine of 1891 that claimed thousands of lives. A few short years of relative prosperity were followed by the 1917 revolution. The forced collectivization of the farms in the early 1930s brought chaos and more famine, and Stalin's terror touched even small Russian villages across the countryside. Ivashkovo's church, the center of village life, was closed and converted into a storage barn.

In 1941, when the Germans stormed into the village, it had about two hundred houses. Only forty remained when the Germans left at the beginning of 1943. They carried out executions and beatings, and all able-bodied males were sent to work in Germany. On the last day of the occupation, the Germans killed a twenty-one-year-old youth named Leosha because they thought he was a partisan. He had been drafted into the Red Army, but was too sick to go. They beat the youth to death in the square in front of the villagers, including women and children.

The cruelty did not end with the occupation. The Orthodox monk who was in charge of church had persuaded the Germans to reopen it, and each Sunday it was filled with worshippers. When the Germans retreated and the Red Army returned to the village, the monk was accused of collaborating with the fascists and executed along with the church warden.

For all the recurring tragedy, the villagers brighten when a visitor wants to learn more about Nikolai Ivanovich, Ivashkovo's most famous son. In the village school, photos of the Vavilov family are on permanent display: Nikolai Ivanovich's father, Ivan Ilyich, an upright, somewhat stern figure who went to Moscow and made his fortune in the textile industry; his mother, Alexandra Mikhailovna, a matronly babushka in a black coat and a black scarf tied tightlyaround her head; his younger brother Sergei, shown in a photo taken before the revolution, proudly displaying his tsarist military uniform. At the center of this village shrine is a photo of Nikolai Ivanovich himself, a, handsome, intense-looking young man with dark, piercing eyes. In 1943, when the villagers discovered he had died in prison, they wanted to march on the Kremlin, but they were told they would be arrested.

The Vavilov family chronicle moves rapidly from rural serfdom in Ivashkovo to urban wealth, through revolution and civil war. So much was going on all the time in Nikolai Ivanovich's crowded life. There he was with his adoring students in the potato fields of Saratov, or in his Leningrad office in an abandoned tsarist palace with gilded ceilings and crystal chandeliers and maps of the world strewn over the floor. There he was in his three-piece suit and his fedora on plant hunting expeditions in the peaks of the Pamirs, in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mexico, or the jungles of Bolivia, facing death from wild beasts or armed bandits. There he was breezing through the laboratories of the icons of genetics in England, France, Germany, or the United States; or dominating government conferences in Moscow and Leningrad, defending genetics.

Wherever you enter Nikolai Ivanovich's life you will be swept along by the very pace at which he lived. "Life is short," he would say, "we must hurry."Copyright © 2008 by Peter Pringle


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Table of Contents

Introduction     1
Prologue: Ukraine, August 6, 1940     9
Moscow, December 1905     13
The Petrovka and Katya     22
In Darwin's Library     35
Moscow, Summer 1916     43
On the Roof of the World, 1916     51
Revolution and Civil War     60
The Gardener of Kozlov     73
Lenochka     80
Petrograd: City of Ravens     88
Ingots of Platinum     96
Afghanistan, 1924     108
Abyssinia, 1926     119
The Barefoot Scientist     130
The Great Break     143
State Security File 006854     154
The Passionate Patriot     160
A Modest Compromise     168
The Red Professor     175
The Last Expedition     180
Thunder and Dragons     190
The Lysenko Offensive     198
The Showdown     206
The Terror     215
Into the Pyre     223
Comrade Philosophers     232
The Arrest     242
The Interrogation     253
Return to Saratov     268
"Oleg, Where Are You?"     280
Epilogue: Vavilov's Ghost     290
Main Events in the Life of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov     307
Sources and Archives     313
Notes     317
Acknowledgments     347
Index     351

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The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
kukulaj on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have heard about Lysenko and his destruction of Soviet biology, but just little fragments. Vavilov was the leading enemy of Lysenko, at least that's the picture painted by this book. Vavilov was a proponent of Mendel's theories of genetics - the combining and recombining of discrete elements, genes, where the genes are faithfully carried from one generation to the next. Lysenko believed that external conditions could redirect inherited characteristics bit by bit. The discussion of Vavilov's travels to collect seeds is delightful. The tale of Lysenko and Stalin and the whole murderous Soviet regime is utterly chilling. Probably nothing really new here, but the concrete details really do give the story impact. Politics and science still collide today. Probably climate science is the scariest arena. Medicine might be even more twisted - there is so much money at stake, so many lobbyists. The stakes with climate science may be higher in the end, but still the "alarmists" are essentially powerless. The battles in medicine are quieter, which probably means more serious winning and losing is happening. What else can we do with the kind of tragedy we learn about in this book? Let us do what we can not to repeat it, but to support and encourage the kind of heroism personified by Vavilov.