Nikolai Vavilov and the Living Library of Resilience: The Story of the World’s First Seed Bank and the Tragic Hero of Science Who Set Out to End Humanity’s Suffering
The most moving story of self-sacrifice in the history of science.
By Maria Popova
I spent large swaths of my childhood by my grandmother’s side in rural Bulgaria as she tended to her subsistence garden, tilling and planting, watering and weeding. Each August, we did something that felt to me like partaking of magic — we would choose the sweetest, most succulent tomatoes from the vine, cut them open, carefully extract the seeds, and lay them out on newspaper to dry, knowing that they would become next spring’s seedlings and, with nothing more than sunlight and water, next summer’s bright red orbs of delight. So it is that, year after year, my grandmother refined her tomatoes into a cornucopia of unparalleled sweetness and perfection. Last summer’s seeds are already growing as I write.
This magic was made possible by a visionary of science who set out to save humanity and died for his values the year my grandmother turned nine.
While the physicist Sergei Vavilov was presiding over Stalin’s Academy of Sciences and spearheading the Soviet atomic bomb project, his idealistic older brother was laboring at something of orthogonal impact on humanity — a way to end an elemental form of suffering that has haunted our species since its dawn.
The botanist, geneticist, and explorer Nikolai Vavilov (November 25, 1887–January 26, 1943) was still a boy when he arrived at his dream of ending famine. He had heard his father’s stories of growing up in poverty and constant hunger due to crop failures. When Nikolai himself was four, the early arrival of winter decimated crops all over the country, sending millions into starvation. All the tsar could do was offer his subjects “famine bread” — loaves made of milled husks, bark, weeds, and moss, rationed out in the freezing cold. Vavilov’s father had spent his life rising from poverty and now had a comfortable life as a merchant, so the family was protected from the worst of the famine — but from his precarious island of comfort, the boy watched the ocean of suffering and sorrowed. Half a million peasants perished that winter as the aristocracy feasted on imported delicacies from Europe — grim structural inequality that became the ignition spark for the long-seething people’s revolution a quarter century later.
Vavilov saw the contours of a different kind of revolution — one no one else could envision, not in Russia and not anywhere in the world.
He wrote in the diary of his youth:
Do what you can. If you can’t do something you wanted to do, then you will be forgiven, but if you don’t want to try to do anything, you will not be forgiven.
He decided to do nothing less than end the world’s hunger, vowing in his diary to devote his life to science — an endeavor aimed at “everything that brings joy, calmness of emotion and reason” — so that he may “understanding nature for the betterment of humankind.”
After graduating from the Soviet agricultural academy as a botanist, he set out to travel through Europe and absorb all he could from the best scientists in every related discipline. In England, he worked with William Bateson, who had coined the word genetics to explain heredity and had pioneered the study of this script for transmitting the message of life.
Upon returning to Russia, Vavilov founded an institute under which to commence the great project of his life — collaborating with nature on enhancing her strengths and allaying her weaknesses by using the new science of genetics to cultivate plant species that would thrive in conditions none had survived before. He had a revolutionary insight: There must be wild varieties of common agricultural plants with different genes that make them more resilient than their farmed cousins — genes that could be used to strengthen agricultural crops by breeding stronger species that would feed humanity even through droughts and freezes. He called them his miracle plants. It wasn’t just an idealist’s dream — he knew the science that would make it a reality, and he would devote his life to it.
When World War I broke out, Vavilov, already established as a preeminent botanist, was dispatched to present-day Iran to solve a mystery — Soviet soldiers there were suffering from brain fog and inexplicable dizziness. He discovered that the mysterious malady was caused by a fungus growing on the wheat of which their bread was made. As bullets flew around him, Vavilov carefully collected samples of local plants, wrapped them in wax paper, and tucked them into his breast pocket. He didn’t yet know it, but this was the birth of Earth’s largest botanical collection.
When a drought lashed Russia in 1921 and killed the harvest, more than 5 million people died of starvation in a year, most of them peasants. Vavilov grew determined to never let this happen to anyone again. He understood that if he could equip farmers with the basic science of genetics, they could control for which traits of their crops would dominate, rather than entrusting their harvest to the roulette of chance — they could do what my grandmother did with her tomatoes, selecting for the best traits year over year. Mendel had made a science of agriculture by expressing mathematically the probabilities of genetic variance. Vavilov set out to make of that science an art of resilience, having vowed as a young man to “work for the benefit of the poor, the enslaved class of my country, to raise their level of knowledge.”
He spent the 1920s roaming the world to collect wild varieties of staple foods. He slept little, smiled much, and trekked through the jungle in his tailored three-piece suit, tie, and felt fedora. He traveled to places frequented by droughts and food shortages, from Africa to the Middle East, taking care to learn the language and talk to locals about their lore of growing food in inhospitable conditions. He traveled to the birthplaces of the most nutritious plants. In Brazil, he got cacao, oranges, mangoes, and papayas. In China, poppy and sugarcane. In Korea, soybeans and rice. In Ethiopia, he discovered the mother plant from which all the world’s coffee originated.
By the end of the decade, Vavilov had completed numerous ethnobotanical expeditions to collect hundreds of thousands of seeds from five continents, including many places where no scientist had set foot before. He was quietly building something unexampled: the world’s first seed bank — a living library of biodiversity that would come to the rescue of the people of any land whose crops were decimated by a drought or a blight. There were 600 kinds of apples and more than a thousand varieties of strawberries among its quarter million plants — a lush repository of resilience, housed at Vavilov’s institute in Leningrad.
Lenin, who had assumed power in the 1917 Russian Revolution, had immediately recognized the political value of Vavilov’s humanistic work — its insurance against the country’s crop failures, its promise of making Russia a superpower of global food production — and had thrown his full support behind it. But when he died in 1924, everything changed.
As Stalin usurped power, he forced peasant farmers off their farms and into large industrial agriculture collectives — tumult that disrupted the harvest and hurled the country into mass starvation. He knew that a widespread famine would hamper his revolution; he knew that more resilient crops would be the solution. But it was not Vavilov’s science he turned to.
On August 7, 1927, Pravda — the newspaper voice of the Communist Party — published a fawning profile of a young “barefoot scientist” in rural Azerbaijan who had never gone to university but was promising an agrarian revolution.
Trofim Lysenko considered scientific education “harmful nonsense.” He rejected Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics, instead subscribing to Lamarckian inheritance with its outlandish claim that organisms acquire traits in immediate response to their environments and pass those traits immediately to the next generation — a pseudoscience that fueled the menace of eugenics. There were echoes of alchemy in Lysenko’s bravado — he promised he could cultivate wheat that would turn into rye and rye that would turn into barley. He bragged that his pea crop had withstood winter thanks to an innovative “training” strategy — soaking the seeds in ice-cold water, which he called vernalization. He claimed he could “train” plants within a single generation, making the very next generation more resilient.
Stalin, having no understanding of science, was blinded by the luster of the young man’s instant gratification claims. So began the greatest anti-science campaign of the twentieth century.
The dictator, who declared 1929 the year of the “Great Break with the Past,” gave Vavilov an ultimatum: he had to breed his miracle plants in three years, or face grave consequences. It was a biological impossibility; in reality — the evolutionary reality of reproductive cycles and genetic development — it would take at least four times as long for new genetic traits to manifest in a species on the scale of a crop. Seizing upon his spotlight moment and his nascent promotion within Stalin’s scientific establishment, Lysenko launched a concerted attack on Vavilov’s research, pitting it against his own “science” as too slow for the urgently needed famine relief in the country, too humble for the economic domination Stalin craved. He did not hesitate to falsify his own research to bolster its claims.
Vavilov had spent years laboring to bring the seventh International Congress of Genetics to the USSR and although it had been initially approved by the government, now the Communist Party abruptly cancelled the global gathering. When it was eventually convened in Edinburgh after a two-year delay and Vavilov was banned from attending, his international colleagues placed an empty chair on the stage to protest his absence — he was already one of the most respected geneticists in the world.
With science itself under assault, Vavilov devoted all of his energies to his institute and the seed bank, vowing:
We shall go into the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions.
When his plants developed in accordance with nature and failed to meet the dictator’s timeline, Vavilov was accused of treason and sabotage. In the middle of a field expedition in the Ukraine, he was arrested as “an active participant of an anti-Soviet wreckage organization and a spy for foreign intelligence services.” His home was raided and all of his field notes destroyed, but his colleagues managed to save his voluminous correspondence with other scientists and his manuscripts, tucking them away in the basement of the institute, beneath the seed bank.
Upon receiving news of the arrest, Vavilov’s brother wrote in his diary:
His big useful life is being ruined… life of tireless and intense work for his homeland, for the people. All his life spent in work, with no other hobbies. Wasn’t it obvious and clear to everybody? What else can be asked and demanded of individuals? This is a cruel mistake and an injustice. It is even more cruel because it is worse than death. The end of scientific work, the slander, ruining the lives of family members, the threat of it all.
Over the next eleven months in jail, Vavilov was interrogated and tortured hundreds of times, sometimes for thirteen hours a time, for a total of 1,700 hours, with the intention of coercing a confession of sabotage and espionage. He remained adamant that his research had been only in the service of science and human welfare.
Like Dostoyevsky, he was sentenced to death by firing squad, but his death sentence was repealed and reduced to twenty years in a prison camp.
This was an epoch of sweeping terror. While Stalin was terrorizing scientists, Hitler was savaging Europe. Leningrad was next on his conquest list — not only because of its geopolitical advantages as a major international port, but because it housed something precious: the seed bank. The Führer well understood that controlling the world’s food supply was key to controlling the world’s population, so he tasked a special SS unit with looting Vavilov’s seed collections.
On September 8, 1941, the Nazis began their assault on Leningrad by severing the last road to the city. The siege would last 872 days as Leningrad refused to surrender. Food ran out fast. By the winter of 1942, all the government could provide was a ration of two slices of bread, made of 50% sawdust. This too ran out. People took to stripping the wallpaper in their apartments, scraping the adhesive paste made of flour and water, and boiling it to make soup. Death swept the city — 800,000 human beings, one out of every three citizens. Bodies lined the streets unburied. Rats emerged by the millions, feasting on the corpses.
At Vavilov’s institute, scientists barricaded themselves to protect the seed bank from the rats and the Nazis. Famished themselves, they took turns staying up all night, warding off the rodents with metal rods. In what may be the most moving sacrifice in the history of science, nine scientists died of starvation, guarding a cornucopia of nuts, beans, rice, and grains. The curator of legumes was found at his desk, an envelope of peas by his side.
The vault survived unharmed, holding the seeds of life.
Meanwhile, Vavilov was languishing in prison. Inmates were fed nothing but flour and frozen cabbage. He survived for two years, his vivacious body shrinking to a skeleton. And then, biology gave way to entropy. In the icy Russian winter of 1943, Nikolai Vavilov died of starvation — the selfsame terror he had devoted his life to preventing. His body was dumped in an unmarked mass grave.
He had once written to a friend:
I really believe deeply in science; it is my life and the purpose of my life. I do not hesitate to give my life even for the smallest bit of science.
Like Alan Turing, Nikolai Vavilov was posthumously pardoned by a new government and eventually celebrated as a hero of science. A Russian postage stamp bears his image and the Russian Academy of Sciences awards a prestigious medal in his honor. A small planet discovered by a Soviet astronomer is named after him, as is a crater on the far side of the Moon. A monument of him rises from a plaza near the prison where he died — a site of frequent resistance protests to this day. The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg is still home to one of the world’s largest seed banks and was the inspiration for the creation of the Svalbard Global Seed Bank near the North Pole in 2008.
When the next global famine savages our species, Vavilov’s legacy will be a lifeline, purchased with his life.
Published March 8, 2023