by J. Northcutt Jr.
I can’t seem to turn away from that over-the-shoulder view, the idea that modernity is exceedingly bearable from my too-oft-taken Amero-centric perspective. I’m statistically likely to live a long life and perish with those final pangs pharmacologically mediated. Of course, it’s not all peachy here. Let’s not minimize the hardships of the immunocompromised so long barricaded in their homes, of the underemployed saddled with student debt and healthcare bills, of people of color made to fear encounters with peace officers. Maybe these problems fail to rival those of a subsistence farmer from a minority racial group living under authoritarian rule elsewhere in the world where life is spent tilling landmine-riddled soil, but that doesn’t mean we ought to shut up about it. We should never accept our lot under the placating notion that others have it worse. Yet for all that, it is bracing to consider that many of us with the time and pocket change to enjoy a first-rate publication such as Analog inhabit a golden age where starvation—and I mean a truly lethal lack of calories—is a shrinking concern, even if we have failed to abate hunger. I can’t escape the idea that things are getting better all the time thanks to a few, relatively unknown to we who reap the greatest benefit from their efforts.
My novelette, “The Nocturnal Preoccupations of Moths” [on sale now!], hints at a return to the mean old days as we begin to neglect our custodianship of the future.
All we know of starvation tells us that the hungry will resort to eating their leather boots and belts, grass and bark; they will boil wallpaper for the glue, will even eat one another in the worst of times. Still, there are some amid the misery who resist their visceral urges to save others, even another species of flower or fruit tree, and in so doing, save their own. A team of botanists waited out the two-year siege of Leningrad within the frigid confines of the Vavilov Institute seedbank, protecting thousands of botanical samples collected from around the globe. At least nine died rather than raid their stores, not even to save friends and family.
The origin of seedbanks is one of fearsome politics and war. Scholarly debate spilled from the confines of academic journals and into Soviet interrogation rooms amidst the sweeping purges that characterized Stalin’s regime. State-backed ideologues promised to remake the state while dissenting opinion, even within the sciences, was ruthlessly repressed. The circumstances leading to botanist Nikolai Vavilov’s starvation in prison were a cruel irony to his life’s work.
Vavilov and his team of Russian agriculturalists envisioned a threat to crop diversity, hard-won by centuries of incremental engineering. Mighty limbs upon the branching tree of evolution might be cleaved off by chance of lightning as war-and-weather-ravaged crops. Or, in a less catastrophic sense, the relentless cultivation of favored traits could send a valuable foodstuff into an evolutionary blind alley from which return may be impossible. The remedy was a seedbank built in Leningrad to preserve basal crops from which to draw in better years.
Vavilov traveled the world seeking out “Centers of origin” for plants, latching onto Darwin’s idea of identifying regions where a cultivar’s wild cousins showed the greatest diversity, and conceivably the place where the variety was first acquired. The task exceeded the idle interests of a botanical scholar, it was a chance to collect crops such as a winterized wheat that could outlast brutal winters, secure pest resistant plants, and ultimately rescue Russia from cyclical famines worsened during an era of political unrest. In 1924, Vavilov became the first botanist to collect specimens from Afghanistan, describing the journey as “rather difficult.” Over five months and five thousand kilometers, mainly undertaken on horseback, he crossed the Hindu Kush to net seven thousand samples of melons, cotton, fruits, and vegetables, but it was the wonderfully diverse wheat strains that crowned his collection. Emboldened, Vavilov embarked on an expedition across southern Europe, North Africa, and into Ethiopia in 1926. He launched an expedition to China and Japan in 1929, and another to Central and South America in 1932, developing along the way a new taxonomic system that set order to a confusion of variety. Vavilov’s journeys were carried out with the dogged zeal of a wandering monk. None could match his tenacity, but he was not the only researcher to undertake muddy, wide-ranging field work. Those who escaped the sterile laboratories suitable only for studying “the hairy legs of flies” were known as barefoot scientists. Another researcher taken with this brand of practical field study was the young Trofim Lysenko, undaunted by a lack of formal training. Local newspapers championed Lysenko as a muddy-booted peasant scholar in a brave new Soviet era where the common man could seize the plow and till over the academic establishment.
Still, there are some amid the misery who resist their visceral urges to save others, even another species of flower or fruit tree, and in so doing, save their own. A team of botanists waited out the two-year siege of Leningrad within the frigid confines of the Vavilov Institute seedbank, protecting thousands of botanical samples collected from around the globe.
Lysenko rejected the vetted theory of Mendelian inheritance in which randomly mutated traits are passed from one generation to the next. In its stead, he reintroduced a discredited Lamarkian hypothesis asserting that an organism might acquire characteristics throughout its lifetime and pass these down. This rebranded Lysenkoism sought to train crops by exposing them to harsh weather conditions and environments under the belief that plants closely packed according to their “class” would not compete. Drought conditions and lacking sunlight would inspire weak plants to acts of selfless sacrifice, and make way for thriving comrades. Vavilov was keen to let Lysenkoism be heard within the academic establishment, believing that the failure to demonstrate efficacy in rigorous scientific trials would settle the matter. Politics intervened. The state twisted science to the ideals of society through poor methodology, resulting in widespread failure of national agricultural planning in the leadup to Russia’s onrushing starving years.
Lysenko rose as an influential, arrogant, often vindictive political figure seeking to quash opposition. He was involved in the extermination of peasant Kulaks who resisted farm collectivization and the state’s efforts to appropriate grain. With the support of the party Central Committee, Lysenko had Vavilov interrogated by a Marxist philosopher in a twisted biological debate. “Unfortunately your language has become clumsy and specialized,” Vavilov told his interlocutor. “We do not understand each other, yet we discourse of great things. We have worked methods of studying plant life, but to understand each other we must first learn the vocabulary.” He plainly told why the crops were failing, defended Darwinian evolution, and laid out a scientific reality that transcended politics. “History will indicate which of us is right.” Vavilov was arrested as an anti-Soviet spy and saboteur, and sent to a crowded basement cell wearing a canvas sack and slippers made from lime-tree bark. He was cruelly interrogated nearly four hundred times over an eleven-month period, and in the winter of 1943, the man who tried to feed the world was starved.
Here we mirror the story’s usual retellings with Vavilov as the central character, offering a passing mention of the researchers who cared for the Leningrad seedbank and ultimately faced starvation by choice.
The war came to Leningrad’s doorstep in September 1941 when German forces laid siege to the city. The VIR seedbank continued operations in its founder’s absence, spared from the devastating bombing campaign due to its proximity to the Astoria Hotel where Hitler intended to host a victory banquet. Besides the location, the strategic importance of the institute’s collection saved it from destruction, quite unknown to the research staff. German commanders tasked a special tactical unit to seize the seedbank and use its stores to fuel the Thousand-Year Reich.
The total volume of the collection amounted to several tons of potentially edible grain, corn, and more in the heart of a starving city. Staff divided the most valuable seeds into duplicate collections secreted among the institute’s sixteen floors and retreated into the frigid, unlighted confines to board windows against Leningrad’s populace, the threat of German assault, and an army of infiltrating rodents kept at bay with poison and broken glass. During the winter of 1942, seedbank scientists battled temperatures of –40°C by burning paper, debris from bombed buildings—anything that could keep the deadly winter chill at bay. Ph.D. Vadim Lehovich and his assistants worked around the clock to warm in the frigid basement where the potatoes, sensitive to drying and chilling, were stored even as the workers suffered emaciation which would reduce Leningrad by eight-hundred thousand, 40% of the pre-war population. Rice-specialist Dimitry Ivanov preserved thousands of bags of rice, although he would not survive himself. Groundnut specialist Alexander Stchukin collapsed at his work desk. In her final weeks, Liliya Rodina solemnly went about the work of managing the oat collection. Herb laboratory executive Krier, Leontjevsky, Korzun, Kovalevsky, Steheglov, and Malygina would all succumb to starvation. At least nine perished while keeping vigil over corn, peas, nuts, cereals, beans—all they needed to save themselves at hand and untouched.
In the Spring of 1942, samples nearing the end of their storage life were smuggled out of the city with hopes of being rejuvenated on available farmland at the front line. Endangered crops like potatoes were resown under active artillery barrage. At great risk to the institute workers, the collection was gradually duplicated until the Siege of Leningrad broke in January of 1944. Survivors successfully regenerated the entire seedbank, ensuring the continuation of Russian agriculture and the world’s botanical heritage.
The Leningrad VIR seedbank inspired modern facilities like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, dug 150 meters into a Norwegian mountain to safeguard 968,000 samples. This largest collection of seeds ever assembled is built to last the next thousand years. In 2015, Syria became the first country to withdraw from the Svalbard vault after a gene bank in Aleppo was damaged in the civil war, along with its samples of wheat, barley, and grasses adapted to dry conditions. In total, 116,000 such vital samples were returned to their homeland.
How does one bring oneself to starvation? Not for religion or strict patriotism, but for the botanical sciences, so distant from the bitter demands of a body in extremis. In my novelette “The Nocturnal Preoccupations of Moths”published in this month’s Analog, a seedbank on Mars offers colonists a chance at surviving a long winter, or if preserved, the repository will stand as a living record of Earth’s biodiversity. In the story, I try my hand at plausible justifications for that bitter abstinence in a place of plenty, I invent a cultish mythicism around agronomy, even raise the stakes to imperil all of agriculture and still it stretches belief that any would go to such lengths to save a sprig of rosemary. Yet it happened once before.
Alexanyan, S.M., and V.I. Krivchenko. “Vavilov Institute Scientists Heroically Preserve World Plant Genetic Resources Collections During World War II Siege of Leningrad.” Diversity. 7, no. 4. (1991): 10-13.
Nabhan, Gary Paul. Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolai Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine. Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2008.
Pringle, Peter. The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: the Story of Stalin’s Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century. Simon & Schuster, 2008.
Popovsky, Mark. The Vavilov Affair. Archon Books, 1984.
Outstanding! A must read. Puts into perspective a life we take for granted.