April 12, 1961 Space Race

“When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow.’ – Yuri Gagarin

To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible time.  Most of us who lived through the period feel the same way.

In the wake of WW2, irreconcilable differences between the two great super powers split the alliance which had once defeated Nazi Germany. The most destructive war in history had barely come to a close in 1946, when the Soviet state set itself to gobbling up the non-communist states of eastern Europe. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered the most famous oration of the era on March 5, declaring “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

The 1950s were a time of escalating tensions and sometimes, calamity.  The war in Korea. The beginning of American intervention in Vietnam. The Cuban Revolution of 1959.  The exodus from Soviet-controlled East Germany to the west resulted in a “brain drain” of some 20% of the population, culminating in the “Berlin Crisis” of 1961. First it was barbed wire and then a wall, complete with guard towers and mine fields. Nobody else, was getting out.

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The Cold War took on inter-stellar proportions on July 31, 1956, when the United States declared its intention to launch an artificial satellite into space. The Soviet Union announced it would do the same and then stunned the world, launching the first inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) on August 27, 1957 and then beating the US to its own goal with the launch of Sputnik 1, on October 4.

Soviet propagandists enjoyed another victory on November 3 when “Laika” launched aboard Sputnik 2.  Meanwhile, the American space program couldn’t seem to get out of its own way.

Three days later and half a world away, the Harvard Crimson newspaper reported the capsule’s appearance over Boston:

Laika and capsule
Laika

“Pupnick–the dog-bearing satellite–will be visible to early risers Thursday morning at about 5:09, Dr. Fred L. Whipple, director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, announced last night. Whipple added that Boston, where the rocket will be directly overhead, will be “one of the best places” from which to view the Russians’ latest satellite”.

Soviet propaganda portrayed heroic images of “the first traveler in the cosmos” printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers.  There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia.  The real story was far more depressing.  Tightly harnessed, stressed by the forces of launch and overheated, Laika died within the first seven hours of her flight.

Belka and Strelka became the first animals to enter space and return safely to earth aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960 followed closely by the American chimpanzee Ham, whose smiling visage appears at the top of this page.

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Belka and Strelka

On this day in 1961, 27-year-old Soviet Air Force Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter space aboard the Vostok 1  capsule, returning to earth after an hour and 48 minutes’ orbit.  Major Gagarin’s  “Poyekhali! (Let’s go!) would become the catch phrase for the entire eastern bloc, for the following half century.

Soviet capsules were parachuted onto dry land in the early days of the space program, while the Americans preferred to “splash down”.  Gagarin ejected from the craft and parachuted to earth in Kazakhstan, much to the fear and dismay of local villagers:

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Gagarin Capsule

When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow.’

During the flight, Gagarin is supposed to have said “I don’t see any God up here.”

No such words appear in any of the transcripts. It’s unlikely he said such a thing.    Gagarin and his family celebrated Christmas and Easter, and kept Orthodox icons in the house.  He had baptized his daughter Elena, shortly before the historic flight.  The phrase more likely originated with Nikita Khrushchev, who  attributed the quote to Gagarin during a speech about the Soviet state’s anti-religion campaign.

220px-Yuri-Gagarin-1961-Helsinki-cropGagarin’s flight gave fresh life to the “Space Race” between the cold war rivals.  President John F. Kennedy announced the intention to put a man on the moon, before the end of the decade.

Today, the accomplishments of the space program seem foreordained, the massive complexities of the undertaking, forgotten.

In the modern era, the most powerful supercomputers on earth put the $2.5 Billion Hubble Space Telescope into orbit, with defective “vision” and literally requiring “glasses”.

In the early days, these guys were sending human beings tens to hundreds of thousands of miles into space, on less computing “horsepower” than contained in your modern cell phone.

 

On a lighter note
After that Laika story, this tale needs a happy ending.
In 1960, “Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5, before returning to Earth.  Aside from a few plants, these were the first creatures to enter the void of space and return, alive.
Strelka later gave birth to six puppies, fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in ground-based space experiments, but never flew.   During a thaw  in relations, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave one of those puppies,”Pushinka”, to President John F. Kennedy.
Pushinka and a Kennedy family dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies, pups JFK jokingly referred to as “pupniks”.  Pushinka and Charlie are long gone but their descendants are still around, to this day.
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Mama Pushinka with JFK’s “Pupniks”: Butterfly, White Tips, Blackie, and Streaker
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February 26, 1959 Don’t Go There

Explanations have been offered from the mundane to the supernatural, but none was ever proven.

In the sport of mountaineering, climbers assign a grade to a boulder or climbing route, describing the degree of difficulty and danger, in the ascent. The group that assembled in January 1959 were experienced Grade II hikers, off on a winter trek which would earn them a Grade III certification, upon their return. They were ten in number, colleagues from the Ural Polytechnic Institute in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) Russia, bent on conquering Mount Otorten, in the northern Ural Mountains.

The Northern Ural is a remote and frozen place, the Ural Mountains forming the barrier between the European and Asian continents, ending in an island chain, in the Arctic Ocean. Very few live there, mostly a small ethnic minority called the Mansi people. In the Mansi tongue, Otorten translates as “Don’t Go There”.  No matter. This was going to be a grand adventure.

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Northern Ural Mountains

Eight men and two women made it by truck as far as the tiny village of Vizhai, on the edge of the wilderness.  There the group learned the ancient and not a little frightening tale of a group of Mansi hunters, mysteriously murdered on what came to be called “Dead Mountain”.  Nothing like a good, scary mystery when you’re heading into the woods, right?

On January 28, Yuri Yefimovich Yudin became ill, and had to back out of the trek.  The other nine agreed to carry on.  None of them knew at the time.  Yudin was to become the sole survivor of his own terrifying mystery.

The leader of the expedition, Igor Alekseyevich Dyatlov, left word that he expected to return, on February 12.  The day came and went with no sign of the group but, no big deal.  It was common enough to come back a few days late, from the frozen wilds of the Ural Mountains.

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Friends and relatives of the nine became concerned by February 20.  Something was wrong.  Rescue expeditions were assembled, first from students and faculty of the Ural Polytechnic Institute, later by military and local police.

There were airplanes and helicopters, and skiers on the ground.  On February 26, searchers found an abandoned tent on the flanks of Kholat Syakhl.  Dead Mountain.

Mikhail Sharavin, the student who found the tent, described the scene: “the tent was half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty, and all the group’s belongings and shoes had been left behind.”  The tent was cut up the back from the inside, eight or nine sets of footprints in the snow, leading away some 1,600 feet until disappearing, under a fresh fall of snow.

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“A view of the tent as the rescuers found it on 26 February 1959: the tent had been cut open from inside, and most of the skiers had fled in socks or barefoot”. H/T Wikipedia

Despite winter temperatures of -13° to -30° Fahrenheit, most of these prints showed feet clad only in socks.  Some were barefoot.  One had a single shoe.  Two bodies were found clad only in underwear, those of Yuri (Georgiy) Alexeyevich Krivonischenko and Yuri Nikolayevich Doroshenko, near the remains of a small fire.  They were under a large Siberian Pine, broken branches up to thirty feet high suggesting that someone had climbed the thing, to look around.  Or to get away?

Three more bodies were found leading back to the tent, frozen in postures suggesting they were trying to get back.  Medical investigators examined the bodies. One, that of Rustem Vladimirovich Slobodin showed a small skull fracture, probably not enough to threaten his life.  Cause of death was ruled, hypothermia.

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It took two more months to find the last four bodies, buried under twelve feet of snow some 75-feet away.  These were better dressed than the other five, indicating they were probably outside.  There were unexplained traces of radiation on their clothes.

The condition of these last four, would change this whole story.  Nikolai Vladimirovich Thibeaux-Brignolles suffered massive skull fractures, with no external injury.  Lyudmila Alexandrovna Dubinina and Semyon (Alexander) Alekseevich Zolotaryov showed massive chest fractures, such as to be caused by a force, similar to a car crash.  Again, with no external injury.  Both were missing their eyes.  Dubinina was missing her tongue, and part of her face.

With volumes of unanswered questions, the inquiry was closed in May 1959.  Cause of death was ruled “A spontaneous force which the hikers were unable to overcome“.  Dead Mountain was ruled off limits, the files marked confidential.  Case closed.

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Explanations have been offered from the mundane to the supernatural, but none was ever proven.  Mansi hunters had killed them for encroaching on their territory.  Except there were no other footprints.  This was the work of a Menk, a mythical Siberian Yeti, or an avalanche, or a super-secret parachute mine exercise, carried out by the Soviet military.  Some believe it was aliens.  There were reports of orange glowing orbs, in the sky.

How nine experienced mountaineers got caught out and frozen to death remains a profound mystery, to say nothing of the massive internal injuries, suffered by three.  The incident at what has come to be called Dyatlov Pass remains an enigma, to this day.

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A tomb marks their final resting place, in Yekaterinburg. H/T thevintagenews.com
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December 10, 1986 The Dogs of Chernobyl

The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

Chernobyl_burning-aerial_view_of_coreThe accident began as a test, a carefully planned series of events, intending to simulate a station blackout at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

This most titanic of disasters, began with a series of smaller mishaps. Safety systems intentionally turned off, reactor operators failing to follow checklists, inherent design flaws in the reactor itself.

Over the night of April 25-26, 1986, a nuclear fission chain reaction expanded beyond control at reactor #4, flashing water to super-heated steam resulting in a violent explosion and open air graphite fire. Massive amounts of nuclear material were expelled into the atmosphere during this explosive phase, equaled only by that released over the following nine days by intense updrafts created by the fire.  Radioactive material rained down over large swaths of the western USSR and Europe, some 60% in the Republic of Belarus.

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A plastic doll lies abandoned on a rusting bed, 30 years after the town was evacuated following the Chernobyl disaster. H/T Dailymail.com

It was the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history and one of only two such accidents classified as a level 7, the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale.  The other was the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, in Japan.

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Hat tip, Chernobyl Museum, Kiev , Ukraine

One operator died in the steam-blast phase of the accident, a second resulting from a catastrophic dose of radiation.  600 Soviet helicopter pilots risked lethal radiation, dropping 5,000 metric tons of lead, sand and boric acid in the effort to seal off the spread.

Remote controlled, robot bulldozers and carts, soon proved useless. Valery Legasov of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, explains: “[W]e learned that robots are not the great remedy for everything. Where there was very high radiation, the robot ceased to be a robot—the electronics quit working.”

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Chernobyl “Liquidators”, permitted to spend no more than a one-time maximum of forty seconds, cleaning the rooftops of surrounding structures.

Soldiers in heavy protective gear shoveled the most highly radioactive materials, “bio-robots” allowed to spend a one-time maximum of only forty seconds on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. Even so, some of these “Liquidators” report having done so, five or six times.

In the aftermath, 237 suffered from Acute Radiation Sickness (ARS), 31 of whom died in the following three months.  Fourteen more died of radiation induced cancers, over the following ten years.

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Photo by Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Authority

The death toll could have been far higher, but for the heroism of first responders.  Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, replied to remarks that firefighters believed this to be an ordinary electrical fire.  “Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze“.

The concrete sarcophagus designed and built to contain the wreckage has been called the largest civil engineering project in history, involving no fewer than a quarter-million construction workers, every one of whom received a lifetime maximum dose of radiation.  By December 10, the structure was nearing completion. The #3 reactor at Chernobyl continued to produce electricity, until 2000.

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Evacuation of Pripyat

Officials of the top-down Soviet state first downplayed the disaster.  Asked by one Ukrainian official, “How are the people?“, acting minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets replied that there was nothing to be concerned about: “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.

As the scale of the disaster became apparent, civilians were at first ordered to shelter in place.  A 10-km exclusion zone was enacted within the first 36 hours, resulting in the hurried evacuation of some 49,000.  The exclusion zone was tripled to 30-km within a week, leading to the evacuation of 68,000 more.  Before it was over, some 350,000 were moved away, never to return.

The chaos of these evacuations, can scarcely be imagined.  Confused adults.  Crying children.  Howling dogs.  Shouting soldiers, barking orders and herding the now-homeless onto waiting buses, by the tens of thousands.  Dogs and cats, beloved companion animals, were ordered left behind.  Evacuees were never told.  There would be no return. 

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Two bumper cars lie face to face in the rusting remains of an amusement park in the abandoned town of Pripyat near Chernobyl

There were countless and heartbreaking scenes of final abandonment, of mewling cats, and whimpering dogs.  Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich compiled hundreds of interviews into a single monologue, an oral history of the forgotten.  The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

homeless wild dog in Pripyat

There would be no mercy.  Squads of soldiers were sent to shoot those animals, left behind.  Most died.  Some escaped discovery, and survived.

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View from an abandoned gym in the Prypyat ghost town, of Chernobyl. H/T Vintagenews.com

Today, untold numbers of stray dogs live in the towns of Chernobyl, Pripyat and surrounding villages, descendants of those left behind, back in 1986.  Ill equipped to survive in the wild and driven from the forests by wolves and other predators, they forage as best they can among abandoned streets and buildings, of the 1,000-mile exclusion zone.  Often, increased radiation levels can be found in their fur.  Few live beyond the age of six but, all is not bleak.

Since September 2017, a partnership between the SPCA International and the US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit CleanFutures.org has worked to provide for the veterinary needs of these defenseless creatures.  Over 450 animals have been tested for radiation exposure, given medical care, vaccinations, and spayed or neutered, to bring populations within manageable limits.  Many have been socialized for human interaction and successfully decontaminated, available for adoption into homes in Ukraine and North America, since July.

The work of rescue is ongoing, anticipated to take at least eighteen months.  A joint press release from the two organizations gives much-needed hope:  “This unprecedented event marks an important partnership with the Ukrainian government, which has been reluctant in the past 32 years to allow anything to be removed from the nuclear exclusion zone.”

The goal is to find homes for as many as 200, of the abandoned dogs of Chernobyl.

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November 23, 1932 Holodomor

“I must have looked unbelieving at this, for a tall, gaunt woman started to take the children’s clothes off. She undressed them one by one, prodded their sagging bellies, pointed to their spindly legs, ran her hand up and down their tortured, mis-shapen, twisted little bodies to make me understand that this was real famine”.

In 1928, Josef Stalin introduced a program of agricultural collectivization in Ukraine, the “Bread Basket” of the Soviet Union, forcing family farmers off their land and into state-owned collective farms.

Ukrainian “kulaks”, peasant farmers successful enough to hire labor or own farm machinery, refused to join the collectives, regarding them as a return to the serfdom of earlier centuries. Stalin claimed that these factory collectives would not only feed industrial workers in the cities, but would also provide a surplus to be sold abroad, raising money to further his industrialization plans.

Armed dekulakization brigades confiscated land, livestock and other property by force, evicting entire families. Almost half a million individuals were dragged from their homes in 1930-’31, packed into freight trains and shipped off to remote areas like Siberia and often left without food or shelter. Many of them, especially children, died in transit or soon after arrival.

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Resistance continued, which the Soviet government could not abide. Ukraine’s production quotas were sharply increased in 1932-’33, making it impossible for farmers to meet assignments and feed themselves, at the same time. Starvation became widespread, as the Soviet government decreed that any person, even a child, would be arrested for taking as little as a few stalks of wheat from the fields in which they worked.

Military blockades were erected around villages preventing the transportation of food, while brigades of young activists from other regions were brought in to sweep through villages and confiscate hidden grain.

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Eventually all food was confiscated from farmers’ homes, as Stalin determined to “teach a lesson through famine” to the Ukrainian rural population.

At the height of the famine, Ukrainians starved to death at a rate of 22,000 per day, almost a third of those, children 10 and under.  How many died in total, is anyone’s guess.  Estimates range from two million Ukrainian citizens murdered by their own government, to well over ten million.

Millions of tons of grain were exported during this time, more than enough to save every man, woman and child.

2,500 people were arrested and convicted during this time, for eating the flesh of their neighbors. The problem was so widespread that the Soviet government put up signs reminding survivors: “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.”

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Stalin denied to the world that there was any famine in Ukraine, a position supported by the likes of Louis Fischer reporting for “The Nation”, and Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Duranty went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his “coverage”, with comments like “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”.  Such stories were “mostly bunk,” according to the Times.  Duranty even commented that “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

To this day, the New York Times has failed to repudiate Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer.

Like many on the international Left, Canadian journalist Rhea Clyman had great expectations of the “worker’s paradise” built by the Communist state, where no one was unemployed, everyone was “equal”, and Everyman had what he needed. Unlike most, Clyman went to the Soviet Union, to see for herself.

Holodomor-Boys

To do so at all was an act of courage: a single Jewish woman who’d lost part of a leg in a childhood streetcar accident, traveling to a place where the Russian empire and its successor state had a long and wretched history, when it came to the treatment of its own Jews.

Virtually all of the international press preferred the comfortable confines of Moscow, cosseted in the heart of the Soviet propaganda machine and ignorant of the world as it was.

In four years, Clyman not only learned the language, but set out on a 5,000-mile odyssey to discover the Soviet countryside. Duranty’s idea of “good-bye” was offering to write her obituary.

It is through this “Special Correspondent in Russia of The Toronto Evening Telegram, London Daily Express, and Other Newspapers“, that we know much about the government’s extermination of its own citizens, in Ukraine.

To read what she wrote about abandoned villages, is haunting.  And then the moment of discovery:

“They wanted something of me, but I could not make out what it was. At last someone went off for a little crippled lad of fourteen, and when he came hobbling up, the mystery was explained. This was the Village of Isoomka, the lad told me. I was from Moscow, yes; we were a delegation studying conditions in the Ukraine, yes. Well, they wanted me to take a petition back to the Kremlin, from this village and the one I had just been in. “Tell the Kremlin we are starving; we have no bread!”

18telegramA tall, bearded peasant was spokesman. His two sons and the rest of the men and women nodded approval at every word. The little crippled boy stood with his right hand on his crutch, translating everything he said into Russian for me, word by word.

“We are good, hard-working peasants, loyal Soviet citizens, but the village Soviet has taken our land from us. We are in the collective farm, but we do not get any grain. Everything, land, cows and horses, have been taken from us, and we have nothing to eat. Our children were eating grass in the spring….”

I must have looked unbelieving at this, for a tall, gaunt woman started to take the children’s clothes off. She undressed them one by one, prodded their sagging bellies, pointed to their spindly legs, ran her hand up and down their tortured, mis-shapen, twisted little bodies to make me understand that this was real famine. I shut my eyes, I could not bear to look at all this horror. “Yes,” the woman insisted, and the boy repeated, “they were down on all fours like animals, eating grass. There was nothing else for them.”

“What have you to eat now?” I asked them, still keeping my eyes averted from those tortured bodies. “Are all the villages round here the same? Who gets the grain?”” – Rhea Clyman, Toronto Telegram, 16 May 1933

22,000 of these poor people were starving to death every day, and they still thought the Kremlin was going to help them.

Today, the province of Alberta is home to about 300,000 Canadians of Ukrainian Heritage. About a week ago, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley explained “Holodomor is a combination of two Ukrainian words: Holod, meaning hunger, and moryty, meaning a slow, cruel death. That is exactly what Ukrainians suffered during this deliberate starvation of an entire people“.

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The Holodomor Memorial to Victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932–1933 was opened in Washington, D.C. on November 7, 2015

Ukrainians around the world recognize November 23 as Holodomor Memorial Day, commemorated by a simple statue in Kiev.  A barefoot little girl, gaunt and hollow eyed, clutches a few stalks of wheat.

Here in the United States, you could line up 100 randomly selected individuals.  I don’t believe that five could tell you what Holodomor means.   We are a self-governing Republic.  All 100 should be well acquainted with the term.

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August 6, 1940 A Different Kind of Courage

By the siege’s end in the Spring of 1944, nine of them had starved to death, standing watch over all that food.  For twenty-eight months these guys guarded their seed bank, without eating so much as a grain.

In 21st century America, “diversity” is often seen as that overly PC tendency, leading the backdrop of every political speech and college recruiting poster to feature all those smiling faces, in just the right mix of race, sex and color.

In the world of plant biology, diversity can literally mean the difference between feast and famine.

The Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century resulted from the failure of a single crop. The direct cause was the water mold Phytophthora infestans, but the real culprit might have been the over reliance on a single strain of potato. A million Irish starved to death and another two million departed, never to return, in a country starting out with barely 8.4 million in 1844.

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Phytophthora_ nfestans (late blight) on tomato

The Irish potato famine was just one of 120 such calamities to afflict humanity in modern times, resulting in the starvation death of hundreds of millions. Blight, climate disruption and insects are but a few of the causes. Often, the only solution was having enough food-source variety that no single crop failure could lead to starvation.

Nikolai Ivanovic Vavilov was a Russian botanist and plant biologist.  Vavilov witnessed the death of millions of Russians in three such famines, and devoted his life’s work to the improvement of wheat, corn and other food crops necessary to sustain a global population.

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Nikolai Vavilov

Over a lifetime of study of phytopathology and plant immunity, Vavilov organized expeditions and collected plant specimens from every corner of the world. Traveling over 5 continents and 64 countries, “The world’s greatest plant explorer” taught himself no fewer than 15 languages so that he could speak with native farmers, collecting more seeds, edible roots, tubers and fruit specimens than any person in human history.

 

There is hardly any part of our modern day understanding of crop diversity, that doesn’t go back to the work of this one man.

Nikolai Vavilov was a man of pure science.  Not so his young protege, Trophim Denisovich Lysenko. The younger man was a political opportunist, an apparatchik and crackpot who rejected the natural selection and plant genetics of Gregor Mendel, in favor of a cockamamie theory which came to be called “Lysenkoism”.

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Trophim Lysenko

Lysenko placed great confidence in the pseudo-scientific theory of environmentally acquired inheritance, by which parent plants pass down to their offspring,  characteristics acquired through use or disuse during their life cycle.  By this theory, rye could transform into wheat, wheat into barley, and weeds somehow transmuted into edible food grains.

 

In 1928, the previously unknown agronomist from peasant background performed experiments in “vernalization“, claiming to triple or quadruple wheat crop yield by accelerating the life cycle of Autumn-seeded winter wheat varieties.

Intense exposures to cold and humidity including direct seeding into snow-covered, frozen fields were known since 1854 to produce marginal increases in crop yield, but nothing remotely similar to Lysenko’s claims.  Nevertheless, Lysenko was hailed as a hero of Soviet agriculture, particularly in light of the disastrous collectivization efforts of the late 1920s.

echist1As Stalin’s Soviet Union imposed the “terror famine” of 1932-’33, the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainian peasant farmers known as the Holodomor.

Lysenko dove into a variety of agriculture issues with “helpful” solutions such as plucking leaves from cotton plants, cluster planting trees and outlandish & unusual fertilizer mixes. A shameless sycophant and toady to Communist ideology, Lysenko gained status among party officials with one harebrained proposition after another, following one after another, far too quickly to be disproven by the patient observation of reputable scientific method.

At this time, the hottest ideas in plant genetics were emerging from biological studies of Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Lysenko used his increasing influence in party circles to denounce such scientists as “fly-lovers and people haters”, denouncing the lot of them as “wreckers” who were purposely trying to bring about the downfall of the Soviet government.

Scientific research into plant genetics was dead in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

855c4322c0bca57a84dde41308bad993As director of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Lysenko put his theories to work, with unsurprisingly dismal results.  He’d force Soviet farmers to plant WAY too close together, on the theory that plants of the same “class” would “cooperate” with one another, and that “mutual assistance” takes place within and even across plant species.

There had to be a reason why Stalin’s agricultural program wasn’t working. There had to be scapegoats.  In a 1935 speech, Lysenko compared dissenting biologists to peasants continuing to resist Soviet collectivization policies, denouncing traditional geneticists as being “against Marxism”.  Josef Stalin himself was in the audience, and jumped up clapping enthusiastically, calling out “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko. Bravo.”

The gloves were now off. Lysenko and his chief ally Isaak Izrailevich Prezent savaged Lysenkoism’s opponents, including his former mentor, himself.  Over 3,000 mainstream biologists were fired, “disappeared” or even executed, among them Nikolai Vavilov.

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Botanist Nikolai Vavilov’s mugshot. Note the several deep scars on his right cheek, indicating severe beatings sustained by the scientist in prison

On August 6, 1940, Vavilov was on expedition in Ukraine, collecting specimens when he was snatched up and driven away in a black sedan, his staff helpless to intervene. Vavilov was sentenced to death in 1941 with sentence later commuted to twenty years.  It didn’t matter. In January 1943, this man whose scientific work was at least as important as that of Norman Borlaug, starved to death in a Soviet Gulag.

Nikolai Vavilov had collected some 220,000 specimens of edible fruits, seeds and tubers over the years, which now sat in a Leningrad basement. 120,000 additional specimens were added to the hoard from other collectors, bringing the entire cache well into the tons of edible plant material.

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‘Third Degree Interrogation’ from Drawings from Stalin’s Gulag Illustration: Danzig Baldaev

On September 8, 1941 the German Wehrmacht completed its encirclement of the city.  The siege of Leningrad lasted for twenty-eight months.  Hunger soon took hold and, before it was over, more than a million Leningrad residents starved to death.

Soviet authorities had ordered the removal of art from the Hermitage prior to the siege, but not these botanical specimens.  Scientists couldn’t know where their leader was, or even whether he yet lived.  They locked themselves in the basement with their trove and took turns standing guard, protecting future food crops and the survival of untold millions, yet unborn.

USSR-Stamp-1977-NIVavilovBy the siege’s end in the Spring of 1944, nine of them had starved to death, standing watch over all that food.  These guys had stood guard over their seed bank for twenty-eight months, without eating so much as a grain.

The verdict against Nikolai Vavilov was set aside in 1955, one of thousands of reversals of Stalin era death sentences. Vavilov’s reputation was publicly rehabilitated by the 1960s.  In time he would come to be seen as a hero of Soviet-era science.

 

Trofim Lysenko would outlive his benefactor Stalin, and retained influence into the era of Nikita Khruschchev.  Lysenkoism was officially renounced in 1964, the bureaucrat denounced by physicist and human rights activist, Andrei Sakharov. “He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists“.  The disgraced apparatchik died in 1976.  It took Soviet media two days to so much as mention his passing, with a small notice printed in the broadsheet, Izvestia.

In the funhouse mirror world of the Soviet Union, the future was always known.  It was the past, that was subject to change.

Still home to the largest collection of plant genetic material in the world, the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg was scheduled to be razed in 2010, to make way for luxury housing.  Scientists from around the world petitioned Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to rethink the decision, and not destroy the largest collection of European fruits and berries in the world.  At this time, the decision is undergoing “further study”.

For all the good it did the institute’s namesake, long-since murdered by the malignant ideology he had spent his life’s work, attempting to serve.

But hell, he got himself a postage stamp, in 1977.

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Timeline of Genetics and Science in the Soviet Union
Feature image, top of page:  Soviet Propaganda, Arkady Alexandrovich Plastov Threshing on the collective farm

July 13, 1908 The Event at Tunguska

The “Tunguska Event” was the largest such impact event in recorded history, but far from the first. Or the last. 

The first atomic bomb in the history of human conflict exploded in the skies over Japan on August 6, 1945. The bomb, code named “Little Boy”, reached an altitude of 1,900-ft. over the city of Hiroshima at 8:15am, Japanese Standard Time.

A “gun-triggered” fission bomb, barometric-pressure sensors initiated the explosion of four cordite charges, propelling a small “bullet” of enriched uranium the length of a fixed barrel and into a sphere of the same material. Within picoseconds (1/.000000000001 of a second), the collision of the two bodies initiated a fission reaction, releasing an energy yield roughly equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT.

66,000 were killed by the effects of the blast, the shock wave spreading outward at a velocity greater than the speed of sound and flattening virtually everything in its path, for a distance of a mile in all directions.

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Thirty-seven years earlier, the boreal forests of Siberia lit up with an explosion 1,000 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. At the time, no one had the foggiest notion that it was coming.

The Taiga occupies the high latitudes of the world’s northern regions, a vast international belt line of coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces and larches between the high tundra, and the temperate forest.  An enormous community of plants and animals, this trans-continental ecosystem comprises a vast biome, second only to the world’s oceans.

The Eastern Taiga is a region in the east of Siberia, an area 1.6 times the size of the continental United States.  The Stony Tunguska River wends its way along an 1,160-mile length of the region, its entire course flowing under great pebble fields with no open water.

TunguskaOn the morning of June 30, 1908, the Tunguska River lit up with a bluish-white light.  At 7:17a local time, a column of light far too bright to look at moved across the skies above the Tunguska. Minutes later, a vast explosion knocked people off their feet, flattening buildings, crops and as many as 80 million trees over an area of 830-square miles. A vast “thump” was heard, the shock wave equivalent to an earthquake measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale. Within minutes came a second and then a third shock wave and finally a fourth, more distant this time and described by eyewitnesses as the “sun going to sleep”.

On July 13, 1908, the Krasnoyaretz newspaper reported “At 7:43 the noise akin to a strong wind was heard. Immediately afterward a horrific thump sounded, followed by an earthquake that literally shook the buildings as if they were hit by a large log or a heavy rock”.

Fluctuations in atmospheric pressure were detectable as far away as Great Britain.  Night skies were set aglow from Asia to Europe for days on end, theorized to have been caused by light, passing through high-altitude ice particles.

In the United States, lookout posts from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles recorded a several months-long decrease in atmospheric transparency, attributed to an increase in dust, suspended in the atmosphere.

The “Tunguska Event” was the largest such impact event in recorded history, but far from the first, or the last.  Mistastin Lake in northern Labrador was formed during the Eocene era of 36-million years ago, cubic Zirconium deposits suggesting an impact-zone temperature of some 4,300° Fahrenheit.  Halfway to the temperature of the sun.

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“A bolide – a very bright meteor of an apparent magnitude of &−14 or brighter” H/T Wikimedia

Some sixty-six million years ago, the “Chicxulub impactor” struck the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, unleashing a mega-tsunami of 330-ft in height from Texas to Florida. Superheated steam, ash and vapor towered over the impact zone, as colossal shock waves triggered global earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.   Vast clouds of dust blotted out the sun for months on end, leading to mass extinction events the world over.

The official history of the Ming Dynasty records the Ch’ing-yang event of 1490, a meteor shower in China, in which “stones fell like rain”, killing some 10,000 people.

In 2013, a twenty-meter (66-ft) space rock estimated at 13,000-14,000 tons flashed across the skies of Chelyabinsk, Russia, breaking apart with a kinetic impact estimated at 26-times the nuclear blast over Hiroshima.  The Superbolide (a bolide is “an extremely bright meteor, especially one that explodes in the atmosphere”) entered the earth’s atmosphere on February 15, burning exposed skin and damaging retinas for miles around.  No fatalities were reported, though 1,500 were injured seriously enough to require medical attention.

The 450-ton Chicora Meteor collided with western Pennsylvania on June 24, 1938, in a cataclysm comparable to the Halifax Explosion of 1917.  The good luck held, that time, the object making impact in a sparsely populated region.  The only reported casualty, was a cow.  Investigators F.W. Preston, E.P. Henderson and James R. Randolph remarked that “If it had landed on Pittsburgh there would have been few survivors”.

In 2018, the non-profit B612 Foundation dedicated to the study of near-Earth object impacts, reported that “It’s a 100 per cent certain we’ll be hit [by a devastating asteroid]”. Comfortingly, the organization’s statement concluded “we’re [just] not 100 per cent sure when.”

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May 30, 1896 A Cup of Sorrows

When it was over, 1,389 people had been trampled to death, and another 1,300 injured.

On May 26, 1896 according to the Gregorian calendar, Tsar Nicholas II, known as Saint Nicholas II to the Russian Orthodox Church, was crowned Tsar of Russia.  The traditional celebration banquet was scheduled for May 30 at a large open space to the northwest of Moscow, called Khodynka Field.

697452_tsar-nicholas-ii-tsarina-alexandra-feodorovna_cardIt was customary that gifts be given to the guests of such a celebration. There were commemorative scarves and ornately decorated porcelain cups, bearing the ciphers of Nicholas and Alexandra opposite the double-headed symbol of the Imperial dynasty, the Romanov eagle.

There were food gifts as well, bread rolls and sausages, pretzels, gingerbread, and a cup of beer.  150 buffets and 20 pubs were constructed, to handle their distribution.

Revelers began to gather on the 29th.  By 5:00am on the 30th, the crowd was a half-million strong, and growing.

Khodynka Field

Khodynka field was a poor venue for such an event, the crowd far larger than could be safely handled. A military training ground, the plain before the speaker’s Cups of Sorrowspodium was pocked and lined with trenches and pits.

Rumors began to spread among the crowd. There wasn’t enough beer to go around.  Those enameled cups, already a great novelty for the time, each contained a gold coin.

The crowd became a mob and began to surge forward, as rumors grew and spread. An 1,800-man police force was inadequate to maintain order. The crush of the crowd grew into a panic, and then became a human stampede.

1,389 people were trampled to death in the rout, another 1,300, injured.

The new Czar and Czarina didn’t hear about the disaster at first but, when they did, the royal couple spent the rest of the day visiting their subjects in hospital.

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Nicholas thought it best not to attend a ball put on that night by the French embassy, fearing that it would make him appear insensitive to the suffering of his people. The Tsar’s advisers persuaded him to go, however, and later events proved him correct.

Khodynka, aftermath

There was great public indignation over the disaster at Khodynka field, despite generous subsidies paid to victims, by the Russian government.  Despite his best efforts, Tsar Nicholas became ‘Bloody Nicholas”, to the Russian people. For the Tsarina, that enameled coronation cup more closely resembled a ‘Cup of Sorrows “.

Mystics prophesied that Nicholas’ refusal to decline the invitation would lead to his doom.  J. Balmont wrote in 1905 that “Who started his reign with Khodynka, will finish it by mounting the scaffold”.

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Hat tip to the Russian artist known as ‘Klimbims’, for her work in colorizing these vintage images

Tsar Nicholas was murdered by order of the Ural regional Soviet in Yekaterinburg on July 17, 1918. The Tsarina, the couple’s five children, servants, dogs and a number of individuals who had chosen to accompany the Imperial family into imprisonment, were shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death.

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Great countess Maria Vladimirovna.

It was the end of the Romanov Dynasty, the end of Czarist Russia. The malignant ideology which arose to take its place, would murder more of its own civilians, than any system of government, in history.

 

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