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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.

‘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.

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

November 23, 2013 Holodomor

Successful farmers, the “Kulaks”, were branded as “class enemies”, an early example of the “fix and ridicule” technique Saul Alinsky would write about years later, in his “Rules for Radicals”.

In the 18th century, our Founding Fathers gave us a self-governing Republic, where authority is delegated upward from an informed electorate, and centered on individual liberty, diffuse authority, and checks & balances. Without such a system of self-government, we’d be left with a political game of chance, in which our future depends on the character of a small and too often self-dealing ruling class.

The 20th century was a time when one malignant governing model after another would assert itself, often leaving death and misery along its path to self-destruction.

These were the top down, authoritarian ideologies, where individual liberty was subsumed by the collective, and cosmic chance was all that separated benign governance from murderous authoritarianism.

Always what comes first is the Balkanization, the identification and ostracizing of one group or another as separate and apart. The Untermenschen. The Other.

You saw this principle take shape during the Chinese Communist regime of the forties through the sixties, when the “cultural revolution” killed between 40 and 70 million of its own citizens.

You’re really playing in the big leagues, when they can’t get your body count any closer than the nearest 30 million.

killing fieldsIn the “Killing Fields” of 1975-’79 Cambodia, Pol Pot and a cadre of nine or so individuals, the Ang-Ka, led the Khmer Rouge in the extermination of between 1.7 and 2.5 million, in a country of barely 8 million.

The ideological underpinnings of this kind of madness vary between regimes, but they tend to have more in common than they do of what separates them. Communism is a murderous, authoritarian, collectivist ideology with international aspirations and class obsessions. Naziism is a likewise murderous, authoritarian, and collectivist ideology, this one having nationalist aspirations and ethnic obsessions.

The Nazi holocaust of the thirties and forties is well documented, the 1914 genocide of Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Empire, less so. One of the least well known in this parade of horribles is the policy of extermination by starvation carried out by the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, against the population of Ukraine.  Some called it “Famine-Genocide”, or the “Terror-Famine”.   In time, the deliberate starvation of millions by their own government, came to be known as the “Holodomor”.

Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, took power in Russia before the end of WWI. By 1922 they had formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

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

holodomor-3Many Ukrainian farmers refused to join the collectives, regarding them as a return to the serfdom of earlier centuries. Stalin introduced “class warfare”, that age old bugaboo of the Left, to break down resistance to collectivization.

Successful farmers, the “Kulaks”, were branded as “class enemies”, an early example of the “fix and ridicule” technique Saul Alinsky would write about years later, in his “Rules for Radicals”.

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, where they were often left without food or shelter. Many of these, especially children, died in transit or soon after arrival.

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 simultaneously meet quota and feed themselves. 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 were brought in from other regions to sweep through villages and confiscate hidden grain.

Holodomor-BoysEventually all food was confiscated from farmers’ homes, as Stalin determined to “teach a lesson through famine” to the backbone of the region, the rural population of Ukraine.

At the height of this political famine, Ukrainians were dying at the rate of 22,000 a day, almost a third of them children 10 and under. When it was done, an estimated 6 to 10 million Ukrainian citizens were murdered by their own government, through starvation, deportation, and outright execution.

Millions of tons of grain were exported during this time, more than enough to have saved every starving man, woman and child. Stalin denied to the world that there was any famine in Ukraine, the first use of what historian Robert Conquest called the “Big Lie” technique of Soviet propaganda.

Stalin had willing and complicit support in his lies, from leftists like Louis Fischer reporting for “The Nation”, and Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Duranty would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his “coverage”, with contributions like “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”.

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

“Bitter memories of childhood”, Kyiv, Ukraine

Ukrainians recognize November 23 as Holodomor Memorial Day, symbolized by a simple statue in Kiev.  A little girl, gaunt and hollow eyed, clutches a handful of wheat stalks.  On this day in 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych addressed his people, marking the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor.  “Today, a little candle flame unites us in a prayer for the souls of the Holodomor victims. We also remember those who shared the last piece of bread and saved the lives of compatriots. Our duty is to carry the memory of those dreadful events forever in our hearts. We also must do everything to prevent such a tragedy in the future.”

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

Ukranian president Petro Poroshenko vists a monument to Holodomor victims in Kiev, November 2016. (Reuters photo: Valentyn Ogirenko)

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy the same. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.

Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.