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
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April 13, 1917 A Sealed Train

Not far from food riots of his own and loathe to unleash such a bacterium against his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser.  

The “War to End all Wars” entered its third year in 1917, seeming as though it would go on forever. Neither side seemed able to gain strategic advantage on the front. The great battles of 1916 seemed only yesterday, in which any single day’s fighting produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, combined. At home, the social fabric of the combatant nations was unraveling.

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Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov

By 1916 it was generally understood in Germany, that the war effort was “shackled to a corpse”, referring to Germany’s Austro-Hungarian ally. Italy, the third member of the “Triple Alliance”, was little better. On the Triple Entente side, the French countryside was literally torn to pieces, the English economy close to collapse. The Russian Empire, the largest nation on the planet, was on the edge of the precipice.

With the American declaration of war in April 1917, both sides understood that the balance was about to shift. For Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, it was time to throw a knockout punch, before the US arrived in force.

Imperial Russia had seen the first of what would be two revolutions back in February, when food riots led to the overthrow and exile of the Imperial family.  Full scale civil war broke out in 1918, resulting in the Bolshevik murder of the Czar and Czarina, together with their children, servants and dogs.

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Lenin makes his way to the sealed train which would take him out of exile. April 13, 1917.

In the midst of this chaos, the Kaiser calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in”, the Russian Republic would collapse, and they would be out of the war. He was right.

Following the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, the more moderate Menshevik “Whites” vowed to continue the war effort. The split which had begun with the failed revolution of 1905 was more pronounced by this time with the more radical Bolsheviks (“Reds”) taking the more extreme road. While Reds and Whites both wanted to bring socialism to the Russian people, the Mensheviks argued for predominantly legal methods and trade union activism, while Bolsheviks favored armed violence.

In a small town in the northeast of Sweden, there is a train station.  A bronze plaque on a blue tile wall, proclaims: “Here Lenin passed through Haparanda on April 15, 1917, on his way from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in Russia”.

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Lenin was in exile at this time, and Imperial Germany was at war with Russia.  British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.

Not far from food riots of his own and loathe to unleash such a bacterium against his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser.  Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!”  Lenin turned to a friend.  “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

Sealed Train

North through Germany and across the Baltic Sea, the group traveled the length of Sweden, crossing at the border village of Haparanda into Russian-Occupied Finland.  The group arrived at Finlandsky Vokzal (Finland Station) in Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917. Like the handful of termites that brought down the mighty oak, that small faction inserted into the picture that April, would help to radicalize the population, and consolidate power on the Bolshevik’s side.

By October, Russia would experience its second revolution in a year.  The Kaiser’s Germany could breathe easier. The “Russian Steamroller”, was out of the war. Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff could move their divisions westward, in time to face the arrival of the AEF.

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Since the end of the Soviet era, Russian historians have come to believe that Vladimir Ilyich (Ulyanov) Lenin personally ordered the murder of the czar and his family, and that the Lenin era was every bit as bloody, as that of his successor Josef Stalin.

Lenin called for “Mass Terror” during the civil war of 1918, resulting in executions in the tens of thousands.  Historian Alexander Margolis had the last word on the subject, if not the understatement of the century:  “If they had arrested Lenin at the Finland Station, it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble”.

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The locomotive which carried the ideological infection of Communism. from exile in Switzerland, to the Imperial Russian heartland
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February 25, 1921 Red Scare

In the 1930s, many believed that International Communism was “winning”. That the Soviet Union was deliberately starving millions of its own citizens to death during this period, seemed to trouble relatively few.

In the wake of WWI and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, American authorities became increasingly alarmed at the rise of foreign and leftist radicalism.  Most especially the militant followers of anarchist Luigi Galleani.

This was not meaningless political posturing.  Anarchists mailed no fewer than 36 dynamite bombs to prominent political and business leaders in April 1919, alone. In June, another nine far more powerful bombs destroyed churches, police stations and businesses. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had one hand delivered to his home by anarchist Carlo Valdinoci, who did something wrong and somehow managed to blow himself to bits on the AG’s doorstep.

Palmer attempted to suppress these radical organizations in 1919-20, but his searches and seizures were frequently illegal, his arrests and detentions without warrant, his deportations questionable.
Lookinganarchism over the international tableau of the time, there appeared great cause for concern.  The largest nation on the planet had just fallen to communism, in 1917.
The Red Army offensive of 1920 drove into Poland, almost as far as Warsaw. The “Peace of Riga”, signed in 1921, split off parts of Belarus and Ukraine, making them both parts of Soviet Russia. On this day in 1921, Bolshevist Russian forces occupied Tbilisi, capital of the Democratic Republic of Georgia.
In the 1930s, many believed that International Communism was “winning”. The capitalist west was plunged into a Great Depression that it couldn’t seem to control, while the carefully staged propaganda of Stalin’s Soviet Union did everything it could to portray itself as a “workers’ paradise”.
That the Soviet Union was deliberately  starving millions of its own citizens to death during this period, seemed to trouble relatively few.
Whittaker Chambers was one who saw communism as winning, and joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in 1925. For a time he worked as a writer at the Party’s newspaper “Daily Worker”, before becoming editor of “New Masses”, the Party’s literary magazine.
Through the early to mid-thirties, Chambers delivered messages and received documents from Soviet spies in the government, photographing them himself or delivering them to Soviet intelligence agents to be photographed.
By the late 30s, Chambers’ idealism was replaced by the growing realization that he was supporting a murderous regime. By 1939, he joined the staff of Time Magazine, where he pushed a strong anti-communist line.
A series of legislative committees were formed between 1918 and the outbreak of WWII to investigate this series of threats.  It was in this context that HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was formed in 1938, becoming a “standing” (permanent) committee in 1945.img_0416
Chambers warned about communist sympathizers in the Roosevelt administration, as early as 1939.  Government priorities changed during the course of WWII.  Chambers was summoned to testify on August 3, 1945.
In his testimony, Chambers named Alger Hiss and others, as communists.  A graduate of Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School who had clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alger Hiss seemed an unlikely communist. He went on to practice law in Boston and New York before returning to Washington to work on President Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, winding up at the State Department as an aide to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre, former President Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law.
alger-hiss-public-servant-i-am-amazed-until-the-day-i-die-i-shallHiss flatly denied Chambers’ charges, filing suit that December for defamation of character.  Chambers doubled down in his 1948 deposition, claiming that Hiss was not only a communist sympathizer, he was also a spy.
Before his defection, Chambers had secreted documents and microfilms, some of which he hid inside a pumpkin at his Maryland farm. The entire collection became known as the “Pumpkin Papers”, consisting of incriminating documents, written in what appeared to Hiss’ own hand, or typed on his Woodstock no. 230099 typewriter.
Hiss claimed to have given the typewriter to his maid, Claudia Catlettimg_0415. When the idiosyncrasies of his machine were demonstrated to be consistent with the documents, he then claimed that Chambers’ team, including freshman member of Congress Richard M Nixon, must have modified the typeface on a second typewriter to mimic his own.
Hiss’ theory never explained why Chambers side needed another typewriter, if they’d had the original long enough to mimic it with the second.
Alger Hiss’ first trial for lying to a Grand Jury ended with a hung jury, 8-4.  A second trial began on November 17. He was found guilty on January 21, 1950, still proclaiming his innocence. He appealed his conviction but lost, and served 44 months in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary before being released in 1954.
Hiss would go to his grave protesting his innocence, though Soviet era cables, decrypted through the now-declassified “Venona Project”, seem to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt of being a soviet agent. Venona transcript #1822, sent in March 1945, from the Soviets’ Washington station chief to Moscow, describes subject codenamed ALES as having attended the February 4–11, 1945 Yalta conference, before traveling to Moscow. Hiss did attend Yalta on those dates, before going to Moscow with Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.
41facggulzl-_sx306_bo1204203200_Historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr report that the Venona transcripts tied 349 Americans to Soviet intelligence, though fewer than half have ever been identified.  The Office of Strategic Services alone, precursor to the CIA, housed between fifteen and twenty Soviet spies.
In 1992, former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin defected to Great Britain, taking with him 30 years of handwritten notes. The Mitrokhin Archive revealed that Soviet moles went as high as President  Roosevelt’s most trusted aid, Harry Hopkins. Equivalent to finding that, at any point during the last three administrations, Karl Rove, Valerie Jarrett or Steve Bannon was an agent for the other side.