This book made me quite upset.
Nikolai Vavilov was a man whose name deserved greater recognition. As a botanist and geneticist in the early 20th century, he characterised the origins of domestic crops, put forward the law of homologous variation (for laypeople, this is where you expect to see similar mutations in related species), and stared the earliest seed banks.
And he came to a tragic end when he ran afoul of Stalin and one of his pet cranks.
Under Lenin, Vavilov had managed to develop a decent career. Not only had he been granted the privilege of travelling outside of Russia, he’d been allowed visit dozens of countries to gather samples for his collections. He had also been permitted to meet with other prominent scientists in his field, including William Bateson, Margaret Newton, and Thomas Hunt Morgan. Peter Pringle does a fantastic job here showing not only how energetic Vavilov was, but how much of his work was driven by his desire to help his own people. All this makes the end of his story even more ironic.
The book spends a great deal of time detailing the changes in society that resulted in opposition toVavilov’s work, which included the rise of Stalin to power. Vavilov faced trouble on two main fronts – not only was he a merchant’s son and a product of the Ivory Tower, he studied genetics. It should come as no surprise that his bourgeoisie background and previous hob-nobbing with western scientists would put him under suspicion. What is less well known is at this time the Soviet Union was becoming hostile to the idea of genetics and inheritance. Agricultural scientists like Valivov were seen as too busy cavorting with the west and bringing back oddities that were of no use to the practical farmer. Additionally, increasingly mainstream groups were starting to argue that the ideas of inheritance were a poor fit for Marxist ideals. The idea of genetic determinism apparently didn’t sit well with the ability to transcend class.
While the state covertly investigated his institute and the people he worked with, the public offensive against Vavilov in the 30’s was lead by Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko was a fiery speaker who had little of the bourgie trappings of Vavilov. He had initially gained Stalin’s attention by (re)discovering the vernalisation of wheat. (This is where you can trigger wheat development by exposure to cold.) This was the closest thing Lysenko ever had to a useful idea; everything else he came up with was pseudoscience. But he looked the part of a peasant farmer, and just like Stalin, he followed Lamarkism, so he remained in high favour.
The sad thing was that Valivov dealt with he assault poorly. Pringle draws a picture of a man who was a little naive, and little too eager to placate. He had wanted to stay in the state’s good favour. His biggest mistake was believing the Lysenkoites were arguing in good faith. Valivov had initially even tried to mentor Lysenko, who did not care for this and subsequently showed himself to be a man who would tear down anything blocking his way to the top.
(Not that I needed the author’s help in developing an unfavourable opinion of Lysenko. I am a geneticist. I automatically hated his guts.)
Valivov was eventually arrested and sentenced to death on a trumped-up charge of sabotage. The chapters showing how the state tried to break him down and get him to implicate his friends and co-workers were especially harrowing to read. While his sentence was later commuted to that of hard labour, the end result was no different. Nikolai Vavilov passed away from ‘dystrophy from prolonged malnutrition’ in 1943. His family did not find out for months. His colleagues overseas were kept in the dark even longer – it wasn’t until after the war that many of them learnt that he had died.
So while I think this is an important story to tell, it was not a comfortable read. The only criticism I have of the book is that while I know this is Nikolai Vavilov’s story, I do wish a little more emphasis was put on the fact that many more people suffered due to the state’s indulgence of Lysenko. There is also a lesson to be learnt here about trying to placate crackpots and cranks – don’t!