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Stalin vs. Science: The Life and Murder of Nikolai Vavilov

Peter Pringle, journalist and author, New York; Yuri Vavilov, Senior Scientific Associate, Lebedev Physical Institute, Moscow

Date & Time

Oct. 21, 2008
3:30pm – 5:00pm ET

Stalin vs. Science: The Life and Murder of Nikolai Vavilov

In his new book The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of the Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the 20th Century, Peter Pringle, journalist and author, New York, discussed the life of Nikolai Vavilov, an internationally recognized geneticist of the early twentieth century who, among his many accomplishments, established the largest seed bank in the world. Pringle was joined by Yuri Vavilov, the son of Nikolai Vavilov and himself a leading physicist at the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow.

According to Pringle, Nikolai Vavilov's motto was "Life is short. We must hurry," and he lived this maxim to the fullest. Pringle described Vavilov's education and early post-graduate training. Vavilov spent the Russian Civil War years at Saratov University, where he worked on plant breeding. He returned to Petrograd in 1920, and soon thereafter Lenin appointed Vavilov to deal with the 1921 Famine. As part of this assignment, Vavilov went to the United States in 1921 to learn more about U.S. agriculture and later returned to the Soviet Union with some 61 boxes of seeds. Vavilov ultimately traveled to five continents over the next ten years to identify gaps in botanical record for cultivated plants, especially wheat, and collect seeds for his seed bank.

In 1929, the Soviet secret services opened a file on Vavilov, accusing him of mixing with White Russians abroad. Despite his precarious position, however, Vavilov strongly believed in state-sponsored science over private science, arguing that science could be more effective with a centralized command. As a result, Vavilov tried to persuade key Russian scientists to return to the Soviet Union. In 1932, Vavilov traveled abroad for the last time, and before leaving, he sensed that this would be his last major foreign expedition. In 1933, Vavilov began to clash with Nikolai Lysenko, who ultimately plotted Vavilov's downfall. Vavilov's last expedition was to Ukraine in 1940, where he went to search for various types of wheat. While on this expedition, the NKVD arrested Vavilov, and he was never seen in public again. Vavilov's contribution to science, however, was not forgotten. Vavilov ultimately was rehabilitated and, in 1987, a celebration occurred to mark the centenary of his birth.

Next, Yuri Vavilov discussed his own personal tribulations that ensued as the result of being the son of Nikolai Vavilov. Yuri Vavilov first talked about the critical role that his uncle, Sergei Vavilov, played in his life. Sergei Vavilov—himself a famous Russian physicist who ultimately became the President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences—supported Yuri Vavilov after his father's arrest and enabled him to become a physicist as well. Yuri Vavilov also defended his uncle against charges of conformism by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn accused Sergei Vavilov of being a "servant of Stalin" who ruined his brother. Yuri Vavilov stated that such accusations were unjust, and that Solzhenitsyn later recognized this fact but never changed subsequent editions of Gulag Archipelago.

Yuri Vavilov described how his father was arrested and executed on Stalin's personal orders. Stalin and his associates never had confidence in Nikolai Vavilov, since he had been trained in pre-revolutionary Russia, had traveled extensively abroad, and had come from a prominent merchant family. Recently published archival documents further prove that the decision to remove Nikolai Vavilov from his academic position was made at the initiative of Stalin himself.


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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more

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