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By Viktor DRAGAVTSEV, Member of the Russian Agricultural Academy, Member of the London Royal Linnaean Society, Director of the All-Russia Scientific-Research Institute of Plant-Growing named after N. I. Vavilov

In 1934 British professors Asa Gray, William Cooper and William Lawrence submitted a report to the government in which they pointed out that no European country, except Russia, was conducting on such a broad scale studies on utilization of cultivated, and wild plants from all over the globe for their practical utilization in selection. They pointed out that if the Russians implemented their grandiose plans but partially, even then they would provide a tremendous contribution to world plant-growing. This statement represented an objective assessment of the activities of Acad. N. Vavilov and members of his school.

Even at that time the Russian school of specialists on the genetic resources of plants was firmly in the lead in the world. A1988 resolution of the Consultative Group on international agricultural research (World Bank, Washington) stressed that "Russia's world collection of genetic resources of plants, founded by the great N. Vavilov, remains to this day the most unique and richly diverse one of all other collections in the world". And that means that what had been started by Acad. N. Vavilov back in the 1930s is being continued now by researchers of the State Scientific Center of the Russian Federation-the All-Russia Scientific-Research Institute of Plant-Growing bearing his name.

Nikolai Vavilov was born in Moscow on November 25,1887 in the family of a wealthy merchant. In 1906 he graduated from a school of commerce and entered the Moscow Agricultural Institute (later the Petrine Academy of Farming, and later still- the Moscow Agricultural Academy named after K. Timiryazev). Even as a student he already engaged in research, participating in expeditions to the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia and published his diploma thesis about snails as agricultural pests for which he received a prize of the Moscow Polytechnical Institute*. Among his college professors were Acad. D. Pryanishnikov, a prominent agrochemist, author of the theory of plant nutrition, and the expert on plant selection D. Rudzinsky. From 1911 Vavilov worked at the Bureau of Applied Botany (St. Petersburg) under the direction of Prof. R. Regel, a leading expert on cultivated grain varieties, and Prof. A. Yachevsky, future Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, an expert in botany, mycology and phytopathology. In 1912 he published his article on "Genetics and its Relation to Agronomics" in which he demonstrated the role of this newly emerging area of science in the development of new varieties of crops.

In 1913 Vavilov was sent to complete his education abroad. He studied plant immunity at biological and agronomics centers of England, France and Germany and among his instructors were one of the founders of genetics Prof. W. Batson (from 1923-Foreign Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences), Prof. R. Punnet and one of the leading biologists on the border of the 19th-20th centuries Prof. E. Heckel.

The program of his studies was interrupted by World War I. After returning, not without some adventures, from Germany in 1914, Vavilov began lecturing at the Higher Agricultural Courses for Women and conducted a summer course on private farming at the Moscow Agricultural Academy. In 1916 he was sent to Persia to try and identify the causes of a strange illness caught by Russian soldiers from eating local bread. The cause of the infection was quickly established (the local wheat was contaminated with poisonous rye grass) and Vavilov focused his attention for the first time on the origin of cultivated crops-the problem which later became his central interest in life.


See: G. Grigoryan, "Polytechnical Museum", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2003.-Ed.

Pages. 47


In the summer of 1917 he began lecturing at the Higher Agricultural Courses in Saratov. Shortly after he was offered the post of deputy head of the Department (from 1916-the title of the former Bureau headed by Prof. R. Regel) of Applied Botany of the Ministry of Agriculture (St. Petersburg) and the appointment was then confirmed by competitive vote on October 25, 1917. That same year he was elected professor of the Chair of private land cultivation and selection of the Voronezh Agricultural Institute and, simultaneously, to the Department of Agriculture of the Saratov University. In 1921 he was elected to the post of Head of the Department of Applied Botany and Selection of the former Agricultural Scientific Committee.

During that period Prof, Vavilov published his books "Field-Crops of the South-East" and "Plants' Immunity to Infectious Diseases" and formulated the law of homological rows, or lines, which established parallelism in the hereditary variability of related plant groups. He made a report on that subject in June 1920 in Saratov at the Third All-Russia Congress of Selectionists. The Congress sent a telegram to the SOVNARKOM (Soviet of People's Commissars) which said that the aforesaid theory represented a major event in the world biological science, matching the discoveries of Mendeleyev in chemistry, and opened up the broadest practical perspectives. A prominent agronomist and soil scientist Prof. N. Tulaikov (Academician from 1932) said the only thing he could say about the report was that" Russia will not perish if it has scientists ("sons") like Nikolai "Vavilov".

During his continued studies of world plant resources in 1921 - 1923, Mivilov traveled to the United States, Canada, England, France, Germany, Sweden and Holland where he visited the leading research centers. In 1924 he traveled to Afghanistan, in 1925-to Khoresm, in 1926 - 1927 across the Mediterranean, Abyssinia, and Eritrea, in 1929-to Western China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea, and in 1930-to the United States, Central America and Mexico, in 1932 - 1933-to Ukatan, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Trinidad, Cuba and Puerto Rico. All in all Vivilov organized and conducted more than 50 scientific expeditions.

After the death of Prof. Regel, from March 1921 Vavilov headed the Bureau of Applied Botany, which was turned in 1925 by a SOVNARKOM decision into the Institute of Applied Botany and New Crops, and from 1930 into the All-Union Institute of Plant-Growing (VIR). Later on Acad. N. Dubinin, one of the co-authors of the discovery of gene division who established the effect of its position, wrote that underthe leadership of Prof. Mivilov, VIRbecame a major center of studies of cultivated crops. He attracted to himself talented scientists like a magnet. All of the VIR departments were headed by prominent researchers.

The central task of the VIR consisted in "boosting the crop yields in all kinds of agricultural and forest areas and plantations of the USSR". The scientist suggested coping with this objective on the basis of the resources, which he established (1926 publication), of what he called foci of form-production, or generation, or the centers of origin of cultivated plants.

Pages. 48


In 1921 Prof. Vavilov was elected Corresponding Member and in January 1929-foil Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

When the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences named after V. Lenin (VASKhNIL) was established in 1929, he became its President. In 1933 he set up the Institute of Genetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences and was appointed its director. In 1931 he was elected President of the All-Union Geographical Society.

Acad. Vavilov enjoyed great respect on the part of his colleagues in other countries: he was Member of the London Royal Linnaean Society, the Spanish Society of Natural Scientists, Honorary Member of the American Botanical Society and of the Society of Horticulturists in London, member of the Indian and Argentine academies of sciences, Corresponding Member of the academies of sciences of Scotland and Germany. In 1927 he led the Soviet delegation to the Fifth International Congress of Genetics in Berlin where he presented a report "On the World Centers of Genes of Cultivated Plants". In 1932 he was elected Vice-President of the International Congress on Genetics in Ithaca (USA).

In the 1920s the Soviet Bolshevik leaders held Acad. Vavilov in high respect. When he was appointed Director of the VIR, Acad. N. Gorbunov, Administrative Director of the SOVNARKOM, praised Vavilov as a scientist of international rank, who enjoyed tremendous authority both in the Soviet Union and also in Western Europe and America.

In 1926 Prof, Vavilov was awarded, together with the first five Soviet scientists, the Lenin Prize "for studies of cultivated plants and of the problem of their origin". From 1927 to 1935 he was member of the USSR Central Executive Committee (in 1927 - 1929-member of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, VTsIK), member of the Leningrad City Council and member of the Collegium of the USSR NARKOMAT (Ministry) of Agriculture.

At the same time, however, Acad. Vavilov made no secret of his skepticism concerning the ideology of Communism. To the end of his days he was not a Communist Party member. In 1932 he was warned that if he does not join the Party, his trips abroad would become impossible. But he refused to join nevertheless, and within a narrow circle of his associates he spoke of the disastrous nature of Stalin's program of collectivization of peasants by force. He spoke of the absence of the freedom of opinion in the Soviet Union, saying that the doctrine of dictatorship of the proletariat puts a heavy burden on the intelligentsia and that collective farmers are being turned into slaves, etc. From 1930 the NKVD (Secret Police) began secret surveillance of the scientist on Stalin's order and all of his statements were being secretly recorded and filed by the ruthless repressive regime.

In 1937 Vavilov received a painful blow from Stalin who banned the conduct in the USSR of the 7th International Congress of Geneticists. The International Council on Genetics then decided to shift the convention to Edinburgh and \&vilov was elected its President. But the scientist was not allowed to travel abroad, and his post at the Congress was taken

Pages. 49


by the British geneticist F. Crue. The latter said: "You have invited me to play the role which would have been so adorned by Vavilov." He said he was being clad into that "mantle" against his will, and if he looked clumsy in that dress, it should be remembered that the mantle was "cut for a bigger person".

In May 1939, on the initiative of Acad. T. Lysenko, the VASKhNIL refused to endorse the general report of the VIR. The studies of its thousand-strong research staffwere dismissed as unproductive and its leadership denounced as incompetent. "Babylon (sounds in Russian like "Vavilon") should be destroyed"-this declaration of Dr. I. Present (ideologist of T. Lysenko) was openly repeated in the corridors of the VASKhNIL and in the Government circles.

During an expedition to Western Ukraine (Chernovtsy Region) Vavilov was arrested on August 6,1940. In a statement on the arrest, Acad. Vernadsky - the founder of geochemistry and the author of the theory of the leading role of living beings in geochemical processes-said: "This arrest is one of the biggest errors of the regime from the national point of view." After interrogations under torture (there were more than 400 interrogations during a year which lasted for a total of 1,700 hours) Vavilov was sentenced on June 9, 1941 to execution by firing squad with the confiscation of personal property. But at the same time he was given printed forms of an "appeal for pardon" which he filled out at once, and they were sent to the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet. The appeal was turned down under the (first) signature of Stalin.

On March 5, 1942, one of Europe's oldest scientific centers-the London Royal Society-which knew nothing about Vavilov's circumstances-nominated him (together with the Italian physicist and Nobel laureate, E. Fermi, the American geneticist and Nobel laureate, G. Meller, and Soviet mathematician I. Vinogradov) for its membership and the election took place on April 23, 1942. The news reached Moscow in May 1942 and on June 13,1942, Deputy People's Commissar of Internal Affairs, V Merkulov, sent a formal request to the Chairman of the Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court, W. Ulrikh, requesting lifting of Vavilov's death sentence. And the prisoner himself received a note suggesting that he write a personal appeal for pardon. The scientist wrote the appeal and his death sentence was replaced with a prison term of 20 years. But it was already too late: on January 26, 1943 Vavilov died of dystrophy (malnutrition) in the Saratov jail. The exact place of his burial is not known.

From 1945 obituaries began to come out in the \\est. The leading figure of cotton genetics, American scientist Prof. S. Harland, wrote that: "Many friends in Europe and America will lament his death. Science will remember his achievements, which will outlive his personal tragedy" The British scientist T Heaksly, who established the morphological proximity of man to higher monkeys, birds and reptiles, jellyfish and polyps, wrote about "the tragic fate of one of the best scientists ever born in Russia". Foreign members of the USSR Academy of Sciences, pharmacologist and physiologist Prof. G. Deil and geneticist Prof. G. Meller announced their withdrawal from the USSR Academy of Sciences in protest over the death of Vavilov.

On August 20, 1955, the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office of the USSR informed Vavilov's wife that her husband's case was closed in the absence of corpus delicti.

It is up to this day that the ideas of Acad. Vavilov continue to stimulate research even in areas remote from biology. In an article in the journal of "Achievements of Modern Radioelectronics", Prof. V Yakovlev wrote in 2001: "The generalized notion of a biological system was introduced by Vavilov and used long before the advent of modern systemotechnology. That being so, Vavilov can be regarded as the founder of that branch of research."

The historic significance of the pioneering studies of Acad. N. Viivilov has since become generally recognized on a world scale. The gene pools, or banks of Brazil and the Indian

Pages. 50


Bureau of Plant Cultivation are bearing his name. There are his big portraits on the walls of the offices of directors of gene banks in the United States, Hungary, Portugal and other countries, and this is not accidental in as much as he was the founder of a major trend of global research-studies and collection of the genetic resources of plants. Continued progress of this research can ensure what we call global food security of the population of the Earth by 80 - 90 percent.

The school of research created by him is unique. It comprises some 80 of his close collaborators and more than 200 researchers working within the general course of his ideas in various parts of the world. To them belongs the credit for many major discoveries in genetics, plant physiology, biotechnology, ecology, historical geography of plants, evolution, etc. Prof. G. Karpechenko, for example, developed a hybrid of cabbage and radish-a new plant variety unknown in nature. This plant had a special "man-made" genome, and another our researcher, Prof. N. Vorontsov, is right in calling Prof. Karpechenko the world's first genome engineer. Incidentally, it was Prof. Karpechenko who fought to the end together with Acad. Vavilov against the anti-scientific aggressive stance of Lysenko and was finally executed by the NKVD secret police (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) on July 28, 1941. Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy G. Levitsky-a world-famous cytologist who discovered plant mitochondria, died in prison on May 20,1942. Also jailed were the best co-workers and pupils of Prof. Levitsky: N. Avdulov, B. Vakar, V. Chekhov, and Ya. Ellengorn. The most talented of them, geneticist F. Dobrzhansky, saved himself by failing to return from a scientific visit to the United States. Prof. L. Govorov, an outstanding expert in selection, seed growing and the author of his still important work on "Using Methods of Plant Selection for Influencing their Physiological and Chemical Properties" was arrested on March 15,1941 and died in jail on January 13, 1943. Member of the All-Union Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences (VASKhNIL)-a co-worker of Acad. Vivilov- glorified our national science by fundamental monographs-"Cultivated Plants and Their Kin", "Landtilling in Turkey", his "Botany" manual which have been translated into different languages. After Vavilov's death he did a lot in his post of director of the VIR for saving this unique Center of plant-growing.

Prof. G. Zaitsev-geneticist and specialist in natural selection-provided a tremendous contribution to cotton selection and an institute of cotton-growing near Tashkent now bears his name. Prof. E. Sinskaya-a close associate of Acad. 'Vavilov- developed and introduced her ecological method of plant selection. Her books "Dynamics of Species", "Populations Problems in Higher Plants", "Species Formation of Lucerne and Other Plants" remain of interest to specialists to this day. Prof. G. Selyaninov-an agrometeorologist-developed a most important ecological parameter-his hydrothermal coefficient. His Section produced the "Agroclimatic Map of the \\forld", and "Agroclimatic Zones of the USSR" which are being used to this day. Prof. Bakhteev, one of the most devoted and consistent pupils of Vavilov, was the first in the world to cross barley with elimus. Member of the VASKhNIL Academy, Prof. S. Bukasov-a leading world specialist on potato, developed a system of its species and used it as the basis for new selections of this plant by way of inter-species hybridization. Prof. E. Wulf is a botanist of international rank. His books "Historical Geography of Plants", "History of the Floras of the Globe", "Cultural Flora of the Earth" are still being quoted today. Prof. K. Pangalo-a world-famous expert on cucurbitaceous, was a co- worker and friend of Acad. Vavilov. He developed the systematics of the cucurbitaceous...

This list of unique researchers, who rallied around Acad. Vavilov, offers what is probably the one and only example in biology of building such a brilliant scientific school. And this list can be made longer and longer. But what is really important is that in the history of Leningrad-St. Petersburg the Vavilov school of research has been a truly unique phenomenon, which belongs not only to Russia, but to the whole of mankind.


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