Horticulture Heroes

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on September 23, 2011

It’s a rare thing to encounter heroism and sacrifice in the world of horticulture. That’s why I was drawn to the story of the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg, Russia.

A recent visit to the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg, Russia

The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry (VIPI) was founded as the Bureau of Applied Botany in St. Petersburg in 1894.  In 1917 the founder, Robert Regel, appointed Nikolai I. Vavilov, a Russian botanist and geneticist, to succeed him as director of the Bureau.  Under Vavilov’s directorship, the Bureau became not only the world’s first seed bank, but grew to become the repository for the largest collection of plant genetic material in the world.  It was renamed the Research Institute of Plant Industry in 1930.

Vavilov worked tirelessly to increase the Institute’s collections.  Besides his work in Russia, his passionate search for seeds led to over 100 collecting missions across five continents and 64 countries.  During the 1920s he even opened an office in New York City, to which Russian immigrants in the U.S. sent seeds they collected in their new homeland.

As Joseph Stalin rose to power in the 1930s, the Institute found itself beset by criticism and persecution, being accused of supporting “inborn class differences.”  Apparently, Stalin believed that all plants belonged to a single class and that there were no hierarchical distinctions to be made.  As a result of this rather bizarre application of the communist creed, Vavilov was arrested after one of his former students, now a protégé of Stalin, denounced him publicly.


Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov
Click photo to enlarge

Vavilov refused to close the Institute.  In August of 1940, as he was embarking on a plant-collecting expedition to the Carpathian Mountains, he was seized and accused of belonging to an anti-Soviet organization (the VIPI), of being a spy, and of sabotage.  He was sentenced to be shot on July 28, 1941 and was held while awaiting that date at the Saratov prison in an underground cell with no windows.  While he was waiting to die, he gave lectures on genetics to his cellmates and even managed to write a book “A History of World Agriculture,” which unfortunately was never published.

By some unexplained circumstance, Vavilov was not executed along with his cellmates on that fateful July day in 1941.  The horrible conditions under which Vavilov continued to live finally claimed his life.  He died a horticultural martyr’s death of scurvy and dystrophy on January 26, 1943, and was buried in a mass grave for prisoners.  In 1968, while celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding, the Institute of Plant Industry took on a new name, the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, to honor the man who gave his life so that those precious seeds he had collected could benefit posterity.

Not the only--and perhaps also the most touching--act of heroism to be associated with VIPI occurred during the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during the Second World War.  It began on September 8, 1941, when the Germans severed the last land connection to the city.  Unable to take the city, due primarily to the defense strategies of Marshal Zhukov with support from Soviet Baltic Fleet naval aviators who flew more than 100,000 air missions, Germany and its Axis supporters laid siege to Leningrad for an incredible 900 days (September 8, 1941, until January 27, 1944).

Diorama depicting the siege of Leningrad  Click photo to enlarge

Artillery bombardment was unrelenting.  Shelling and bombing during the protracted siege killed  5,723 Leningrad citizens and wounded 20,507 others.  The siege led to the greatest destruction and the most lives ever lost during a siege in the entire history of the world.

But the suffering wasn’t totally the direct result of instruments of war.  Because of the blockade, citizens soon found themselves in the grip of famine.  Water and energy supplies dwindled.  The estimated toll of death by starvation reached staggering numbers, some estimates rising as high as 1,500,000 inhabitants.  About 1,400,000 women and children were evacuated, but many of them died during evacuation because they were too ill or were killed by the relentless bombardment.

The only food available to inhabitants from November 1941 to February 1942 was 125 grams of bread, most of which consisted of sawdust.  It was distributed via ration cards. In the winter, when temperatures plummeted, it was impossible for many citizens to walk even short distances to food distribution centers for their slice of sawdust bread.  In the months of January and February 1942 alone, as many as 1,000 citizens died daily, mostly from starvation and hypothermia.  Many people simply died on the streets, the sight of death becoming commonplace for survivors.

So dire was the situation that increasing reports of cannibalism began to surface.  There simply was nothing else left.  All the birds, rats, and pets had been eaten by survivors.  Roving gangs reportedly attacked and ate people, many of whom were now totally defenseless.  Leningrad police did their best to combat this situation, but had few resources at their disposal.

It is against this grisly background that the staff at the VIPI made the ultimate sacrifice.  They were fortunate, in that the Institute had not been destroyed, and they had at their disposal a treasure chest of food in the form of millions of seeds.  To the person, every staff member chose to die of starvation, rather than to destroy the precious reserve of seeds bearing the food source and genetic material for future generations.

These are the unsung heroes of horticulture.  Let us be grateful for their sacrifice.


Sources and further reading


Eco Books, Nikolai I. Vavilov

Vavilov Bio

"The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century"

Nikolai Vavilov on Facebook?


Siege of Leningrad

The 900-day siege

"The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad"



VIPI website

Danger threatens the Institute once more



The video is courtesy of the National Geographic Channel.

Photos are courtesy of wikipedia.org and used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Related articles:
Leningrad, seed banks, seeds, St. Petersburg, Vavilov, World War II

About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.

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Controversy Zanymuse Sep 26, 2011 7:35 PM 4

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