Biodiversity Conservation

The Strange & Tragic Case of the Soviet Seed Man (Part 2)

This is the second of several posts wherein I explore the fascinating and tragic story of the world’s first seed bank and its heroic creator. My thanks to reader Michel Leblanc for sharing this story with me.

Wheat diversity in Azerbaijan. From a 2012 paper by lead author A. Aliyeva, DOI: 10.5829/idosi.aejaes.2012.12.10.6680.

Theories on Genetic Diversity

In the course of his expeditions, Vavilov developed several important theories. The first he called “The Law of Homologous Series in Variation”. Appearing at the 3rd Russian congress for plant-breeding in Saratov, Vavilov drew on the work of Mendel and Quetelet to propose that closely related species and genera are characterized by similar homologous series in their genetic variability. For example, if a species of wheat is seen to exhibit branching and spikelets in its seed heads, we can reasonably expect the same kinds of traits to appear in related grain species like rye. The paper he published on this subject in 1922 refined this theory into two parts: : (a) similar morphological traits occur in different groups of plants; and (b) the set of traits constitutes a series that is a signature of a particular variety of plant.

This law is still enormously important for selective breeding of both plants and animals. Knowing that similar genetic and morphological traits can be found in related species means breeders can significantly narrow their search for desired characters and variants.

Maize diversity in Vavilov’s office. Photo by Luigi Guarino, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Centers of Origin of Cultivated Plants

Starting in 1926, Vavilov formalized his observations about plant origins. He proposed that the areas with the most diversity of a plant variety and its wild relatives indicate where humans first cultivated these plants. According to Vavilov, these areas of first cultivation represent the centers of evolutionary origin of some plant varieties. The center of origin of a particular variety of wheat, for example, would be the place where a diversity of genetic relatives–especially undomesticated weedy relatives–of that variety would exist. Unlike previous theories on this subject, Vavilov used traits like the number of chromosomes in the cells of organisms within a species to characterize and categorize genetic diversity within species.

From WAMU 88.5, American University Radio: “A Map Of Where Your Food Originated May Surprise You”.

Initially, Vavilov recognized five centres of origin (southwestern Asia, southeastern Asia, the Mediterranean coast, South America, and Mexico), with several sub-centres. He later modified this to seven primary centres of origin. His theory had little influence until after WWII, which it was translated into English. Since then, it has continued to influence both agricultural scholars and others interested in genetic origins.

One of Vavilov’s most cited works is a posthumous publication, The Origin, Variation, Immunity and Breeding of Cultivated Plants, published in English in 1951. In this work Vavilov argued that diversity of plant varieties was not evenly distributed throughout the world, and that the centers of origin of a species contained the most genetic diversity related to the original variety. This theory is now widely accepted. For example, Bryan Sykes drew heavily on this theory for his bestseller “The Seven Daughters of Eve”, which explores human genetic ancestry.


In 1927 Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, a public rival of Vavilov’s, was recognized in the national newspaper for his skills in plant breeding. Vavilov followed Lysenko’s work, but soon realized that Lysenko lacked a formal scientific education and was unaware of modern genetic concepts. Lysenko insisted that if an organism acquired some new trait during its lifetime, this quality could be passed directly to its descendants. While today we have a more nuanced view of epigenetic heritability, Lysenko’s views were not at all nuanced and flew in the face of orthodox Darwinian theory.  He sent billions of “counter-revolutionary” wheat plants to be “re-educated” in Siberia. (Quote from Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, page 433.) Sadly, the wheat plants were resistant to re-education, but not to cold. They mostly died and the Soviet Union was forced to import ever larger quantities of wheat.

Trofim Lysenko, 1938. Wikimedia Commons

(Indeed, a 19th Century German geneticist named August Weismann had definitively proved that acquired traits are not heritable. He cut off the tails of 901 mice and their offspring for five generations. As he predicted, not one of the successive generations of mice was born tailless, or even with shorter tails.)

Despite his scientific hokum, Lysenko’s views found favour at the highest level because they dovetailed so nicely with communist educational principles. A major tenet of Soviet theory was that nurture would always triumph over nature (genetics). Eventually Lysenko used his influence to become the head of Soviet agriculture, at which point he pushed to outlaw genetics research and education in the Soviet Union. He declared that anyone who didn’t renounce the science would be arrested and thrown in jail.

Arrest & Imprisonment

Already under suspicion for his bourgeois background, one day in 1940, while he was collecting seeds in Ukraine, Soviet security agents arrested Vavilov and whisked him off to the Gulag. Not even his wife and children knew exactly where he ended up. The arrest left his colleagues at the Bureau of Applied Botany trembling.

Vavilov’s mugshot. The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Народный комиссариат внутренних дел), abbreviated NKVD (НКВД) – Central Archive of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (Moscow) (Центральный архив ФСБ РФ (Москва)) Institute of Plant Industry (Всероссийский институт растениеводства имени Н. И. Вавилова) Official photo from the file of the investigation. From Wikipedia.

Gulag interrogators grilled Vavilov mercilessly, often for 12 hours straight. They were determined to make him confess to the “crime” of not conforming his science to their politics. But as one historian commented, “Vavilov, unlike Galileo . . . refused to repudiate his beliefs.”

Infuriated, Gulag administrators tried to starve Vavilov into submission. Day after day, they gave him nothing but mashed cabbage and moldy flour. The man who had sampled wild apples in Kazakhstan, wild barley in Ethiopia, and wild potatoes in Chile was reduced to eating flavorless mush, and very little of it. His muscles wasted, his cheeks collapsed inward, boils erupted on his skin. He had labored for decades to end famine, and finally succumbed to starvation himself in January 1943. He was 55 years old.

The story continues in our next post. Meantime, please find below a list of references for more reading.


  1. Nikolai Vavilov
  2. The Tragedy of the World’s First SeedBank
  3. Nikolai Ivanovic Vavilov (1887-1943)
  4. The tragic tale of Nikolai Vavilov
  5. The Seeds of Life — Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov and the Fight for the Centers of Origins of Plant Diversity and Food Security
  6. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry
  7. Institute of Plant Industry
  8. Federal Research Center, N. I. Vavilov All-Russian Institute of Plant Genetic Resources (VIR), Ministry of science and higher education
  9. The Development of Botany in the Soviet Union by Slavomil Hejný
  10. Russian famine of 1921–1922
  11. The Law of Homologous Series in Variation by Professor N. I. Vavilov, Director of the Bureau of Applied Botany and Plant Breeding, Petrograd, Russia.
  12. Homologous Series, Law of
  13. Revisiting N.I. Vavilov’s “The Law of Homologous Series in Variation” (1922)
  14. Vavilov : Une banque de semences à Lyon pour préserver la biodiversité
  15. Beyond the Gardens: Millennium Seed Bank Partnership
  16. Impact: science et société, UNESCO Bibliothèque Numérique, pages 141 à 149
  17. Pavlovsk Experimental Station
  18. In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station
  19. Seed banks: saving for the future
  20. Russia’s Vavilov institute, guardian of world’s lost plants
  21. CRBA L’institut Vavilov
  22. Russie : Campagne pour sauver la station expérimentale de Pavlovsk
  23. Une collection de 5000 variétés de petits fruits menacée de disparition en Russie à l’Institut Vavilov !
  24. Une oasis de la biodiversité menacée par les pelles mécaniques
  25. Russia launches inquiry into Pavlovsk seed bank after Twitter campaign
  26. Les végétaux du futur poussent à Charly
  27. In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station

2 replies on “The Strange & Tragic Case of the Soviet Seed Man (Part 2)”

Sad, yes, but also very inspiring. One thing that struck me while researching this piece is the strong link between science denial and authoritarian regimes. Apparently Lysenko is enjoying a posthumous revival among Putin’s crowd, just as Trump’s followers deny climate change, etc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s