Biodiversity Conservation

The Strange & Tragic Case of the Soviet Seed Man (Part 3)

This is the third 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.

Nearly 3 million people were trapped in Leningrad during the siege. Only 800,000 survived. From TASS/Getty Images.

The Siege of Leningrad

Meanwhile, things were grim back at the Bureau. In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Leningrad was a major target of the Germans—in part because of Vavilov’s bureau. Nazi scientists appreciated the power of genetics – to a fault. (They essentially committed the opposite error of Lysenko in arguing that nurturing and environment counted for nothing and genes alone determine our fate.) The Nazis knew that Vavilov had gathered a priceless trove of agricultural riches and they wanted it!

Imagine the morale at the Bureau. Their boss had already been disappeared, and their own government had demonized them and called them traitors for their research. With Nazis marching on Leningrad, eager to steal their life’s work, who wouldn’t despair?

Then things got worse. The Siege of Leningrad dragged on for nearly 900 days. Instead of shells and guns, the Nazi’s main weapon was the very thing Vavilov had worked his whole life to prevent—famine. They tried to starve the Russians into submission.

Illustration by J. S. Lawson of wild pears collected in central Asia, one of six panels Vavilov gave to pomologist Richard Wellington at the International Genetics Congress in 1932. From Biodiversity Heritage Library.

As supplies dwindled, Leningrad’s residents started hunting dogs and cats. Soon they were reduced to eating lipstick, leather hats, and fur coats.

The only food in the whole city lay inside the Bureau. Incredibly, though, the scientists there never dipped into their stores to ease their hunger pangs. They were starving while surrounded by food—they worked with food, thought about food, touched food every day. Yet none of them ever put a morsel to their lips. As one later said, “It was hard to walk. It was unbearably hard to get up in the morning, [even] to move your hands and feet . . . but it was not in the least difficult to refrain from eating up the collection.” This wasn’t just stirring rhetoric, either. One emaciated scientist actually died at his desk, holding a packet of nutritious peanuts in his hand.

While Americans are familiar with one or two varieties of peanut, farmers in other parts of the world have been able to develop hundreds of varieties thanks to the peanut’s natural ability to shuffle its two distinct subgenomes to produce new traits. These are some of the peanuts grown by the Caiabí people who live on the Ilha Grande, Mato Grosso, Brazil. Peanut is very important for them and they cultivate diverse types, each one with its use, name and story. (Photos by Fábio de Oliveira Freitas). From an article on UGA Today, University of Georgia.

How could they fight off such temptation? First, they were thinking about the world after the war. They knew they would be able to help nations to get back on their feet and feed their people, especially in places where crops had been wiped out. They were also looking at the broader sweep of human history. Ever since the first farmers planted seeds some 10,000 years ago, there’s been an unbroken chain of crop plantings through time. The bureau scientists saw themselves as stewards of this heritage—arguably the most important heritage of humankind. Eating the seeds would have been tantamount to snapping that chain.

So the scientists waited, and they gradually died. A rice scientist, a potato scientist, the peanut scientist clutching that packet, and six more. In all, 700,000 people starved in Leningrad during the 872-day siege. But it’s hard to find any deaths more poignant than those nine food scientists.

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

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