Biodiversity Conservation

The Strange & Tragic Case of the Soviet Seed Man (Part 4)

This is the fourth and final 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.

Posthumous Rehabilitation

Nowadays, Vavilov is revered as a hero in Russia—at least by most people. Despite its ups and downs, his bureau still exists, renamed as the N. I. Vavilov All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Plant Genetic Resources (VIR in Russian). Scientists across the globe have embraced Vavilov’s insight that genetic biodiversity is the key to a healthy food future. This has led to the founding of even bigger and more sophisticated agricultural stockpiles, such as the so-called doomsday seed vault in Svalbard, Norway. Fittingly, the VIR has donated seeds and other specimens to Svalbard—presumably many of them dating back to Vavilov’s early collecting trips.

First USSR stamp honoring N.I. Vavilov in 1977. Source — Wikipedia


The passion that sustained the scientists at the Bureau through the Seige of Leningrad continues today. Among Vavilov’s most productive and exciting seed-gathering expeditions took him in 1929 to Central Asia and the territory now occupied by present-day Kazakhstan. In biodiverse lands around Alma Ata and the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains, he discovered the world’s richest concentration of fruit trees, including plum, peach and apricot; but in especially terrific profusion were the apple trees. In retrospect, this discovery confirmed his theory about the origins of culitvated species.

Wild abundance in the Tian Shan Mountains. Source — The Fatherland of Apples.

The Experimental Pavlovsk Station

Many of the seeds Vavilov collected during this 1929 expedition were eventually planted and grown out at the Experimental Pavlovsk Station, which lies just south of Leningrad, now Saint-Petersburg.

When the Nazis invaded the USSR, and the front lines of the war approaching very close to Pavlovsk, Vavilov’s colleagues, assistants and students moved as much of the Pavlovsk Station’s collection as possible to the basement of the Plant Industry Institute in the center of Leningrad. There they safeguarded the collections throughout the entire Siege. 

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has ordered an immediate inquiry into the Pavlovsk research station being turned into private housing. Photograph: Frans Lanting/Corbis. From an article by Fred Pearce in The Guardian UK.

Ironically, after surviving the Nazis, WWII, and the downfall of its creator, the Experimental Pavlovsk Station fell into disrepair with the fall of the Soviet empire. Then in the early 2000s, it almost fell prey to land developers. An impassioned international campaign on Twitter resulted in a stay of execution by then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. According to a scant entry in Wikipedia, in April 2012 the Russian government took formal action to preserve this important genetic repository and stop the land from being conveyed to private interests for development.

The passion to protect this precious legacy comes from its uniqueness. More than 90% of the plants are found in no other research collection or seed bank. Its seeds and berries are thought to posess traits that could be crucial to maintaining productive fruit harvests in many parts of the world as climate change and a rising tide of disease, pests and drought weaken the varieties farmers now grow. At stake, say campaigners for the station, are more than 5,000 varieties of seeds and berries from dozens of countries, including more than 100 varieties each of gooseberries and raspberries. Google searches for news related to the Pavlovsk Station turned up no new results, so let’s hope it is still intact.

On the former Melchior Philibert farm in Charly, the Melchior Farm in France experiments with food seeds collected by Vavilov.


Seed banks around the world continue to benefit from Vavilov’s collections. In France, the Lyon branch of the Vavilov seed conservatory has been funded by the EU to grow out a thousand fruit, a hundred varieties of vegetables, cereals, and aromatic herbs, some of which are almost five centuries old. More than 300 varieties from Lyon, that are seldom cultivated today, were discovered in the Vavilov seedbank of Saint-Petersburg and will thus come back to life.

As modern commodified agriculture continues to come under threat from climate change, the seeds Vavilov collected, and his staff safeguarded, may hold the key to our future food security.

The resource list below provides more information.


  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 4)”

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