How Nikolay Vavilov, the seed collector who tried to end famine, died of starvation

Nikolay Vavilov collected more seeds, tubers and fruits from around the world than any other person in history. Yet the plant explorer, who endeavored to end famine, starved to death in a gulag.

Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobiologist, conservationist, farmer and writer, chronicled Vavilov's life in Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine.  

On what made Vavilov so famous

Gary Paul Nabhan: He was the world's greatest plant explorer. He collected more seeds, tubers and fruits from around the world than any person in human history. He started out collecting seeds in about 1916 and worked up until his arrest in the early 1940s and imprisonment by Stalin.


Nikolay Vavilov (Library of Congress)

On Valivov the world traveler

GBN: Vavilov was an incredible explorer of food diversity. He traveled to 64 countries on five continents collecting seeds. He learned 15 languages. He was one of the first scientists to really listen to farmers -- traditional farmers, peasant farmers around the world -- and why they felt seed diversity was important in their fields. All of our notions about biological diversity and needing diversity of foods on our plates to keep us healthy sprung from his work 80 years ago. If justice be done, he would be as famous as Darwin or Luther Burbank.

On Valivov the scapegoat

GBN: Over the years, decades and centuries prior to Vavilov's birth, there were 120 famines triggered by drought or catastrophic weather events that killed millions and millions of people. During his lifetime there were three famines that killed millions in Russia. The last one was largely due not to a drought, but due to Stalin's collectivization of private farms and turning them into an assembly-line production system that reduced yields in Russia. All of a sudden no farmer owned his own land and had control over his crops. Ironically, Stalin needed a scapegoat for this famine and the failure of his collectivization of farms, and he chose Vavilov.

On how Vavilov starved to death in a gulag

GBN: Vavilov was collecting seeds in the borderlands of Russia and Eastern Europe when he was apprehended. He disappeared in front of his staff. A car came up with KGB [the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency] agents in it, took him away, and as World War II rolled up and into Russia, no one knew where he was. He had been imprisoned just a few blocks away from where his son and his wife were staying. They never knew that he was there.

After over a year-and-a-half of eating frozen cabbage and moldy flour, he died of starvation. The man who taught us the most about where our food comes from and who tried for over 50 years to end famine in the world died of starvation in the Soviet gulag.

On scientists starving to death while protecting Vavilov's seeds

GBN: There is a seed bank down in the basement of a stodgy, old Russian building that had not only Vavilov's 220,000 seeds, but another 150,000 from other collectors. During the Siege of St. Petersburg in 1941 [also known as the siege of Leningrad], the staff locked themselves in the building. They didn't know where Vavilov, their leader, was, but they were so dedicated to the mission that they shared to collect and conserve the world's food diversity that they locked themselves in to protect the seeds both from the Nazis and from starving people in their own streets who wanted to find grain or potatoes of any kind and eat them.

Over a series of months in 1942 and 1943, a dozen of the scientists starved to death while guarding those seeds. One of them said it was hard to wake up, it was hard to get on your feet and put on your clothes in the morning, but no, it was not hard to protect the seeds once you had your wits about you. Saving those seeds for future generations and helping the world recover after war was more important than a single person's comfort.

On the courage of scientists

GBN: I've had the blessing of visiting the seed bank in St. Petersburg. We looked at a wall of photos of the people who died protecting those seeds. I've never been so deeply moved by the courage of scientists in my life. That they put humankind before their own personal lives seemed to me an astonishing act.

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