Nature 455, 27 (4 September 2008) | doi:10.1038/455027a; Published online 3 September 2008

Vavilov's vision for genetics was among Stalin's many victims

Victor Fet1 & Michael D. Golubovsky2

  1. Department of Biological Sciences, Marshall University, Huntington, West Virginia 25755, USA
  2. Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California–Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94720, USA


Jan Witkowski's review of Peter Pringle's fascinating and timely book on the famous geneticist Nikolai Vavilov ('Stalin's war on genetic science' Nature 454, 577–579; 2008) is informative, but contains some oversimplifications and inaccuracies.

The review pays little credit to Vavilov as a unique theoretician, not just a practitioner of applied science. His intentions were not simply to feed the people or to cultivate sturdy mountain plants. His was a grander vision, worthy of his teacher William Bateson: to bring modern genetics into agriculture, to collect global data on his famous "homological series [parallelisms] in hereditary variation" and cultural plant centres of origin, and to compile global gene collections.

Because of the fraudulent geneticist Trofim Lysenko, a giant system of data falsification developed in the USSR. The subjects were forced to praise the emperor's new clothes where there were none. The relationship between Lysenko and Vavilov was indeed complicated: Vavilov first promoted Lysenko's vernalization experiments and his career. The totalitarian and unpredictable nature of Stalin's regime not only prevented free criticism of Lysenko's data and his primitive 'Soviet genetics', it also led to the destruction of critics and opponents. Biology was a front line in the ideological war waged against Western ('bourgeois') science.

To call Stalin's agricultural collectivization policy a "consolidation of land and labour" is an awful understatement: an estimated 10 million productive peasants and their families were exiled or imprisoned from 1929–1933. Stalin was hardly "desperate to feed thousands of citizens dying of starvation" when these were the same people he starved and murdered while sending Russian grain abroad.

No free discussion about "the best data available" was possible for scientists in 1930s Russia. Saying that "even now, politics continues to trump good science" should not be taken as equating murderous dictators with democratic governments.