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Stalin's war on genetic science

The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century

  • Peter Pringle
Simon and Schuster: 2008. 384 pp. $26 9780743264983 | ISBN: 978-0-7432-6498-3

It is not surprising, given the parlous state of Russia in the years following the Revolution, that its political system put ideology and practical outcomes above all else, including scientific fact. This was most evident in agriculture, where it was imperative to produce more food by whatever means. The consequences were tragic for the Russian people and for Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, Russia's greatest geneticist. Vavilov fell foul of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko who, through political manipulation and intrigue, came to dominate Soviet genetics.Peter Pringle's compelling book, The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, tells the story of the Lysenko affair with verve and pace. Pringle makes it clear how Vavilov's patriotism, dedication to science and determination to be open-minded led to his downfall and death.

Vavilov was born in 1887 in Moscow into a comfortable, bourgeois family. In 1906 he entered the Petrovskaya Agriculture Academy, or Petrovska, one of many institutes established after the devastating famine of 1892. Russian agricultural practices lagged behind those of other European countries and the United States, and efforts to reform them were unsuccessful. Vavilov undertook “to work for the benefit of the poor, the enslaved class of my country, to raise their level of knowledge”. This pledge, Pringle explains, drove Vavilov throughout his life.

After graduating, Vavilov spent a year researching wheat with Robert Regel at the Bureau of Applied Botany in St Petersburg, before embarking on a two-year tour of European laboratories. His stay with William Bateson in Cambridge, UK, was the highlight. Bateson was the leading proponent of Gregor Mendel's work on inherited traits, rediscovered 10 years earlier, and wrote the first genetics textbook, Mendel's Principles of Heredity, published in 1909. Bateson's enthusiasm for Mendelian genetics seems to have rubbed off: Vavilov based his life's work on Mendelian principles and their elaboration by, among others, fly geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan. Bateson had led an expedition to the Russian Steppes in 1886 to examine the interactions of environment and species variability. Pringle suggests that this may have inspired Vavilov to undertake similar expeditions to search for crop varieties whose traits made them suitable for particular environments, such as dry or cold regions.

On Vavilov's return to Russia and the Petrovska, he was sent to investigate why soldiers on the Persian front were falling ill after eating bread. Vavilov used the assignment to collect varieties of plants growing in the harsh climate of the Pamir mountains, in the hope that these hardy plants might be cultivated in northern Russia to provide more food for the Soviet people. Vavilov endured great hardship in travelling to such remote regions, trips that would now be unthinkable without insulated jackets, mobile phones and satellite navigation.

Vavilov returned from the Pamirs in 1916 to find Russia in political turmoil. In March 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and by October, the Bolsheviks had seized the reins of government, plunging the country into civil war. Nevertheless, Vavilov's career began auspiciously — he took up a full professorship at the University of Saratov, a large city on the Volga river some 700 kilometres southeast of Moscow. Vavilov mounted expeditions to Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, North and South America and the Mediterranean, seeking plants that might increase agricultural productivity in Russia. He regarded this as an essential task after the disastrous collapse of Soviet agriculture that followed the consolidation of land and labour known as collectivization that began around 1929. Vavilov's collection of 250,000 seeds of cultivated plants and their varieties was the most extensive in the world. In 1930, he was appointed director of the Institute of Genetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences in recognition of his position as the country's leading plant geneticist and his international reputation. Just six years later, Vavilov was in disgrace.

His nemesis Lysenko was born in 1898 into a peasant family. Unusually for the time, he attended a school of agriculture and horticulture; clever and ambitious, he aspired to make great contributions to Soviet science. His big break as an agricultural researcher came in 1927, when the newspaper Pravda reported his work on changing the time of sprouting in seeds by exposing them to differing periods of cold temperatures, known as vernalization. The reporter noted that Lysenko was working for the people, not carrying out research for its own sake by studying the “hairy legs of flies”. Lysenko promoted himself as the discoverer of vernalization, although it had been known since 1858, and trumpeted it as a solution to the Soviet Union's chronic food shortages.

Lysenko claimed that plants could be 'educated' so that the changed germination time became heritable after several generations of vernalization. This was a variant of Lamarckism, or the inheritance of acquired characters, that had been discredited first by August Weismann's distinction between germ cells and somatic cells, and second by Mendel's work. Scientists rejected Lysenko's claims, but by skilful manipulation of the political situation throughout his career, Lysenko scaled the Soviet scientific hierarchy. He was twice awarded the Order of Lenin, and became president of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the USSR, a full member of the country's Academy of Sciences and a member of the Supreme Soviet.

The conflict between Lysenko and the 'Mendelian–Morganists' came to a head in 1936 at a conference at the Lenin Academy. Despite geneticists' devastating scientific critique of Lysenko's claims, the government-controlled press declared Lysenko the winner. Attacks on Vavilov's position increased and Lysenko consolidated his position. Senior scientists in the Soviet administration were among the victims of Stalin's Great Purge, when perhaps as many as one million anti-revolutionaries and enemies of the people were executed over two years, including Muralov, president of the Lenin Academy. Lysenko took his place to become Vavilov's boss. In October 1939, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held another genetics conference. This again ended in triumph for Lysenko.

Why were the reins of Soviet agriculture held by a charlatan whose policies were disastrous? As Pringle makes clear, Lysenko prospered because he promised rapid advances in agriculture that were seized on by a Soviet government desperate to feed thousands of citizens dying of starvation. Lysenko promised Stalin that new strains of wheat and other crops with desirable traits could be produced within 3 years, much quicker than the 12 years that Vavilov required. Perhaps as importantly, Lysenko's views of genetics were in sympathy with prevailing Marxist dogma.

Experts, by virtue of their education and role, were members of the bourgeoisie and regarded with suspicion in Russia. There was a strong political movement to replace the intelligentsia with elevated peasants and other members of the proletariat, even if they were untrained and ill-fitted to their new posts. Lysenko was one such example. Vavilov, by contrast, was an educated, well-travelled businessman's son who was thought to be susceptible to foreign influences.

And why did Vavilov not fight Lysenko earlier and more aggressively? Pringle demonstrates that Vavilov was guided by his student pledge to help the Soviet people and that he was committed to exploring all leads, however improbable, that might increase food production. Vavilov encouraged many scientists, including Lysenko, to test different approaches. Naively, Vavilov did not expect that Lysenko would play by political rather than scientific rules. At a 1948 session of the Lenin Academy, Stalin was so determined that Lysenko should triumph that he drafted Lysenko's opening remarks himself, emphasizing the correctness of Lamarckian thinking. A letter included in the official report ended: “Glory to the great Stalin ... coryphaeus of progressive science!”

Neither Vavilov nor his work featured in this session. Following the 1939 conference, Lysenko had progressively dismantled Vavilov's institute, but Vavilov had remained free even as criticism of him became ever more vituperative. Then, on 6 August 1940, while collecting plants in the Ukraine, Vavilov was seized by the Soviet secret police and taken to Moscow. Pringle's account of Vavilov's 11-month interrogation is horrifying. In July 1941, Vavilov and two colleagues were tried and sentenced to death. Vavilov's appeal to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was turned down, but a personal plea to the head of the secret police led to his sentence being commuted to life imprisonment. His colleagues were shot. Vavilov died of starvation on 26 January 1943 in a prison in Saratov, the city where he had begun his illustrious career 26 years before.

Even now, politics continues to trump good science, as is evident from the delays in reducing global carbon emissions. Pringle's very readable account is a timely reminder that public policies must be based on rational decisions drawn from the best data available.

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Witkowski, J. Stalin's war on genetic science. Nature 454, 577–579 (2008).

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