The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov (Paperback)
The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Gr
Simon & Schuster, 9781451656497, 384pp.
Publication Date: July 2, 2011
In a drama of love, revolution, and war that rivals Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago," Pringle tells the story of a young Russian scientist, Nikolai Vavilov, who had a dream of ending hunger and famine in the world. Vavilov's plan would use the emerging science of genetics to breed super plants that could grow anywhere, in any climate, in sandy deserts and freezing tundra, in drought and flood. He would launch botanical expeditions to find these vanishing genes, overlooked by early farmers ignorant of Mendel's laws of heredity. He called it a "mission for all humanity."
To the leaders of the young Soviet state, Vavilov's dream fitted perfectly into their larger scheme for a socialist utopia. Lenin supported the adventurous Vavilov, a handsome and seductive young professor, as he became an Indiana Jones, hunting lost botanical treasures on five continents. In a former tsarist palace in what is now St. Petersburg, Vavilov built the world's first seed bank, a quarter of a million specimens, a magnificent living museum of plant diversity that was the envy of scientists everywhere and remains so today.
But when Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin took over, Vavilov's dream turned into a nightmare. This son of science was from a bourgeois background, the class of society most despised and distrusted by the Bolsheviks. The new cadres of comrade scientists taunted and insulted him, and Stalin's dreaded secret police built up false charges of sabotage and espionage.
Stalin's collectivization of farmland caused chaos in Soviet food production, and millions died in widespread famine. Vavilov's master plan for improving Soviet crops was designed to work over decades, not a few years, and he could not meet Stalin's impossible demands for immediate results.
In Stalin's Terror of the 1930s, Russian geneticists were systematically repressed in favor of the peasant horticulturalist Trofim Lysenko, with his fraudulent claims and speculative theories. Vavilov was the most famous victim of this purge, which set back Russian biology by a generation and caused the country untold harm. He was sentenced to death, but unlike Galileo, he refused to recant his beliefs and, in the most cruel twist, this humanitarian pioneer scientist was starved to death in the gulag.
Pringle uses newly opened Soviet archives, including Vavilov's secret police file, official correspondence, vivid expedition reports, previously unpublished family letters and diaries, and the reminiscences of eyewitnesses to bring us this intensely human story of a brilliant life cut short by anti-science demagogues, ideology, censorship, and political expedience.
Praise For The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Gr…
"This is a fascinating tale of science, politics, and intrigue. It weaves together the birth of genetics, the life of an amazing scientist, and the horrors of Stalin's collectivization and gulags. Pringle has again produced a great narrative with sweeping historical insights." -- Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein
"Nikolai Vavilov was in many ways the greatest and most courageous of the early Soviet geneticists who came under murderous attack by a quack, Trofim Lysenko, and his patron Joseph Stalin. Drawing expertly on archival sources and interviews, Peter Pringle provides a gripping account of Vavilov's brilliant rise and subsequent destruction." -- Matthew Meselson, Professor of Molecular Biology, Harvard University
"Even by the grim standards of the Stalinist era, Peter Pringle's story of the gifted geneticist Nikolai Vavilov stands out for its gut-wrenching absurdity and callous inhumanity. Pringle's book is an eloquent tribute to Vavilov -- and a chilling case study of Stalin's machinery of paranoia and terror." -- Andrew Nagorski, author of The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II
"This exciting and brilliantly written story about a great scientist is long overdue. Vavilov tried to launch a revolution in global agriculture three decades before America's so-called 'green revolution.' His extraordinary life, so full of adventures and brave expeditions, and his struggle for the survival of genetics in the Soviet Union make this book read like a thriller." -- Zhores Medvedev, author of The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko, Soviet Science, and Soviet Agriculture
"Vividly written...Timely and important...Books such as The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov are becoming crucial for remembering Stalin's victims." -- Nature Genetics
"[C]ompelling...tells the story of the Lysenko affair with verve and pace....[A] timely reminder that public policies must be based on rational decisions drawn from the best data available." -- Nature
"A revealing account of Vavilov's remarkable career and brutal downfall.... Original and important.... Pringle's account of the brutal politics of Lysenko's campaign against Vavilov is gripping." -- Daniel J. Kevles, The New York Review of Books