It was while researching my first novel, The Nevsky Wall, that I stumbled across his name. My own science background is in physics, not botany, and like most non-botanists I’d never heard of Vavilov or his work. My image of the typical Soviet-era scientist was a dour individual, unable to travel, careful not to offend the apparatchiks of the oppressive state bureaucracy. But here was a man who, at least in the early years, freely roamed the planet, gathering seeds and capturing the knowledge of traditional farmers. A man who preached the gospel of biodiversity long before it became accepted text. A man who spoke a dozen languages and formed lasting friendships wherever he went. Not what I had in mind at all.
Periodic famines followed the 1917 revolution and the subsequent collectivization of Soviet agriculture. Millions died. Vavilov had found his crusade: scour the world for crop specimens that might grow in the harsh Russian climate or provide genetic material to make existing plants hardier. Unfortunately, his early successes were later thwarted by poor implementation and an inefficient bureaucracy. Mass hunger persisted. And as often happens, desperate times see the rise of dangerous men.
There is an oft-quoted passage in Troilus and Cressida:
That all with one consent praise new-born gods
The environmental movement claims the first line to show we are all equally children of the Earth. But Shakespeare’s true intention is decidedly darker: that we humans share a common weakness – the glorification of the new, even the unproven, at the expense of the old. Under Stalin, the new-born God of Botany was Trofim Lysenko, a practitioner (one could hardly describe him as a scientist) whose unfounded theories set Soviet agriculture back by decades, and whose political maneuvers undermined Vavilov’s work and his legacy.
Lysenko was the prototype for what came to be known as the barefoot scientists. Celebrated for their peasant authenticity rather than any academic credentials, they appealed to Stalin’s own mistrust of the intelligentsia. Lysenko rejected the accepted model of genetic inheritance put forward by Mendel, Morgan, and the great majority of biologists. He did not believe in the existence of DNA or genes, and was convinced that acquired traits (via exposure to heat, cold, or wet conditions) could be passed down to the next generation. What might be seen as quaint ‘folk science’ had a devastating effect on millions of ordinary Russians.
We see the same conflict today over the question of climate change. Ideologues persist in their denial in the face of overwhelming evidence, delaying the crucial action needed to prevent catastrophe. Men like Lysenko, and politicians like Stalin who support them, live in a world where facts are irrelevant and anyone who dares disagree is labelled an elitist or an enemy of progress.
Vavilov tried his best to operate in this new reality, but he wasn’t built for compromise. As he was slowly stripped of his responsibilities, his colleagues arrested, and his work denounced, he wrote:
Rather than tell Vavilov’s story directly, I chose to focus on the men and women who inherited the seed collection after his mysterious reassignment (in fact, his own arrest). Though unseen, he is omnipresent in the play – the ghost in the garden – informing the actions and memories of each character. I wanted to show scientists, for whom I have the greatest respect, placed in an impossible situation, forced to make the most difficult choices imaginable. Since the story is based on real people and events, I tried to imagine the daily routines and thoughts that would obsess anyone in their situation. What must it have been like to be surrounded by the bounty of the world and be desperately hungry? To watch your colleagues slowly starve? How do you maintain your sanity when you and everything you’ve worked for could be destroyed in a moment?
For the sake of drama, I resisted the urge to make them universally heroic and concentrated instead on the doubts and regrets they must have felt in that long winter of 1941. I imagined a dysfunctional family, tenuously bound together by their work, their respect for Vavilov, and their loyalty to one another. When all three are threatened by outside forces, the family begins to unravel. It is within these fragile relationships, rather than on the broad canvas of war and politics, that I tried to explore the answers to a few fundamental questions:
- What do we owe to the past and what is our duty to the future?
- How do you value the life of one friend against the fate of a thousand strangers?
- Is there a place for hope in an unforgiving world?