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Monday, November 10, 2008

The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov by Peter Pringle

The author, Peter Pringle, was a foreigh correspondent for the Sunday Times (London) and The Observer (UK) and a former Mosco bureau chief for The Independent (UK). He has authored or co-authored 9 previous books and has written for The NY Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The Nation.

In this book Pringle writes about a world reknown botanist and scientist, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. Nikolai Ivanovich ("Ivanovich" is a patronymic meaning "son of Ivan") Vavilov was born in 1887 to Ivan Ilyich Vavilov and Alexandra Mikhailovna (again, a patronymic meaning "daughter of Mikhail") Postnikov. Ilyich and Alexandra were married 1/8/1884. They had 7 children but only 4 lived to adulthood: Nikolai, Sergei, Alexandra and Lydia. Ilyich was a director of a trading company that sold products made by Trekhgornaya Manufaktura (Three Hills Mfg). They lived in Middle Presnya and he was well to do for the times. He had built 3 houses on their land. Middle Presnya was a suburb of Moscow.

The book starts with the First Russian Revolution in December 1905. Nikolai was 18 yrs old and finishing high school. Sergei was 14 yrs old. In January of that year, the Tsarist's Palace Guards fired on a peaceful demonstration that was demanding an end to the monarchy. One hundred and thirty people were killed that day. The killings led to a worker's strike in major cities and peasant revolts in Easter Russia. Despite the Tsar's reforms, the fighting continued in Moscow and, in December, it hit Middle Presnya. An artillery barrage started before dawn and continued for 14 hours and the resistance crumbled. Nikolai and his family lived right in the middle of it.

Nikolai and his siblings were brilliant, even genius. Nikolai came to be the famous botanist and scientist and Sergei became a well known physicist. The two daughters became medical doctors. They were raised with a loving mother and strong father and taught the Russian Orthodox religion although Nikolai became an atheist. Nikolai studied agriculture in Petrovskaya Agricultural Academy "Petrovka" in Moscow and met Yekaterina Nikolayevna Sakharova, "Katya". She was from a higher social class and was a year ahead of him in Petrovka, she had excellent grades, was an orphan and was active in radical politics. They were not in love but had a friendship and respect for each other and they married. They had a little boy named Oleg. Later, he met an attractive student in Saratova named Yelena Barulina. By then, he and Katya were separated and they eventually divorced. Nikolai and Yelena lived together but never married. They had a son named Yuri. Katya and Oleg lived in one of the family houses in Middle Presnya until later. They stayed with Nikolai's mother until her death and his brother, Sergei, always preferred Katya to Yelena because Katya was Nikolai's official wife and Yelena never was. But, Sergei did help Yelena and Yuri after the arrest and murder of Nikolai.

Nikolai was taught the new Darwinian theories. As you can imagine, atheists were desperate for an explanation of origin that did not include God. When Darwin came along, his theories were snapped up and have been held as sacred ever since. He has become a god to the atheists. This was particularly true in Soviet Russia after the Revolution of 1917-1918. God could not be allowed in Soviet Russia, He must be deleted from anything and everything. So students were encouraged in the Darwinist theories and Nikolai had a passion for Darwin. Vavilov determined to explain the mechanism of heredity which Darwin had not explained with his theory. "The question for geneticists was how to meld Mendel's theory of heredity with the fact of evolution. At the turn of the century, William Bateson, the fiercely independent English evolutionary biologist, was the preeminent promoter of Mendel's work and became a firm friend of the young Vavilov." (Notice the use of "the fact of evolution" when evolution is a THEORY!) He visited Darwin's library in a visit to Cambridge, England. Beginning in 1913, he traveled across Europe to learn. He went to libraries, laboratories and met some of the most progressive biologists of the time. He absorbed knowledge and learned from everyone.

He began to collect seeds. He soon had a desire to have the largest seed collection in the world and to include rare and unusual specimens. He traveled to Afghanistan, Japan, America, Africa, Mexico, etc. He would tramp to the outermost parts of the world looking for specimens and bringing them back with his notes. Then he ran experimental stations all over Russia to experiment with these seeds with the intent of producing more foods or even superfoods so that he could stop the famines and hunger in his country and throughout the world. He was a solid believer in the Revolution and the communist agenda. He didn't like how it was being used but he loved his country. He was patriotic to the end.

But, he had enemies. Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was a peasant farmer who had greater ambitions. He took a job at a plant breeding station in Gandzha, Azerbaijan. His first job was planting green peas to see if they would grow through the mild winters and provide forage for cattle and produce green manure that was rich in compost for spring planting. It was successful. Pravda wrote an article on him praising his humble beginnings and called him the "barefoot scientist". He became the new mascot of the Communists. A young peasant who was a practical applicationist vs a university trained theorist. For some reason, Stalin really took to this Lysenko and he was promoted way beyond his capabilities and his lust for power and ambition would push him to become a back stabber to keep his precarious place. With Stalin's fist of terror and Lysenko's back stabbing, Vavilov didn't have a chance. He wasn't arrested for a long time because of his famous, international friends. But, with the use of terror and torture, they were able to gain enough witness accounts to arrest him. He was tortured for nearly a year and confessed to anything and named names. He was imprisoned and starved for 2 more yrs before dying of starvation. No one told his family where he was or when he died but they finally did get the official notice of his death and where he was buried in a mass grave with other prisoners. Later, his adult son, Oleg died on a ski trip. His wife, Lidia, went looking for his body and personally found him. He had a blow to his head that resembled an ice pick blow and the family thinks he was murdered although officially it was called an accidental death from a fall. Pringle did not say how Yuri died so he may still be alive.

This was a sad story and sad ending of a brilliant man. I hope he came to accept God as his Savior before he died. As Ecclesiastes says, all else is vanity, we are but dust in the wind. He was raised in the Christian faith so we can hope that this came back to him in his darkest hours and he gave his heart to Christ. But we will never know this side of Glory.

The story was an interesting piece of history but Pringle didn't make it alive. I finished it because I was learning but Pringle didn't capture me. I kept looking to see how far I was from the end. I wanted to get it over with. And that doesn't say much for the writing.

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