Nikolai Vavilov

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Nikolai Vavilov
Nikolai Vavilov NYWTS.jpg
Vavilov in 1933
Nikolaj Ivanovich Vavilov

(1887-11-25)25 November 1887[1][2]
Died26 January 1943(1943-01-26) (aged 55)[1][2]
CitizenshipSoviet Union
Alma materMoscow Agricultural Institute
Known forCenters of origin
RelativesSergei Vavilov (Physicist)
Scientific career
Author abbrev. (botany)Vavilov

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov ForMemRS,[3] HFRSE (Russian: Никола́й Ива́нович Вави́лов, IPA: [nʲɪkɐˈlaj ɪˈvanəvʲɪtɕ vɐˈvʲiləf] (listen); 25 November [O.S. 13 November] 1887 – 26 January 1943) was a Russian and Soviet agronomist, botanist and geneticist who identified the centers of origin of cultivated plants. He devoted his life to the study and improvement of wheat, maize and other cereal crops that sustain the global population.[4][5][6][7][8]

Vavilov's work was criticized by Trofim Lysenko, whose anti-Mendelian concepts of plant biology had won favor with Joseph Stalin. As a result, Vavilov was arrested and subsequently sentenced to death in July 1941. Although his sentence was commuted to twenty years' imprisonment, he died in prison in 1943. In 1955 his death sentence was retroactively pardoned under Nikita Khrushchev. By the 1960s his reputation was publicly rehabilitated and he began to be hailed as a hero of Soviet science.[9]

Early years and education[edit]

Vavilov on a 1987 Soviet stamp

Vavilov was born into a merchant family in Moscow, the older brother of physicist Sergey Ivanovich Vavilov. Despite his strict upbringing in the Orthodox Church, he was an atheist.[10]

His father had grown up in poverty due to recurring crop failures and food rationing, and Vavilov became obsessed from an early age with ending famine.[11]

Vavilov entered the Petrovskaya Agricultural Academy (now the Russian State Agrarian University – Moscow Timiryazev Agricultural Academy) in 1906. During this time he became known for carrying a pet lizard in his pocket wherever he went.[12] He graduated from the Petrovka in 1910 with a dissertation on snails as pests. From 1911 to 1912, he worked at the Bureau for Applied Botany and at the Bureau of Mycology and Phytopathology. From 1913 to 1914 he travelled in Europe and studied plant immunity, in collaboration with the British biologist William Bateson, who helped establish the science of genetics.[1]

Academic career[edit]

From 1917 to 1920, he was a professor at the Faculty of Agronomy, University of Saratov. From 1924 to 1935 he was the director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences at Leningrad. Impressed with the work of Canadian phytopathologist Margaret Newton on wheat stem rust, in 1930 he attempted to hire her to work at the institute,[13] offering a good salary and perks such as a camel caravan for her travel. She declined, but visited the institute in 1933 for three months to train 50 students in her research.

Vavilov (fifth from left to right) alongside geneticist Albert Boerger during his visit to Uruguay in 1937

While developing his theory on the centers of origin of cultivated plants, Vavilov organized a series of botanical-agronomic expeditions and collected seeds from every corner of the globe. In 1927, he presented the centers of origin to the public on the Fifth International Congress of Genetics in Berlin (V. Internationaler Kongress für Vererbungswissenschaft Berlin).[14] In Leningrad, he created the world's largest collection of plant seeds.[15] Vavilov also formulated the law of homologous series in variation.[16] He was a member of the USSR Central Executive Committee, President of All-Union Geographical Society, and a recipient of the Lenin Prize.

Political eclipse and persecution[edit]

In 1932, during the sixth congress, Vavilov proposed holding the seventh International Congress of Genetics in the USSR. After some initial resistance by the organizing committee, in 1935 it agreed to hold the seventh congress in Moscow in 1937. The Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences decided to support the idea and asked the Communist Party for its approval, which it gave on 31 July 1935. Vavilov was elected chairman of the International Congress of Genetics.

However, on 14 November 1936 the Politburo decided to cancel the congress. The seventh International Congress of Genetics was postponed until 1939 and took place in Edinburgh instead. The Politburo prohibited Vavilov from travelling abroad; during the Congress's opening ceremony an empty chair was placed on the stage as a symbolic reminder of Vavilov's involuntary absence.[17]

Vavilov's mugshot

Vavilov encountered the young Trofim Lysenko and at first encouraged Lysenko's work. However, Vavilov changed his mind and became an outspoken critic of Lysenko, because Lysenko did not believe in genetics and Vavilov feared that Lysenko's ideas could be disastrous for Soviet agriculture. Vavilov publicly criticized Lysenko both at home and while on foreign trips.

However, Stalin believed in Lysenko's theories and, as a result, so did the rest of the Soviet government. The Soviet authorities suspected that Vavilov was trying to sabotage Soviet agriculture with bad science, and their suspicions were aggravated by his associations with other scientists who had been convicted of espionage, some of whom falsely implicated Vavilov in counter-revolutionary activities.

As a result, Vavilov was arrested on 6 August 1940 while on an expedition to Ukraine. The warrant for Vavilov's arrest was issued by 1st Lt. Vladimir Ruzin of the NKVD, with the approval of Mikhail Pankratyev, the Deputy Prosecutor of the USSR, and Lavrenty Beria. Ruzin accused Vavilov of foreign espionage and sabotage.[citation needed]

He was sentenced to death in July 1941. In 1942 his sentence was commuted to twenty years imprisonment.

In 1943, he died in prison as a result of the harsh conditions. The prison's medical documentation indicates that he had been admitted into the prison hospital a few days prior to his death and mention the diagnoses of lung inflammation, dystrophy and edema as well as general weakness as a complaint, but as for the immediate cause of death, the death certificate only mentions "decline of cardiac activity".[18][19] Some authors assert that the actual cause of death was starvation.[20][21] According to Lyubov Brezhneva, he was thrown to his death into a pit of lime in the prison yard.[22]

Personal life[edit]

His son Oleg with his first wife Yekaterina Sakharova was born in 1918.[10] That marriage ended in divorce in 1926, after which he married geneticist Elena Ivanovna Barulina, a specialist on lentils and assistant head of the institute's seed collection. Their son Yuri was born in 1928.[10]

Posthumous rehabilitation[edit]

In 1955, Vavilov's life sentence was vacated at a hearing of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, undertaken as part of a de-Stalinization effort to review Stalin-era death sentences.[23] By the 1960s his reputation was publicly rehabilitated and he began to be hailed as a hero of Soviet science.[24]


The Leningrad seedbank was preserved and protected through the 28-month long Siege of Leningrad. While the Soviets had ordered the evacuation of art from the Hermitage Museum, they had not evacuated the 250,000 samples of seeds, roots, and fruits stored in what was then the world's largest seedbank. A group of scientists at the Vavilov Institute boxed up a cross section of seeds, moved them to the basement, and took shifts protecting them. Those guarding the seedbank refused to eat its contents, even though by the end of the siege in the spring of 1944, a number of them had died of starvation.[25][11]

In 1943, parts of Vavilov's collection, samples stored within the territories occupied by the German armies, mainly in Ukraine and Crimea, were seized by a German unit headed by Heinz Brücher. Many of the samples were transferred to the Schutzstaffel (SS) Institute for Plant Genetics, which had been established at Schloss Lannach [de] near Graz, Austria.[26]

The Royal Society of Edinburgh mentions Vavilov in the list of its former fellows, indicating that he died in a Soviet workcamp in Siberia on 26 January 1943.[27] However, he actually died in a Soviet prison in Saratov.[18]


Today a street in downtown Saratov bears Vavilov's name. Vavilov's monument in Saratov near the end of the Vavilov street was unveiled in 1997. The square near the monument is a common place for opposition rallies.[28][29][30][31][32] Another monument to him is located near the entrance to the Resurrection cemetery in Saratov, where Vavilov is buried. The USSR Academy of Sciences established the Vavilov Award (1965) and the Vavilov Medal (1968).

Today, the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg still maintains one of the world's largest collections of plant genetic material.[33] The Institute began as the Bureau of Applied Botany in 1894, and was reorganized in 1924 into the All-Union Research Institute of Applied Botany and New Crops, and in 1930 into the Research Institute of Plant Industry. Vavilov was the head of the institute from 1921 to 1940. In 1968 the institute was renamed after Vavilov in time for its 75th anniversary.

A minor planet, 2862 Vavilov, discovered in 1977 by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Stepanovich Chernykh is named after him and his brother Sergey Ivanovich Vavilov.[34] The crater Vavilov on the far side of the Moon is also named after him and his brother.


The story of the researchers at the Vavilov Institute during the Siege of Leningrad was fictionalized by novelist Elise Blackwell in her 2003 novel Hunger.[36] That novel was the inspiration for the Decemberists' song "When The War Came" in the 2006 album The Crane Wife,[37] which also depicts the Institute during the siege and mentions Vavilov by name.[38]

In 1987, the Shevchenko National Prize was awarded to Anatoliy Borsyuk (film director), Serhiy Dyachenko (script writer), and Oleksandr Frolov (camera) for the film Star of Vavilov (Russian: "Звезда Вавилова") about Vavilov's work.[39]

In 1990, a six part documentary entitled Nikolai Vavilov (Russian: Николай Вавилов) was created as a joint production of the USSR and East Germany.[40]

Season 1, Episode 4 of the 2020 science documentary series, Cosmos: Possible Worlds starring Neil deGrasse Tyson and based on the original series by Carl Sagan, was titled "Vavilov" and detailed his life.[41]


  • Maize diversity in Vavilov's office
    Земледельческий Афганистан. (1929) (Agricultural Afghanistan)
  • Селекция как наука. (1934) (Breeding as science)
  • Закон гомологических рядов в наследственной изменчивости. (1935) (The law of homology series in genetical mutability)
  • Учение о происхождении культурных растений после Дарвина. (1940) (The theory of origins of cultivated plants after Darwin)
  • Географическая локализация генов пшениц на земном шаре. (1929) (The Geographical Localization of Wheat Genes on the Earth)

Works in English[edit]

  • The Origin, Variation, Immunity and Breeding of Cultivated Plants (translated by K. Starr Chester). 1951. Chronica Botanica 13:1–366, link
  • Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants (translated by Doris Löve). 1987. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Five Continents (translated by Doris Löve). 1997. IPGRI, Rome; VIR, St. Petersburg.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov. Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. ^ a b c d Вавилов Николай Иванович. Great Soviet Encyclopedia
  3. ^ a b Harland, S. C. (1954). "Nicolai Ivanovitch Vavilov. 1885-1942". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 9 (1): 259–264. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1954.0017. JSTOR 769210. S2CID 86376257.
  4. ^ Shumnyĭ, V. K. (2007). "Two brilliant generalizations of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (for the 120th anniversary)". Genetika. 43 (11): 1447–1453. PMID 18186182.
  5. ^ Zakharov, I. A. (2005). "Nikolai I Vavilov (1887–1943)". Journal of Biosciences. 30 (3): 299–301. doi:10.1007/BF02703666. PMID 16052067. S2CID 20870892.
  6. ^ Crow, J. F. (2001). "Plant breeding giants. Burbank, the artist; Vavilov, the scientist". Genetics. 158 (4): 1391–1395. doi:10.1093/genetics/158.4.1391. PMC 1461760. PMID 11514434.
  7. ^ Crow, J. F. (1993). "N. I. Vavilov, martyr to genetic truth". Genetics. 134 (1): 1–4. doi:10.1093/genetics/134.1.1. PMC 1205417. PMID 8514123.
  8. ^ Cohen, B. M. (1991). "Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov: The explorer and plant collector a". Economic Botany. 45: 38–46. doi:10.1007/BF02860048. S2CID 27563223.
  9. ^ Hawkes, J G (1988). "N.I. Vavilov the man and his work" (PDF). Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter. 72: 3–5 – via IBPGR.
  10. ^ a b c Pringle, Peter (2008). The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century. Simon and Schuster. p. 137. ISBN 978-0-7432-6498-3. "Despite his strict upbringing in the Orthodox Church, Vavilov had been an atheist from an early age. If he worshipped anything, it was science".
  11. ^ a b Siebert, Charles (July 2011). "Food Ark". National Geographic. 220 (1): 122–126.
  12. ^ Pringle, Peter (2014). The murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The story of Stalin's persecution of one of the great scientists of the twentieth century. New York City: Simon & Schuster. pp. 22–23. ISBN 978-1-4165-6602-1. OCLC 892938236.
  13. ^ Dale-Burnett, Lisa Lynne; Mlazagar, Brian, eds. (2006). Saskatchewan Agriculture: Lives Past and Present. Trade Books Based in Scholarship. Vol. 17. Canadian Plains Research Center. ISBN 978-0889771697.
  14. ^ Vavilov, Nikolai (1928). Geographische Zentren unserer Kulturpflanzen. In: Verhandlungen des V. Internationalen Kongresses für Vererbungswissenschaft Berlin 1927, Supplementband 1. Zeitschrift für induktive Abstammungs- und Vererbungslehre. pp. 342–369.
  15. ^ The Significance of Vavilov's Scientific Expeditions. PGR Newsletter 124. Bioversity International.
  16. ^ Popov I. Yu (2002). Periodical systems in biology Archived 14 May 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  17. ^ Valery N. Soyfer, "Tragic History of the VII International Congress of Genetics", 2003 [1]
  18. ^ a b [2] (in Russian)
  19. ^ [Шайкин В. Г. Николай Вавилов. — М.: Мол. гвардия, 2006. — 256 с.: ил. — (ЖЗЛ).]
  20. ^ Nabhan, Gary Paul. "How Nikolay Vavilov, the seed collector who tried to end famine, died of starvation". NPR. Retrieved 22 February 2014.
  21. ^ Graham, Loren R. (1993). Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History. Cambridge University Press. p. 130. ISBN 978-0-521-28789-0.
  22. ^ Brezhneva, Lyubov (1995). The World I Left Behind: Pieces of a Past. Random House. ISBN 0-679-43911-0.
  23. ^ Pringle, Peter (2008). The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov. Simon & Schuster. p. 300. ISBN 978-0-7432-6498-3.
  24. ^ Atz, James W. and Winter, Robert J. (1968). "Further steps in the rehabilitation of N.I. Vavilov". The Journal of Heredity. 59 (5): 274–275. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a107716.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  25. ^ "The Second Siege: Saving Seeds Revisited". 18 August 2010.
  26. ^ Heinz Brücher and the SS botanical collecting command to Russia 1943 Archived 29 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine. PGR Newsletter 129. Bioversity International.
  27. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  28. ^ [3] (in Russian)
  29. ^ [4] (in Russian)
  30. ^ [5] (in Russian)
  31. ^ [6] (in Russian)
  32. ^ [7] (in Russian)
  33. ^ N.I.Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry at
  34. ^ Schmadel, Lutz D. (2003). Dictionary of Minor Planet Names (5th ed.). New York: Springer Verlag. p. 235. ISBN 978-3-540-00238-3.
  35. ^ International Plant Names Index.  Vavilov.
  36. ^ HUNGER | Kirkus Reviews.
  37. ^ "The Decemberists". Pitchfork. Retrieved 3 November 2022.
  38. ^ "When The War Came - The Decemberists". Retrieved 3 November 2022.
  39. ^ Фильм Звезда Вавилова (in Russian), retrieved 3 November 2022
  40. ^ Nikolay Vavilov (Biography, Drama), 1 February 1990, retrieved 3 November 2022
  41. ^ Druyan, Ann (16 March 2020), Vavilov, Cosmos: Possible Worlds, retrieved 3 November 2022

Further reading[edit]

  • Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine by Gary Paul Nabhan 2008 ISBN 978-1-59726-399-3
  • Delone, N. L. (1988). "Significance of the scientific heritage of N.I. Vavilov in the development of space biology (on the centenary of his birth)". Kosmicheskaia Biologiia I Aviakosmicheskaia Meditsina. 22 (6): 79–83. PMID 3066990.
  • Vasina-Popova, E. T. (1987). "The role of N. I. Vavilov in the development of Soviet genetics and animal selection". Genetika. 23 (11): 2002–2006. PMID 3322935.
  • Levina, E. S. (1987). "Not Available". Voprosy Istorii Estestvoznaniia I Tekhniki (Institut Istorii Estestvoznaniia I Tekhniki (Akademiia Nauk SSSR)) (4): 34–43. PMID 11636235.
  • Alekseev, V. P. (1987). "Not Available". Sovetskaia Etnografiia / Akademiia Nauk SSSR I Narodnyi Komissariat Prosveshcheniia RSFSR (6): 72–80. PMID 11636003.
  • Raipulis, J. (1987). "Not Available". Vestis. Izvestiia. Latvijas PSR Zinatnu Akademija (9): 71–76. PMID 11635329.
  • "Correspondence legacy of N. I. Vavilov". Genetika. 15 (8): 1525–1526. 1979. PMID 383572.
  • Berdyshev, G. D.; Savchenko, N. I.; Pomogaĭbo, V. M.; Shcherbina, D. M.; Samorodov, V. N. (1978). "Celebration of the 90th anniversary of the birth of N. I. Vavilov in the Ukraine". TSitologiia I Genetika. 12 (2): 177–179. PMID 356364.
  • Khuchua, K. N. (1978). "Life and career of Academician N. I. Vavilov. On the 90th anniversary of his birth". TSitologiia I Genetika. 12 (2): 174–177. PMID 356363.
  • Kondrashov, V. (1978). "On the 90th birthday of N. I. Vavilov". Genetika. 14 (12): 2225. PMID 369949.
  • Kurlovich, B.S. WHAT IS A SPECIES?
  • Reznik, S. and Y. Vavilov 1997 "The Russian Scientist Nikolay Vavilov" (preface to English translation of:) Vavilov, N. I. Five Continents. IPGRI: Rome, Italy.
  • Cohen, Barry Mendel 1980 Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov: His Life and Work. Ph.D.: University of Texas at Austin.
  • Bakhteev, F. K.; Dickson, J. G. (1960). "To the History of Russian Science: Academician Nicholas IV an Vavilov on His 70th Anniversary (November 26, 1887 – August 2, 1942)". The Quarterly Review of Biology. 35 (2): 115–9. doi:10.1086/403015. PMID 13686142. S2CID 225068057.
  • Vavilov and his Institute. A history of the world collection of plant genetic resources in Russia, Loskutov, Igor G. 1999. International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy. ISBN 92-9043-412-0
  • Louise O. Fresco wrote "De Plantenjager" (2021, The Planthunter, in Dutch), a novel about the research, work and life of professor Vavilov to increase the productivity of the Russian agriculture in the period 1900-1940.

External links[edit]