Who would be willing to starving to death to save their country and perhaps the whole world from starvation? It is not something very easy to imagine, but it is a story that happened that way, which perhaps a few of you know, and which we are going to tell you here today in mediabloid.
To imagine 12 Russians who died of hunger to save their Country from dying of hunger is not an easy task to do, but the truth is that there was a time in Russia when people died of hunger and those who did not want to die that way, looked for other people to eat them and survive.
Although it sounds like a scene from a horror movie with zombies on board, it is not a movie. It is something that often happened during the 872-day siege of Leningrad from 1941 to 1943, where 1400 people were arrested for cannibalism and more than 300 were executed for this reason.
Between 600,000 and 1,200,000 people died from bullets, starvation, cold and darkness in one of the worst battles of World War II. Among them were 12 Soviet botanists who died of starvation while defending tons of fruits, roots and grains: the largest seed bank in the world.
Starving to death surrounded by food
It’s the summer of 1941. Abraham Kameraz and Olga Voskresenskaia harvest potatoes at full speed.
In those days, the Pavlovsk Experimental Station had approximately 6,000 varieties of potatoes. And in a matter of days, the war was about to come to that small town 45 kilometers from Leningrad.
When the siege of Leningrad began, the Soviet authorities evacuated the works of art from the Hermitage, but they did not evacuate the seeds, roots, and fruit from Pavlovsk. So the scientists at the station collected as many tubers, fruits and seeds as they could and stored them in a basement near Leningrad.
The winter of 1941-42 was especially hard. Not only meteorologically speaking, but with all access to the city cut off, neither food, nor coal, nor medicine could reach Leningrad. And the bombs kept falling.
Without food, anything became food: dogs, cats, rats or pigeons. According to Michael Jones, in January cannibalism invaded the city. 1,400 people were arrested for this crime and over 300 were executed for it.
Very few people knew about it, but more than 187,000 varieties of fruits and vegetables were stored in the basement of St. Isaac’s Square. There, in cupboards and boxes, over a thousand kinds of strawberries, 900 kinds of currants, 600 kinds of apples, hundreds of cherries, plums, raspberries and many other fruits and tubers were stored.
A prodigious work
Pavlovsk station seemed cursed and doomed to disappear. Just over a year earlier, its director and founder Nicolai Vavilov, one of the most important geneticists and botanists of the first half of the 20th century, had been sent to Saratov prison. There he would die, also from hunger, a couple of years later.
His crime? To believe that genetics was true. Vavilov was a legend, he had travelled halfway around the world and had understood more than anyone else the importance of diversity and hybridisation for agriculture. In 1926, the same year he founded the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, he received the Lenin Prize, the Soviet Union’s “Nobel“, for his contributions to science.
But in the late 1930s, Trofim Lysenko came to power. Lysenko advocated a biology halfway between lamarckism and the dialectical materialism. Between 1934 and 1940, the Lysenkoist clique, with Stalin‘s support, purged all Soviet biology. Vavilov was, at that time, president of the Academy of Agriculture.
But the work he did before his death, is frankly prodigious. And there, protecting his work, twelve people let themselves be consumed to death. The person in charge of the rice species died of hunger surrounded by sacks of rice and Kameraz and Voskrensenskaia died protecting their potatoes.
“And why did they let themselves die to protect a seed bank, were they crazy?”
I guess that’s the question everyone who knows this story asks. In fact, it was the question that Cary Fowler asked in 1985 while visiting the experimental station. And right there, an elderly Vavilov student explained to him that the researchers understood that these collections were essential to restoring agriculture after the war.
The Leningrad site took 872 days, but the war was six very long years in which land, seeds and traditional practices were destroyed. Without those seeds, the post-war period would have been terribly hard. Although sometimes the equations don’t let us see the forest, that is the real goal of science. And to remind us of this, it never hurts to remember the heroes of Pavlovsk.
Giving one’s life for the well-being of others is something that belongs to superior beings and is not often seen in this increasingly decadent society. Long live the true heroes who have no capes or superpowers.