Tuber tragedy

August 4, 2000

Your report and jolly cartoon (For the record, THES, July 28) concerning the fate of the Russian potatoes collected by the plant geneticist N. I. Vavilov and his co-workers fails to bring out the tragedy and irony of the situation relating to these spuds.

As you note, Vavilov's specimens survived the siege of Leningrad. But this was by no means a passive process, and full honours should be accorded to the 14 people headed by N. Ivanov and V. Lekhnovich who, starving to death, safeguarded Vavilov's invaluable collection of seeds and potatoes against the ravages of hordes of rats that had gone mad with hunger.

Vavilov was himself unable to protect his life's work as he had been arrested in August 1940 and in July the following year sentenced to death for being, among other things, a British spy. The death sentence was commuted to ten years of imprisonment and he died in Saratov in January 1943.

As Zhores A. Medvedev has pointed out (The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko, 1969), when information reached the NKVD that Vavilov had been elected a foreign member of the Royal Society efforts were made to save him: "But it was too late. Life was slowly ebbing from a body exhausted by malnutrition."

The bitter irony is that Vavilov, who died as a Marxist scientist under the barbarities of crude Stalinism, should have his collections destroyed by a brutal Russian capitalism that is unwilling to support the great research institutes founded in the Soviet era.

R. E. Rawles

Head, Russian psychology research unit, University College London

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