Every modern society needs a substantial public investment in agricultural research. And such research requires the acquisition of useful plant and seed specimens from all over the world. It is no different in the case of socialist societies. During the first half of the twentieth century the Soviet Union was a world leader in the fields of genetics, plant science and the study of agricultural biodiversity, in large part thanks to the colossal work of one single individual: geographer Nikolai I. Vavilov.
Between 1916 and 1940, Vavilov carried out intrepid voyages through five continents collecting seeds of agricultural plants, such as corn, potato, grains, forages, fruits and vegetables, as well as valuable data about the geography of the places he visited and about the languages and cultures of their inhabitants.
Vavilov participated in some 100 expeditions to over 50 countries and collected over 200,000 specimens. No other individual in history has come even close to equaling such a feat. Thanks to his collecting expeditions, the USSR's seed collection was the biggest in the world during his time. These seeds were stored and planted in agricultural research stations distributed throughout the extremely diverse terrains and climates of the Soviet Union. His ideas of agriculture, biodiversity and geography remain to this day so influential that the places of origin of the world's most commonly planted agricultural crops are named Vavilov centers.
Born in Moscow in 1887 and brother of the world-renowned physicist Sergey I. Vavilov, the young Nikolai worked at the Russian Bureau of Applied Botany from 1911 to 1912. At the time, the Bureau enjoyed great international prestige and esteem in the field of crop diversity studies.
The Bureau's basic task was to study cultivated crops and useful, weedy or detrimental wild plants of the Russian Empire. Special research projects were conducted on the following agricultural crops: all cereals (wheat, barley, oat, rye, millet, Panicum Sorgfium, rice, etc.); industrial crops including fiber and oil-bearing plants; horticultural crops (cabbage, cucurbits and melons, legumes, root crops, tuber crops, medicinal and aromatic plants, and fruit-bearing plants); as well as wild plants, such as all weeds and pasture plants (grasses, sedges and legumes) ... By 1914 the Bureau's collections had been greatly enlarged by accumulating the germplasm requested and shipped from various farms in Russia and by the collecting missions of the Bureau's researchers. (1) The Bureau's collection had by then some 14,000 seed samples. About half of these were wheat and barley. The rest were mostly oat, rye, pasture grasses, and over 1,000 types of weeds. Plus the Bureau had a herbarium with more than 10,000 specimens collected in different provinces of Russia. (2)
Between 1913 and 1914 Vavilov studied in England with professor William Bateson, one of the main forefathers of modern biology and inventor of the term "genetics."
Back in 1900, when he was developing his concepts of heredity, Bateson ran into an obscure paper written in 1860 by an Austrian monk of the Order of St. Augustine. The monk, Gregor Mendel, had experimented with 29,000 pea plants and made extremely detailed observations of how their traits were inherited from one generation to the next. Bateson became Mendel's advocate, he publicized his work and defended it in the face of competing theories of heredity. Mendelian genetics, which back then was not fully accepted by the scientific community, would exert a great influence on Vavilov's ideas.
Vavilov went on to teach in Saratov University in southern Russia. And in the autumn of 1917, just as the Bolsheviks seized power in the "10 days that shook the world," Robert Regel, head of the Bureau of Applied Botany, made Vavilov the institution's deputy head.
As Regel wrote in his reference letter, "In the person of Vavilov we will employ ... a talented young scientist who would become the pride of national science." Regel's prediction turned out to be true. Since then, all Vavilov's life and creative work have been inseparable from the world's largest crop research institute, into which he transformed the Bureau in the 1920-30s. (3) The Bolshevik government renamed the Bureau the Department of Applied Botany. Vavilov took Regel's place as head of the Department after his death in 1920. He then moved to Petrograd, the city that would later be renamed Leningrad and is today called St. Petersburg, together with the Department's students and associates. In 1924 the institution's name was changed once again, this time to Institute of Applied Botany. In 1926 Vavilov founded the Pavlovsk Research Station, some 30 kilometers south of Petrograd, near the Tsar's former summer palace, which went on to become the world's top agricultural research station.
From 1905 to 1915, Vavilov participated in botanical expeditions all over Russia's territory, from the European region all the way to Siberia. In 1916, in the middle of a world war, the Russian Tsar's Agriculture Ministry sent him to Iran and to Central Asia's majestic Pamir mountains, where the famed Silk Road used to run. He came back from this trip with valuable samples of legumes, including chick peas, lentils, peas, beans and clover. (4)
In 1921, when the Russian civil war had not even ended, Vavilov traveled to the Western hemisphere for the first time, visiting Canada and the United States in search of drought-resistant specimens, and on his way back stopping in England, France, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and Sweden.
In 1924 he organized an expedition to Afghanistan, which became a true feat of Soviet geography. In this trip he determined that...