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The siege of Leningrad: When Russian scientists starved themselves to death to preserve the future of the world, in a seed bank

As the siege continued, and shelling happened relentlessly, the botanists at the institute had boarded up the windows and shut themselves inside to protect their seeds. The potato collection was the most vulnerable, because of the freezing winter and the starving people all around.

January 27, 1944, is the day when the prolonged siege of the Russian city of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) by Nazi Germany finally ended. The city was under siege, blockaded from all sides by the Nazi forces, not for a month or two, but for 872 days, that is nearly 2 years and a half years.

It is one of the darkest and most violent phases in the history of World War II. While the Nazi forces surrounded the bustling city, its citizens starved to death, languishing in the freezing cold and waiting to be rescued.

Among the countless stories of suffering and bravery during World War II, there is a tale of unmatched valour and dedication, lived not by soldiers or leaders, but by a group of scientists, botanists who worked in a seed repository.

The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry

The story of the sacrifice by the scientists of the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry had remained unknown and unacknowledged for a long time. In the early 1990s, two scientists of the institute named SM Alexanyan and VI Krivchenko had written about it in the journal Diversity. A report on the story was published in 1992 by the Washington Post.

citizens of Leningrad during the siege, image via Daily Mail

The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry was located inside the city of Leningrad. A premier institute of crops and plant research, the Institute housed seed samples from 187,000 varieties of plants. It was a priceless repository of plant genetic diversity where scientists worked to preserve food crops, develop new hybrid crops and collect data on planting, climate, pest resistance. Between the walls of the institute was one of the world’s largest collections of plant genetic data in the form of seeds.

As the Nazi forces surrounded Leningrad, the institute’s scientists became concerned about its safety. The seeds needed not just proper storage, but the samples needed to be planted and harvested periodically for the research to continue. About 40,000 of the 187,000 varieties of seeds were food crops.

As the Red Amry and Hitler’s Nazi forces engaged in shelling and confrontations, the city was blocked from all sides, cut off from the world, its citizens slowly running out of food and fuel. The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry was facing not just destruction from bombing, but because of the sacks of rice, potatoes and wheat it had stored, there was the possibility of loot by the starving citizens and enemy soldiers. The research work, the result of years of hard work had to be preserved for the future too.

As the siege continued, and shelling happened relentlessly, the botanists at the institute had boarded up the windows and shut themselves inside to protect their seeds. The potato collection was the most vulnerable, the Washington Post article says, because of the freezing winter and the starving people all around. The institute was unheated, and there was no firewood or coal to be used.

The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, image via Wikipedia

The botanists burned furniture, papers, boxes, cardboard and debris from neighbouring buildings to stay alive as the winter set in and the temperature dropped to several degrees below freezing. They divided themselves into groups and guarded the seed storage vaults all 24 hours.

Working non-stop, the botanists also devised plans to preserve their collection. Parts of the collection was smuggled out, over the frozen, desolate landscape to another storage facility place near the Ural mountains. Woking inside the dark, damp place, the scientists had to save the seeds from hungry rats too. They poisoned rat holes and used shattered glass.

While facing starvation, the botanists refused to eat from their seed collection. Rice crops researcher Dimitri S Ivanov had died of starvation while guarding several thousand packs of rice. A peanut specialist Alexander Stchukin had starved to death while the samples under his care remained intact.

A modern-day photo of the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, image via amusingplanet

As the siege continued over the months, the botanists faced another challenge. Some of the food crops needed to be replanted and harvested for their long term preservation. The rural areas outside the city were swarming with Nazi forces, so the botanists managed to find a small place in the outskirts of the city itself. They had no tractors, no fuel or no horses, so they tilled the plot by hand, planted the seeds and managed to harvest fresh samples.

The botanists of the institute worked relentlessly while facing death from all sides, starving themselves while guarding a priceless collection of food crops.

Nine of the Institute’s scientists had perished due to starvation, as per the article in Washinton Post. Apart from Ivanov and Stchukin mentioned above, the others were Liliya M Rodina, M Steheglov, Georgi K Kriyer, G Kovalesky, N Leontjevsky, A Malygina and A Kozrun.

The botanists had starved themselves to death while being surrounded by food crops, to preserve the collection for scientific research.

How the siege ended

The siege of Leningrad had started on September 8, 1942, when the Nazi army had taken over the last road to the city. The Finnish army had joined them. Though the Red Army of Russia had managed to open a small land path in January 1943, they did not manage to lift the siege till 1944.

Nazi soldiers outside a burning Leningrad, image via Wikipedia

Leningrad was the centre of the Russian Revolution, it had numerous arms factories and was the main base of the Soviet Baltic Fleet. Its siege was crucial for Hitler. Hitler had wanted to raze the city to the ground. The city had a population of over 3 lakhs prior to the siege. As Hitler’s forces looted, killed and bombed, the citizens perished in large numbers. Over 1.5 lakh people had died in the 872 days. In the annals of war history, the siege of Leningrad is mentioned as the worst, one of the most lethal and destructive. Some historians even peg the number of direct and indirect deaths to a million people.

After over 2 years of multiple battles and relentless efforts by the Red Army, the siege was finally lifted on January 27, 1944.

Who was Vavilov?

Nikolai Vavilov, who had headed the Institute of Plant Industry, was a prominent Russian scientist who worked to form the world’s largest seed bank. He was a plant genetic researcher. He was asked by Lenin to deal with the 1921 famine and find ways to preserve and develop new food crops. He had travelled to the USA in 1921 to study advanced agriculture methods and had returned with 61 boxes of seeds. Over the next several years, Vavilov had travelled around the world to collect seeds, study plant genetics and had continued crop research, leading to pioneering works in the field. His contributions to the field of plant breeding are considered priceless.

Nikolai Vavilov, image via Beginenglish. ru

A brilliant scientist who wanted scientific research to work for the betterment of people around the world, Vavilov fell out of favour of the communist leaders of Russia. Some communist leaders had accused Vavilov of trying to sabotage ‘Soviet science’ and colluding with enemy countries. Joseph Stalin had ordered his arrest in 1940. In a sad tryst of fate, while the world’s largest seed bank that Vavilov had built in the city of Leningrad lay under siege, the scientist himself was languishing in the Gulag, sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Suffering from lung infections, neglect and starvation in the harsh Russian prison in Saratov, Vavilov died in January 1943. Long after his death, the subsequent governments in Russia ‘pardoned’ his sentence and tried to restore his name and contribution to science. The seed bank in Leningrad is still one of the world’s premier institutes of plant diversity research. Russia had named a crater in the moon after the scientist in later years. Numerous novels and books have mentioned his life and works.

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Sanghamitra
Sanghamitra
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