My knowledge of science in Russia is pretty limited. Like most students of Russian literature, I know that Dmitry Mendeleev, of periodic table fame, was the father-in-law of the poet Alexander Blok. Shalamov, in his story Courses, tells the tale of having to pass an oral exam in Chemistry, his weakest subject, in order to gain his qualification as a medical assistant, and using his knowledge of Mendeleev’s literary relative to charm his examiners. I’ve heard this story several times, although generally relating to high school exams, not the life-or-death situation of Kolyma, so I wonder whether it really happened to Shalamov, or indeed anyone else. But it’s a nice idea anyway.
The other thing I know about Russian science is the fate of the geneticist and botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who ended up on the wrong side of the plant genetics disputes in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and was arrested in 1940, dying in the Gulag in 1943. It isn’t the case that only the remarkable people who perished in the camps are worth remembering, but Vavilov’s death seems particularly sad because it had such a detrimental effect on Russian science and agriculture.
So I’ve been following the news of the threat to the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, established by Vavilov in 1926 to the south of Petersburg, in a state of profound depression (it isn’t just a seed bank, as most of the reports seem to suggest, as trees and plants are grown from seed collections on the site). The damage that would be done to biodiversity, not only in Russia but worldwide, by the destruction of the station, is bad enough. But it’s even worse that this could happen so that grotesque mega-dachas for the super-rich can be built there. As well as being outraged at the amount of state-owned land that gets sold off in Russia for the benefit of the rich, I hate to think of Pavlovsk being ruined by developers. It has a place close to my heart, because Dostoevsky set half of The Idiot there, and the palace park is really beautiful. But the Vavilov station is far more important. After an international outcry, the sale has been put on hold. I hope for once the Russian government does the right thing, but I’m not holding my breath.
Some more links on Vavilov:
National Geographic: The Seed Hunters. Clip of a visit to the station and Vavilov museum.
Vaviblog. Blog about Vavilov, including (under ‘Journeys’) some fascinating entries from the journals Vavilov kept during his seed hunting trips.
Seeds in need. Article about a previous threat to the Experimental Station, following the break-up of the Soviet Union.