In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station


Editor's note: Elise Blackwell's first novel was a fictionalized account of a plant scientist during the Nazi siege of Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg). During those bleak months, a dozen scientists starved to death while protecting the seed collection built by Nikolai Vavilov, a critical bank for the genetic diversity of the world's food supply. This week, the St. Petersburg Institute named after Vavilov lost a key court battle with real estate developers who want to build on a key piece of the research organization's land.

The editor of the Portuguese translation of my first novel, Hunger, sent me a link through twitter this week. He wanted to know if I'd heard about the impending destruction of the Vavilov Institute's Pavlovsk Experimental Station, which cares for 5,500 distinct varieties of apples, pears, cherries, berries, and other fruits, most of which exist only there. I had not.

While preparing to write that novel, I had experimented with hunger. Determined to go three or maybe four days with no food, I lasted until dinnertime the first night. I cannot imagine starving to death without eating anything I could get my hands on. This delivered my narrator: a man unable to live up to his own ideals and the expectations of colleagues. A man of appetites. A greedy sensualist. A secret snacker. A made-up character. The actual scientists of the Vavilov Institute didn't cheat--and many did not cheat death. They sacrificed their lives (slowly, painfully, across months) to preserve the collection of seeds that they and their colleagues had collected in expeditions to several continents. The seeds and tubers they protected included grains descended from the early Babylonians as well as South American potatoes resistant to the potato blight that (with help from the British government and New World immigration policies) starved a million Irish. After drought wiped out important varieties of Ethiopian food crops and war did the same in parts of the Balkan Peninsula, it was seeds from the Vavilov Institute that permitted replanting.


    The Decemberists
    (inspired by Hunger)
Excerpted lyrics:

We made our oath to Vavilov
We'd not betray the Solanum
The acres of asteraceae
To our own pangs of starvation
When the war came
When the war came

And the war came with a curse and a caterwaul
And the war came with all the poise of a cannonball
And they're picking out our eyes by coal and candlelight
When the war came, the war came hard

With all the grain of Babylon

In 2003 Seed magazine asked me to write an article about a previous threat to the Vavilov Institute: Vladimir Putin (whose grandmother grew so thin during the siege that she was mistakenly stacked with corpses) wanted to evict the Institute from its building, which he wanted for presidential vacation quarters. Scientists around the world signed petitions, and journalists wrote stories. The plan was delayed, and the Institute still has its home. While I was researching the story, though, some scientists told me off the record that some of the collections had already been lost or compromised--the victim not of famished residents or Nazi air raids but of economic hard times and political indifference. Cold storage can preserve seeds but not always their viability; seeds are meant to be grown out and recollected. Plants are meant to live in gardens, tough out winters, benefit from genetic exchange with wild neighbors.

Toward the end of the siege of Leningrad, after Nikolai Vavilov himself had perished in one of Stalin's prisons of some combination of malnourishment and maltreatment, biologists at the Institute that would eventually bear his name risked intense shelling outside the city to grow out some of the seeds in their care in experimental stations and fields. In doing so they increased the food supply while replenishing and reinvigorating their seed bank.

That's one tragic aspect of the impending destruction of Pavlovsk Experimental Station; the station houses seeds not as potential but as actual life. The trees and plants cannot just be moved, and certainly not in the ridiculous few months on offer. Ninety percent of the berries, currants, and other food plants grown at Pavlovsk exist nowhere else. They will simply be gone, together with whatever genetic advantages they offer an agricultural system made fragile by monocropping and a dangerous approach to distribution. Also lost will be their particular colors, textures, flavors. Genetic diversity is crucial to human survival and food is a central part of our history and heritage, but aesthetics matter too. In the place of an apple famed for its winter heartiness and a berry prized for its perfect sweetness will sit a commercial real estate development, the money earned off the bulldozed land going to those who successfully claimed in court that the Pavlovsk collection does not exist because it was never officially registered. Soon they will be accurate in more than legalistic terms: it won't exist.

To this day I keep a jar of black-and-white beans (the Tarahumara carpenteria) that I obtained through the Seed Savers Exchange when I lived on twenty acres in southern California. Before the man who possessed the rare beans would send me a handful, I had to promise him that I met the day-length and soil requirements to successfully grow them. I promised to grow out some every year, to save some of the seed. For several years, I ate my share but also sent the seed to others to grow, save, and share. During the writing of Hunger, in a cold apartment in the Northeast, I looked at the jar of remaining beans and found inspiration there. I promised myself that I would grow them out again, just as soon as I lived somewhere with the right conditions.

It's too late now: the seeds are no longer viable and I still don't live in a place where they'd stand a chance of maturing. I grow some fruit trees and herbs, but those beans I use as pie weights and so their white has mellowed to the color of tea in my oven. I have failed them, though maybe someone I sent envelopes of Tarahumara carpenteria grows them out still, maybe they went forth and multiplied. The Tarahumara carpenteria are high in protein, and they are beautiful and delicious, and the world would be a little more paltry without them. They mean a lot to me. They gave me my first novel and saved me from office work. I pay tribute to them in the novel as one bead on a necklace of dried beans collected by the narrator's mistress--a notch on her belt. But they are just one variety of a food a lot of people don't even like despite their sturdy nutritional profile. What is about to be lost in Russia, 20 miles outside of the city once and again called St. Petersburg, is almost as unfathomable to me as is starving to death without eating anything I could get my hands on: plums from a dozen countries, hundreds of apples and black currants from several continents, a thousand varieties of strawberries you and I will never taste.

Image: The library at the Vavilov Institute. flickr/clobrda