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.