When I arrived at the National Agricultural Library just outside Washington D.C. one noon this October, a white-haired man with a commanding presence stood at the security check, impeccably dressed in an elegant suit, while his translator explained to the guard that he would be the guest of honor for an event that afternoon.
When he turned around to speak with his translator, I noticed that he had the same high brow and combed-back hair that the world’s greatest plant explorer had exhibited more than three quarters of a century ago, when that scientist made his last visit to the United States. The man in the security line in front of me was none other than Dr. Yuri Vavilov, the only surviving son of Dr. Nikolay Vavilov, whose legacy was being honored that day at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “intellectual seed bank,” as many call the great library in which we stood.
Although a half dozen of us spoke that afternoon about seed banks and the conservation of biodiversity in the field, Yuri Vavilov clearly stole the show. He astounded us by opting to give his speech in English, rather than relying on the talents of the very capable young translator who accompanied him.
He spoke with pride of his fathers’ accomplishments as both a scientist and a visionary in the realms of agricultural science and geographic exploration. But he also spoke with pain in his voice while recalling his childhood during World War II in Saratov, Russia, where unbeknownst to him and his mother, his father lay dying of starvation in one of Stalin’s gulags just a few miles away. In carefully-chosen words, he went so far as to criticize the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Alexander Solsenitzen (spelling) for implying that his uncle Sergey—another great scientist who contributed to Nobel Prize-winning physics research—was an unwitting accomplice to Stalin by letting his brother be jailed, and not earlier seeking to clear his name.
Near the end of the program, as I presented my photos of Nikolay Vavilov’s oldest surviving student, Dr. Amaik Dzangaliev —- champion of the wild apple forests of Central Asia —- Yuri Vavilov rose to his feet and sweetly told us his story of meeting this protégé of his father in Kazakhstan many years before. And then, he pulled from his briefcase a copy of a book of his own research books translated into Kazakh, as a gift! He later told me that if I should ever visit Almaty, Kazakhstan again, I should stroll down Vavilov Boulevard where apples have been planted to commemorate his father’s recognition of the co-evolution of apples and Kazakh cultures along the Silk Road. And he ended his remarks by noting that the story of his father’s rise and tragic fall could only be compared to the stuff of Greek Tragedies.
What the rest of the presenters did that day was to try to assure Yuri that his father’s legacy was in no way forgotten; in fact, it was alive as it had been in decades. Two major books about his father had appeared in English in the last year, and a website from Bioversity International cleverly features a “travel blog” as if Nikolay Vavilov were still on the road, making field reports, and collecting seeds to this day. Major conservation organizations such as World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International now use as their primary tools for global conservation planning a series of maps of hotspots of wild biodiversity which build on Vavilov’s own map of centers of crop diversity first sketched out more than eight decades ago. While the staff of nearly every major seed bank in the world exhibits a photo of Vavilov’s historic visits to their country, farmers and activists shaping in situ conservation reserves for still-diverse farmlands are also paying attention to Vavilov’s notes and photos as means to gauge environmental and agricultural change in their foodsheds.
That evening, as Yuri Vavilov shared dinners with several of his admirers and friends, I could see the pleasure in his face as the party remembered not merely his father, but his father’s friends as well:
Theodosius Dobzansky, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist; Jack Hawkes, the recently-deceased potato expert; Harry Harlan, the barley breeder and confidante; and Jack Harlan, Harry’s son, who once canoed with Vavilov out to see wild rice in a stream not all that far from the restaurant where we ate.
After withstanding the pain of the forty year period during which mention of his father’s legacy was banished from history and science books in Russia, Yuri Vavilov appeared to accept the belated recognition by the world that his father was one of the most original minds ever to be concerned with plant conservation and agricultural geography. If justice was fully done, his father would be as well known to American gardeners and farmers — and to all other food producers, for that matter —- as Charles Darwin, Gregory Mendel, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington Carver, and Luther Burbank.