Glasnost Helps Vavilov Regain Soviet Esteem

Alexander Dorozynski
Jan 10, 1988

PARIS-Soviet officials have begun a campaign to restore the reputation of biologist Nikolai I. Vavilov, a victim of the Lamarckian theories of T.D. Lysenko, in an apparent effort to promote glasnost and improve the status of Soviet science. 

Moscow's Central Concert Hall was packed November 24 to celebrate the centenary of Vavilov's birth. From morning until evening, members of the Academy of Sciences and others reviewed his work and his efforts to protect his genetics and agriculture

On the following day, Pravda ran two long articles on Vavilov, praising his work and his courage. Acad-emy member V. Sokolov and professor A. Zacharov wrote of Vavilov's arrest in 1940 on trumped-up-charges, and quoted some of the scientist's last words: "We'll go into the fire and burn, but we won't renounce our convictions." Even Galileo, they said, didn't go this far.

A Pravda editorial attributes Vavilov's death 1943 to Lysenkoism, "which arose...

Emigré Soviet biologist Zhores Medlvedev, now at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, said there seemed to be two factors behind the rehabilitation campaign. "First, scientists in the USSR are using this opportunity to show that more can be achieved in the absence of government interference. The second, related point stems from Vavilov's significance as a collector of plants and as one of the first people to understand the importance of conserving germplasm. That work made him a great traveler, something else that researchers want to emphasize today." 

Hard-core Lysenkoists 

Vavilov's posthumous rehabilitation started hesitantly in the 1960s, but Lysenko's destructive role was not publicly denounced until recently. There have been other hints about the survival of a hard-core of Lysenkoists. Two months ago, in a special issue of the popular science magazine Priroda (Nature) dedicated to Vavilov, editors warned that booklets had been published to rehabilitate Ivan Michurin, a Lysenkoist who claimed that "shaking" the hereditary material of plants could modify some characters and make them genetically transmissible. 

Despite the significance of the current campaign, in Medvedev's opinion Vavilov was rather less important than recent celebrations might suggest. "There is a great absence of heroes in Soviet science," Medvedev said, "so they have seized the opportunity to celebrate one." 

Alexander Dorozynski is a science writer and editor in Paris.