In Saint Petersburg, there lies a building, on 1200 acres of land, called The Institute of Plant Industry. This massive facility is used as a plant genetics research facility. Within, lies the Pavlovsk Station, not only home to hundreds of thousands of seeds, but thousands of plants and saplings that can not be found anywhere else in the world. This facility was founded in 1921 by Nikolai Vavilov.
Who is Nikolai Vavilov?
He is a plant geneticist who identified the centres of origin in cultivated plants. His work involved him journeying to various regions of the world to find samples, and store them at his institute in Saint Petersburg, one of 11 seed banks that he established, stemming from his 115 expeditions.
Among the samples he collected:
- Japanese leeks, almond samples.
- Peanuts and 5 types of oats
- Sugar beets, cabbage, peppers, papayas, chestnuts
- 3 types of Quinine trees (used to treat Malaria), Hazelnuts, taro, countless citrus fruits
- Cucumbers, squashes, yams, fennel and millet
- The complete list:
According to Gary Paul Nabhan, in the interview link below:
He traveled to 64 countries on five continents collecting seeds. He learned 15 languages. He was one of the first scientists to really listen to farmers — traditional farmers, peasant farmers around the world — and why they felt seed diversity was important in their fields. All of our notions about biological diversity and needing diversity of foods on our plates to keep us healthy sprung from his work 80 years ago.
For going against the Stalin regime, (in particular, Lysenko), he was arrested and starved to death in a gulag in 1943.
The Tragedy Doesn’t End There...
During World War II, Saint Petersburg was under siege by the Nazis, from September 8th, 1941, to January 27th, 1944. During the siege, nearly 1.5 million citizens of Saint Petersburg died, the vast majority of them from starvation. At the peak of the siege, 100,000 people both civilian and military died per month. At the end of the war, out of a population of 3,000,000 people, only 700,000 were still in the city.
During the war, these were the rationing protocols.
“...reduction of food took place: the workers received 500 grams of bread; employees and children, 300 grams; and dependants, 250 grams. Rations of meat and groats were also reduced, but the issue of sugar, confectionery and fats was increased instead. Several barges with grain were sunk in Lake Ladoga in September 1941 alone. A significant part of that grain, however, was later recovered from the water by divers. This grain was delivered to Leningrad at night, and was used for baking bread. When the city ran out of reserves of malt flour, other substitutes, such as finished cellulose and cotton-cake, were used. Oats meant for horses were also used, while the horses were fed wood leaves.
When 2,000 tons of mutton guts had been found in the seaport, a food grade galantine was made of them. When the meat became unavailable, it was replaced by that galantine and by stinking calf skins...”
During the first year of the siege, the city survived five food reductions: two reductions in September 1941, one in October, and two reductions in November. The latter reduced the daily food consumption to 250 grams daily for manual workers and 125 grams for other civilians.
Cannibalism (at least 1,000 cases) took place, and people became so desparate, they began to mix sawdust into bread, eat family pets, birds in parks, and stray animals as well. Some people dug up fresh corpses in order to survive.
During all of this, the scientists at the institute took the 370,000 seed samples and stored them in a vault, guarding them from starving people, and the Nazi forces. Surrounded by these edible seeds, 12 of the staff starved to death during the winter of 1941-1942.
What Do the Facilities Contain, Specifically?
- 90 percent of the collection is found nowhere else in the world.
- More than 100 examples each of Gooseberries, and Raspberries.
- 300 types of Cherries
- Almost 1000 types of Strawberries (most commercial varieties come from these samples) from 40 countries.
- 600 different apple varieties.
- 1000 Black and Red Currants (Which are a highly valuable Russian agricultural export by the way). 60% of the world’s varieties were developed there and brings in $400 million annually in Russia.
- The most important specimens they have there are potatoes that are blight-resistant (The Russian samples crossbred, make up the current US potato stock.), as well as high-altitude grain.
- Plums from 12 countries
- 23,000 varieties of Corn
- 10,700 types of Potatoes
- 7,600 samples of Peas
If you are curious about what else lies within the facility, a larger expanded database of the contents:
Why is This Place So Important?
This place contains a massive amount of biodiversity, one that is often used to replant crops in times of famine, or after natural disasters. If something were to happen to any of our crops, they would be one of the first places we would go to, to obtain different plant samples, and resistant-crossbreeds. Nikolai Vavilov is one of the greatest scientists of all time, and it’s a little sad that most people don’t know about him, and his contributions to humanity.