As you tuck into your fourth helping of stuffing tomorrow evening, spare a few seconds to think about some of our less fortunate brothers from history—specifically the valiant disciples of Nikolai Vavilov, who deserves a place alongside Norman Borlaug in the pantheon of agricultural saints. Vavilov spent much of his career traveling the world in search of plant genetic materials, which he stockpiled at his institute in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad). For his troubles, Vavilov was eventually arrested and deported to the gulag, where he died a slow death due to starvation.
Yet even in their boss’s absence, his workers dedication never wavered. When the Germans began their siege of St. Petersburg in 1941, they committed themselves to protecting Vavilov’s life’s work—even at the cost of their own lives:
The scientists and curators locked themselves into the dank, unheated building, guarding the other set of seeds as well as all of their potatoes in the dark, damp conditions of the near-freezing basement. Numb with cold and stricken with hunger, the staff took shifts caretaking the seed around the clock. Nine of Vavilov’s most dedicated coworkers slowly starved to death or died of disease rather than eat the seeds that were under their care. They were not alone. Over seven hundred thousand citizens of Leningrad had died from hunger by the spring of 194, when the siege finally ended.
The valiant last stand at Vavilov’s institute is also recounted in fictional form in Elise Blackwell’s Hunger.