Anne Applebaum has a new book review out of Peter Pringle’s “The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov.” Vavilov’s story is a poignant reminder of the enormous potential of achievement of Russian minds, and the state’s consistent ability to stand in the way of it.
Concentration camps, mass murders, wars, starvation: The history of the Soviet Union is not short of large-scale tragedies and crimes. But in cataloguing these events or counting up the dead, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the Bolshevik Revolution left more than physical damage in its wake: It also destroyed culture, literature, art and science in ways that are not always simple to catalogue, to count or even to explain. Though it is also the story of a man who was physically destroyed by Stalin’s secret police, The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov is primarily an account of these subtler forms of damage. Its hero, Nikolai Vavilov, was one of the greatest of all Russian scientists, a botanist whose work led him, in the early decades of the 20th century, to the cutting edge of the then-new science of genetics. Yet even before his death in a KGB prison in 1943, he had been mentally destroyed by a twisted scientific establishment that valued quackery and political correctness over true science. It was a terrible waste of an extraordinary mind.
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