Alexander Stchukin and the scientists of Stalingrad
Nobody can say for certain how many people died from starvation during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. But, it’s safe to say that you could count the number of people who chose to starve to death despite sitting on huge supplies of potatoes, rice and other food staples, on one hand. Alexander Stchukin and his colleague Dmitry Ivanov did just this. They chose to go hungry rather than eat the collection of genetically modified crops and plants they have been tasked with preserving for future generations.
Both scientists were employees of the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry. The state body had been ordered to build up huge collections of plants and crop seeds. In all, they managed to bring together 187,000 types of plants, 40,000 of them food crops. These were to be kept safe for future generations. But, as the Nazi siege of the city went into its second, and then its third winter, the team would have been under huge amounts of pressure to just give in and raid their supplies to fend off the unbearable hunger.
Stchukin in particular could have easily saved himself. He was the man in charge of groundnut supplies, so he would have had many calorie-heavy nuts at his fingertips. But still, he resisted. In the end, he was found slumped over his desk. Just a few days later, his colleague Ivanov also died. He was the head of the Institute’s rice collection. Again, he chose to starve rather than raid the protected supplies of genetically important plants. Several other scientists also made the ultimate sacrifice. None dared touch the valuable supplies, driven by a potent mixture of fear and patriotism.
In the end, the Institute survived the war. After almost three years of horror, the supplies remained intact and all accounted for. And so, was the sacrifice made by Stchukin, Ivanov and the other scientists worth it? Undoubtedly. Even today, farmers around the world – including in the United States – grow crops that have been developed from the genetically modified seeds of the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry. Modern-day scientists have cross-bred crop varieties with the varieties the brave Russians guarded with their lives to produce plants that can resist extreme temperatures and all kinds of pests. More recently, however, concerns have been raised over the Institute’s long-term survival. Could simple economics and mismanagement end up doing what Hitler couldn’t do and closing the center once and for all?