It’s hard to imagine a worse place to find yourself in all of history than the Soviet city of Leningrad during WWII. Leningrad was the former capital of Russia and one of the industrial hubs of the nation. Thus it one of the first major targets of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But the goal was never to capture the city. Hitler feared that capturing the city would make him responsible for feeding the millions of civilians who called it home. Instead, the city was to be wiped off the face of the Earth… along with everyone inside.
In June, just weeks after the start of the invasion, the civilians of Leningrad were mobilized to construct defenses and barricades. Though many- particularly children- were later evacuated, the Soviets expected the more than a million people who remained to defend the city to the death. Meanwhile, the Germans captured the nearby city of Novgorod by August in the face of ferocious Soviet resistance. By the end of the month, the first German troops were just outside Leningrad, and German artillery began shelling the city. Within a month, the last supply routes to the city were cut off. One of the deadliest sieges in history had begun.
According to German projections, it would take just a few weeks before everyone in the city was starving. Within a few months, the entire population would be dead. All the Germans had to do now was wait. And as they predicted, the food supply in the city ran out quickly. Soon, nearly the entire population was starving. Everyone in Leningrad now had to make the same choice every starving person in history has had to make. Do they do whatever it takes to survive? Or do they try to hold on to their principles in the face of death?
And for one group of civilians in Leningrad, that was a very complicated question. The researchers at the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry were, after all, sitting on one of the last supplies of food in the city. The problem was that the food they were protecting wasn’t just meant to feed the citizens of Leningrad, it was meant to ensure the survival of the entire Russian people. You see, the Vavilov Institute wasn’t just the leading agricultural research center in Russia. It was also the world’s largest seed vault.
The seeds inside the vault were the result of decades of selective breeding. They promised a future where Russian peasants could produce more than they ever had, breaking cycles of famine that had lasted for centuries. The work of a generation of scientists had been entrusted to the care of the Vavilov Institute researchers, along with the best chance Russia had at a future free of hunger, but only if they were willing to starve now to defend it. As German shells and bombs rained down on the hungry city, the remaining members of the Institute made a choice: The future of Russia would come first, no matter the cost.