HomeScientistBiography of Nikolai Vavilov

Biography of Nikolai Vavilov

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov was born in the year 1887 into the family of Ivan Ilyich Vavilov, a native of the peasants who was a trader in Moscow belonging to the second guild. While Vavilov was in charge of a shoe business, Ivan Ilyich was chosen to serve as a member of the municipal duma in the year 1909. The family of the businessman resided in their very own home in the Srednyaya Presnya neighborhood. Alexandra Mikhailovna Postnikova, the mother, was born into an affluent family in Moscow through the employment of a factory worker.
Infancy was the cause of death for three of the seven Vavilov children. Lydia Vavilova, Nikolai’s younger sister, was a microbiologist who passed away in 1914 from smallpox. She had gotten the deadly disease while on an expedition. In the year 1951, Sergei Vavilov’s younger brother, who was also a well-known physicist and academician, went tragically due to a heart attack.

The father had a fantasy that once he passed away, his sons would carry on the family company and continue it in his footsteps. On the other hand, the older individual, who was surrounded by herbariums and geographical maps, studied textbooks on biology, while the younger one developed an interest in mathematics and physics. The father used a belt and reprimanded his boys in an effort to “convince” them, but the sons received a strong character from the head of the family regardless of the circumstances.

After graduating from high school, Nikolai and Sergei bowed to their father and enrolled a commercial school on Ostozhenka, but aspirations of a scientific future won out. Nikolai, not wishing to spend a year studying the Latin language necessary for entry to the Imperial Moscow University, in 1906 became a student at the Agricultural Institute, selecting agronomy. Sergei enrolled the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of the capital’s university.
Vavilov’s lecturers at the agricultural university were master of botany Nikolai Khudyakov and the originator of agronomic chemistry Dmitry Pryanishnikov, a star of Soviet agricultural research. Under their tutelage, Nikolai blossomed as a scientist.

Breeding and genetics

At the institute, on the initiative of academician and biochemist Dmitry Pryanishnikov, Nikolai Vavilov explored selection. Having acquired a certificate from the academy, he transferred to the St. Petersburg Bureau of Applied Botany.

In 1913, a promising scientist was sent to study overseas. In the village of Vilmorin in France, he got acquainted with selective seed production, and in Jena, Germany and Merton, England, he worked in labs. For six months he collaborated with the famed scientist William Batson. At Cambridge, Nikolai Vavilov continued to explore cereals, sowing grain seeds acquired from Russia on the university farm.

The research journey was cut short owing to the onset of the First World War. The draft panel discharged the young scientist from service: Nikolai was diagnosed with a long-standing eye damage.

In 1916, Vavilov toured Northern Iran, Fergana and the Pamirs. During his travels, he collected scientific information, created the rules of homologous series, and identified the centers of dispersion of cultivated species.

The revolutionary events of 1917 that rocked Russia found Nikolai Vavilov in Saratov, where he accepted a job as a teacher at the university. Soon, the future academician released a research on plant resistance to diseases, in which he first pointed out the genetic features of immunity.

Soviet scientists learnt about the professor’s findings in 1920 during a convention of breeders in Saratov. The scientist’s report gave insight on the basis of the notion of variability. Nikolai Ivanovich’s peers termed Vavilov’s finding equal in magnitude to Dmitry Mendeleev’s discoveries in chemistry and opening up the largest opportunities for practical.

A year later, Nikolai Vavilov described the law of homological series in America, at the International Agricultural Congress. Vavilov’s findings was termed startling, and photographs of the Soviet scientist graced newspaper editorials.

Later, after Nikolai Vavilov released a research on the centers of origin of cultivated plants, scientists obtained a type of compass that allows them to navigate the enormous plant world of the Earth.

In 1921, Nikolai Ivanovich was called to Petrograd, where he and a group of students and like-minded persons formed the All-Union Institute of Plant Growing. The final twenty years of the great scientist’s life passed at the university, located in Tsarskoye Selo.

In 1929, Nikolai Vavilov became an academician and president of the All-Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The 42-year-old president has built ties with colleagues from America and Europe. Soviet genetics in the 30s and the first half of the 40s was one step ahead of Western research.

Biological excursion

Half of Vavilov’s life was spent on excursions. As a student, the young scientist started off with a tent in Transcaucasia and the North Caucasus.

In the 1920s, the scientist – a renowned leader of Soviet biology and a light of agricultural research – supported his findings and innovations with a wealth of material, which he collected together with students on scientific trips.

In 1924, the professor visited Nuristan, a district of Afghanistan forbidden to Europeans. Foreign travels to the Mediterranean, Africa and India dramatically increased the seed collection. The scientist said that in India they “found the original horn” and “crossed the Hindu Kush four times, once along the path of Alexander the Great .”

In the mid-1920s, the geneticist visited the Khiva oasis in Uzbekistan with an expedition, and in 1926-27 he performed research in Algeria, Morocco, Syria and Palestine. Nikolai Vavilov studied the flora of Greece, the south of France, and journeyed to Spain and Portugal. The walking routes of Vavilov and his crew totaled to 2 thousand kilometers, and the gathered material comprised of thousands of samples.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the scientist traveled Japan, China and South America. After the excursions, his second most important study on the places of origin of cultivated plants was released, for which he was received the V.I. Lenin Prize .

During his brief life, Nikolai Ivanovich undertook 180 journeys across America and Eurasia, which enriched global science and gained him the honors of a renowned traveler. The upshot of the excursions was a rich collection of grown plants, which reached 250 thousand samples in the 40s and constituted the world’s first gene bank.

Personal life

Vavilov’s friends at the Agricultural Academy were rather startled when they learnt about the romance of the brilliant and gorgeous Nikolai with student Katya Sakharova. Ekaterina is the daughter of a Siberian businessman, not a beauty, a “blue stocking”, stern and very dry in her communication. But Nikolai Vavilov fell in love with the girl for her bright intelligence. He chatted to Katya on all issues. They grew close in practice in the Poltava province. They got married in 1912. There was no mention of any honeymoon – in those years the future academician was already living under the “Vavilov” regime: frequent business travels and months-long excursions, arduous labor at an unnatural speed – a fifth of the day was devoted to sleep.

In his father’s house on Srednyaya Presnya, where the couple settled, the office window was lit till the morning.

Vavilov Sr. did not recognize the October Revolution and went to Bulgaria in 1918. A few days after departing, the former trader Ivan Ilyich Vavilov became a grandfather: Nikolai and Catherine welcomed their first child, Oleg. The grandpa saw his grandchild in 1928, before his death. Nikolai Ivanovich convinced his father to return to Russia, and a week later Ivan Vavilov died.

The personal lives of Nikolai Vavilov and Ekaterina Sakharova did not work out. After the birth of his kid, the scientist went to work in Saratov. Katya and her small boy remained in Moscow. A year later, the husband acquired an apartment, and the family was reunited. But Vavilov had another lady. The scientist met Elena Barulina on an excursion. A graduate student fell madly in love with a professor at the Faculty of Agronomy, 8 years older.

Nikolai Vavilov tried to rescue his family: in 1921, having gone to Leningrad, he called his wife and son. But Catherine refused, aware that her place in her husband’s heart was occupied. The mother remained in Saratov, then returned to Moscow, where she resided with her son Oleg in a house on Srednyaya Presnya.

Nikolai Vavilov married Elena Barulina in 1926. Two years later, the couple welcomed a son, Yuri.

Vavilov’s sons became scientists. The eldest Oleg Vavilov, having graduated from Moscow State University, worked as a researcher at the cosmic ray laboratory. In December 1945, after the death of his father, he defended his dissertation. He died in 1946 at Dombay, where he traveled with a group of climbers.

Yuri Vavilov graduated from Leningrad University, where he studied in the college of nuclear physics, a specialization forbidden to children of “enemies of the people.”


Caressed by the authorities in the 1920s, in the 30s Nikolai Vavilov sensed a ring tightening around him. Vavilov’s closest collaborators were removed from the Institute of Plant Growing.

In 1929, persecution intensified: non-party engineers, scientists, farmers and economists, branded “right-wing deviationists” and “saboteurs,” were detained by the OGPU and executed. Nikolai Vavilov interceded for numerous colleagues, whose authority for a long time did not enable the authorities to act on him.

Trofim Lysenko had a catastrophic part in the unfortunate fate of the academician. Academician Vavilov backed the young agronomic from the people in the early 30s, but he cautioned that one should not depend on quick beneficial effects from the vernalization espoused by Lysenko (the influence of low temperatures on plant development).

Joseph Stalin loved the young scientist because of his “national” background and promises to attain tremendous grain yields in a year and a half. When, at the congress of collective farmers-shock workers in 1935, Trofim Lysenko remarked that “there are pests in science,” and collective farmers “give more to the national economy than some professors,” Joseph Vissarionovich cried approvingly, “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko!”

In 1938, Trofim Lysenko became president of the All-Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, replacing Vavilov in this role. Since 1939, with the help of Stalin, Lysenko and his allies crushed genetics, branding the industry a bourgeois pseudoscience.

In the summer of 1939, Trofim Lysenko’s comrade-in-arms and right-hand man, Isaac Izrailevich Prezent, wrote a memo to the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR, Vyacheslav Molotov, in which he slandered Nikolai Vavilov and his colleagues who were preparing the VII International Genetic Congress. The presenter stated that the gathering will become “a vehicle against advanced science.”

The VII International Congress took held, albeit not in the Union, but in Scotland. Nikolai Vavilov did not gain permission to depart, and the chairman’s chair on the stage was empty.

In August 1940, Nikolai Vavilov, who was on a research trip in Chernivtsi, was detained. The inquiry lasted 11 months. The scientist was summoned for questioning 400 times, and the entire interrogation duration was 1,700 hours. The inquiry was directed by NKVD operatives Alexey Khvat and Sultan Albogachiev. The semi-literate Khvat made a particular effort, utilizing the most extreme torture on Vavilov.

In 2000, director Alexander Proshkin spoke about the events of the 1940s in the drama “Nikolai Vavilov”. Vavilov was performed by Kostas Smoriginas, in the part of Trofim Lysenko and his colleague Isaac Present, the audience witnessed Bogdan Stupka and Sergei Gazarov .


Vavilov’s health, deteriorated by typhus and malaria during the trips, torture and starvation caused the scientist’s death. The canceled death sentence did not affect anything in the fate of the academician. In the Saratov jail, malnourished and suffering from dystrophy, Nikolai Vavilov was ill with pneumonia. Due to a reduction in heart activity, death occurred on January 26, 1943.The brilliant scientist was buried in a communal cemetery for inmates; the specific burial spot is unclear. At the Resurrection Cemetery in Saratov there is an individual tomb and monument to Vavilov.


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