The Vavilov Institute is located in two beautiful old buildings in the main part of St. Petersberg. We were told that the government does not believe the Institute needs to be located on such prime real estate (right next to the Hotel Astoria and other big-money hotels), and so they do not provide them with the funds to maintain the buildings.
Some of the space of at least one of the buildings is rented out to other businesses and this building, which houses the herbarium and some of the gene bank, as well as many offices, is in the course of renovation — the outside is complete but the inside has far to go. This is the building that we spent most of our time in — it houses Sergey’s office.
Left: Sergey Alexanian, our great host. Right: One of many Vavilov Statues.
We had the opportunity, though, to walk across a great traffic circle (the “backyard”) to the Institute’s building on the other side. This building was initially designed to be apartments for nobility (200+ years ago), and some of the interiors were reminiscent of the Hermitage, with gold plating on the walls and frescoes in the halls, and ornately carved ceilings throughout. This is where the Director of the Institute’s office lies, and also where the private Vavilov Museum is located. There are also two great halls capable of hosting at least 100 people for conferences and the like, and also many other offices that we did not see. Our tour of this building began with a walk around to see some of the more impressive rooms mentioned above.
Next we went to the private Vavilov Museum, which consists of several exhibits detailing the achievements of Vavilov as well as those of the Institute. There are maps depicting Vavilov’s Centers of Origin, and maps that show where he himself went on collecting missions over a 20-year period from the 19teens to 1940. The most impressive map, though, is the one that details all of the collecting missions that have been carried out by all staff of the Vavilov Institute over the past 100 years – this map is nearly all marked up, except for locations that are very far north. This is especially impressive when one considers the political situation with Russia for most of that time, and the financial situation now.
Photos from left to right: Sergey giving us the museum tour, books in Vavilov’s study, map of the institute’s collection missions, N.I. Vavilov.
On Wednesday we had the pleasure of taking a tour of parts of the Vavilov Institute. The first stop on our tour was the Herbarium. An herbarium is a collection of preserved samples of plants or plant parts, usually pressed on sheets of paper, for scientists and researchers to view. The herbarium at the Vavilov Institute is home to over 200,000 such samples, collected by Vavilov himself and other scientists on collection missions throughout the world. It was once one of the preeminent herbariums in the world, but now the largest herbariums in France and England house over seven million specimens!
We were very excited to see the herbarium, but also a bit surprised at its condition. Everything was very clean and well organized, but it seemed that funds were deemed to be more useful elsewhere, as the lights were off and the room was lit through the open curtains only (this could be better for the specimens). There was no climate control, and the cabinets and boxes used to store the specimens were quite antique looking. Many aspects of the Vavilov Institute seem to be straight from another time, and the herbarium was no exception.
Left: Preparing seeds to give to VIR. Right: The Vavilov Institute.
There were a few people working in the room, examining specimens at their leisure. The coordinator took a few minutes to show us some samples that are kept out as examples of the layout of different types of plants. We viewed samples of a grass and a tree, and observed how they were filed according to species in boxes stacked in row after row of tall wood cherry wood cabinets. One of the samples had the signiture of Vavilov on it — this was a sample that he had actually collected! After sufficient oohs and aahs, we walked down to the office of one of the scientists.
Left: Sergey showing us the the Herbarium collection. Right: A specimen collected by N.I. Vavilov in the 1920’s.
We were quite happy to meet the Director of Legumes, Dr. Margarita Vishnyakova. In her office we found petrie dishes with examples of the different species of beans and peas, and a large case filled with different fava bean (Vicia faba) varieties. On her wall were two mosaics made from beans, and on shelves around were giant pods from leguminous trees and branches from different leguminous plants.
In 1939 Winston Churchill said “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” and coincidently a short time before we entered the country there was a magazine title story that was called something like, “Russia — Understanding the Enigma” sitting in the window of a German book store. More than 65 years later Churchill’s description is still applicable.
Most of us have some sort of preconceived notions about Russia, and we must admit that we had ours. Our stay in Saint Petersburg was really only enough to add to those a priori assumptions, and as with most countries (and most things in general), we left feeling like we had learned just enough to realize that we haven’t a clue about the country, let alone the city that we called home for eight days.
Photos from right to left: Frozen crust on the River Moyka, The Hermitage, The first tourist pose in a long time, The “Church on Spilled Blood” used as a root cellar but the Soviets.
Our interest in visiting Russia was inspired by the renowned Vavilov Institute (VIR), which is known for housing one of the world’s largest and oldest gene banks. In planning our trip to Europe, the VIR was at the top of the list of places we wanted to go, and after more than a little effort, Nick was able to secure an invitation for us.
We had the unique circumstance of arranging a visit to Russia that bridged the first two weeks of the New Year, with an arrival of January 4 and a departure of January 12. In arranging our trip, Sergey Alexanian, a Vice Director and the Foreign Relations specialist at the Vavilov Institute, had mentioned “the holidays,” but I assumed he was referring only to the couple of days on either side of the weekend of January 6-7, the Eastern Orthodox Christmas. Like with many assumptions, I was very wrong.
Portrait of N.I Vavilov
Thursday began with a drive out to the countryside for a visit at the Lithuanian Institute of Horticulture. We were welcomed by Dr. Rasa Karkleliene, Head of Vegetable Breeding Sector and Scientific Officer, and Dr. Adrius Sasnauskas, Vice-director of Science for the Genetic and Biotechnology Department (!).
We gathered in the board room and watched a very professional video explaining the size and scope of the Institute, with images of some of their over 400 hectares of idyllic apple and pear orchards, biotech labs, and delicious-looking (GE!) strawberries. The Institute is involved in every aspect of food science, from variety development to processing all in one place. They are funded only 30% by the Lithuanian government, with other funding sources coming from the EU or companies such as Syngenta (the giant biotech/chemical multinational corporation). Go here to see how Syngenta and Monsanto work together. This year the Horticultural Institute began their first organic plot – two hectares for organic variety development.
Photos, from left to right: 1. The Lithuanian Institute of Horticulture; 2. In the meeting in the board room, talking about SAP and learning about what happens at the Institute; 3. Dr. Rasa Karkleliene and a colleague taking samples of some of our varieties.
After learning about who and what we were up against, we gave an overview of our project and Andrew presented the slide show, which by this point was smooth as silk, and talked a little bit with the Doctors, who were extremely friendly and very interested in our project. Not one word was mentioned about our differing philosophies of plant development, and it was nice to have conversations with actual biotech scientists, because despite our obvious differences in methods (and world view), they are working for the some of the same things we are: superior vegetable varieties.