Magazine article Russian Life

Transforming Nature

Magazine article Russian Life

Transforming Nature

Article excerpt

Ivan Michurin: 1855-1935

GIVEN HIS SOCIAL ORIGINS, one would not have expected the Soviet authorities to recognize the horticulturalist Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, and one certainly would not have expected them to place him on the exalted pedestal this father of Soviet Darwinism occupied by the end of his life.

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First, there were the noble ancestors, and even though they were from the lower nobility and not particularly wealthy, they were still members of the "exploiting class." Second, there was the familial estate, and although it was relatively small and acquired with tremendous effort, it was nevertheless "private property." Third, there was the Order of St. Anna awarded to Michurin by the tsarist government. Finally, there was his maniacal focus on simple fruit growing - not heavy industry, not building factories or even increasing wheat yields, simply the cultivation of orchards and the breeding of new sorts of fruits and berries. Given all of the above, one might have expected that, at best, the Soviets would ignore Michurin, and, at worst, they would destroy him along with his countless seedlings and apple varieties.

Michurin, born in 1855, was 62 at the time of the Bolshevik revolution, and he welcomed it from the start, immediately expressing a desire to serve the workers' and peasants' state through his experiments. But there were hordes of such naive idealists and most of them were swept away by the very government they pledged to serve. But not Michurin. With every year he grew more respected, received more and more Soviet medals to go with his tsarist order, and was increasingly quoted and held up as an example. A Michurinist movement was created, cities and villages were named after him, and in the end he became a truly iconic figure.

Michurin's biography reveals traits that must have appealed to the new authorities: a fanatical devotion to his work; a desire to overcome any obstacle in developing Russian agriculture; years of poverty, during which he expended all his strength, all his energy, on working his land; conflict with the church; and his decision not to accept any of the numerous invitations from scientific colleagues in America, including before the revolution, to continue his work there.

But these traits were not unique to Michurin. What set him apart? The first thing that comes to mind are his famous words, "We should not wait for nature to do us favors; our task is to take from it what we need." It is a line that sums up the essence of Michurin's experiments. This strange self-taught horticulturalist channeled his lifelong enthusiasm into breeding new, more successful varieties of fruits and berries. For the sake of this cause, he and his family almost starved to death, lived first in a hut, then in a shed, then in a tiny house they built with their own hands. For the sake of this cause, they spent virtually all their time in the company of other horticulturists.

Michurin relentlessly researched selection, believing that the crossbreeding of different plants - even plants that were not necessarily close to one another but, in some cases, were "distant relatives" - could lead to amazing breakthroughs in horticulture. Today it is clear that, while some of Michurin's experiments were very successful and others were dead ends, he made significant contributions to the science of selection.

During his early career in horticulture he expressed disdain for the experiments of a strange German monk by the name of Mendel who had discovered some obscure laws governing the transmission of traits through inheritance. He was later convinced by the great biologist Nikolai Vavilov that the laws of genetics could not be ignored and he began to factor them into his experiments. But what the Soviets saw in Michurin had nothing to do with real science.

The introduction to a collection of articles by Michurin that came out after his death states: "I. …

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