An Observation of Vavilov Day

Content note: this post contains discussion of starvation.

I aspire to be a person who does good things, and who is capable of doing hard things in service of that. This is a plan to test that capacity.

I haven’t been in a battle, but if you gave me the choice between dying in battle and slowly starving to death, I would immediately choose battle. Battles are scary but they are short and then they are over.

If you gave me a chance to starve to death to generate some sufficiently good outcome, like saving millions of people from starvation, I think I would do it, and I would be glad to have the opportunity. It would hurt, but only for a few weeks, and in that time I could comfort myself with the warm glow of how good this was for other people.

If you gave me a chance to save millions of people by starving, and then put food in front of me, I don’t think I could do it. I would do okay for a few days, maybe a week, but I worry that eventually hunger would incapacitate the part of my brain that allows me to make moral trade-offs at my own expense, and I would wake up to find I’d eaten half the food. I want to think I’d manage it, but if the thought experiment gods didn’t let me skip the hard part with more proactive measures, I’m not confident I could. 

During the siege of Leningrad, scientists and other staff of the Institute of Plant Study faced the above choice, and to the best of our knowledge, all of them chose hunger. 12 of them died for it, the rest merely got close (English language sources list 9 deaths, which is the number of scientists who died in service of the seed bank but not the total number of people). They couldn’t kill themselves because they were needed to protect the food from rats and starving citizens. Those survival odds are better than the certain death of my hypothetical, but they didn’t have the same certainty of impact either, so I think it balances out.

That’s heroism enough, but a fraction of what’s present in this story. Those scientists worked at an institute founded by Nikolai Vavilov, a Soviet botanist who has the misfortune to be right on issues inconvenient to Joseph Stalin. Vavilov’s (correct) insistence that his theories could feed Russians and those of Stalin’s favored scientist couldn’t got him arrested, tortured, and sent to a gulag, where he eventually starved to death. 

In 1979 the seeds Vavilov and his staff protected covered 80% of the cropland of Russia (I have been unable to find more recent number). Credit for scientific revolutions is hard to apportion, but as I reckon it Valilov is responsible for, at a minimum, tens of millions people living when they would have starved or never born, and the number could be closer to a billion.

Nikolai Vavilov is my hero.

Nikolai Vavilov | Biography & Facts | Britannica

In honor of Nikolai Vavilov, I’m doing a ~36 hour calorie fast from dinner on 1/25 (the day before Vavilov died in the gulag) to breakfast on 1/27 (the end of the siege of Leningrad). Those of you who know me know this is an extremely big deal for me, I do not handle being hungry well, and 36 hours is a long time. This might be one of the hardest things I could do while still being physically possible. Moreover, I’m not going to allow myself to just lie in bed for this: I’m committing to at least one physical activity that day (default is outdoor elliptical, unless it’s raining), and attempting to work a normal schedule. I expect this to be very hard. But I need to demonstrate to myself that I can do things that are at least this hard, before I’m called on to do so for something that matters. 

If this story strikes a chord with you to the point you also want to observe Valilov + associates’ sacrifice, I’d enjoy hearing how. I have enough interest locally (bay area California) that there’s likely to be a kick-off dinner + reading the night of the 25th. It would also be traditional for a fasting holiday to end in a feast, but 1/27 is a Thursday and other people have normal jobs so not yet clear how that’s going to shake out. 

Thanks to Clara Collier for introducing me to the story of Vavilov and his institute, Anna Tchetchetkine for finding Russian-languages sources for me, and Google translate for being so good I didn’t need Anna to translate any further.

9 thoughts on “An Observation of Vavilov Day”

  1. Interesting thought experiments, and a commendable way to acknowledge such historic discipline. A word of caution, if I may: this looks to be your first time fasting, so I’d advise against a large meal to break the fast. Having something small and light (e.g. fruit), then a normal meal a few hours later has worked well for me for fasts 36+ hours. Otherwise, I don’t digest well (to put it mildly).

    1. My impression is that the longer the fast, the more you need to proactively do to avoid health risks during them (I know electrolytes are an issue, probably there are others). If you’re going to go longer I’d check those out before making plans.

  2. I think this is the first time I’ve seen someone suggest a fast in a rationalist holiday context, that wasn’t a transparently terrible idea. Largely because fasts make people terrible at thinking and range from ‘mildly delirious’ to ‘mild psychedelia’.

    Doing this specifically as a difficult test that you hope will make you better prepared to make real sacrifices is both appropriate and much more well-advised.

    Unrelatedly, I wrote to the ?university? that’s inherited the legacy of the seed bank a couple years ago, to ask for a list of names to commemorate. (In English.) Never heard back.

  3. Hi–

    I just wanted to say that I enjoy being on your mailing list. I may not be interested in everything you write about, but I admire and appreciate your integrity and scientific rigor. Thank you for all that you do. I have my own blog, and I know what it’s like to work in a vacuum. Take care, and keep up the good work.

    Best wishes,

    Gregg Williams


  4. Thanks for this post.

    Can you say a bit more about why you think preserving the seed bank saved tens of millions of lives? The article you link to says that the seeds were not used for a while because of Stalin’s faith in Lysenko, and that the seeds were retrieved from the field in 65 countries (meaning that some other hard working scientist could in principle have duplicated what Vavilov accomplished).

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