Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Will the Vavilov Seed Collection be Saved? -- Or Will Russian Property Interests Win Out?

Paul Goble

Staunton, August 24 – The unique collection of more than 6,000 plant species assembled by scholars at the Vavilov Experimental Station near St. Petersburg survived the Leningrad blockade during World War II and more recent forest fires nearby, but now, with the approval of the Russian courts, Moscow plans to sell the land on which it sits for real estate development.
To block what they say would be “an irretrievable loss” not only to Russian science but to the international community, scholars and activists from around the world have launched an appeal to Moscow; and some foreign governments and organizations have even offered to buy the land in order to save the collection.
But unless they succeed in getting Moscow to reverse course now, the entire area of the Vavilov station will begin to be sold off to developers over the next few weeks, and any chance of saving what all except the Russian powers that be say is a unique treasure will quite likely be lost forever.
In yesterday’s “Novaya gazeta,” St. Petersburg journalist Nina Petlyanova describes the history of this case as well as the current desperate appeals of scholars to overturn both the decision of a Moscow commission to seize the station’s lands and the more recent defeats defenders have suffered in the courts (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2010/092/00.html).
Established in 1926, she writes, the Vavilov station over the course of 80 years “has suffered not a little.” During the Leningrad blockade, 28 of its researches died from hunger rather than touch any of the seeds. “The Americans put up a monument to these people, [and] the British have agreed even today to purchase the land for any price to save the collection.”
Moreover, Petlyanova continues, “Italians, Scots, Australians, and the French, concerned about ‘the possible irretrievable loss for all humanity’ are ready to come to the assistance” of the Vavilov station, but the Russian powers that be have decided and secured the approval of Russian courts that the land on which the station sits would be better used for elite cottages.
Despite the fact that Moscow had given the station ownership of this property in perpetuity in 1995, in December of last year, the Federal Agency for the Administration of State Property concluded that the land was not being used in an efficient fashion and ordered its return to itself for sale to others who would then build “one-family” homes.
The administration of the Vavilov station turned to the courts but has suffered a string of defeats, first in May, then in July and most recently earlier this month, Petlyanova reports. The scholars have concluded that they have lost in the judicial system, but they hope to overturn what they see as a short-sighted approach by appealing to Russian officials and world public opinion.
Their “not fewer than 20” written appeals to senior Russian officials over the last nine months did not receive any response at all until after their August 12th court defeat, they sent one to President Dmitry Medvedev who responded on Twitter that he had asked his subordinates to “look into” the matter.
The appeals of Russian botanists have received more attention and support from scholars about the world who have expressed outrage at what the Russian government is doing, an outrage that appears to be all the greater because Moscow is sending in the bulldozers of destruction just as the UN has declared the International Year of Biodiversity.
Writing about the same subject today on the Bellona.ru site, Boris Vishnevsky not only decries the fact that the Vavilov collection having “survived the Leningrad blockade” does not appear likely to “survive a change” in the plans of the Russian powers that be but also that this act is attracting international attention (www.bellona.ru/articles_ru/articles_2010/Pavlovsk).
And after reviewing the Western media and noting that Moscow officials are guilty of “shameless lies and demagogy,” even claiming that “there is no such thing as the collection of Academic Vavilov,” Vishnevsky invites those concerned to add their voices to a Bellona appeal in defense of this collection. They can do so at www.vir.nw.ru/Greatcoolection.html.

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