News / Asia

Rare Russia Crop Collection At Risk

Priceless source of biodiversity that survived the Nazis faces showdown with real estate developers

The Pavlovsk Experimental Station contains Europe's largest collection of fruit trees and berry plants, many of them found nowhere else on Earth.
The Pavlovsk Experimental Station contains Europe's largest collection of fruit trees and berry plants, many of them found nowhere else on Earth.



Orchards harboring an extremely rare collection of fruit trees and berry plants may go under the bulldozer unless Russia's top leaders grant a stay of execution.

Scientists risked their lives to save part of the collection from the Nazis during World War II. Now scientists are wondering if they can save the collection from real estate developers.

Fight for survival

In September of 1941, Nazi forces were closing in on Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg. The town of Pavlovsk, 45 kilometers to the southeast, was already coming under fire.

At the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, a collection of 6,000 varieties of potatoes lay ripening under the earth.

That treasure trove of biodiversity held the key to Russia's future potato harvests. It was the raw material to adapt this vital food crop to an ever-changing world.

Scientists at the station knew what they had to do: start digging.

"The Nazis overran the station, but not before the scientists rescued the potato collection," says Cary Fowler, head of the plant conservation group the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

More than 600 apple varieties grow at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station.
More than 600 apple varieties grow at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station.

Unique fruit collection

Today, the Pavlovsk Experimental Station is home to Europe's largest collection of fruit trees and berry plants, including  more than 300 varieties of plums; 600 kinds of apples and nearly 1,000 types of strawberries; many of them found nowhere else on Earth.

Scientists from the crop preservation group Bioversity International have studied the fields and orchards at Pavlovsk and found much of it is unique, according to Director-General Emile Frison. "And not just unique by the name of the variety, but genetically very unique."  

"Some varieties [have] an exceptionally high level of micronutrients and vitamins," nutrients that can help prevent heart disease, cancer, and other diseases, Frison says.   

Making way for housing

But the Pavlovsk station's collection may soon be bulldozed to make way for residential development.

Russia's federal housing agency has received permission to build on land where the fruit collection stands. Agency spokesman Andrey Tikhonov says the land is neglected and full of weeds. And besides, he says, officials at Pavlovsk wrote a letter in 2007 asking for the land to be developed.

"When officials speak of a state of neglect at the experimental station, it is a flat-out lie," says Deputy Director-General Sergey Aleksanian at the Vavilov Institute for Plant Industry, the Pavlovsk Experimental Station's parent institution.

"Of course, we cannot care for the plants in the same way as Japanese or Americans attend to their field gene banks," he says, "but the collection is alive, and 50 percent of the credit for that should go to enthusiasm of our scientists, who, faced with lack of money to hire workers, attend to the plants themselves."

And Aleksanian says yes, officials did send the 2007 letter - but they were asking for investors to support the cash-strapped collection, not to bulldoze it.

Dying for biodiversity

Russian plant scientists have a proud history of guarding crop biodiversity.

The Vavilov Institute was established by Nikolay Vavilov, who invented the concept of seed banks. They safeguard the genetic material that future crops may need to respond to pests, diseases and changes in climate.

During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, several Vavilov Institute scientists starved to death surrounded by sacks of rice, oats, and other crops rather than sacrifice the collection.

"How ironic that on the very piece of land where the struggle to conserve crop diversity really began, we now have this collection not threatened by bombs or Nazis, but by real estate developers," says the Global Crop Diversity Trust's Cary Fowler.

The Pavlovsk station lost a court case this month to save the collection. The station's supporters have brought its plight to the attention of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. According to an official Kremlin Twitter feed, the government is looking into the issue.

Supporters hope Medvedev will step in soon. Otherwise, they say the station will not have time to save the plants before the land is sold.

And the bulldozers won't be far behind.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs