An Observation of Vavilov Day

by ElizabethAceso Under Glass3 min read3rd Jan 202236 comments

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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. 

The seeds Vavilov and his staff protected now cover 80% of the cropland of Russia. 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.

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.

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I think this is a great idea, and intend to participate, in whatever way I can.

This feels like another good candidate of adding to the rationalist/secular calendar of holidays.  These only get invented when people decide to try new things, so I doubly appreciate this.

As for what to do, a simple thing I would be interested in is just learning more about the story.  Who were they, how did they get to be at the seedbank?  What was the onset of the siege like, and how did they adapt as things changes?

I'd also be learning about other seedbanks, and how they came about.

Finally, as a more ritual-y thing to do, maybe we could make a little seed bank of our own.  I expect it to mostly be symbolic.

I don't love the process for generating rationalist holidays right now and tentatively think it would be better to switch to a patron saints model. People who want to can have their own hero or event that's especially close to their heart (and maybe a few secondary ones, or ones important to their friends), and if several people who like each other pick the same one they do stuff together, and if a lot of people pick the same one that becomes a more shared holiday (although still not mandatory). 

One reason for this is there are just actually a lot of heroes in the world, with wildly varying resonances for a given individual, and the number of holidays the community can adopt and take seriously is pretty small. People only have so much time, and are often sharing their holiday budget with religious or more widespread secular holidays.

But the more important reason is that I really want some holidays that challenge or are demanding of people, and people vary a lot in how much of what kind of challenge they can safely take on at a given time.  A cultural push for fasting could be really bad for people with eating disorders, even if there's a well respected medical or practicality exemption. Mass Winter Solstice is in constant conflict over how dark to go, given people's different needs. Lots of people felt they'd been injured by being mailed doomsday codes for LW or EAF for Petrov day... 

But if you take away everything that could possibly hurt someone, you're left with parties (and even those aren't fun for everyone), and that feels sad and unfulfilling to me. So I think letting holidays exist and be respected without automatically scaling them would decrease damage done to people while upping the ceiling on what's achievable to those that want it.

If any particular hero/event does end up being so overwhelmingly popular it becomes a mass holiday, that seems fine, but letting it be an emergent process rather than an immediate bid for universality seems so much better.

My approach has been to try to have each holiday target one value. "Humans can achieve phenomenal things", "Civilization is fragile", "Cached thoughts sneak up on you". Time of year and trappings I pick downstream from the core idea. It's tricky because, if it works, it will stick even if the value isn't good, or stops being good in the future, so I think it's necessary to be pretty careful with what values you pick. (Also I haven't gotten anyone else to collaborate with, and it's definitely not a one-person job; relatedly I have no successes yet.)

Generally I think good holidays should have a very small core of essential trait/ritual, preferably explicitly marked to organizers, and the rest can accrete, be discarded, accrete again differently, vary from one instance to the next, etc.

For Solstice (or, as I internally label it, "Brighter Night") I consider the core to be the three-part arc (dim > dark > light), with the candle-lighting ritual if at all possible, and the Speech of Darkness. The rest is nonessential. (Even my favorite parts, primarily the choir.)

Petrov Day doesn't have a core beyond "take a minute to not destroy the world", which is not a useful core. I think that is related to why it keeps going badly - people trying to add a core, without carefully thinking about the effects of the addition will be.

How did people get injured by getting mailed Doomsday codes on Petrov Day?

One person fell for a subsequent spear phishing attack and suffered reputational damage - see On Destroying the World. This probably isn't the right place to debate whether this should count as "injured".

Re: more of the history. Working on it, but there was a combination of wanting to save something for a post on Vavilov Day, and Anna having priorities for the last week beyond finding Russian sources for me. 

Re: seed banks. I've been trying to figure out how to make this work. I think if we do something with plants, we have to make a reasonable effort to keep it alive over the next year, and I don't actually care enough about plants to do that (plus January is bad for planting). 

But maybe this would be a good shelling day for everyone to inventory their food and make sure they have met their own targets for shelf stable emergency supplies? It's not perfectly on theme, but stocking up on food is reasonably connected to sieges, and it is a genuinely useful thing to do.

If this sounds familiar and you went to bay area secular solstice, that’s probably because it was the topic of this song.

uncomfortable squirm

In my culture, one is to be super wary of lionizing martyrs.

I want to be excited about cool new holiday ideas. I think trying a fast in a coordinated group is a splendid idea. I want to celebrate the amazing capacity of humans to care about others and to do hard things for good reasons.

 

but pain is not the unit of effort.

dying for the cause is not a success.

not every cost is avoidable, but i never, ever want to become the kind of person

who mistakes the price sacrificed for a value bought

 

In my culture there's a meta-tradition around ritual hardships or labors: you are to set aside at least 5 minutes, by the very clock, for considering how you might cheat. If you find you could get results without the hardship, you are expected to cheat for the results and then go find some other way to challenge yourself.

I think you're raising reasonable points, fairly gently. I think the overall issue is important, and was in my mind as I planned and wrote this. I get that, given that this post was high karma and curated, and has at least one comment saying we should scale Vavilov day immediately, it felt important to you to note the pitfalls (even if I already pushed against the universalization).  But I don't have a way to respond to this in LW comments that doesn't feel like justifying my personal choices, and I'm not interested in doing that. 

Potential alternatives include "you create a top-level post discussing the general case",  an off-LW conversation between us, or just not following up. If anyone else wants to continue this conversation I encourage you to make your own post doing so (and feel free to link to it here): I'm leaving this comment up because I think it's important, but I will be locking or deleting comments that attempt to continue the conversation further on this post.

Thanks. What is your culture?

Not a literal culture, rather In My Culture.

This was probably a reference to In My Culture.

I love this, I love Nikolai Vavilov, and I love the holiday concept - I'm going to have to think about doing something similar to commemorate him and his colleagues. I really liked the book The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov by Peter Pringle and recommend it, it's info-dense and well-written. (I haven't intentionally fact-checked it or anything but I did a big research dive into him a few years ago and I don't remember it obviously not holding up against other sources.)

A bit of advice from my own experience with fasting.

Hunger is strongest roughly between hours 6 and 12 after you stop eating. There's some variation here, but my vague understanding is this has to do with something about blood sugar and insulin response cycles.

Generally once I make it to 12 hours the rest is smooth sailing, at least in so far as hunger becomes a background annoyance rather than a strong urge.

At around 20 hours or so I find mental changes start to happen due to what I presume is low blood sugar. It's nothing insurmountable, just something like mental fuzziness that makes it hard to do mental activities at the limit of my ability.

I'm not sure what happens past 24 hours; never gone longer than that.

24h is not enough time to produce the physiological changes typical for fasting. That requires ~72h. I'm not saying that skipping a meal or two, doing intermittent "fasting" and so on aren't good things, you just shouldn't confuse them with an actual fast.

It takes around 12 hours until your stomach is empty (depending on what you ate before obviously). At ~24h, your body's glycogen reserves deplete, but the fat burning process is just beginning in earnest. This is the hardest point IME. At ~72h, you're in full starvation mode and symptoms should start to decrease. I've never gone longer than 72h though.

W.r.t. blood sugar, you usually have a dip around expected mealtimes (your body adapts to your habits and secretes insulin in anticipation of eating), but the truly hard period is between hours 24 and 72.

Yes my experience matches closely to yours. If I'm fasting I'll typically stop eating after 10am breakfast and I'll be most hungry around 6pm the next day. So a bit more than 24 hours. After that there's clear hunger, but it's a different sort, not as immediate.

My personal experience agrees with the phases, but I'd triple all durations. Hunger is stronger for me the first 2 to 3 days. Then it's smooth sailing. The fuzziness appears at the same time, 2 to 3 days.

Curated. If true, the actions of Vavilov and colleagues seem worth knowing and remembering. Kudos to Elizabeth (and Clara) for bringing them to attention and making a meaningful practice out of them.

A tragic yet uplifting story that I'm grateful to now know. How many more heroic examples there must be! Thanks for sharing it. Like you, I'm also not eager to skip meals but am inspired to honor Vavilov.

I'll offer up my own fasting advice as well:

I (and the couple of people I know who have also experimented with fasting) have found it to be a highly trainable skill. Doing a raw 36-hour fast after never having fasted before may be miserable; but doing the same fast after two weeks of 16-8 intermittent fasting will probably be no big deal.

Before I started intermittent fasting, I'd done a few 30-hour fasts, and all of them got very difficult towards the end. I would get headaches, feel very fatigued, and not really be able to function from hours 22-30. When I started IF, the first week was quite tough. I'd have similar symptoms as the fasting window was ending: headaches, trouble focusing. But then right around the two week mark, things changed. The symptoms went away, and the hunger became a much more "passive" feeling. Rather than hunger directly causing discomfort, the hunger now feels more like a "notification". Just my body saying "hey, just so you know, we haven't eaten for a while", rather than it saying "you're going to die if you don't eat right this moment". This change has been persistent, even during periods where I've stopped IF.

Both of the two others I've seen try IF have reported something similar, that the first few weeks are tough, but then the character of hunger itself starts to change. Today, I can go 24 hours without eating fairly trivially, ie without much distraction or performance decreases from hunger.

Going 36 will still be a challenge, but some pre-training may make it easier! Of course you may be specifically trying to test your willpower, in which case making it easier may be counter productive. Either way, this seems like a cool idea for a secular holiday. Best of luck! 

This was my experience as well. Fasting started out pretty hard to me but eventually moved to regular 84 hour fasts for a while.

From one Elizabeth to another, I would love to join you in support of Mr. Vavilov + associates'

I am based in Philadelphia, are you willing to do a virtual kick-off dinner + reading the night of the 25th? I'd be happy to have a virtual feast on 1/27 as well. 

Thank you Elizabeth, Clara, Anna, and those who develop Google translate for your enlightenment

I really like this idea. I'm not able to participate this year for medical reasons, but would like to in the future.

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.

A large proportion of "battle deaths" historically have been due to infection following serious injuries, and many of those who died lingered for weeks. I'm not sure whether this would change your decision, but in case you ever actually had to make this choice it might be worth considering.

Personally, also aspiring to be a person who does good things, I tend to think of "dying in battle" as involving taking actions to kill and/or maim other people and therefore something to avoid as being worse than plague.

That aside, thank you for posting about the actions of these people, and Vavilov in particular.

While I generally am not a fan of people making public displays of personal sacrifice, I can understand some of the reasons why you might be doing so, and hope that you achieve your goals.

This sounds like a good (and somewhat productive) way to celebrate.

I'll start an attempt to as well, if my parents don't object too much (I'm currently 17 and still live with them).

I've never fasted any longer than 16 hours before, so I'll assume this will be hard... Does anybody have advice on how to make the 36 hours go over a bit easier?

Take electrolytes. This is a mixture of salts your body needs, without them you might get muscle cramps and pain. You can get them at a pharmacy in powdered form.

Light exercise is good, heavy exercise is bad.

Other than that, try to stay relaxed, but still somewhat busy.

Any thoughts about supporting biodiversity (perhaps especially for food crops)?

I couldn't think of anything that met all of: could be done in a day, didn't require follow-up, and was actually useful instead of purely symbolic. Planting something has fantastic symbolism, but letting it die later is worse than not doing it at all, and plant care isn't a priority for me the rest of the year.

Maybe there's an organization to contribute to, though I grant that isn't much of an observance. Other than that, there's telling the story.

I'd be interested in joining for a Bay Area kickoff!

I think this is a great idea and intend to join the fast. I also downloaded the book “The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov by Peter Pringle” that another commenter suggested - Vavilov deserves to be recognized! I have experience with fasting and generally find 36 hours very doable - especially helpful for longer fasts is having a clear sense of purpose which reinforces motivation and commemorating this great scientist in this way feels meaningful. 

Great idea! I have marked my calendar. 

I think this is a really cool idea. Good luck with your fast.

At the risk of undermining your post by second guessing the decisions of people made 80 years ago under duress, I can't read that article without thinking "If they were needed there, alive, to guard the seeds, maybe they should have eaten some of the 370,000 seeds?"  To be clear, that does not diminish my respect for their restraint (I certainly could not have done that) or Vavilov's contributions.

They didn't all die. I haven't found a denominator in English sources and my Russian researcher has been busy, but my very rough guess is that <1/2 of the staff died. That seems plausibly the outcome of the correct process to me- you start out with a zero-tolerance policy because it's easier to hold to (and because the highest-metabolism people will die first), but if you get close to having too few staff to protect the seeds,  ration them out. 

My understanding is that the seeds made it through the siege fine, although a good chunk were lost to ensuing neglect of the institute, so the deaths don't seem to have hurt the goal.

Would join this if there was a Front Range 25th gathering. 

the part of my brain that allows me to make moral trade-offs at my own expense

I can relate to this. I wonder if there is a pinpointed system in the brain that's responsible for it? 

I propose we surround ourselves in edible seeds, too.