STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This next story reminds us of an unusual case of heroism in World War II. It was heroism in the service of science. During the war, German troops surrounded the Russian city of Leningrad - as St. Petersburg was known. Hundreds of thousands died of disease and starvation during the siege.
During this terrible time, a small group of Soviet scientists guarded a rare collection of potatoes and plant seeds. They feared that years of research would be lost. The scientists refused to consume their collection, and were among those who starved to death.
Seventy years later, their research institute is again under threat - this time from real estate developers. Here's NPR's David Greene.
DAVID GREENE: The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry is in the same building in downtown St. Petersburg where those scientists huddled during the war. But much of the institute's work takes place 45 minutes away, in a garden that holds clues to different strands of fruit - how they can survive harsh climates, and which ones make people healthier.
Mr. LEONID BURMISTROV (Vavilov Institute): Let's go. The curator of this collection - it's my collection.
GREENE: Leonid Burmistrov has been a scientist for the institute for 40 years. Out here in the village of Pavlovsk, hundreds of varieties of fruit and berries stretch across acres. Burmistrov studies everything.
Mr. BURMISTROV: Like winter-resistant, resistant to different kinds of fungi, diseases or bacterial diseases, and so on. What is the quality? What is the taste? And so, so on.
GREENE: Until this fall, when the Russian government plans to sell much of this land to developers. The gardens aren't what they used to be, and weeds have taken over in spots. But Burmistrov says these plants remain vital to science. The idea of ripping them from the ground?
Mr. BURMISTROV: No. Of course, no. No, it's not possible to think about that possibility.
GREENE: Through history, this institute has had a love-hate relationship with Russia's rulers. In 1940, Josef Stalin imprisoned the institute's namesake, Nikolai Vavilov, because Stalin didn't agree with his genetic research. And Vavilov died in prison. In the Cold War, though, the Kremlin was committed to science like this, as a way to outshine the U.S.
Mr. FYODOR MIKHOVICH (Director, Pavlovsk Experimental Station): (Foreign language spoken)
GREENE: Today, the man leading Pavlovsk, Fyodor Mikhovich, still calls himself a simple Soviet director. He's written to everyone, up to President Dmitri Medvedev, to try to save this place. Sounding nostalgic, he says communist leaders would have supported him.
Mr. MIKHOVICH: (Through Translator) This feels like deliberate destruction, a continuation of the '30s, '40s and '50s, when famous scientists were destroyed, along with the science of genetics. Today, they want to bury the legacy of the genetics founded by the great scientist Nikolai Vavilov. What will we, the Russian nation, have to be proud of if we, ourselves, destroy this?
GREENE: A court ruled that the law is clear: A government property agency can sell off agricultural lands like this. It's not clear how much land will be auctioned, but much of the fruit collection appears threatened. Scientists here say it would take years to relocate the plants. And developers are in no mood to wait. They're poised to build houses for St. Petersburg commuters.
Andrei Anisimov is deputy director general of the government's Federal Fund for Housing Construction Assistance. He's been on TV, making the case.
Mr. ANDREI ANISIMOV (Deputy Director General, Federal Fund for Housing Construction Assistance): (Through Translator) These plots are not being used. The buildings are neglected and going to ruin. That's why the commission has every reason to make this decision.
GREENE: Scientists from around the world have rallied to Pavlovsk's defense. There's a campaign urging people to send Twitter notes to President Medvedev. And on August 13th, a surprise: Medvedev, or the manager of his account, tweeted that the appeals had been noted, and that the president had ordered an 11th-hour inquiry. But so far, though, no final word from the Kremlin.
Scientists say there are few places in the world like Pavlovsk, and many of the strands of fruit they've carefully developed might never be recovered.
What's more, says Peter Raven, director at the Missouri Botanical Garden, there's the symbolism of a collection scientists died to preserve.
Professor PETER RAVEN (Director, Missouri Botanical Garden): In doing so, they provided a real model of drawing a line in the sand for biodiversity that's inspired everyone.
GREENE: Only not around St. Petersburg, where people are more fired up about stopping the energy giant Gazprom from building a massive skyscraper amid the city's historic palaces. Many brush off the Pavlovsk situation as something typical in modern Russia, a spat over property that will just end up making somebody very rich.
There is also a perception that Pavlovsk was lost long ago. Seventy-eight-year-old Antonina Khrestina lives nearby.
Ms. ANTONINA KHRESTINA: (Through Translator) Look at these gardens. They're neglected.They used to have everything here - fruit and vegetables. Now, there's nothing. Soon, they'll probably have to sell potatoes just to pay their workers.
GREENE: Some of the gardens could be auctioned off as early as September 23rd. All the while, Leonid Burmistrov, the veteran scientist, goes about his business, as he's done for 40 years. There's a new strain of blue honeysuckle he's working on.
Mr. BURMISTROV: If they say - us - boys, develop this crop, we are ready.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BURMISTROV: Let's go to the flowers.
David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.
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