Ivan Michurin was an outstanding Russian horticulturist. Although he was widely known as a quirky genius who was ready to cross-breed just about anything he laid his eyes on, he was also greatly respected by scientists and others close to his field of study.
Ivan Michurin was born in the Ryazan region on 27 October 1855. His father, Vladimir, belonged to an old aristocratic family, but after marrying a simple girl against his parents’ will, he was denied inheritance. He relocated to the Vershina Estate where he settled with his family. Before Ivan, the Michurins had six children, but they all died in infancy. Ivan’s mother followed them to the grave in 1859.
This streak of misfortune didn’t beat Vladimir Michurin to his knees. He continued to work in his orchard and enthusiastically introduced his agricultural innovations to the local community. He even submitted articles to “Horticulture” magazine. Young Ivan was left to his own devices and seemed to enjoy his freedom greatly. He spent a lot of time outdoors, exploring phenomena of nature and observing wildlife. Garden work fast became his favorite pastime; he engaged in planting, crop-gathering, and seed-collecting. Little by little, his father started to include him in his own work. At the age of 12, Ivan already knew more about land cultivation than any average grown up. His love of agriculture literally cost him “an arm and a leg.” Once, he fell out of an apple tree, was seriously injured, and had to walk using a cane ever since.
Ivan was admitted to a grammar school but turned out to be a rather mediocre student. He could hardly wait for the study week to end so he could get back to his estate and carry on his agricultural experiments. His father condoned Ivan’s passion but wanted him to take a scientific approach to whatever findings he might discover. He yearned for Ivan to receive a decent education, but bankruptcy buried these dreams. Young Michurin had to settle for a regular school, from which he was soon expelled for showing disrespect to the principal. Soviet propaganda always described him as good-natured and peaceable, but according to his biographers, he was rather willful and even rude at times, when distracted from his beloved work.
In 1872, due to his father’s serious illness, Ivan had to start providing for the family. He got a job as a clerk at the train station in the town of Kozlov, where he would live until the end of his days. There he met his sweetheart, Alexandra Petrushina, a worker’s daughter. They were married in 1874 and had a son, Nikolay, and a daughter, Maria. The money Michurin earned at the train station just barley sufficed and going back to the rural lifestyle, where they could feed off their land, seemed like the most reasonable solution to Michurin.
The family rented an abandoned estate and Michurin immediately started his experiments. Very soon the house itself and all the premises were so packed with plant stock and gardening equipment, there was hardly any room for the family. The orchard housed over 600 species of lemons, oranges, magnolias and even exotic araucarias and Virginia tobacco. The Michurins moved into a roomier house, but a couple years later, the situation repeated itself.
Money was still a major concern. A talented person, Michurin tried to earn money in many ways. While at the train station, he managed to wire it for electricity. The head of the train depot was greatly impressed and offered Michurin a job as electrical engineer. Instead, Michurin opened a repair shop and fixed watches, sewing-machines and other fancy mechanisms – plugging some holes in the family budget.
In 1887 Michurin bought an allotment next to the riverbank. This purchase, though highly desirable, undermined the family’s financial situation severely. But Michurin was oblivious of the shortcomings, overwhelmed as he was by the plethora of new opportunities. Maria Michurina later recalled: “Father would forget about clothes and food and money problems: every kopeck we got he spent on buying new seeds. Mother just gave in to him and denied herself everything. All this constant watering, planting, digging, and moldering by day and reading and studying by night were sucking the life out of my father.”
Yet, Michurin’s efforts were not in vain. In a few years he had an orchard packed with slender apple, pear, and cherry trees. To the surprise of the local residents, the Michurins’ orchard also gleamed with peaches, apricots, grapes, mulberry, olives, and pungent tobacco. Michurin managed to produce his first frost-proof cherry, “Princess of the North.” He concluded that crossing different cultivars of apples and plums would produce a new one in a couple years time. The farther away the natural habitats of the parent cultivars, the easier the crossing was and the more comfortable the hybrids felt in the new environment. These were the groundbreaking experiments in Michurin’s theory of assisted natural selection.
The situation with pears didn’t work so well until Michruin realized the soil was too rich: it “pampered” the plant stock, rendering it “lazy” and less frost-resistant. To fix this problem, Michurin changed locations again, moving the family to Donskoye Settlement.
The plan worked. By 1905, Michurin was able to demonstrate a bunch of newly-bred apple, pear and plum species. He also cultivated a new type of ash berry that proved to have strong healing qualities – chokeberry. Roses were another of Michurin’s specialties. He was many times asked why he didn’t commercialize rose production. As with many talented and dedicated people, this commercial bone disagreed with his nature. He did sell some of his plant stock, but in many cases he just robbed himself.
The official science of the time was reluctant to acknowledge Michurin’s findings. The “Horticulture” magazine eagerly published his articles, but the acknowledgment ended there. At the turn of the 20th century biology was all the rage and the revision of Georg Mendel’s findings revived interest in genetics. Michurin refuted the very idea: he’d been working with plants for decades and hadn’t seen a single gene. A fervent Darwinist, he saw natural selection as the only driving force of evolution, while the ‘selectionist’s’ job was to assist and enhance it. With time, however, Michurin relented in his opposition to gene theory. After meeting with the great Russian biologist Nikolay Vavilov, the evolutionary synthesis theory (the idea that genes and natural selection are equal components of the evolution) started to make sense.
The flood of 1915 completely destroyed Michurin’s house and pulled him away from science. That same summer a cholera epidemic took his wife. To make things worse, he received another “no” letter in response to his request for a bailout. Michurin never understood why the country had so little appreciation for his work and used to get very upset about it. This wasn’t entirely true, however. In 1911 Michurin’s plants were exhibited in Toulon, France, and Michurin himself was awarded a medal for his “contribution to agriculture.” In 1912 he was awarded the Order of Saint Anna. Word about his work had even reached America. Frank Meyer, a representative of the US Ministry of Agricultural, visited Michurin three times and even bought plant stocks from him.
After the Socialist Revolution of 1917, Michurin was determined to carry on with his work the old way, but the Commissars just walked onto his estate and nationalized it. Michurin got lucky, though – a very rare case at that time: he was appointed the head of his horticulture laboratory, and even put on the payroll. He was granted a bigger piece of land and a team of workers to help. Agricultural students started coming in for internships.
Michurin’s work and enthusiasm came in handy in the midst of the all-embracing Soviet tendency to involve school children in various aspects of grown-up labor, simultaneously instilling in them communist values. Michurintsy, the teenage adherents of Michurin, were young people from all over the Soviet Union who based their research on the experience and findings of Michirin. They were known figuratively as “Michurin’s grandchildren.” The movement started when Michurin was still alive, and young michurintsy came to visit him, listen to his stories and take some of his plant stock for their own research. Some of these young biologists had shown outstanding results in the area of assisted selection. They managed to produce frost-resistant hybrids of southern fruit like grapes and pears and make them suitable for the Russian midland and even Siberia. Very often michurintsy were responsible for planting and maintaining city gardens and parks on a volunteer basis. Nowadays, this word is applied in jest to gardening enthusiasts; it is also used to refer to overly enthusiastic people in general.
In 1921, Michurin’s apples came to the attention of the Kremlin after making a splash at an exhibition. Lenin was so delighted to see a talented, self-made scientist who had gone unnoticed by the Tsarist regime: he would serve as a perfect tool for Soviet propaganda. Michurin played his part very well – he never tired of praising the Soviet system and the Bolsheviks.
Under the Soviet regime, the total area of Michurin’s orchard amounted to one hectare (approximately 2.5 acres) and he had a team of 100 people working for him. Plant stock was delivered to him from the Caucasus, the Far East and Central Asia. In 1928, the orchard became an official selectionist and genetic station, and a college was founded on it, both bearing Michurin’s name. In 1932 the city of Kozlov became Michurinsk.
In 1933, a young and very ambitious Ukrainian agronomist, Trofim Lysenko, sent Michurin an article on “yarovization” (from yarovoy – spring-planted crop), asking for the scientist’s approval. In this article, Lysenko suggested a new way of turning winter cultivars of wheat into spring ones to ensure larger crops. He claimed his theory fit perfectly in the whole idea of assisted selection. Michurin didn’t take it seriously.
After the collectivization of the 1930s Stalin desperately needed an immediate action
plan to replenish the country’s food supplies. Lysenko and his “yarovization” was the perfect solution. Lysenko knew very little about genetics and natural selection, but the authorities didn’t worry – they loved loud slogans, giving no thought to how long the true and thorough process of selection might be and how much time it might take. For the theory to attain wider public support, Lysenko started promoting it under the title “Michurin’s Biology” without even consulting Michurin. Michurin never acknowledged Lysenko as his adherent, but, always busy in his garden, never had time to engage in disputes and denounce the bold-faced scientist. Michurin’s attitude played right into the hands of Soviet propagandists. During the Lysenko campaign, Michurin was promoted as a Soviet leader in theory of evolution and an opponent of the genetics theory which was denounced and mocked by the Soviet regime. Michurin stuck to his position that a selectionist’s job was to make natural selection more productive and up-scale, but later, he came to understand and accept the synthetic nature of evolution.
The following phrase from Michurin was widely popularized in the Soviet Union: “Мы не можем ждать милостей от природы. Взять их у нее – наша задача” (“We cannot wait for favors from Nature. To take them from it — that is our task.”) It is little known that originally, the phrase was longer and had a different meaning, but Soviet censorship cut it to serve their purposes: «Но к природе необходимо относиться уважительно и бережно и по возможности сохранять ее в первозданном виде…» (“But it should be treated with great respect and care and, when possible, it should be left untouched…”)
Michurin expressed very little concern about the high and mighty and their scheming. Until his last day, he never stopped working, even when doctors diagnosed him with stomach cancer. He died on 7 June 1935, and was buried with honor in a park near the college that bears his name. Four apple trees, like guards of honor, tower over his grave.
Written by Ekaterina Shu