Two Scientists Who Stood Up to Authoritarianism

Nikolai Vavilov - via Wikimedia Commons.

Although the twentieth century was plagued with conflict, disease and terror, it flowed with change, ingenuity and improvement. Whether it was the vast improvement in our collective quality of life, the development of vaccines and antibiotics, the overthrow of fascism and communism, or the acceleration to space, the twentieth century brought a level of growth unheard of for as long as we have existed.

Our collective development can be attributed to the sciences, as new discoveries and advancements in the scientific and technological worlds allowed for the growth that made the twentieth century, though the century of our worst hardships, the revolutionary century in everything from democracy to the computer. 

As our path in the twenty-first century continues – another century in which growth and challenge will dominate our experiences – we must not forget those who fought the conflict, disease, terror, and authoritarianism as they researced. Let us today consider the heroes Nikolai Vavilov and J. Robert Oppenheimer –  two of the many scientists who fought against war and authoritarianism in the relentless pursuit of discovery.

Nikolai Vavilov

Nikolai Vavilov was a Russian botanist who was hired by Joseph Stalin, the then leader of the USSR, to fix the agricultural crisis that was causing widespread famine in the Soviet Union. Even as Stalin turned against him and threatened imprisonment and certain execution, Vavilov stuck by his science, and his science later proved correct.

He was born into a very strict, merchant family. From a young age, he was extremely rebellious towards his parents. He was the older brother of another scientist, a renowned physicist, Sergey Ivanovich Vavilov. His work in botany can be attributed to his hometown; living in a small village that frequently experienced famines, Vavilov saw firsthand the plight of hunger and became motivated to stop it.

  Vavilov studied at the Moscow Agricultural Institute, in Moscow, Russia, and graduated in 1910; his thesis covered snails as pests.

Vavilov’s career as a botanist was particularly astonishing. To complete his research, Vavilov traveled virtually everywhere to study seeds. He collected over 200,000 seeds from thousands of species in the years he studied. He also created a seed bank, in Leningrad, USSR (present-day St. Petersburg, Russia), which was at its peak the largest collection of seeds in the world. 

Vavilov was also a prominent figure in Soviet authority: at one point, he even was a member of the Central Executive Committee, the most authoritative power in the entire USSR. In his time on the committee, he figured out an agricultural method the Soviets could use to solve their ongoing famine: as a fierce proponent of Mendelian genetics – a new and rising scientific phenomenon in botany that detailed and predicted the possible traits and probabilities of specific traits of an offspring – he believed that putting the theory into practice would allow for significant increases in crop yields through, for example, selective breeding. He demonstrated that even in the far-northern regions of the Soviet Union, plant offspring could be planted out of one plant that has genes that make it very hardy and one plant that has genes that helps it thrive in less direct sunlight, allowing the offspring to be both hardy and able to grow in low light environments. 

However, another botanist, Trofim Lysenko, disagreed with and even actively criticized Vavilov, claiming to Stalin that Mendelian genetics and their proponents were anti-USSR and wanted to destroy the Soviet Union. Stalin took Lysenko’s side and began persecuting Vavilov.

Once Lysenko convinced Stalin that he should attack Mendelian genetics, Vavilov faced a dilemma: was he to continue to stand against tyranny and maintain his academic integrity – with the likely consequence of death – or was he to abandon his science and face no consequences? Vavilov, convinced that Mendelian genetics would end the famine, chose the former. He fiercely advocated – perhaps even more than before – that his and Mendel’s ideas would solve the crisis, even as Stalin, in the midst of his great purge, began to persecute him.

Stalin sentenced Nikolai Vavilov to death for his advocacy. Because World War II taxed resources for death, Stalin decided instead to slowly starve Vavilov to death. On January 26th, 1943, Vavilov died, from starvation, at the age of 55.

The USSR’s contempt towards Vavilov did not last forever; after Trofim Lysenko’s pseudoscientific argument of environmentally-acquired inheritance fundamentally resulted in some of the deadliest famines in human history, among them the Great Chinese Famine, it became very evident that Vavilov’s ideas would have been far more beneficial. The Soviet Union’s opinion towards Mendelian genetics and Nikolai Vavilov quickly changed, and now the seed bank he first created in St. Petersburg, Russia, is the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry. The Soviet Union later hailed Vavilov as a Soviet hero, and a crater on the moon was named after him and his brother.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist and one of the men responsible for the atomic bomb. He is considered the father of the atomic bomb for his role in the Manhattan Project, the top-secret military activity that led to the invention of the atomic bomb and eventually, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer regretted his invention, and in 1945, he repeated a text from Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22nd, 1904, in New York City, and died on February 18th, 1967, at the age of 62. Unlike Nikolai Vavilov, Oppenheimer was not executed for his opposition to authoritarian rule or weaponry.

He was the son of Julius Oppenheimer, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, and Ella Freidman, a painter. Julius Oppenheimer was a rich textile importer in Germany; but in 1888, he abandoned all his money and moved to the United States, even though he had no knowledge of the English language. Julius picked up a textile job in New York, and within ten years, he had become an executive at the company. 

As a child, he was interested in English and French literature and also mineralogy, and he skipped a year and a half of school, graduating high school at seventeen. He eventually fostered a passion for chemistry and the American Southwest; and after suffering from colitis, he then, at eighteen, entered Harvard College.

Oppenheimer attended Harvard College and later did his graduate studies at Christ’s College – an affiliate of Cambridge University – and University of Göttingen.

Oppenheimer made a significant contribution to a variety of scientific fields. First and foremost, he was a significant contributor to the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb; for this, he is often known as the father of the atomic bomb. Besides the invention of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer is known for the Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff limit, which establishes an upper limit to the mass of a nonrotating, cold neutron star.

It is without question that the nuclear bomb was the most dangerous and violent weapon ever invented. Neither AK-47s nor RPGs have the ability to kill as many people as nuclear weapons do. Also, with our current stockpile of nuclear weapons, we could easily decimate every major city on the planet, wiping most of us out in the process. Our leaders threatening to destroy a nation, no matter how hostile, is a recipe for disaster and a threat to humanity. 

J Robert Oppenheimer knew that his creation was unequivocally the most disastrous weapon ever invented, and that is a reason why he became a fierce opponent of the further development of atomic bombs and thermonuclear bombs. Very few who hear the phrase Oppenheimer repeats forget it: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Indeed, Oppenheimer blatantly politicized science, and historical accounts portray him almost as having been corrupted by politicians to act against his own opinions on nuclear disarmament. It was evident that Oppenheimer had very contradictory opinions on nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, when the United States Atomic Energy was formed, Oppenheimer was named the chair; as chair, he used his position to advocate against nuclear proliferation and a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. When also the United States began engineering the thermonuclear bomb, Oppenheimer strongly opposed it. He repeatedly lobbied and testified against the proliferation, testing and use in combat of such weapons. 

Because of his opinions on nuclear armament and dealings with the Communist Party, the government revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance and barred him from supporting their weapons development. He nevertheless continued to advocate against nuclear weapons, and even sometimes threw previous students of his under the bus while testifying.

Although the main culprit of the United States government’s crusade against him was his communist sympathies, Oppenheimer is a complicated reminder of the importance that science never be corrupted: despite his personal opinions, he was influenced by lobbyists to testify against his beliefs, and was ultimately corrupted against science. 

Wrapping it up

Nikolai Vavilov and J. Robert Oppenheimer fought against two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, in their quest for scientific knowledge, human life and morality. They are two among money who kept their minds unhindered by a prison without free speech as they resisted the superpowers that sought to persecute them. As always, take care and stay curious, everyone.

If you have any questions, comments, or corrections, please comment on this post or email with your concerns. Thank you.


J. Robert Oppenheimer. (2022, August 16). Retrieved from

Manhattan Project. (2022, August 22). Retrieved from

Mendelian inheritance. (2022, August 27). Retrieved from

Nikolai Vavilov. (2022, August 13). Retrieved from

Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff limit. (2022, August 11). Retrieved from–Oppenheimer–Volkoff_limit

Trofim Lysenko. (2022, August 18). Retrieved from