Dropped on orders from above

Author Olga Boguslavskaya

The famous Russian scientist Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov had two children from two marriages. The youngest son, Yuri, is still alive and working on the study of archives, collecting bit by bit the life story of his father. But until recently, very little was known about the eldest son Oleg. Almost everything that was known more concerned Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov himself. Candidate of Historical Sciences Yakov Grigoryevich Rokityansky, biographer of Vavilov, for many years sought evidence of the life of Oleg Vavilov. He got lucky. He met Oleg’s widow, Lidiya Vasilyevna Kurnosova. Based on her stories and documents, which she managed to save, he collected unique information about the life of the eldest son Nikolay Vavilov.

Here is what I managed to find out.

The first wife of N.I. Vavilova, Ekaterina Nikolaevna Saharova, was a very difficult person. She graduated from the Petrovsky Agricultural Academy, for some time worked at the Bureau of Applied Botany, which was headed by Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov. The marriage broke up after 15 years. Oleg was born on November 7, 1918.

Here is what Vavilov wrote to E.I. Barulina, who married him in 1926 and became his second wife: “I have known my wife for a long time, since my student days. She was the smartest, most educated student in Petrovka... There was an attempt to go along, but nothing came of it... the difficult character of Ekaterina Nikolaevna also interfered with this. And the only thing that binds us is a son whom we cannot help but love. I would really like him to be dear to you too. There is a lot of mine in him, and I would like to pass onto my son all the good I know.”

Ekaterina Nikolaevna did a lot so that Oleg from early years could read, learn languages, take an interest in science. When he was six he could count to 100 in Russian and English, in the winter of 1928 he began to read German. His father often took him on business trips and expeditions, and if Vavilov left alone, he sent letters and postcards to his son from all cities he went to. A few miraculously surviving postcards are a tiny window into the world of father and son, filled with warmth and tenderness.

He became interested in physics as a teenager. He started working at Lebedev Physical Institute (LPI) while still at school. In 1941, after graduating from the Physics Department of Moscow State University, he became a researcher at the LPI.

From the memoirs of Lidiya Vasilyevna Kurnosova-Vavilova: "We met at the university. I was admitted at the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics (ed. mechmath). Oleg studied at the physics departmen... Oleg was sometimes rude, could say a harsh word. But at the same time he was still a sensitive person. He was a jerk, very shy, handsome... he was always helpful and gentle with me... Oleg came to the mechmath of Moscow State University every day, waited for me at the balustrade and escorted me. We have become inseparable. In winter we went skiing, and in the spring and summer we went hiking... In early 1938 he brought me to his home and said: “Grandma, Lida will live with us.” Oleg and his mother lived with grandmother, mother of Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov. As follows from the memoirs of Lidiya Vasilyevna, Oleg’s mother was a recluse, didn't express any feelings, and she did not leave her room if Oleg entertained guests, even on his birthday."

"When Nikolay Ivanovich came to Moscow, he always came to us, sometimes he brought in foreign colleagues. Ekaterina Nikolaevna treated them to a broth made from cubes. She did not know how to cook at all. Oleg and I went to student eateries or cheap cafes."

Oleg took painfully his parents divorce and often reproached his mother for not being able to save the family. He was very attached to his father. More precisely, he was inextricably linked with him and even sensed his presence when Nikolay Ivanovich was far away. Nikolay Ivanovich worked hard to keep this connection strong. Both son and father cherished the bond very much. When Vavilov was arrested, Oleg thought this to be a misunderstanding. He knew that his father was a world-famous scientist who had devoted his whole life to science, and there was no and could not be any fault for him. Of course, Oleg was actively trying to help his father, sending letters to the Lubyanka. In October 1941, Nikolay Ivanovich was transferred to Saratov, where Vavilov’s second wife lived with her son Yuri.

Nobody knew where Vavilov was, they serached for him throughout the country, but no one could have imagined that at that time he was in the Saratov prison of the The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), a few minutes walk from the house. Vavilov died on January 26, 1943. A few months later, Oleg managed to find out the date of his death from the local branch of the NKVD.

– 2 –

On December 20, 1945, Oleg Vavilov earned a Ph.D. dissertation at the LPI on the subject of "Transitional effects of the soft component of cosmic rays and gamma rays". He was not honored this degree only because his pedigree, being the son of a genius scientist and the nephew of the president of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Oleg was an unusually gifted man, worked tirelessly, and his scientific prospects were brilliant. In addition, he was, apparently, a wonderful person. From the memoirs of Zh. S. Takibaev: "In 1945-1948, I was a graduate student of the Department of Theoretical Physics of the LPI and met Oleg Vavilov. He... was a very open person, approached everything with ingenuity and innocence, he had all the qualities of a Russian hero..."

A month after defending his dissertation, Oleg decided to spend his vacation in the North Caucasus. From the recollections of his wife, Lidiya Vasilyevna Kurnosova-Vavilova: Oleg decided to spend his vacation skiing as part of a group of graduate students and professors at Moscow State University. Oleg has been to Dombay many times. I tried to hold over: "Can't we go on vacation in the summer? I don’t like your companions." But he insisted: "I'm tired. I have not taken time for several years... There are many interesting guys in the group, there are mathematicians, Shafarevich, for example. We must unwind."

...I remember the day he went off very well. The train left in the evening. Oleg had neither a jacket nor a backpack. He called Volodya Tihomirov, and he lend them... When he left, he told his mother: "Ma, I am going." We hugged and kissed. And he quickly ran to the train station. I didn’t know that I would never see him alive again.

On February 10, when the ski group had already returned from Dombay, they called me from the Central Council of Volunteer Sports Society "Nauka" and said that there has been an accident. I asked: "You say that he fell to his death, but you did not find him?"

At first there was silence. Then they told me that there was a lot of snow ... I called Igor Shafarevich, he was one of the organizers of the group, and asked him to tell what happened. Then I wrote down the contents of the conversation in the notebook." Igor Rostislavovich Shafarevich, academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences since 1991 and a noble Jewish combat veteran, said to Lidiya Vasilievna on February 10 the following: "Oleg died while skiing and climbing Semenov-Bashi. Gone with Schneider. The weather was bad. The search did not yield anything. Everyone went back. He continued on the rope with Schneider, who untied himslef from the rope to go back for his ice ax. Meanwhile Oleg went on. When Schneider returned he did not find Oleg."

After 17 days, a search group, which included Lidiya Vasilyevna, left for the Caucasus. They settled in the same house where Oleg stayed. Schneider came, too. He was on the ascent with Oleg Vavilov when he fell and was supposed to show the place of his death. Schneider did not want to go to the mountains, in fact, he was forced to. There was a confrontation and Oleg's friends openly accused Schneider of Oleg’s death.

Lidiya Vasilyevna took part in the search, but they did not find anything. The search group returned to Moscow in early March.

Lidiya Vasilievna suffered from the memories of the hike that ended so tragically for her husband, but she would have eventually humble herself before nature and fate, and accepted the tragedy. Then came an unexpected turn of events. Someone began to spread rumors that Oleg had fled to Turkey. She lost her peace. Lidiya Vasiliyevna understood that she must return to the Caucasus again, find her husband’s body and prove to everyone that he was an honest man.

The second time they left in mid-May. From the memoirs of L.V. Kurnosova-Vavilova: "We stayed in the same house. We went to search everyday. I always walked alone, sometimes even with a temperature of 39°. Sidorenko (the head of the search group, Honored Master of Sports A.I. Sidorenko, led a group of climbers during the war, which climbed Mount Elbrus and tore off the fascist flag. He lost his toes, but continued to climb. - ed.) and his assistant watched over me from afar... It became very warm. The snow melted down. By mid-June, the group began to talk about returning to Moscow, that all the same, Oleg’s body could not be found. I objected, said that in that case I would stay by myself. It was decided to leave in a few days. On June 10, during the next ascent, I raked the snow with the help of an ice ax... I bent down and suddenly saw something red. It was Oleg's checked shirt. I began to scoop up the snow and saw it - as if alive: dark hair, thick eyebrows, even a blush on the cheeks. I scooped up the snow with my hands and shouted to Sidorenko: "I found Oleg!"... We wrapped Oleg’s body in a tent and for an hour lowered him to the foot of the mountain. He clearly did not die from an avalanche and not from a fall from a height. The snow fell on top of him after he died... I went on horseback to Tiberda and returned with the militia. They filled out the documents and handed me a death certificate... It said that he had a mark from an ice ax hit on his right in the temporal region. I somehow I didn’t pay attention to this fact then..."

– 3 –

First time I heard about Oleg Vavilov’s death in North Caucasus Mountains from Yakov Grigoryevich Rokityanskiy. Several years ago, no one would have believed that the secret of Oleg’s death would be revealed.

However, this has happened. The archives spoke. The details of the sensational findings were told by Y. G. Rokityanskiy.

  • Were documents really found regarding the death of Oleg Vavilov?
  • In the State Archive of the Russian Federation, in the fund of the All-Union Committee for Physical Culture and Sports, a whole complex of invaluable documentary evidence of this story has been discovered. It turned out that the committee carefully recorded, analyzed and investigated cases related to the death of climbers. The existence of such a case was learned by the researcher of repressions against the mountain hikers, climber Y.S. Pustovalov.

He reported this to Yuri Nikolaevich Vavilov. Yuri Nikolaevich got acquainted with the documents, then I did, too. We made photocopies of all the documents found, and now historians have at their disposal almost the entire annals of these dramatic events: 170 sheets. Among the documents found are minutes of discussion of the death of O. Vavilov, reports of participants in a trip to the Caucasus and specific information about his last hours. Especially a lot of materials about the organization and progress of the body searches, reports, telegram exchange. In search of the body of O. Vavilov, his uncle, president of the USSR Academy of Sciences, gave 10 thousand rubles. Famous climbers took part in two trips, but his wife found the body, the brightest and most heroic woman I had ever met. When almost the entire group left, and the two remaining climbers were about to do the same, Lidiya Vasilyevna stubbornly continued to look for her husband's body. When Sidorenko heard her scream and went to the place where she found Oleg’s body, he saw that Lidiya Vasilyevna turned gray in a few minutes. She buried Oleg at the climbing cemetery in Dombay, attaching a tablet brought from Moscow to a stone: "In February 1946 here died Oleg Vavilov, a talented scientist, my dearest and closest man".

  • What does the overall picture of events look like now?
  • It was  group of 9 climbers, which included Oleg Vavilov. They were led by an experienced climber, professor of Moscow State University, mathematician V.V. Nemytskiy. Participants also included the now-famous academician I. Shafarevich. At the very last moment, Boris Ivanovich Schneider, born in 1905, a graduate student of the Institute of Philosophy, a teacher of Marxism-Leninism, joined the group. He was a mountaineering instructor, graduated from a special school, conquered 27 peaks. Everything speaks in favor of the fact that this particular person was an agent of the NKVD and received a special task from the secret services of that time: to kill Oleg Vavilov. Apparently, he had an assistant A.D. Belyaev, who joined the group with him and helped to carry out the crime at all stages. On January 24, the group left Moscow, and on January 29 they reached the basecamp "Nauka" in Dombay.
  • What is known about Schneider’s actions at this time?
  • He behaved nervously and aggressively. On the way to the Caucasus and after arriving at the camp, he insisted on climbing to the top of Mount Semenov-Bashi, which was next to the camp. This perseverance is evidence that he did not go to rest, but to fulfill an assignment. This ascent was not part of the group’s plan; the group didn't have the necessary equipment, for example, edged boots. But Schneider insisted, he was vigorously supported by A.D. Belyaev, who insisted on "the elementary nature of the rise and absolute safety, if you go the right way." This argument had an impact on Nemytskiy, who violated the instructions and agreed to the ascent. Schneider managed to convince Oleg Vavilov to do it. Vavilov was a mountaineer with experience, climbing to a relatively low mountain wasn't a challenge for him.

He was a very straightforward person and did not suspect that he was in mortal danger. In order not to cause Oleg’s concern, Schneider included one more person in the group — MSU student Y.S. Sayasov.

The ascent began on February 3, they spent the night in a Zaporozhye Cossacks camp and on the morning of the 4th moved on. Soon, Schneider advised Sayasov not to climb up but to stay down and do some skiing, so that he could return to the camp together. He did not need a witness. And subsequently, all the actions of Schneider were very carefully thought out from the point of view of his main goal.

  • Is it possible to say that it is now known how the eldest son of Vavilov was killed?
  • Schneider consciously led Oleg to a steep cliff - the only deadly place in Mount Semenov-Bashi. Subsequently, analyzing this ascent, famous climbers noted that there were many opportunities to safely reach the summit. Having studied this route, A.A. Maleinov, Master of Sports in Mountaineering, said: "The path chosen by Schneider and Vavilov is more than strange. One must be out of his mind to go this way, climbing cliffs with a height exceeding a 6-story building.

    When leaving the Cossacks camp on the snowy slopes, it seemed possible to bypass the rocky area on the left, slightly extending the route... On the way to the cliffs, Schneider and Vavilov missed 4 opportunities to avoid a clearly dangerous climb." I would like to note that the path was determined not by Oleg, but by B.I. Schneider. This was not insanity, but the fulfillment of the special task of the NKVD to destroy the man.

– 4 –

A wound from an ice ax was discovered on Oleg’s body. This murder weapon is mentioned twice In the documents. In the first case, Schneider told how he untied the safety ropes that connected him with Oleg on the rocks under the pretext that he had forgotten his ice ax somewhere nearby. As a result, Oleg found himself on the edge of the abyss in a helpless position, without any insurance, in boots not suitable for mountaineering.

Then further on Schneider says that after picking up the ice ax he imperceptibly approached Oleg and struck him in the right temple, as a result of which Oleg fell into the abyss. Later, Oleg’s skis and ropes were discovered below. Throwing Oleg off a cliff "just like that" was risky; he could have survived.

  • What happened next?
  • Having completed the NKVD mission, Schneider acted like a skilled killer. He took the ice ax with him so that he would not be found at the crime scene. Schneider spent a lot of time at the cliffs. He later said that he was "in despair", smoked, trying to calm down. I think the main task was to gain time. It began to snow. It is possible that he went down and hid Oleg’s body so that experienced climbers during two missions could not find him. In the evening, Schneider began to descend, met Sayasov, they spent the night in the Cossacks camp, and then they went down to the basecamp on February 5 at 4 pm. And this delay was not accidental. After all, it was getting dark. The killer knew very well that Oleg’s comrades were unlikely to go looking for his body in the evening.
  • And how did his companions react to the news of Oleg's death? After all, according to the rules of climbers, they had to go in search of the deceased?
  • Schneider outlined his version of Oleg’s death: they say, he himself fell into the abyss, and confusedly explained the reasons for the delay on the way back. He also said that he was too tired to lead the group members in search of Oleg. He was warmly supported by A.D. Belyaev, who pretended to be sick, so as not to take part in this matter.

Professor V.V. Nemytskiy did not insist. And the other members of the group were not eager go looking right away, although the mountain side was near the camp. Shafarevich objected especially vigorously, who, as Lidiya Vasiliyevna told me, urged everyone to have some rest. It seems to me that they all understood that it was a murder. They knew who Oleg’s father was, and they witnessed Schneider insisting on climbing and begging Oleg to join him. This was a unique case in the history of mountaineering, when a friend was left to the mercy of fate. Later, all members of the group were reproved by the Committee on Physical Culture and Sports "for failure to fulfill their civic duty after the accident". Schneider was condemned at climbers meetings, called a murderer in his face. His attempts to defend himself didn't convince anybody. There were appeals to the prosecutor’s office, later there was some kind of trial, which, unfortunately, I don’t know anything about. But what could a court prove when the killer was the only witness to the crime?

Schneider walked away unscathed. He was defended by an organization whose mission he performed so flawlessly on February 4, 1946.

  • Why do you think Stalin needed to kill Oleg Vavilov?
  • As early as the 30s, Stalin started destroying the sons of the "enemies of the people" he hated. The children of Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Pyatakov, Lakoba, Muralov and others were shot. Many repressed children were in special orphanages and camps. There are known cases of the execution, after the war, of those children of "enemies of the people" who escaped the attention of punitive organs and were able to achieve high results in their work. Oleg belonged to this particular group of young people. The son of one of the scientists most hated by Stalin brilliantly graduated from the university, worked fruitfully at the Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences, successfully defended his dissertation, which at that time was much more prestigious than now. Stalin knew that in the summer of 1943 Oleg was in Saratov and found out in the local NKVD department when and under what circumstances his father died. One should not exclude the denunciation of any envious person from the LPI or the desire of Stalin to influence Oleg's uncle, the President of the USSR Academy of Sciences Academician S.N. Vavilov. When Sergey Nikolaevich died, it turned out that he suffered nine heart attacks. Two of them were most likely the result of the death of his brother and nephew.
  • But why kill Oleg in the Caucasus? After all, this could be done in Moscow.
  • This could start undesirable rumors in the capital, which could be overheard by foreign diplomats.

It is known that during the Tehran Conference W. Churchill asked Stalin about Vavilov. After the war ended, foreign scientists, including A. Einstein, began to be interested in the fate of Nikolay Ivanovich and turn to his colleagues and officials with inquiries. The murder in Moscow could destroy the legend of the natural death of the Academician Nikolay Vavilov. After all, the scientist himself was arrested in August 1940, not in Moscow, but in Western Ukraine, during a scientific expedition. A death in the mountains, far from the capital, could be easily explained as an accident. I think that even after the appearance of this material, there will be Stalinists who will question the fact of the murder of Oleg Vavilov. They will demand the text of the order of their idol, forgetting that such documents could not exist, and the corresponding orders were given, of course, verbally. If we want to be objective, then on the basis of documents and memoirs, it can be argued with conviction that the secret services carried out a unique operation to destroy the son of Nikolay Vavilov in early February 1946. They accomplished that by the hands of a professional climber Schneider.

– 5 –

From the memoirs of Lidiya Vasilyevna Kurnosova-Vavilova: "...When Oleg was buried, he could no longer be recognized... I gathered rhododendrons from everywhere, and put them in a coffin. The funeral took place. The militia fired into the air. I prepared a plaque in Moscow in advance. I tied the plate to a large stone.

Then they got together and remembered my husband. When I returned to Moscow, Veksler told me: "Leave the Institute of Mechanical Engineering... I will tear you out like a radish and put you in the position of Oleg." This indicates how painfully the LPI employees accepted Oleg’s death and how they loved him. Since then I have been taking his place at the LPI for more than 55 years."

Lidiya Vasilyevna was an amazing woman. If not for her devotion to her husband, perhaps Oleg’s body would never have been found. So, the secret of his death would forever remain a secret. But what the strong and courageous men could not do was the strength of a charming young woman. Because love is the most mysterious of all natural phenomena, and even eminent physicists know about it, it turns out, not all.

Lidiya Vasilyevna Kurnosova was a well-known specialist in the field of space research, astrophysics and cosmic ray physics. She gave 65 years to science, passed away in the summer of 2006, and a few words from the obituary, signed by the most famous Russian scientists, will say more about her than a thick scientific book: “Lidiya Vasilyevna possessed wonderful human qualities: kindness, respect and love for people, a keen sense of duty and personal responsibility; she had an attractive appearance, strict beauty, combined with a sharp mind, liveliness of character and great charm. Many acquaintances with Lidiya Vasilyevna (both men and women) were literally in love with this extraordinary woman."

L.V. Kurnosova fell to the lot more tests than an ordinary person has the strength to endure. Half a century after the death of Oleg Vavilov, the only son of Lidiya Vasiliyevna, Mihail Kurnosov, who went on a business trip to Kabardino-Balkaria, was kidnapped, taken to Chechnya and was held captive for a year. All attempts to save him were in vain. In the spring of 2000, the bandits beat him with sticks, and the place of his burial is unknown. The Caucasus turned out to be a fateful place in her life, but she passed away undefeated.

Lidiya Vasilyevna Kurnosova Vavilova
Lidiya Vasilyevna Kurnosova-Vavilova

Probably, only such a woman could become the wife of Oleg Vavilov, whose brilliant take-off was interrupted by the hand of a secret service agent.

Further read › Stalin vs. Science: The Life and Murder of Nikolai Vavilov

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