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The Forbidden Garden of Leningrad

Hardcover / ISBN-13: 9781399714556

Price: £25

ON SALE: 14th November 2024

Genre: Humanities / History / Military History / Second World War

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From the winner of the 2023 Wingate Literary Prize comes a fascinating and moving untold story of the Leningrad scientists who risked everything for the future of humanity

In the summer of 1941, German troops surrounded the Russian city of Leningrad – now St Petersburg – and began the longest blockade in recorded history. By the most conservative estimates, the siege would claim the lives of three-quarters of a million people. Most died of starvation.

At the centre of the embattled city stood a converted palace that housed the greatest living plant library ever amassed – the world’s first seed bank. After attempts to evacuate the collection failed, and as supplies dwindled, the scientists responsible faced a terrible decision: should they distribute the specimens to the starving population, or preserve them in the hope that they held the key to ending global famine?

Drawing on previously unseen sources, The Forbidden Garden tells the remarkable and moving story of the botanists who remained at the Plant Institute during the darkest days of the siege, risking their lives in the name of science.

“A beautifully-written account of one of the most extraordinary and little-known episodes of the Second World War–a scientific feat and act of collective self-sacrifice the consequences of which continue to be felt today.”
Adam Higginbotham, author of Challenger


Sometimes, in history's darkest hours, people of principle and vision find their way to astonishing acts of heroism. Simon Parkin's crisp, vivid prose thrusts us into the harrowing siege of Leningrad during World War II to tell a story of almost unfathomable selflessness. Inspired by their charismatic leader, Nikolai Vavilov, scientists at the world's most important seed bank risked - and gave - their lives to safeguard their collections for the good of future generations. The Forbidden Garden of Leningrad reveals, in harrowing detail, the terrible damage that ideology paired with violence can inflict on human beings and on their cultural and scientific achievements. Against this painful backdrop, Parkin offers a soaring account of the courage, generosity, and love of which humanity is capable in its finest moments. The Forbidden Garden of Leningrad is a crucial, humbling book.
Victoria Johnson, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist <i>American Eden</i>
An astonishing achievement. Simon Parkin has turned a few lines in the history books about Soviet botanists and their unique seed collection during the Nazi siege of Leningrad into a riveting narrative about the loyalties of scientists in wartime. Should the botanists protect the seeds for science and humanity as their famous disappeared leader, Nikolai Vavilov, would have wanted, or eat them to stay alive? Their suffering and sacrifice brings into focus the key role scientists play today in challenging the new crop of anti-science politicians.
Peter Pringle, author of <i>The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov</i>
A beautifully written account of one of the most extraordinary and little-known episodes of the Second World War - a scientific feat and act of collective self-sacrifice the consequences of which continue to be felt today
Adam Higginbotham, <i>New York Times</i>-bestselling author of <i>Midnight in Chernobyl</i> and <i>Challenger</i>
PRAISE FOR THE ISLAND OF EXTRAORDINARY CAPTIVES 'Vivid and moving' MAX HASTINGS 'Excellent . . . a powerful tribute' GUARDIAN 'Riveting' NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW 'Eye-opening, insightful and brilliantly written' DAILY MIRROR 'Exhilarating' SPECTATOR
A gripping, harrowing history of science amid war and starvation, The Forbidden Garden of Leningrad recovers in astonishing detail the efforts of Soviet botanists to maintain their country's most precious seed collection through the siege of Leningrad. It is an unforgettable tale of devotion to science, seeds, and the future
Helen Anne Curry, author of <i>Endangered Maize</i>
What an impressive achievement this book is. Moving, mordant, crushingly sad, and often horrifying, The Forbidden Garden of Leningrad is a useful reminder of how much human drama there remains to excavate from the ruins of the Second World War. Indeed, Simon Parkin has proved himself to be a human dowsing rod for such stories-and, in the meantime, become one of my favourite writers of literary-historical narrative alive.
Tom Bissell, author of APOSTLE
A hugely moving piece of work, full of unforgettable images and moments, and centred on a gripping, compelling drama. The Forbidden Garden of Leningrad is a fascinating, vivid, and gripping book that will leave you feeling as though you have lived through the siege of Leningrad
Henry Hemming, author of <i>Four Shots in the Night</i>