Vangarden Notes: Five Soviet Tomatoes
by H. Bradford
As you may or may not know, one of my hobbies for the past few years has been urban gardening. I can’t say that I have a green thumb, but I do have a “red thumb” as I try to connect this hobby to my larger interest in socialism. This is why the garden is called “the vangarden” as it is a play of words on “vanguard.” I try to do different theme gardens and one of the themes is an Eastern European or Russian inspired garden. This involves growing vegetables that hail from Eastern Europe. In particular, I have been trying out some varieties of tomatoes that have ties to the former Soviet Union. Now, as a Trotskyist I am not someone with a blind adoration of all things Soviet, but it did represent possibility and a distortion of potential. It is also interesting to learn about the history of plants and try out varieties of vegetables that are not available in grocery stores. There are dozens of tomatoes that can be connected to the Soviet Union. These are just a few! (note that the images are not from my garden)
I found this tomato plant at the farmer’s market in Duluth this year. It is an heirloom variety of tomato which was developed in the Ukraine. The tomato seemed to grow without problems from disease, cracking, or pests and produced medium to large sized red tomatoes, with a slightly tapered bottom. I purchased only one plant, but it produced well and actually climbed up the clothes line and a barrier that I had created for a raspberry plant. It was the best growing full sized tomato that I grew last year.
Cosmonaut Volkov is one of hundreds of tomato varieties grown by Igor Malsov (a retired engineer). Maslov named the tomato after his friend Vladislav Volkov. Volkov was one of several cosmonauts killed on the Soyuz 11 accident. The accident occurred on the 30th of June 1971, when the re-entry capsule containing three cosmonauts depressurized as it prepared to reenter Earth’s atmosphere. The cosmonauts on board were the only humans who have died in space.
I am not aware of any other tomato that is named after an astronaut. However, a newly discovered bush tomato is Australia was named after the fictional astronaut from the movie/book “The Martian.” Solanum watneyi or Watney was the name assigned to the bush-tomato. Bush-tomatoes are wild plants that can be toxic to humans, though aborigines ate some varieties by burning, drying, and roasting them.
I have not yet grown Paul Robeson tomatoes, as I only learned about their existence this past fall! It is a smooth, dark colored tomato introduced to the U.S. in the 1990s by a seed saver named from Moscow named Marina Danilenko. Paul Robeson was an African American singer, scholar, lawyer, athlete, actor, Civil Rights activist, anti-imperialist, socialist. He was popular in the Soviet Union, hence the naming of a tomato after him. I am not aware of any other tomato that is named after an African American
Memory to Vavilov:
I have not tried out this variety of tomato, but I thought it would be a good addition to the list. Memory to Vavilov produces small red fruits. Like Paul Robeson, it was made available in the United States by Marina Danilenko during the 1990s. Unfortunately, I can not find out any additional information regarding who Marina Danilenko is. Vavilov was a famous geneticist/botanist from the Soviet Union who contributed to plant science by hypothesizing that there were biodiversity hotspots where many domesticated plants originated and by creating an extensive seed bank in St. Petersburg. He recognized the need to save seeds to preserve biodiversity, which he viewed as essential to food security. This mission was taken so seriously that the scientists at the seed bank did not eat their seeds, even when faced with starvation during the 28 month siege of Leningrad. Vavilov was awarded the Lenin Award, but was later thrown into prison once Stalin consolidated his power, where he continued to give lectures but later died. He was thrown into prison for his opposition to Lysenkoism, or Stalin’s state sponsored scientific position against genetic inheritance, natural selection, and the existence of genes. Vavilov was a hero to science, so I am glad that there is a tomato named after him.
Black Krim is a widely available tomato that I began growing a few years ago. I was fascinated by the fact that it was a burgundy colored tomato. The tomato itself originates in the Isle of Krim in the Black Sea near the Crimean peninsula. It is a large, beefsteak tomato. I have not been able to located an “isle of krim” even though almost every source on the history of Black Krim lists this as its place of origin. The Russian translation of “Crimea” itself is “Krim.” I wonder if these sources are confused or if there is really an “isle of Krim” that also happens to be a part of Crimea. In any event, it is a tomato that is associated with Crimea.
According to various sources (listed at the end) it is possible that the tomato was popularized by soldiers returning from the Crimean War who gathered the seeds and shared them. Although many sources list this history, it is more likely that soldiers popularized black tomatoes in general rather than Black Krim specifically. I believe this because another source lists that Black Krim was discovered by lars Rosenstrom of Sweden in 1990. Black tomatoes are native to Southern Ukraine and were popular across the Soviet Union.
Black tomatoes perform better in warmer climates and do not become as dark in the north. Black tomatoes also have the strongest taste. There were over 50 varieties of black tomatoes grown in the Soviet union, with some black tomatoes that have since been developed in the United States and Germany.
Black Krim tomatoes are dark colored because they have a gene in which the chlorophyll does not break down at it ripens. Thus, the tomato is both red and green, making a purplish brown color. Other black tomatoes, have been either selectively bred or genetically modified to have more anthocyanins, or the pigment which causes eggplant, blueberries, grapes, and plums to be dark colored. The purpose of this is to make it have more anti-oxidants, a longer shelf life, and deeper, darker coloration. Indigo rose was selectively bred over the course of decades (using wild tomatoes) to obtain a darker purple color. There is also a GMO tomato that uses snapdragon genes to create a darker color, though I am not sure if it is commercially available. The media has called the GMO tomato “cancer curing” which is a pretty big feat for a tomato. I think Vavilov would probably approve of simply breeding new varieties and saving the varieties that are already in existence.
Black Prince or Choyrnii Prins:
This is another dark colored tomato. I found a seedling at the farmer’s market in Duluth. The appeal was that it has been grown in Siberia, which I thought would make it particularly cold hardy. It is medium sized with a round shape. I tried it out, but it did not seem to grow as well as Black Krim or other varieties. Since I am already growing Black Krim, I probably would not grow this one again. I am not sure how cold hardy it actually is, as we had a pretty late hard frost this year (Nov. 15th!). But, since tomatoes were first cultivated in Central and South America, I can’t imagine that any tomato is really cold hardy…even one from Siberia!
The above was just a small sample of tomatoes with Soviet connections. Unfortunately, there isn’t a wealth of information on the internet about the history of tomatoes, so it is a patchwork of what I can find. Perhaps next year I can grow the Paul Robeson tomato and “Amur Tiger” an orange cherry tomato. There is also a pink tomato called Kremlin Chiming Clock, named after the 15th century clock which chimes twice a day in Red Square. The variety of tomatoes attests to the popularity of tomatoes in the former Soviet Union. I can imagine them grown in dachas, eaten fresh, added to borsch or solyanka, or chopped up with cucumbers into a salad. While beets, cucumbers, and cabbage rank higher among the vegetables many people associated with Russia and its neighbors, tomatoes must have a special place to have yielded such variety.