Book Review

Pomegranate Roads: A Soviet Botanist’s Exile from Eden

by Dr. Gregory Moiseyevich Levin

Forestville, California: Floreant Press, 2006, 212 pp, 8
color plates, black-and-white photos, original art and
maps. ISBN-0-9649497-6-8, trade paperback $18 + $3
for shipping. Order at website:
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Reviewed by Matthew Cobbett (1/2007)

Flying over the eastern border of Turkmenistan en route to Dubai, I had time to plunge into Pomegranate Roads, Dr. Gregory Levin’s part narrative-part autobiography of his lifelong quest to understand the ubiquitous pomegranate in all its forms. Dr. Levin, now 73 and residing in exile in Israel, is the world’s foremost punicologist; a botanist who devoted 40 years of continuous research and exploration based at the Garrigala Agricultural Research Station in Turkmenistan. Until the demise of the USSR in 1990, Turkmenistan was a part of that empire; it gained its independence in 1991.

Without Levin’s research and contribution to punicology, the world would have been deprived of our rather limited current understanding of pomegranates. More important, without him the majority of the best pomegranate varieties might have been lost forever, destroyed in the physical decimation that the new Turkmenistan government wreaked upon former USSR facilities—at Garrigala the pomegranate trees were uprooted and replaced with vegetables. As Levin laconically observes: human stupidity knows no limitations. Before the implosion and ensuing chaos, Levin had the foresight to donate the best varieties to international germplasm repositories, mainly in Israel and the USA. During his 40 years at Garrigala he had overseen the expansion in the number of pomegranate accessions from 64 to 1,117. For that achievement alone he deserves our thanks.

By the time I landed in Johannesburg, I had devoured Dr. Levin’s offering and was left marveling at the brilliance of the man. A self-confessed fatalist, Levin has faced adversity all his life and triumphed. Yet, one cannot help sympathize that in his twilight years he lives in exile in Israel. “I have found beauty everywhere,” he says. But today he must switch on his television to catch a glimpse of his beloved Caucasus Mountains. Despite all this, the man has no regrets. Small wonder, because he has accomplished much in his life. This book reveals why: his rigorous research and achievements, while modestly stated in the book, are there for all to behold.

Gregory Levin was born in Leningrad in 1933 and lived through the siege of that city, which led to the deaths of his father and his three uncles. He himself recognizes that fate saved him whilst all around him was carnage. Emerging fatherless from Stalingrad after the war, the “Little Botanist,” as he was nicknamed at school, decided to pursue his passions for gardening and scientific research. After graduating cum laude in 1957, Levin applied to undertake post-graduate research, but was declined solely because of the Jewish quota system that the Soviets had initiated. This rejection hurt, but with the help of few friends he did eventually gain acceptance for post-graduate research and was posted to his “Eden,” the Turkmen Experimental Agricultural Station (Garrigala), initially to study Baabarab apple trees. In this verdant Eden—the Sumbar Valley—he came into contact with pomegranates and his mission for the next 40 years was defined.

Pomegranate Roads enthralls and enlightens. Turkmenistan is not well known, yet Dr. Levin weaves a rich tapestry of its geography and culture, combined with anecdotal observations and description of his travels on foot and horseback through mountain search of the elusive pomegranate dwarf variety or other weird mutations. It could be dry and heavy going but Levin has such a commanding grasp of punicology and the regions of Central Asia that he brings great vitality and life, so much that even the most ignorant reader will be entertained as well as educated. One can only imagine the joy of being able to savor the places and fruits that flesh out this story.

Pomegranate Roads is a story of how great adversity can be overcome in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, ultimately leading to achievement of results. Hence the book should appeal both to budding punicologists as well as to those who, like me, have a fascination for the Soviet Union with its attendant bouts of madness. As Dr. Levin repeats in the text: one does not choose one’s times, one just lives in them and dies.

The book consists of less than 200 pages and can be read in one sitting. It is that fascinating. It does not purport to be a definitive exposition of anything; it is rather the life story, thoughts and philosophy of the principal founder of punicology and an avid humanist, Dr. Gregory Levin. In that context, the book deserves a wide audience. Faults can be easily found; the book has too many chapters and could be better organized and there is some repetition; yet these faults are forgivable because the sum of its content greatly outweighs its limitations.

Barbara Baer, who wrote the highly entertaining introduction, was instrumental in making Pomegranate Roads happen. She sought out Dr. Levin and persuaded him to put pen to paper. Without her exceptional foresight and tenacity, this book would not exist and the intriguing story of Dr. Levin, the Pomegranate Plant Hunter, would not have been told. Russia’s loss has been the world’s gain: the man whose quest it was “to explore the harmony of the world through science.” Amen.

Note: Serious punicologists should watch for Dr. Levin’s Pomegranate, anticipated to be forthcoming in 2007.

© Copyright 2007, California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc.
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