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John Green reviews the video game Tetris and the seed potatoes of Leningrad.

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Hello and welcome to the Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. My name is John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing the video game Tetris and the seed potatoes of Leningrad.

Let's start with Tetris. In June of 1984, the computer programmer Alexey Pajitnov was working for the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He was twenty-eight years old and a bit of a puzzle nerd. To test the capabilities of the computers he worked on, Pajitnov liked to create simple games, and that month he developed a game in which the player had to fit various kinds of tetraminoes together—a tetramino being a shape composed of four connected squares. Tetraminoes come in seven possible configurations and Tetris has all of them. Your job is to fit them together in a way that forms horizontal lines that can then disappear. Tetris—named for tetraminoes and Pajitnov’s favorite sport, tennis—would go on to infect the thoughts and dreams of millions of people, and also lead to a complex series of lawsuits over who owns intellectual property created by an employee of a totalitarian state that no longer exists.

When Tetris came to the United States in 1989, the game’s tagline was, “From Russia with FUN.” The Berlin Wall fell that year. The Cold War was ending. The promise of freedom and democracy was toppling dictatorships throughout eastern Europe, and the speed of all that change was truly dizzying. I was in second grade when Alexey Pajitnov invented Tetris; my teacher still had us practice hiding under our desks in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. 

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Two years later, Billy Joel became the first popular American musician ever to tour the Soviet Union; and three years after that, Tetris arrived from Russia with fun.

And partly due to this rapid change and instability, nobody knew exactly who owned Tetris. Pajitnov gave the rights for distributing the game to the Soviet government, partly because he’d developed it for his government work and partly because he was afraid not to. The Soviet government then formed an organization to distribute the game, but at least six different companies claimed distribution rights. It was a complete mess, with courts eventually getting involved, but when it all shook out, Tetris was available in the U.S. for the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System as well as Nintendo’s new handheld gaming device, the Game Boy, where I and several million other people fell in love with it.

All the while, Alexey Pajitnov received almost no money from the success of Tetris and continued to work for the state. He developed a 3-dimensional sequel to Tetris named Welltris, which was much more challenging and complex than Tetris, but also less good. Welltris came out for the Commodore 64 gaming system in 1991 with the tagline “The Soviet Challenge Continues,” which ultimately proved to be untrue—the Soviet Union collapsed later that year.

So Pajitnov moved to the U.S., where he worked on the Nintendo game Yoshi’s Cookie and various other projects before eventually taking a full-time job at Microsoft. Although the USSR no longer existed, it still owned Tetris, so the Russian government continued to receive royalties until 1996, when the now-Russian government’s deal with Pajitnov expired and he finally began to make money off the game he’d invented 12 years earlier. 

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By then, of course, video games had moved on—1996 saw the release of Duke Nuke Em and Tomb Raider—but Tetris remained enduringly popular, and there was a huge surge of sales with the emergence of gaming on smartphones. In fact, today, Tetris is the bestselling video game of all time.

Its story—the creator who received no royalties until he became American and claimed his rightful intellectual property—exemplifies the American Dream. It’s a story of immigration and capitalism and freedom of creative expression. But it is also, like any story, more complicated than that: One of Pajitnov’s collaborators, with whom he moved to the United States, eventually killed himself and his family after going broke. Pajitnov did eventually get paid for the tremendous value he created, but most of the people who got rich off of Tetris—from Nintendo stockholders to licensing middlemen—did little if anything to make the game what it is. In short, the story of Tetris is the story of capitalism—almost all the value that is created gets captured, but it isn’t always captured by those who create it.   

As for the game itself, the genius of Tetris is its simplicity—Pajitnov’s original program used only 2.7 kilobytes of memory. Shapes fall out of the sky, and you try to fit them together to form horizontal lines, which then disappear. Most expert players aim to build nearly complete lines while waiting for the coveted straight long piece, which can be inserted into the missing space to erase four lines at once, a high-scoring accomplishment called “A Tetris.” 

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As a kid, I played Tetris on my Nintendo Entertainment System so much that I often experienced the so-called Tetris Effect, first described by Jeffrey Goldsmith in Wired Magazine. “At night," he wrote, "geometric shapes fell in the darkness. Days, I sat on a lavender suede sofa and played Tetris furiously. During rare jaunts from the house, I visually fit cars and trees and people together.” 

These days, I often hear my contemporaries express bafflement that young people watch other people play video games on Twitch or YouTube, but I get it: I could watch friends play Tetris for hours. Even now, I find watching replays of the Tetris World Championships literally mesmerizing. There’s an extraordinary satisfaction to watching a clean stack build, a magnificent tension to waiting for the long piece, and then the thrill and relief of that long piece’s eventual arrival and boom, Tetris. The lines clear, and the building begins anew. Tetris is a game about time and space—time is always speeding up, with blocks falling faster and faster, and space is always filling in. There is no winning—Tetris always ends the same way, no matter how expertly you place the blocks. You play until you die. It takes five minutes to learn Tetris. It’s not grand or ambitious. It's merely perfect.

Tetris was the first great distraction of my life, and I don’t mean that as an insult. I don’t know if I’m alone in this regard, but I have this omnipresent pain inside me, a constant and gnawing pain that I’m always trying to distract myself from feeling. 

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This pain is generally a kind of minor background anguish that only occasionally gets bad enough to take over my life, but it’s also never not there. It is hard for me to describe the pain without resorting to figurative language, but I think it is the pain of meaninglessness, the fear that my vast interior life will die with me and that my brief miraculous flicker of consciousness will not have been for anything. For me at least, there is a terrifying depravity to meaninglessness, because it calls into question not only why I write and read and garden and eat and love and everything else, but also whether I should even bother, which is a line of thinking I genuinely cannot afford to indulge. Of course, such pain must be confronted and dealt with, carefully considered and battled against. There are times for deep engagement with the overwhelming questions. But there are also times for pure and magnificently empty distraction.

Enter Tetris, which is incredibly effective at distracting me from that way-down pain. And I think effective distractions are a gift to the world, because when that background pain overwhelms me, I can't do the work of finding and building meaning in my life. Of course, distractions can become too powerful. They can begin to substitute for meaning. But I still wouldn’t want to attempt consciousness without them. Like, I hear good things about meditating until you achieve enlightenment, but in my particular case, there’s no way I’d survive it. Tetris is as close as I’m every going to get to Nirvana. I give Tetris four and a half stars.

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In a moment, we’ll turn to the seed potatoes of Leningrad, but first, you know Rene Descartes, the French philosopher who famously declared I think therefore I am? He was also an early contact
lens designer—back in 1636, he proposed affixing a glass testtube-like structure directly to the cornea, although the design was a little unrealistic as it prevented blinking. These days off course, contacts are amazing, but the process of acquiring them often isn’t—with simple contacts, however, you can renew your prescription and order contacts quickly and inexpensively. I should note that this is not a replacement for your full eye health exam, but without ever leaving the comfort of your house, you can take a five-minute vision test and renew your prescription and get contacts sent to you. And with over 3,000 5-star ratings in the app store, simple contacts is an astonishingly straightforward and inexpensive way to get contacts. Go to simplecontacts dot com slash anthro20 to get $20 off your first order and live the dream that Rene Descartes imagined for you; once again, that’s simple contacts dot com slash anthro20. Now back to the

Okay, let's move on to the seed potatoes of Leningrad. One of the more promising features of the Anthropocene is that in the last few hundred years, human life has become far less violent. In Italy, to take one example, people were almost twice as likely to be murdered in 1913 than in 2013, but the further you go back in history, the more violent life becomes.

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In 1550, the Italian homicide rate is estimated to have been twenty five times higher than it is today. Death from war has also becomes less common—despite the two World Wars, humans in the twentieth century were less likely to die in battle than in any previous century in history.

And yet, the world wars were terrifyingly and relentlessly violent, and no nation suffered more than the Soviet Union. In World War II, over eight million soldiers died, and over thirteen million civilians. For context, 405,399 Americans died in World War II. In fact, if you add together all the American deaths from all the wars in the history of the United States, about 1.4 million Americans have died from war. More than 1.6 million Soviet citizens died in a single city in World War II during the 872-day siege of Leningrad, a port city in northwestern Russia today known as St. Petersburg.

By the time World War II broke out, the Soviet Union had amassed by far the world’s largest seedbank—a collection of over 250,000 samples of agricultural crops from rice to wheat to berries—under the leadership of the botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who served as the director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences and of the Institute of Plant Industry, which might be the two most thoroughly Soviet institution names of all time.

Vavilov and his colleagues believed that the preservation of seed varietals could help the Soviet Union and the world to develop crops more resistant to droughts and pests, and in doing so end human starvation. They traveled the word collecting seeds and cuttings, most of which were stored in vaults at the Institute of Plant Industry.

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But more than six thousand varieties of potatoes and other tubers were maintained outside the city, at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, overseen by two agricultural scientists, Abraham Kameraz and Olga Voskresenskaia. As the Germans began to bomb the outskirts of the city in the summer of 1941, Kameraz and Voskresenskaia frantically harvested potatoes at the experimental station as bombs fell in the fields around them. They then took the potatoes into the city, where with colleagues they boxed up thousands more seeds and cuttings. They got what they could out of the city, and then hunkered down in a building on Saint Isaac’s Square with the remainder of their collection.

By then they knew that their boss and mentor Nikolai Vavilov had disappeared, like so many others in Stalin's Soviet Union, but they did not know that Vavilov was in a prison, where he would starve to death in 1943. The responsibility for protection the collection fell to Kameraz and Voskresenskaia and their colleagues in Leningrad.

Within days, the Axis powers had surrounded the city of Leningrad, cutting off all supply routes. Hitler expected the siege to last a few weeks before starvation resulted in surrender. After that, the Nazis planned to destroy the city and its people. One Nazi directive read in part, “There can be no interest in the continued existence of this large urban center.” But for the Nazis there was an interest in the seeds—Hitler was obsessed with securing land for agriculture and improving yields through better seeds, and the Nazis tasked a special SS commando unit with finding and securing Vavilov’s seed collection.

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Bombardment began almost immediately—over a thousand civilians were killed in a single day, September 19, 1941. But most of the civilians who died during the siege of Leningrad starved. In that first winter, civilians in Leningrad had fewer than five ounces of bread per day to eat, and it was extremely poor quality—in many cases, the bread was over 50% sawdust. Infrastructure was destroyed, making it difficult to seek medical care or travel to receive what little food rations were available. One diarist wrote, “Only skeletons, not people.” Another recalled his father, dying from hunger, crying out, “Where is my body?” During the bitterly cold winter of 1941/1942, 100,000 people in besieged Leningrad died each month. One woman was so thin she was mistakenly stacked with corpses until her husband insisted she was still breathing; their son Viktor had already died of diphtheria during the siege, but the couple both survived and went on to have another son in 1952, named Vladimir Putin.

One detail has always stuck with me from my readings about the siege of Leningrad: Wallpaper paste had often been made from potato starches, so all through the city, people stripped wallpaper from their homes, removed the paste, and boiled it to make soup.

Meanwhile, the disciples of Vavilov had thousands of varieties of rice and wheat. They had thousands more edible seed potatoes that Kameraz and Voskresenskaia had saved. But what you eat now, you cannot plant later. Together, the Institute’s scientists pledged to save these seeds for the future.

The seedbank workers of Leningrad had to save their specimens first from the Nazis—that commando unit never got to the collection—but also from their starving compatriots in Leningrad, who were desperate with hunger.

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Then there were the rats and mice—people reported that the rodent population was worse than normal that first winter because people had resorted to eating all the cats.

The potatoes were the hardest of all, because they required warmth—if they froze through they would die. Heat was scarce in winter, but the first fuel went to keep the seed potatoes warm. Working in shifts, the seedbank scientists stayed with their collection 24 hours a day, feeding the fire and protecting the seeds.

Years later, one of the workers, Vadim Lechnovich, was asked if it was hard to keep from eating the rice and wheat and potatoes all around him. He replied, “It was hard to walk. It was unbearably hard to get up every morning, to move your hands and feet … But it was not in the least difficult to refrain from eating up the collection. What was involved was the cause of your life, the cause of your comrade’s lives.”

Peanut specialist A. G. Stchukin died at his desk in the building on Saint Isaac Square, an uneaten package of peanuts in his hand. Dmitri Ivanov, who oversaw the rice collection at the seedbank, died of starvation at his post, surrounded by bags of rice. The keeper of the oat collection, Lillya Rodina, died, as did the Gregori Krier, who managed the herb collection,
and both Abraham Kameraz and Olga Voskresenskaia, the potato saviors. All together, at least a dozen of the Institute’s scientists starved to death during the siege.

They probably could have survived on that collection of seeds, but instead, the seeds survived, in many cases, they were the only examples of their particular varietal. 

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We still use those seeds—decades after World War II, for instance, the descendants of some seeds that survived the war were used to replenish seed stocks following drought in Ethiopia. When blight comes or the climate changes, we turn to seedbanks, including the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, which is still in St. Isaac’s Square all these decades later.

Humans are often criticized for being short-term thinkers, unable to see past their own lives. And yes, in desperate situations we can become desperate animals. But it is also human to die for want of potatoes you are saving for people you do not know. Every seed contains a possibility of life yet to come, and when given the choice between themselves today or everyone tomorrow, the seedbank workers of Leningrad chose us. Let us remember their example. I give the seed potatoes of Leningrad four and a half stars.     
Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a coproduction of WNYC Studios and Complexly Media. This episode was written by me; our edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Jenny Lawton. The music was composed by Hannis Brown and Joe Plourde is the technical director. Thanks also to Raphael, who wrote to suggest I review the Tetris World Championships, which didn’t quite become today's topic but did lead me to many joyful hours watching the Tetris World Championships. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review or just say hi, please email us at anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com, or you can find us on twitter or facebook. 

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If you want to help our podcast, tell your friends about it or write a review—I know all podcasts say that, but we say it because it really does help. My favorite fact that didn’t make it in to today’s episode: The famous Tetris soundtrack was adapted by the Japanese composer Hirokazu Tanaka from a Russian folk song that was itself an adaptation of a Nikolai Nekrasov poem. The song ends with a boy, in love, pledging to marry a girl. In the original poem, after the couple fall in love, the boy is robbed and then killed. God I love Russian literature. Thanks against for listening; we leave you today with the sound of my brother playing the Tetris theme song with actual party blowers.