Controlled Experiments

The Soviet Union’s ideological and inefficient view of science

Trofim Lysenko (left) replaced Nikolai Vavilov (right) as director of the Soviet Institute of Genetics. Vavilov later died in prison. (Wikimedia Commons, left; Library of Congress, right)
Trofim Lysenko (left) replaced Nikolai Vavilov (right) as director of the Soviet Institute of Genetics. Vavilov later died in prison. (Wikimedia Commons, left; Library of Congress, right)


Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 1905–1953 by Simon Ings; Atlantic Monthly Press, 528 pp., $28

No country with a long-standing social framework for science has seen less of a change in that framework than Russia. The explanation is that developments there have always been driven from the top down, beginning with the initiatives of Peter the Great (“science by decree,” as Alexander Vucinich puts it in the first of his two groundbreaking volumes on science in Russian culture up to 1917). Catherine II was motivated—at least initially—by admiration for the work of leading Enlightenment figures in the West, but it was more common for rulers to act because of some perceived Russian failure in the face of Western technological advantage, whether defeat in the Crimean War, economic and industrial unpreparedness for modern conflict in 1914, or the Soviet Union’s need to catch up with a century of Western technological and industrial achievement in 10 years, lest, as Stalin said in 1931, “they crush us.” Old habits of scientific and technical direction from the top persisted even after Stalin, as with Khrushchev’s “virgin lands” projects, which sought to increase Soviet agricultural production by placing vast areas of new land under cultivation.

In Stalin and the Scientists, Simon Ings, culture editor at New Scientist (UK), very effectively relates a set of stories—compelling, often horrifying, sometimes both at once—of the most singular period in the history of Russian science. Singular, but nevertheless firmly anchored in pre-Stalinist Russian history and reaching into the future, too. To get full value from the book, readers would ideally take it together with Vucinich’s volumes and the mainly post-Stalinist Manipulated Science by the Russian scientific journalist Mark Popovsky, who observed at first hand much of what it reports.

The distinctive feature of the autocratic Stalinist era was not tyranny—an unavoidable component of Russian history, merely refined and systematized after the Bolsheviks took power—but ideology. What made the period unique was in part the secular religion at the heart of Marxist thought and, even more, the way in which it was interpreted. Ings correctly points to the effect in several scientific fields during Stalin’s reign of a sacred text, Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1908–1909), which can be described with economy and accuracy as a philosophically illiterate rant. Broadly speaking, Lenin’s “objective” materialism was in, and any variety of idealism or subjectivism, which implied extra layers of mind and thought between material reality and direct human perception of it, was out. This proved unfortunate for quantum mechanics and relativity, for example, and even more perilously so for the Russian scientists who showed too much interest in them. (Einstein himself ceased to be a philosophical hot potato only after the end of the Soviet Union.) From the official point of view, most lines of psychological research carried the dangerous odor of subjectivism. Less obviously, the concept of the gene—not yet a material object in Stalin’s day—and anything else resembling modern research in genetics was suspect. A savage irony is that Lenin’s intention in 1908 had nothing whatever to do with science: his book attacked not deviant philosophers or scientists but rival factions of his party at a time when his primacy was under threat.

The Marxist-Leninist test of science was usefulness. This approach eventually yielded advances in engineering, including electrification, the development of heavy industry, and the “human engineering” of the new Soviet Man (anticipated in many ways by Bazarov, the nihilist central character in Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 novel, Fathers and Sons), but the field first in need of help was agriculture. Thus biologists, botanists, and chemists were provided resources lavish by previous Russian standards—an approach the state later replicated in other areas of applied science. In principle, this was a recipe for success, albeit one that incurred significant economic, environmental, and human costs. In practice, it ran into two problems, both with deep roots in Russian history.

The first was that the leaders who made the grand plans, knowing little or nothing of science, could not distinguish between the feasible and the impossible. Where they sought or received scientific advice, they had no sound basis for evaluating it, or for realizing that in remarkably many cases their advisers were fantasists or charlatans. Ings is particularly good in rounding up a gallery of grotesques to highlight this point.

The most notorious specimen, the biologist Trofim Lysenko, dismissed Darwinian natural selection and claimed experimental confirmation of the Lamarckian view that acquired characteristics, such as change in the germinating season for wheat or the adaptation of temperate plants to extreme climates, were passed on by inheritance. This pleasing conformity with Soviet ideology, and the possibility that plant breeding might improve the state of agriculture quickly enough to help meet the goals of the Five Year Plan, caught the direct attention of Stalin, himself something of a self-taught Lamarckian (and hobby botanist, according to Ings, with his own large greenhouses). Dissenting scientists lost the right to publish; some were purged. Lysenko’s chief critic died in prison. The protracted destructive effect on Soviet agriculture and related sciences outlived even Stalin.

The second problem was one of political structure and organization. Top-level autocrats benefited from the mushroom growth of minor autocrats at lower levels. Careerists could succeed by attaching themselves to patrons, following their orders, and even anticipating their wishes. Trying to make any sense of the orders was unnecessary and occasionally life-threatening. Encased in traditional Russian bureaucracy, this system was scarcely a model of efficiency.

Luckily, inefficiency had its advantages, too. Some patrons heading scientific institutes respected reality more than official orthodoxies and were able to shelter numbers of promising researchers in odd corners of their territories where ideology hardly penetrated. Moreover, some patrons defended science against ideology in open forums yet managed to survive both professionally and physically. It is no coincidence that scientists whose work remains an honor to Russian science—Abram Ioffe, Igor Tamm, Alexander Luria, Alexei Lyapunov, and others—are strongly represented among the researchers and their protectors. Ings gives them due credit, as he does for heroes like the botanist Nikolai Vavilov and physicist and scientific historian Boris Hessen, who were not so fortunate. Their continued insistence on the realities of their sciences, and science as such, where these contradicted the ruling ideology, made Hessen into an internationally visible inconvenience and Vavilov a scapegoat for the failures of state programs that he himself had opposed. The consequences were fatal for both.

One criticism, which might also be taken as praise, is that the book’s stories of Soviet science could well have been longer. In a limited space, a reader may receive confusing or incomplete impressions of the roles and character of individuals who appear and of surreal features such as the sharaga system (illuminated in detail by Leonid Kerber in Stalin’s Aviation Gulag), in which scientists and engineers, useful technicians but potentially independent thinkers and thus a danger to the state, were confined in special prison camps with quite generous living conditions and adequate facilities for the projects the state assigned to them.

Ings’s subtitle suggests a balance between triumph and tragedy. But technically, the triumphs in Soviet science, where they emerged, could have been achieved without the accompanying tragic human cost. A saying popular in Russia in the declining years of the Soviet regime is relevant here: “What is communism? The longest and most difficult path from capitalism to capitalism.”

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Aileen M. Kelly is a fellow of King’s College and a reader in intellectual history and Russian culture, emerita, at the University of Cambridge. Her new book is The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen.


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