The Soviet Union’s ideological and inefficient view of science
By Aileen M. Kelly
December 5, 2016
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.
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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.