How the politicisation of science allowed rogue theories to prosper in the USSR

A new book by Simon Ings reveals the terrors, follies and surprising successes of Soviet science.

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“In general the position of science and research people is somewhat peculiar here,” wrote the Russian physicist Pyotr Kapitsa to his Danish counterpart Niels Bohr in ­October 1936. “It reminds me of a child with a pet animal which is tormented and tortured by him with the best intentions.” The future Nobel laureate was hoping that the child would soon grow up and learn “how to look properly after his pets, and make of them useful domestic animals”.

In the light of events since Stalin had outmanoeuvred Trotsky to succeed Lenin, Kapitsa should have known better. Stalin’s Great Purge was already under way, as he ­attempted to eliminate all opposition, real or imagined. In the years 1937 and 1938, more than 100 physicists were arrested in Leningrad alone in the dictator’s effort to destroy the city’s intellectual and cultural life. The Great Purge resulted in the arrest of roughly eight million people, and almost a million were executed.

As Simon Ings explains in this study of Soviet science from the Russian revolution of 1905 to the death of Stalin in 1953, the ­intelligentsia rose quickly from the poverty of the civil war years to become, in effect, a new bourgeoisie by the Soviet mid-1920s. Specialists of all kinds were well paid and enjoyed privileges because Lenin understood and appreciated their importance. “Communism cannot be built without a fund of knowledge, technology, culture, but they are in the possession of bourgeois specialists,” he said. “Among them, the majority do not approve of the Soviet regime, but without them we cannot build communism.” He knew that they were needed to overcome the many crises facing the country: famine, drought, war and an average life expectancy of just 30 years.

Ings tells his story with vigour and at times it is difficult to keep up with his pace. The bewildering array of scientists, philosophers and politicians is matched by the impressive range of topics that Ings discusses: from Gregor Mendel’s genetics to Boris Hessen’s “Socio-economic Roots of Newton’s Principia”; from Ivan Pavlov’s conditioned reflexes to Lev Vygotsky’s ­cultural-historical psychology. It can leave one feeling a bit light-headed.

“We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries,” Stalin lamented in 1931. “We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.” This attitude led to the disastrous introduction of his five-year plans to industrialise the Soviet Union by fiat while instigating collectivisation, the forced consolidation of land and labour into collective farms. Pure research that was not in the service of the state was deemed an indulgence. Even as “the Coryphaeus of Science”, as Stalin was called, set up a prize in his own name, he was orchestrating the sacking, imprisonment and murder of scientists on a grand scale.

As crops failed and people starved, geneticists, botanists and agronomists were languishing in gulags across the Soviet Union. The desperate need to produce more food allowed charlatans promising results too good to be true to prosper. The most successful of these was Trofim Lysenko. He first came to prominence in the late 1920s, when he claimed that he could transform winter wheat into a spring variety through a process called “vernalisation”. It involved germinating winter wheat and then exposing it to very low temperatures to stop its growth until it was sown in the spring, supposedly leading to greater yields.

No one paid too much attention to Lysenko’s results and claims as he became the poster boy for the way that in the Soviet Union the scion of peasants, by his own efforts, could reach the highest position in intellectual life and gain membership of the Academy of Sciences. Even if it was all an illusion, Lysenko represented home-grown, proletarian science: genetics and psychoanalysis were foreign.

In the chill of the Cold War, Ings writes, it was necessary to champion the patriot Lysenko, to “vilify genetics as a nest of ‘cosmopolitanism’” and to prohibit psycho­analysis. Yet that is only part of the reason why Lysenko was able to get away with making fraudulent claims concerning the transformation of wheat into rye, cultivated oats into wild oats and barley, cabbages into swede and rape, and pines into firs. He had Stalin’s personal backing.

The Soviet leader was obsessed by the idea that it might be possible to alter the nature of plants and even people. His attempts to realise these ideas concerning “the plasticity of living forms” had catastrophic practical effects on the lives of millions, as he pursued the empty notion that it was possible to create and sustain socialism in one country.

Soviet science had its successes, however, among them Nikolay Basov’s and Aleksandr Prokhorov’s advances in quantum electronics; the work of the aviation designer Andrey Tupolev and the rocket pioneer Sergei Korolev; Nikolay Timofeev-Ressovsky’s radiobiological research after the Second World War; and Vladimir Sukachev’s environmental studies in the 1950s.

“For all the terrors, follies and crimes of that time, I believe this has also been a story of courage, imagination and even genius,” Ings writes of what the scientists managed to achieve and overcome in the Stalinist era. “I fear we will not acquit ourselves nearly so well.” He may be right.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality” (Icon Books)

Stalin and the Scientists: a History of Triumph and Tragedy (1905-53) by Simon Ings is published by Faber & Faber (528pp, £20)

This article appears in the 06 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph