BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Science under the thumb of ideology
, February 25, 2017
STALIN AND THE SCIENTISTS: A History of Triumph and Tragedy
by Simon Ings
Faber & Faber, London
Hardcover: 528 pages
Price: AUD $49.99
Reviewed by Bill James
This title is a bit misleading, because Simon Ings extends the story back to the 19th century, and forward to the post-Stalin era and the collapse of Soviet communism.
In fact, he doesn’t mention Joseph Stalin himself until about a third of the way into the book.
Science in the USSR was venerated, well taught and well funded, with many successes to its credit such as Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite, launched in 1957, and Yuri Gagarin, the first man to journey into outer space in 1961.
Genuine scientists whose work predated the Revolution, such as Ivan Pavlov, were honoured for their accomplishments.
On the other hand, it also displayed egregious quackery, originating in ideology, and exacerbated by the Byzantine power rivalries characteristic of dictatorships.
As Ings puts it: “It was at once the glory and the laughing stock of the intellectual world.”
The Soviet Union’s official Marxist philosophy was based on an alleged monistic materialism which was fully explicable by science, and accessible to the common man or woman.
So far, so simple, but complications soon emerged.
Political doctrine, that is, the Party Line, rather than disinterested theorising and research, was sometimes used to assert what was “real” science as opposed to “bourgeois” science, a distinction similar to the Nazi differentiation between “Aryan” and “Jewish” science.
(Apropos of which, an outbreak of anti-Semitism late in Stalin’s reign saw some scientists condemned as “stateless cosmopolitans”.)
What is more, complex developments in science, such as genetics and post-Newtonian physics, challenged the dogmas that all human beings had the same capacities and were, given the right educational environment, capable of grasping the straightforward laws of time, space and matter that govern the universe.
These attitudes coalesced in Stalin, whose many honorifics included the title of “the Great Scientist”. This although Stalin possessed little scientific knowledge, held strong ideological prejudices, and had a deep suspicion of intellectual freedom.
But the USSR needed modern science to develop its agriculture, industry and military power, so Stalin was forced to tolerate scientists whom he neither understood nor trusted.
The most notorious case of pseudo-science in Soviet history concerned the agronomist Trofim Lysenko.
Lysenko effectively adopted the discredited hypothesis of early 19th-century naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who believed that acquired characteristics (such as the musculature of a blacksmith, or the long neck of a giraffe) could be inherited by an organism’s descendants. In particular, he claimed to be able to permanently transform winter wheat into spring wheat by treating it with moisture and cold, a process he called vernalisation.
His theories were also applied to cotton, potatoes, forestry, and even dairy cattle.
Despite the failure of his experiments, his constant faking of data, the disastrous results for Russian agriculture, and his risible written attempts to refute the Mendelian laws of inheritance, Lysenko was able to flourish for decades, rising to become president of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
There were at least three reasons for this. For a start, his belief in the lasting effects of environment (nurture rather than nature) was much more in tune ideologically with communist dreams of creating a new humanity by means of a new society.
Scientific genetics was not only less optimistic and straightforward, but could be associated with Nazi theories of hierarchy, even eugenics.
Then there was the fact that Lysenko was a “barefoot scientist”, a self-taught representative of “the People” who, unlike the airy-fairy, pointy-headed scientists, was attempting to apply practical, common-sense solutions to grassroots problems. He didn’t lock himself away in a laboratory and waste his time endlessly investigating the inheritability of traits in fruit flies.
In other words, he appealed to a strain of populist anti-intellectualism in Stalin and other Soviet leaders.
And third, because his agricultural techniques had the authorities’ imprimatur, during the mania for over-production at the time of the Five Year Plans, directors of collective farms falsified wheat production figures rather than suggest that Lysenkoism did not work.
A number of Lysenko’s opponents suffered demotion, job loss, and even relegation to the Gulag. The brilliant agronomist Nikolai Vavilov, who displeased Stalin by disagreeing with Lysenko, starved to death in prison in 1943.
Lysenkoism did not exhaust the abuse or misuse of science in the Soviet Union. For example, during the Great Purge of the 1930s, 10 senior physicists from the State Astronomical Observatory were charged with “participation in a fascist, Trotskyist terrorist organisation”.
In 1934, at a session of the Communist Academy held to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, physicists of the stature of Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, along with their Soviet admirers, were “exposed” as lackeys of Western philosophical idealism.
During and after World War II, particularly after the panic over America’s successful development of a nuclear device, groups of prominent scientists (for example, aviation designer A.N. Tupolev) were dragooned into “science prisons” known as sharashki, under the control of the scientifically illiterate Lavrentiy Beria, chief of state security. There they enjoyed ideal research facilities, and luxurious (by Soviet standards) living conditions – but no freedom until they delivered the goods, in the form of new weaponry.
Under Stalin, too, there was constant tension and danger for Soviet scientists as they tried to balance the imperative for international fraternisation (reciprocal visits, exchange of information via academic journals) with the global scientific community, against Stalin’s incorrigible obsession with security, secrecy, and censorship. This could affect even international co-operation on humanitarian needs, theoretical support for which Soviet agitprop spruiked continually.
In 1947, a husband-and-wife team of medical scientists who had published some promising discoveries in the field of cancer treatment, was refused permission to set up a joint research facility with an American institute. Another Russian medical scientist who took the couple’s manuscript to the United States during an official visit, was imprisoned for 25 years by Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s toady and minister for “culture”.
Another infamous Soviet misapplication of science took place in the decades after Stalin: the pseudo-psychiatric misdiagnosis, incarceration and punitive medicalisation of political dissidents. For example, in 1970 biologist Zhores Medvedev was diagnosed with “creeping schizophrenia”, and forced into a psychiatric hospital, for criticising Lysenko.
Science is often thought of as an ivory tower enterprise. Simon Ings paints an absorbing, detailed and comprehensive panorama of Soviet scientists out there coping for decades with revolution, civil war, famine, Nazi invasion, ideological tyranny, censorship, charlatans, secret police, internal deportation, empire-building bureaucrats, academic rivalry, threadbare research resources, coercive pressure for results, capricious political patronage, and a ruling materialist orthodoxy that simultaneously apotheosised science and ideologically distorted it.
Ivory tower? They wished!