Book review: Stalin and the Scientists by Simon Ings

SOVIET leaders’ love of science was as great as their ignorance of it. Communism was to be the epitome of modernity, a complete and final victory over backwardness and superstition.

Science, as the cutting edge of modern thinking and technology, was therefore to be encouraged and used to launch a backward Russia to the forefront of global development.

Soviet leaders committed vast resources to the development of science and gambled even more on scientific solutions to economic and social problems. 

Unfortunately, these resources were often wasted and their gambles often failed to pay off.

The chief reason for the failure of Soviet sciences was Soviet ideology.

Soviet Marxism-Leninism was supposedly ‘scientific’. Marxism-Leninism was declared an absolutely correct theoretical guide to all of human experience and social development based on an unparalleled, and unchallengeable, understanding of nature.

Ideas and knowledge from natural sciences — like physics and biology — that did not fit with Marxism-Leninism had to be wrong. 

Worse, they were anti-Soviet which made their scientist proponents enemies of the Soviet system and its ‘heroic’ efforts to free Russia from backwardness and the world from capitalism.

The need to make science conform to ideology compelled Soviet leaders to intervene in science. The fact that most scientists in the early years after the 1917 revolution were from the upper- and middle-classes, the social groups most hostile to Soviet power in the eyes of Lenin and Stalin, made the political regulation of science vitally important in the eyes of the state.

The combination of ideology, suspicion of the class background of scientists and Soviet leaders’ own lack of science education was a recipe for tragedy and waste.

Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev were predisposed to listen to any old rubbish dressed up as science if this rubbish conformed to their ideological prejudices. This predisposition opened the door for cranks and charlatans whose ideas were ridiculed by the scientific establishment.

The worst of these charlatans was Trofim Lyskenko, who wreaked havoc on Soviet biology.

Lysenko believed that he could make plants ‘inherit’ each others characteristics, or alter their lifecycle to make them produce more quickly, by manipulating their environment. 

A little manipulation could make crops grow in areas that had previously been inhospitable.

He even claimed that plants showed solidarity with each other if they were of the same type in the same way that Soviet workers were supposed to be united under socialism.

These ideas ran counter to scientific knowledge. However, they conformed to Marxist-Leninist ideas and promised to boost agricultural production. 

The USSR needed to feed its people to show it was better than the Tsarist system, in which hunger, famine and rural poverty had been endemic.

Soviet leaders also wanted an agricultural surplus to fund their drive for rapid industrialisation. They were in the market for agricultural miracle workers and Lysenko was happy to pose as a one.

Lysenko’s pseudoscientific promises earned him political patronage and academic power. His rise and vicious defence of his ideas spelt doom for Soviet biology.

Many leading figures in the field were purged. Russia lost its place as one of the leaders in the new science of genetics.

None of Lysenko’s ideas improved Soviet agriculture, but instead led to waste.

He was only discredited in 1965 after he had moved from wrecking plant breeding to animal husbandry and had single-handedly lowered the quality of Soviet dairy stock.

Ings takes the odd liberty with general Soviet history but he tells the sorry story of Soviet science with gusto and flair. 

Understanding the failure of the USSR to achieve a revolution in science is vital to understanding the failure and collapse of the Soviet system. Ings’s book is a lively guide to the farce of Soviet science.

Neil Robinson is professor of politics at the University of Limerick

Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 1905-1953

Simon Ings

Faber & Faber, €23.20


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