Stalin and the Scientists

Issue section: 
(419)

This is a fascinating, albeit flawed, account of science in Russia in the years before and after the 1917 Revolution. It is ambitious in scope, spanning the period from the revolution of 1905 to Stalin’s death in 1953, and covering topics as diverse as quantum mechanics, genetics, and psychology.

One scientist mentioned in the book is Alexander Luria. He gave a sense of the excitement among many intellectuals of his generation when he said: “I began my career in the first years of the great Russian Revolution. From the outset it was apparent that I would have little opportunity to pursue the kind of well ordered, systematic education that serves as the cornerstone for most scientific careers. In its place life offered me the fantastically stimulating atmosphere of an active, rapidly changing society.”

We learn how Luria and Lev Vygotsky pioneered a revolutionary new approach to understanding human consciousness. Luria and Vygotsky were concerned to develop a science of the mind that would benefit ordinary people, and pioneered approaches to education and disability that continue to be of relevance today.

The book also discusses botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who discovered global “hotspots” of genetic diversity, that play a key role in evolution. Such hotspots also have great practical relevance for the development of new crops. Other scientists mentioned are Alexander Oparin, who explained how life first arose, and Lev Landau, whose theories of superconductivity underlie technologies ranging from super-fast electro-magnetic trains to hospital MRI scanners.

Yet as described in the second half of the book, the rise to power of Josef Stalin led to an ideological onslaught against scientists and their intellectual freedom. This onslaught is portrayed vividly in the hounding and eventual murder of Nikolai Vavilov, while Trofim Lysenko’s pseudo-scientific theories instead came to dominate Soviet biology. This not only led to Soviet science becoming the “laughing stock of the intellectual world”, but was a factor in the millions who died of famine due to the mismanagement of agriculture in the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s.

So what had happened to cause such a catastrophe? Here I found this otherwise very useful book to be rather flawed. This is partly because of some elementary errors. So we are told that both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks completely “missed the 1905 revolution”. Yet Leon Trotsky — at that time a Menshevik — played a central role in the revolution as one of the chairs of the St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, while Lenin and other Bolsheviks fomented and coordinated unrest at this time.

A deeper problem is the failure to explain what led to the fundamental shift under Stalin that destroyed the hopes and dreams of scientists in Russia in the 1920s and ushered in the reaction of subsequent decades. For that, it is necessary to look elsewhere, for instance to Tony Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia.

Despite such flaws, this is an important book that will inform and enthuse everyone who dreams of a better society where science is harnessed for the benefit of everyone, not just the privileged few.