Mark Edele reviews 'Stalin and the Scientists: A History of triumph and tragedy 1905–1953' by Simon Ings

Mark Edele reviews 'Stalin and the Scientists: A History of triumph and tragedy 1905–1953' by Simon Ings

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

by Simon Ings

Faber & Faber $49.99 hb, 527 pp, 9780571290079

The relationship between science and power is central to many struggles of the present. Politics impinges on science when funding is allocated to ‘applied’ or ‘fundamental’ research, when decisions are reached about what should be taught in schools, when governments determine if people can be forced to vaccinate their children, what kinds of interventions into reproduction are allowable, or if we should accept the consensus view of climate scientists about the effects of fossil fuel consumption. The Soviet Union provides a particularly intriguing case study. A state with a large scientific establishment, it was ruled by a party which itself claimed a ‘scientific worldview’: Marxism–Leninism. Stalin was hailed as a ‘corypheus of science’ with a far-ranging mandate to set the agenda.

Under such leadership the politics of science moved between two extremes. On the one end was evolutionary biology, which was taken over by a crank with excellent political skills: T.D. Lysenko. He managed to convince the dictator that his odd concoction of Lamarckism (the theory that acquired characteristics could be passed on), half-understood Darwinism, peasant wisdom, and Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism was more ‘materialist’ and therefore more ‘true’ than the ‘idealist’ and maybe even ‘fascist’ theories of modern genetics. The victory of this pseudo-science in 1948 wreaked havoc on Soviet biology in a field which turned out to be one of the sciences of the future. This story has been covered by a large number of studies, beginning with Zhores Medvedev’s dissident The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko, smuggled abroad and published in English in 1969. Other classics include David Joravsky’s The Lysenko Affair (1970) and Loren Graham’s Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union (1972). Graham returned to the topic in Lysenko’s Ghost (2016), conclusively debunking the notion that Lysenkoism might have been a precursor of epigenetics.

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Published in April 2017, no. 390
Mark Edele

Mark Edele

Mark Edele is the inaugural Hansen Chair in History at the University of Melbourne. An Australian Research Council Future Fellow (2015–19), he is the author of Soviet Veterans of the Second World War (2008), Stalinist Society (2011), and Stalin’s Defectors: How Red Army soldiers became Hitler’s collaborators (2017). Shelter from the Holocaust: Rethinking Jewish survival in the Soviet Union, edited with Sheila Fitzpatrick and Atina Grossmann, will be published later this year, and Red Empire: A Short History of the Soviet Union in 2018.

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