Science Was Stalin’s ‘Enemy of the People’

The Soviet Union more or less wrote the book on bending science to ideology, and the result was that hacks, has beens, and nut cases became the Newtons and Burbanks of Russia.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

“Natural science will … incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science.”

—Karl Marx, 1844

You can take the peasant out of the countryside, and Stalin did, literally, and on an industrial scale. It is harder—much harder—to take the countryside out of the peasant. Slave societies rarely breed fine feeling, and lives spent on the edge of starvation breed reciprocity faster than friendliness. (There is a word for debt in Russian—dolg, but no word for favor. The nearest equivalent, odolzhenie, still expects a return.)

Traditionally, peasant relations in the countryside had been policed through reputation, and the ease, speed and savagery with which it could be destroyed. The threat of denunciation held together communities who could quite literally starve to death if too many of their members abandoned them. In tsarist times, people who left for side-earnings in the city and tried to break with their village were regularly accused of heresy. When the Soviets took over, religious denunciations turned seamlessly into political ones. Being an ‘enemy of the people’ was not at all a Stalinist innovation. Stalin’s genius was to harness and direct to his own ends the fierce belligerence of the peasant class.

In this he was supported by a new generation of Bolshevik official: earnest believers whose whole adult life had been spent under Soviet rule. These men knew their state was unfinished and unstable, but they had no experience of alternatives. For them, the bourgeois old guard represented, not a rejected alternative, but an obstacle to be removed. (The Party was by now, as it never had been under Lenin, a working-class party.) At a provincial conference on 27 May 1928 (and still some way off from real power), the Party chief of Nizhny Novgorod, Andrei Zhdanov, cast the gathering cultural revolution in apocalyptic terms, as the war of sons against fathers: ‘The struggle for the cleanliness of our ideas, the struggle for the youth has to take an important place at the moment; it is necessary to develop within the Komsomol [the Party youth wing] a critical relationship toward the older generation [and] its shortcomings in its way of life and being.’

Youth activists duly harried their elders and betters, and in particular attacked them for their religious beliefs. In a letter to the national teachers’ newspaper, one reader complained:

My teacher in junior class, meeting me sixteen years after I left school, wept and told me that she is even afraid to live and work at the present time. She has no regrets for the Tsar—he drove her fiancé into the grave and so she is still unmarried at forty. But the icons that they threw out of the school—this was more than she could bear.

This ‘cultural revolution’ silenced an entire educated class at the very moment the government, committed to breakneck industrialization, thirsted after new practical ideas. So it was perhaps inevitable that it ended up backing ideas that turned out to be eccentric, to say the least. Every madcap professor shown the tsarist door rose clamoring for his day in the Bolshevik sun.

John Littlepage, an American engineer working in the Soviet gold-mining industry, wrote of ‘the perpetual nuisance of so- called inventors, crackbrained persons who are convinced they have made some amazing mechanical discovery, a type that seems more numerous in Russia than elsewhere’.

Linguistics discovered Professor Nikolai Marr’s idiosyncratic ‘Japhetic’ theory of language. Music students embraced Professor Boleslav Yavorsky’s theory of ‘modal rhythm’, which had been a standing joke for years within the Moscow Conservatory. These men weren’t wrong or mad any more: they were radicals.

By the time the celebrated plant breeder Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin died of cancer in June 1935, he was not just considered an untutored genius, he was being hailed by the agriculture commissar, Yakov Yakovlev, as a heroic opponent of ‘bourgeois science’.

Michurin rose to fame as a sort of Soviet Luther Burbank—a homespun genius who greened drought-browned valleys and filled the people’s bellies by mixing together scientific thinking and folk remedies. Like the Massachusetts-born plantsman Burbank, Michurin grew up in genteel poverty. The produce of his home town—Kozlov in the province of Ryazan, 300 kilometres south of Moscow—included rather scraggy fruit, which ceased to sell once the new railroads brought in produce from Crimea in the far south. Rather than sell their orchard, however, Ivan Michurin’s parents more or less destroyed themselves trying to hang on to it. A succession of misfortunes sent Ivan’s father Vladimir steadily more crazy. Tuberculosis killed his wife; his half-mad mother terrorised the family, and of his seven children, only Ivan survived. At his wife’s funeral Vladimir came out with a dance song instead of a dirge and was taken away for the first of several stays at the local asylum.

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Ivan Michurin, though he aspired to an aristocratic lycée in St Petersburg, in the end enjoyed only one year of local elementary school education. He went to work in nearby Tambov as a railway clerk, then as a signal repairman. He married a mechanic’s daughter, and there—but for his determination to realise his father’s agricultural fantasies—Michurin’s story ought really to have ended.

In 1888, in his mid-thirties and determined to make something of himself, Ivan Michurin bought fourteen hectares with borrowed money, quit his job, and set up a nursery. Rather than grafting southern varieties onto northern stocks, he decided to breed hybrids from seed—a highly dodgy tactic given that good fruit varieties are complicated and unstable hybrids to begin with, and unlikely to breed true. It is hardly surprising, then, that Michurin came to the conclusion that there was no regularity in hereditary phenomena, and no coherent science to be had from studying them.

In November 1905, taking advantage of the promises of new civil liberties, Michurin submitted a petition to turn his unprofitable nursery into a state experiment station. After an unexplained delay of two and a half years, the Ministry of Agriculture turned him down. He later earned two medals and a job offer from the ministry, but none of this quelled his resentment towards the know-all academics who had failed to see the value of his work.

In 1911 and 1913, a plant collector from the US Department of Agriculture, Frank Meyer, visited Michurin’s nursery. Michurin priced himself out of an arrangement to sell regular fruit stocks from his nursery. He did not really need the trade. What he needed was the story: to hear him tell it, agents of the USDA had been visiting him since 1898, and had repeatedly begged him to come to the USA on an astronomical salary of $32,000 a year.

When the Soviets took control of the country, they agreed to turn Michurin’s nursery into a breeding station. True, Michurin was both eccentric and cantankerous, but Nikolai Vavilov himself visited Michurin in 1920 and was impressed by the old man’s notes. (Experimenters like Vavilov liked Michurin’s stocks because they were so bizarre. They were not, however, particularly commercial. Even in 1931, when Michurin was being recast as a working-class hero, only one new variety of apple could be found worth certifying.)

Michurin’s skills as a lobbyist were formidable. In September 1922 he got the President himself, Mikhail Kalinin, to visit his nursery in Kozlov. But the following autumn, in Michurin’s seventieth year, the First All-Russian Agricultural Exhibition was held, and here, and at the very end of his career, things threatened to come unstuck. Michurin’s view was that plants- manship was an art, incommunicable in abstractions or formulas: ‘It is evident that nature, in its creation of new forms of living organisms, gives infinite diversity and never permits repetition.’ He was right, of course: a fruit nursery is not a laboratory, and the hybridisation of fruit trees is a tangled business, better handled as a craft, learned over the course of years, than as an undergraduate research topic.

But as science had taken hold of the European imagination in general—and the Bolshevik imagination in particular—so public funding had become dependent on delivering neat, simple, scientific explanations of one’s work. And this, for Michurin’s institute, was bound to end in failure. A young horticulturalist, Igor Gorshkov, sent by Michurin to wow the exhibition, was worsted in arguments again and again over the validity of some of the Kozlov nursery’s hybrids. The one between a melon and a squash attracted especially negative attention. No, said the other experts, the stock onto which you grafted something would not alter the germ plasm of your fruiting plant, and all Michurin’s talk of ‘vegetative blending’ and ‘mentoring’ made no sense.

When Michurin learned of Gorshkov’s reception, he blew his top: if Gorshkov couldn’t win extra support for the nursery, he might as well throw in his cards and accept the USDA’s (fictional) job offer. Gorshkov pitched this threat to the editors of Izvestiia, who ran it under the headline ‘Kozlov or Washington?’ Where, the paper asked, would Michurin’s work find support—the Soviet Union or the USA?

Michurin was so delighted with this coup, he presented Gorshkov with a watch, hand-engraved by himself with the words ‘From I. Michurin to I. Gorshkov. For Victory over the Old Fogies of Horticulture. 14 October 1923.’

Michurin remained an outsider. Few mentioned him in their papers. Trofim Lysenko took an interest, but the old man rebuffed him. He was far friendlier with Vavilov, and Vavilov was among those who elected him an honorary member of the Academy of Sciences a week before his death.

Most ‘independent scholars’ were like Michurin: opportunists seizing their last chance at glory. But some were closely allied to the Bolsheviks from the start. Olga Borisovna Lepeshinskaya had been a personal friend of Lenin and his wife. Between 1897 and 1900 they had all been banished to the same region of Siberia. As a consequence, she was terrifyingly well-connected and not remotely intimidated by power. On a personal level, she was charming. She fiercely opposed anti-semitism, and had dedicated her personal life to the orphan problem, bringing up at least half a dozen children as her own. As a scientist, however, she was a disaster. She once announced to the Academic Council of the Institute of Morphology that soda baths could rejuvenate the old and preserve the youth of the young. A physician, Yakov Rapoport, asked her sarcastically whether mineral water would work instead. Lepeshinskaya, oblivious to his tone, told him no. A couple of weeks later Moscow completely sold out of baking soda.

The same unstoppable cart that whisked Michurin and Lepeshinskaya to glory also carried along several articulate youths whose ambition far outweighed their talent. The simpler and more outrageous their schemes, the more they appealed to fond wishes, the more they were believed. (Science—real science, Marx’s ‘one science’—was supposed to be straightforward and practical.) Planning groups and building trusts approved plans for socialist cities of the future. A government commission thought about reforming the calendar (with 1917 as Year One). The Soviet patent office, the Committee on Inventions, reported one case of a ‘scientist’ entirely lacking in formal education who was given 200,000 roubles and an ‘electrical biology’ laboratory to show how bombarding seeds with ultra-high frequency radio waves would trigger bumper harvests. (The police eventually tracked him down to the cabaret clubs of Leningrad.) Considering the work of a physicist in Ashkabad who made rain with electrified smoke, the Marxist philosopher Isaak Prezent declared:

We are carrying out the grandest task, planned alteration of the climate… A special grand institute for making and stopping rain is being organized… The grandest, unheard of projects are now being worked out, in actual working plans with concrete economic calculation, for the irrigation of dry regions and an all-out assault on the desert. We are solving the problem of heating Siberia.

Eccentric schemes tend to blow up in their backers’ faces, and the state was aware of the risk. In 1947 Eric Ashby, a botanist attached to the Australian Legation, observed that, there has been recently an increase in the efficiency with which the State separates genuine from bogus advances in agricultural research, and protects itself from being ‘sold a pup’ by enthusiastic and not too critical experts. There is, for example, an interesting and elaborate organization for testing new crop varieties, known as the Government Commission for Seed Testing, under the chairmanship of Academician Tsitsin.

But problems of this sort sprang from more than a handful of hucksters and ‘independent scholars’. Old Bolshevik hands, Party leaders and key bureaucrats were themselves dedicated amateur philosophers of science. They ruled in the name of scientific government, and were honour-bound to pronounce on scientific issues. Their mistaken and wild schemes came stamped with the imprimatur of the state, and were much harder to challenge.

Stalin was himself a totally dedicated and self-declared ‘Lamarckian’, obsessed by the idea that it might be possible to alter the nature of plants. As the years went by this obsession grew, and became indeed his only hobby. At his dachas near Moscow and in the south, large greenhouses were erected so that he could enter them directly from the house, day or night. Pruning shrubs and plants was his only physical exercise. In 1946 he grew especially keen on lemons, not only encouraging their growth in coastal Georgia, where they fared quite well, but also in the Crimea, where winter frosts obliterated them. Stalin was not discouraged. He asserted that oaks and other deciduous trees, if planted as seeds, would adapt to the most hostile conditions, flourishing in the dry steppe, and in the salty, semi-arid wildernesses near the Caspian Sea.

Leaders, politicians and bureaucrats have their hobby horses, of course. The problems start only when these people assume for themselves an expertise they do not possess, when they impose their hobby horses on the state by fiat. The Bolshevik tragedy was that, in donning the mantle of scientific government, the Party’s leaders felt entitled to do this. More: they felt obliged to do this. Stalin’s Lamarckian beliefs and utopian fond wishes regarding the plasticity of living forms were rather ordinary for his day. Realizing these ideas in policy would have extraordinary and often catastrophic effects on the lives of millions.

STALIN AND THE SCIENTISTS © 2016 by Simon Ings; used with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Simon Ings is the author of Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 1905-1953. He edits the culture section of New Scientist and regularly contributes to publications including the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Independent, and Nature. He lives and works in London.