Trofim Lysenko and Soviet Science

During the reign of Joseph Stalin, Soviet science was dominated by Trofim Lysenko, who rejected modern science and replaced it with a mishmash of pseudoscience and ideology. His thirty-year reign led to the imprisonment or death of hundreds of scientists and illustrated the dangers of placing “science” under ideological control–but also demonstrated that, in the end, real science simply cannot be repressed.

Trofim Lysenko makes a speech, with Joseph Stalin looking on

When the Communist Party took over Russia in 1917, they turned all of orthodox Marxist ideology on its head. For decades, Socialist theorists had declared that human society evolved over time through laws of economic development as one “stage” of history replaced another–and the ideology of Marxism (or “scientific socialism”, as it was also called) gave them the ability to use these economic laws to predict the future development of society. Modern capitalist society would inevitably, they declared, be replaced by a socialist society.

But when the socialist revolution happened in 1917, it was not in modern capitalist Europe or America–it was in Russia, a backwards undeveloped feudal society where “capitalism” barely existed. By the time Joseph Stalin established himself as the sole dictator, Soviet theorists had already developed an ideology which “explained” why they had been able to seize power in an area where every Marxist orthodoxy said they could not have: the Stalinists declared that the entire idea of “natural laws of development” was wrong, and that ideology and pure political power could allow them to step outside of history and produce a “New Soviet Man”, who could bend nature and history to his own will in any direction he desired. It was a framework into which Trofim Lysenko fitted perfectly.

Lysenko had been born into a poor rural peasant family in 1898. After the Russian Revolution he became an agronomist, studied plant science, and began working on an agricultural research station in Azerbaijan. During this time, the science of biology was exploding, as Darwinian evolutionary theory was combined with the Mendelian theory of genes and heredity to produce the “Modern Synthesis”, our current framework of DNA, mutations, selection and evolution. Lysenko, however, rejected this framework, and clung to the old “Lamarckian” hypothesis, which declared that characteristics acquired during life could be inherited by the offspring: a blacksmith who developed large muscular arms during his lifetime, for instance, would in turn have children who were born with large muscular arms. Applying this reasoning to agriculture, Lysenko opined that he could change the growing characteristics of plants by exposing their seeds and seedlings to differing environmental conditions, and that these changes would then be passed on through the seeds. In 1927, he carried out a series of experiments in which he placed peas in cold temperatures, then grew the plants–and found that the resulting pea plants not only tolerated cold growing conditions, but passed this trait on in their own seeds. He also found that by exposing wheat grains to cold and wet conditions before planting them, he could convert summer wheat into winter wheat. Lysenko called his process “vernalization”, and he became something of a sensation when the Communist Party newspaper “Pravda” wrote stories on his “discoveries”.

In reality, Lysenko’s experiments were poorly designed, incompetently carried out, and based on flawed data from small sample sizes. But in Stalin’s Soviet Union, what really mattered was political ideology, and Lysenko fit perfectly into Stalin’s “Marxist-Leninist” political ideology. As the son of a poor peasant family, Lysenko was the perfect political symbol for the Soviet regime’s celebration of “proletarian” culture over that of the “decadent bourgeoisie”, and Lysenko was lauded as a “barefoot scientist”, who illustrated the superiority of the workers in the “class struggle” and the benefits of “practical work” over sterile “bourgeois idealism”. Lysenko’s idea that the characteristics of plants could be altered at will also fit perfectly with Stalin’s political ideology that his regime could produce the New Soviet Man and mold the perfect classless society. And finally, Lysenko’s “discoveries” opened up a new method for dealing with one of the largest difficulties faced by the Soviet Government–the near-destruction of the Russian agricultural sector during the “collectivization” fights of the 1930’s. Using Lysenko’s “vernalization” techniques, Stalin hoped to rapidly expand Soviet agricultural output and end the famines and widespread rural discontent that his heavy-handed policies had caused.

With Stalin’s personal approval, Lysenko’s rise in the Soviet regime was rapid. He was given control of an agricultural institute in Odessa to continue his experiments, which he published in a new journal titled “Vernalization”. (His published results were highly selective–trumpeting even the smallest “success” but neglecting to mention any of the numerous failures.) As the de facto ideological Pope of Soviet science, Lysenko also expanded upon his Lamarckian theories of biology, arguing that Mendel and Darwin were wrong, there were no such things as “genes”, and that plants and animals developed solely according to the environment within which they were raised. Under Stalin’s orders, huge portions of agricultural land on collective farms and state farms began to be planted according to Lysenko’s “vernalization” methods.

This, of course, was simply pseudo-scientific nonsense–and Soviet biologists knew this and said so. The result was swift and draconian. Stalin ordered that all science education in the USSR be brought into ideological line with Lysenkoism, declared that Mendelian or Darwinian thought was reactionary “menshevist idealism”, and that criticism of Lysenko or his ideas was tantamount to criticism of Marxism-Leninism and the Communist Party (and Stalin). Thousands of Soviet scientists were stripped of their positions and sent to work in factories. Hundreds were arrested and charged as “counter-revolutionaries” who were “sabotaging Soviet agriculture”. Many of them were shot; many more died in gulags.

Yet through the thirty years of ideological and physical repression that accompanied Lysenko’s reign, the simple fact remained that Lysenko’s “science” was demonstrably wrong, and a small but brave contingent of Soviet scientists continued to say so. Most prominent of these was geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who, upon his arrest and trial in 1939, bluntly told the court, “We shall go the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions. I tell you, in all frankness, that I believed and still believe and insist on what I think is right…. This is a fact, and to retreat from it simply because some occupying high posts desire it is impossible.” Vavilov died in prison in 1943.

When Stalin died in 1953, Lysenko lost the basis of his political and ideological power. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Krushchev, was also the son of a poor peasant, and at first he continued to back Lysenko. But Krushchev made it a priority to “de-Stalinize” the Soviet Union (after all, Stalin’s purges had wiped out most of the Communist Party ruling clique), and Lysenkoism had been an important prop to Stalin. So, when Krushchev made his “secret speech” to the Communist Party Congress denouncing Stalin and his “personality cult”, and relaxed the censorship in the state press to allow criticism of Stalin and his methods, Lysenko also inevitably became a target. The remaining remnants of Soviet science, including prominent physicist Andrei Sakharov, denounced Lysenko and his crackpot theories. In 1964, Lysenko was officially removed from his post as head of the Institute of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences, and was sent to a small research farm in Moscow, where he fell into disgrace and forgotten obscurity before dying in 1975. He had killed and imprisoned thousands of Soviet researchers and set Russian biology back by decades, and his wrong-headed agricultural methods had led to famines that killed millions of people.

Today, the Lysenko affair is remembered as an abject lesson in what happens when a society attempts to force science to base itself on favored political or social ideology. Throughout history, every time that someone has attempted to impose an ideology onto science, whether it was the Catholic Church and Galileo, or Lysenko in the Soviet Union, or today’s global-warming deniers and anti-vaccine pseudoscientists, it has ended in disaster.

But at the same time, the Lysenko affair gives us hope: it demonstrates that real science simply cannot be suppressed, even if it is opposed by a brutal ideological regime that literally kills its opponents. Science is simply the study of reality, and reality cannot be hidden. In the end, science always wins.


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