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How Stalin and Lysenko bankrupted Soviet science

Lysenko constituted the most respected figure of the soviet scientific community for more than 20 years. The acknowledged biologist had the direct support of Stalin and was awarded with many titles during his career. The methods he introduced were forcefully applied throughout the Soviet Union, and in China. He was also a liar, a fraud and an oppressor.

By counterfeiting his research data, muzzling his opponents and identifying his “findings” with the Marxists ideology, he conjured up pseudoscientific theories that had catastrophic results for the country’s agriculture, which was already suffering from Stalin’s collectivization and the farmers’ opposition to it. The need for immediate growth in the field of agriculture was urgent.

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898 – 1976) (photo)
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898 – 1976) (photo)

He was born in Ukraine in 1898 to peasant parents, and became well-known in 1928 with his successful study in vernalization (the acquisition of a plant’s ability to blossom in the spring by exposure to the prolonged cold of winter), a method already known, and in particular in how it could benefit soviet agriculture in practice. Later, though, influenced by Lamarck and Michurin, he formed the erroneous notion that acquired characteristics of a plant would be inherited to its descendants, meaning that characteristics acquired through the “experience” of a plant during its life (like artificial vernalization) would pass on to its offspring through heredity. Dismissing Mendel and Darwin as “bourgeois science”, he promised (through the pages of the newspaper Pravda) that he would “turn the barren fields of the Transcaucasus green in the winter, so that cattle will not perish from poor feeding, and the peasant Turk will live through the winter without fear of tomorrow” and that he would make “peas grow in winter”. [1]

In speeches and presentations of his work he claimed that his theory kept pace with Marxism, as the planted seeds would not work antagonistically for the finite resources of their environment, but would cooperate, like workers that belonged in the same class. During such a speech, in 1935, he likened his critics to the farmers who opposed collectivization, claiming that by not favouring his theories the traditional geneticists departed from Marxism and became “enemies of the people”. It is said that Stalin, who was present in the audience, was the first to rise and, applauding, congratulate him. Whether this is an anecdote or not, from 1935 on, Lysenko was given a free pass to trumpet his theories and silence his critics. Whichever scientist drew attention to the errors of Lysenko’s unfounded conclusions would now fall prey to Stalin’s punishment.

Nikolai Vavilov, a prominent botanist and geneticist known world-wide, accused Lysenko of being a fraud that was deceiving the people [2]. Stalin answers with Vavilov’s arrest on the charge of undermining the social reformation of soviet agriculture in 1940, and Vavilov dies in prison in 1943 of malnutrition [3]. The persecutions led to dismissals, arrests (even without a warrant), exile, even executions. From 1934 through 1940, with Lysenko’s admonition and Stalin’s licence, many geneticists disappeared, sent to labour camps or were executed (like Isaak Agol, Solomon Levit, Grigorii Levitskii, Georgii Karpechenko and Georgii Nadson). Some died of unknown causes.

“You may see under an electronic microscope whatever minute particles you like, but they will still be nothing other than particles of a chromosome, and you will never see a gene, for there is no such thing, no more than there is a vital force.” (photo)
“You may see under an electronic microscope whatever minute particles you like, but they will still be nothing other than particles of a chromosome, and you will never see a gene, for there is no such thing, no more than there is a vital force.” (photo)

 

Lysenko’s promises were, naturally, never realized. No pea ever thrived in the winter and the seeds that Mao’s China sowed in close proximity (like Lysenko specified) didn’t cooperate like syndicalized workers, but atrophied while antagonizing on the limited available resources. This did not daunt the media or the government.

Stalin needed a peasant-hero and Lysenko was presented as an example of the self-made soviet, his talents to have developed and made productive by the Revolution. The media followed, creating the image of the “barefoot scientist”. In 1948 the V.I. Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences announced that from that point on Lysenkoism would be taught as “the only correct theory”. At the same time, Lysenko himself secured ministerial agreement to have his adversaries removed from institutional appointments and replaced by his own supporters [4]. Soviet scientists were forced to renounce any of their studies that were contrary to Lysenkoism. Stalin’s dogmatism led soviet science into a new dark age, replacing the fire that once burned Giordano Bruno with the snow of Siberia, where the biologists and geneticists that dared to reveal Lysenko’s lies were sent. [5]

The soviet propaganda machine created a personality cult around Lysenko, exaggerating his successes and failing to highlight his failures. False research data was reported by scientists seeking Lysenko’s favour and any evidence that contrasted him was buried. Instead of performing controlled experiments, Lysenko claimed that vernalization increased wheat yields by 15%, solely based upon questionnaires filled by farmers! [6]

Instead of his continuous failures (like his massive reforestation campaign) Lysenko remained as the lead in biology even after Stalin’s death in 1953. But Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization attempts decreased his influence and gradually criticism emerged. Until, in 1964, Andrei Sakharov spoke out against him during the Academy of Sciences elections:

“He [Lysenko] is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudoscientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.”

Very soon criticism accumulated and Lysenko lost the presidency of the Genetics Institute (which was then dissolved), and his immunity officially ended after Khrushchev’s dismissal in 1964. Thus, he lost all prestige he had earned throughout his career.

Lysenko on the job (photo)
Lysenko on the job (photo)

His work had appeal in communist China, where, like mentioned above, his methods were followed under Mao’s instructions, forcing the farmers to ‘close-plant’ (sowing millions of seeds of different species together in a small area) and ‘deep-plough’ (digging the ground to much deeper levels, believing this would encourage deep root growth). Both of these experiments failed and entire plantings yielded next to nothing. Farmers were forbidden to use chemical fertilisers and large amounts of land were left fallow, with similar results. Lysenko’s crackpot agronomy exacerbated the problems created by adverse weather. The famine of 1958-1963 is calculated to have starved to death 27 million people [7].

Though historians disagree on the extent of Lysenko’s responsibility for the decrease of agricultural production and the aggravation of famines within and outside Soviet Russia, Lysenkoism hindered the advance of genetics and biology, deprived world scientific writing of real scientists like Vavilov, and was responsible for the witch-hunt Stalin launched in his name.

The Lysenko affair is of great interest, as it shows in miniature Stalin’s mentality, on the one hand, and the totalitarian nature of his regime, on the other. Phrases like “communist science” don’t hold up to criticism anymore (when did they?) since science is not dependant neither on geography nor the economy, politics or ideology of any people. Otherwise, it is not science. The way by which Lysenko with Stalin used violence to drown any opposing voices in academia doesn’t leave much doubt on the level of freedom of ideas and science in general under Soviet rule. The methods of forcing the practice of a pseudoscientist’s hypothesis on unwilling farmers, who didn’t have the right to object or the freedom of choice on how to do the work they had been doing for generations, illustrate the relentless character of Stalinism. As it is also illustrated by the fact that, even if the resounding failure of the duo’s agricultural policies are seen strictly as a bureaucratic failure (meaning, without even recognizing the obvious irrationality of Lysenkoism), the ones responsible for the destruction of so many tons of crops, not only were not punished, but their replacement wasn’t even considered as an eventuality. We are also, here, introduced with an instance of arbitrarily forcing a theory of history or sociology (the Marxist idea of class struggle) where it clearly does not belong; the way the peas are supposed to cooperate like members of a class is utterly ridiculous (Marx’s line “I am not a Marxist” springs to mind).

And if it seems strange to some how wrong things went back then, while the result of such vanity should appear obvious, they can take a glimpse of how irrationality can infiltrate modern thinking through ideology. In the 1st issue 2003 of the Communist Survey (an official venue of the central committee of the Greek Communist Party), Lysenko is introduced as “one of the most important biology-agronomy researchers of his day” and it is stated that “his views were way more ahead of their time in relation to the prevailing scientific standards”. The writer, moreover, attempts to credit Lysenko for discovering vernalization, a method already used in Russia and elsewhere since the 19th century. In reality, Lysenko only embellished it with Marxist idealism, leading it to a dead-end, only to ignore it himself after the end of WW2. By most of the world, Lysenkoism is considered to be “the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives”.

Sources:

[1] David Joravsky – The Lysenko Affair

[2] Nils Roll- Hansen – The Lysenko Effekt – The Politics of Science

[3] Russiapedia – Nikolay Vavilov

[4] Louise Lyle (University of Sheffield) – French literary response to The Lysenko Affair

[5] Nikos Beloyannis, Aggeliki KottiStalinism: the fourth monotheistic religion

[6] Wikipedia Lysenkoism

[7] Alphahistory – Great Chinese famine

Lee Lerner – The Disastrous Effects of Lysenkoism on Soviet Agriculture

Medvedev –Rise And Fall of T.D. Lysenko

Bookrags Lysenko, Research article from World of Genetics

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