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Book Review: Stalin and the Scientists

By (February 27, 2017) No Comment

Stalin and the Scientists:

A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905 – 1953

by Simon Ings

Grove Atlantic, 2017

As Americans have had occasion to be reminded only recently, one of the first things newly-installed dictatorships do is attempt to link facts with ideology, in fact to determine facts through ideology. Industrial pollutant out-wash in Florida is bleaching and killing the state’s coral reefs at an extremely accelerated rate? Not if our political propaganda arm says it isn’t. It’s not that the propaganda arm will prevent you from reporting this factually verifiable man-made catastrophe – it’s that the propaganda arm will force you – first by threats to your job, then in extremely predictable increasing increments – to remain silent on the facts; it’s that the propaganda arm will force you to report its own ideology-driven facts instead.

Science writer Simon Ings takes for the subject of his latest book the pinnacle of this unholy marriage of science and the state in modern times. Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953 provides readers with a comprehensive and extremely lively history of the ruthless and often darkly funny attempts of the Soviet Union to strong-arm its way into being the world’s beacon of science, from the barbaric brute Ivan Pavlov to the poster boy of fraudulent Soviet science, Tromfin Lysenko and his ridiculous theories about everything from biology to agriculture. Ings invests these stories with tremendous energy, and he lavishes the same amount of energy on the far lesser lights the documentary record finds orbiting the bigger names:

Absurdity piled on absurdity. On 22 May 1950 Alexander Oparin, as head of the Academy of Sciences’ biology department, invited Olga Lepeshinskaya to receive her Stalin Prize. Now in her dotage, Lepeshinskaya – who had once recommended soda baths as a rejuvenation treatment – was by this time completely entranced by the mystical concept of the ‘vital substance’, and had recruited her extended family to work in her ‘laboratory’, pounding beetroot seeds in a pestle to demonstrate that any section of a plant ovule could germinate. Now she claimed success in actually filming living cells emerge from non-cellular materials. Lysenko hailed Lepeshinskaya, declaring that her demonstration that ‘cells need not be formed from other cells’ should be taken as the basis for a new and eminently workable theory of species formation. (Actually, she had filmed the death and decomposition of cells, then ran the film backwards through the projector.)

Curiously, Ings is every bit as good – in fact, often better – at telling the broader background stories than don’t have anything directly to do with the subject of Soviet science. He’s a very practiced storyteller in either case, as in his quick thumbnail overview of the siege of Leningrad:

What followed, as the siege took hold, was unimaginably worse – ten times worse than Hiroshima, if you count the dead. Leningrad’s population dropped from well over 3 million to approximately 640,000, mostly through starvation and cold. People dropped dead on the street. Some were put on sleds and carted off to burial in immense common graves at the Piskarevskoe Cemetery. Others fell into huge snowdrifts and had to be cut out when they reappeared in the spring to stop the spread of disease. Food stocks disappeared. People ate whatever they could: shoe leather, wallpaper, glue, spoiled animal fat. When the Badaev sugar stores burned down, people sold and ate the ‘sweet earth’ found amongst the ruins. Cats and dogs vanished. People vanished. Special police units were sent to shoot anyone who was found to have eaten human flesh.

In the end, by filling his narrative with biographical portraits of all the Soviet scientists who strained to make real discoveries despite heavy-handed state interventions, Ings manages to characterize his story as one of uplift, as difficult as that is to believe. “For all the terrors, follies and crimes of that time,” he writes, “I believe this has also been a story of courage, imagination and even genius.” Genius tends to fend for itself, but only time will tell if our present era ends up displaying courage or imagination.

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