Title: Stalin and the Scientists
Author: Simon Ings
Ings, Simon (2017). Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph And Tragedy, 1905-1953. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press
Q127.S65 I54 2017
- Communism and science–Soviet Union.
- Science and state–Soviet Union.
- Science–Soviet Union–History–20th century.
- Stalin, Joseph, 1878-1953.
Date Posted: March 20, 2017
Reviewed by Simon Sebag Montefiore
“By the time Stalin died on 5 March 1953, the Soviet Union boasted the largest and best-funded scientific establishment in history,” Simon Ings writes in Stalin and the Scientists. “It was at once the glory and the laughingstock of the intellectual world.”
The Bolsheviks viewed the ideology of Marxism as essentially scientific in its analysis of human progress, and science was always a vital part of their conception of the Soviet Union, which they trumpeted as the first state ever founded on “scientific” principles. Its rulers, particularly Lenin and Stalin, regarded themselves as manifestations of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which gave them the authority to adjudicate on everything in society, including the arts and sciences. Lenin was an intellectual, at home as much in the British Museum Library as in the Kremlin. Stalin was a published romantic poet and enthusiastic autodidact with a library of thousands of books, not only read but annotated. They had the confidence to interfere in every genre of art and every discipline of science. Stalin would soon be hailed as the all-knowing coryphaeus (leader of the chorus in Greek drama) of science.
Their drive to modernize Russia and restore it to great-power status, while struggling to feed millions in a country ruined by World War I and civil conflict, meant science was also a practical necessity. The fact that most scientists (and artists) were middle and upper class added the tension of class struggle. Lenin, as always, put it most succinctly: “Communism cannot be built without a fund of knowledge, technology, culture, but they are in the possession of bourgeois specialists. Among them the majority do not approve of the Soviet regime, but without them we cannot build Communism.”
Ings, the author of A Natural History of Seeing,” skillfully relates the life stories of these “bourgeois” scientists. There was Ivan Pavlov, who observed, among many other things, that dogs secreted saliva when they expected food. There were the psychologists Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria, who conducted research on cognitive development. (Luria could be said to be the inventor of the lie detector.) At first, the scientists were surprised to find themselves endowed with new equipment and honor. But the picture darkened once Stalin began demanding astonishing jumps in creativity and production, which in turn made the scientists more important but more dangerous and therefore more policed and persecuted.
The heart of the book is the story of the Great Terror that struck the scientific establishment in the 1930s. Ings shows that scientists now depended for resources and promotion (but also for physical survival) on the power of patrons such as top leaders like Andrei Zhdanov, or the greatest patron of all, Stalin. He describes the rise of the maliciously cunning but childlike Trofim Lysenko, who notoriously became Stalin’s favorite scientist (though they met only once or twice). As starvation spread in the wake of Stalin’s collectivization, particularly in 1932-33, Lysenko, a semi-educated charlatan, attacked well-known geneticists who were trying to develop new hybrid crops that could solve the problem of low productivity, much of it caused by Stalin’s brutal policies. Fueled by what Ings calls “a huckster’s monomania,” Lysenko claimed he could raise crop yields by his own process, called vernalization, in which artificially induced coldness could fool winter wheat to develop earlier in the spring. Later he applied his theories to cattle breeding. Many of Lysenko’s views were either preposterous or simply irrelevant, and Ings includes a great scene when Western delegates to a conference in the Soviet Union burst into hysterics after hearing Lysenko’s sophomoric theories on how sexual reproduction was a mixture of cells eating one another and belching. One of his colleagues, Nikolai Koltsov, joked: “He says that by feeding one can turn a cockroach into a horse.”
Yet Lysenko’s simple solutions and eager promises appealed to Stalin, who loved gardening and was obsessed with growing lemons in his greenhouses at his dacha near Moscow. When challenged by the esteemed geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, Lysenko responded viciously, denying the existence of genes. Vavilov rushed to appeal to Stalin, who received him but sneered, “You are the Vavilov who fiddles with flowers, leaves, grafts and other botanical nonsense instead of helping agriculture, as is done by Academician Lysenko.” Vavilov was arrested in 1940. The world-famous scientist died in prison in 1943.
But Lysenko’s charlatanism was well known even among Stalin’s courtiers. After the war, Stalin’s heir apparent, Zhdanov, challenged Lysenko, who continued to be backed by a furious Stalin. He had a variety of reasons: asserting his total supremacy in his years of decline; reinforcing absolute party control over society; promoting what he saw as the practical over the theoretical; supporting a scientific proletarian against bourgeois experts. There was also the fact of his demented arteriosclerotic megalomania.
The end of the war saw the challenge of the American nuclear bomb, which shocked Stalin. He ordered his diabolical henchman Lavrenti Beria to develop a Soviet bomb—fast. Beria had already created special laboratory prisons—sharashki—where jailed scientists worked in menacing comfort (brilliantly portrayed by Solzhenitsyn in The First Circle, his best novel by far) and often produced stellar results. The physicist Leon Theremin, rescued from the gold mines of Kolyma to work in one of Beria’s sharashki, invented listening devices soon used to spy on the British and Americans in Moscow, for which he was awarded the Stalin Prize: Such were the twists of fortune for Stalin’s scientists. Acclaimed physicists like Peter Kapitsa, Yulii Khariton and Igor Kurchatov were alternately bullied and spoiled by Stalin and Beria. Ings quotes Kapitsa’s magnificently aristocratic letters to Stalin complaining “it is time for comrades like Comrade Beria to begin to learn respect for scientists.” Beria later tried to take revenge. “I will remove him for you,” Stalin replied, “but don’t you touch him.” There in a nutshell was the delicate relationship between the cruelest of tyrants and his scientists—and in 1949, Stalin got his nuclear weapons.
Ings capably recounts how Soviet science became a laughingstock and often a human tragedy, but he doesn’t explain how Stalinist technology produced colossal successes, too, from the creation of Tupolev and MiG planes to the best designed tank in the world, the T-34. And while Ings’s research is impressive and his exposition of the science is lucid, the key stories of Lysenko and the nuclear project are well known and better covered elsewhere, as in David Holloway’s Stalin and the Bomb.
What’s more, Ings’s history contains many mistakes starting with the birthday of Stalin himself: There is a choice of two. Officially it was Dec. 21, 1879 (New Style). In reality, Stalin was born on Dec. 6, 1878 (Old Style), or Dec. 18, 1878 (New Style). This book muddles both and gives the birthday as Dec. 18, 1879. In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated, but it is wrong to say his route “never varied.” He alternated routes, and that was why the terrorists had two plans. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks didn’t miss the 1905 revolution; they launched an armed uprising that had to be crushed by the army. Dzerzhinsky remained head of the secret police until his death in 1926, not giving it up when he became head of the Supreme Council of the National Economy. In 1940, Finland was not “in Russian hands,” but it did sue for peace. And so on.
Overall, however, Ings is an entertaining storyteller who often captures the essence of things—Stalin was indeed “the last in a long line of European philosopher kings.” Filled with priceless nuggets and a cast of frauds, crackpots and tyrants, this is a lively and interesting book, and utterly relevant today when the Trump administration is challenging the scientific establishment on climate change. We in the West have long laughed at the “Coryphaeus of Science,” but has the United States now elected its own?
 Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Stalin Gets Results: The Soviet Push for Tech Dominence,” in The New York Times (March 5, 2017, on Page BR16 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Stalin Goes Atomic”) misidentified the library in London notably frequented by Lenin during his visits to that city in the early 20th century. It was the British Museum Library, not the London Library. Downloaded March 20, 2017. Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and, most recently, The Romanovs.
 Holloway, David (1994). Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union And Atomic Energy, 1939-1956. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press