A political parable

From the NYT Book Review on 3/5/17, (in print) “Stalin Goes Atomic: The Soviet leader’s terror tactics extended even to the men driving his technology program”, (on-line) “Stalin Gets Results: The Soviet Push for Tech Dominance”, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, a review of Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953 by Simon Ings.


The parable (background will follow), from Montefiore’s review (my caption: “Who will rid me of this troublesome scientist?”):

[Trofim] 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.

On to the background, to a great human tragedy. From Montefiore:

[Ings] 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.

Very briefly on Vavilov:

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov … (November 25 [O.S. November 13] 1887 – January 26, 1943) was a prominent Russian and Soviet botanist and geneticist best known for having identified the centres of origin of cultivated plants. He devoted his life to the study and improvement of wheat, corn, and other cereal crops that sustain the global population.

And then, omigod, on Lysenkoism:

Lysenkoism … was a political campaign against genetics and science-based agriculture conducted by Trofim Lysenko, his followers and Soviet authorities. Lysenko served as the director of the Soviet Union’s Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Lysenkoism began in the late 1920s and formally ended in 1964. The term Lysenkoism can also be used metaphorically to describe 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.

The pseudo-scientific ideas of Lysenkoism built on Lamarckian concepts of the heritability of acquired characteristics. Lysenko’s theory rejected Mendelian inheritance and the concept of the “gene”; it departed from Darwinian evolutionary theory by rejecting natural selection. Proponents falsely claimed to have discovered, among many other things, that rye could transform into wheat and wheat into barley, that weeds could spontaneously transmute into food grains, and that “natural cooperation” was observed in nature as opposed to “natural selection”. Lysenkoism promised extraordinary advances in breeding and in agriculture that never came about.

Joseph Stalin supported the campaign. More than 3,000 mainstream biologists were sent to prison, fired, or executed as part of a campaign instigated by Lysenko to suppress his scientific opponents.


As for Vavilov, by the 1960s his reputation was publicly rehabilitated (authoritarian Russia veers back and forth) and he began to be hailed as a hero of Soviet science. In 1977 he even got a celebratory stamp, with a sheaf of wheat:


By all accounts, he was not only a great scientist, but a very nice man, and an accomplished pianist. We should mourn for the thousands of scientists whose lives were destroyed by the Soviet apparatus, but also for the millions who starved to death under the juggernaut of collectivization while scientists (like Vavilov) who might have alleviated the disaster were prevented from doing so.

This would be a good time to remind you that the March for Science takes place (in the US and around the world) on April 22, and that all sorts of speaking out (not just actually marching) would be appropriate for the occasion.

Also that a parable is ‘a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson’ (NOAD2).

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