The Soviet War on Science


In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Lenin and the head of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Russia cut a deal. In exchange for the Academy’s members supporting the new Bolshevik state, Lenin would leave the Academy largely intact, and free to continue their scientific endeavors. Some senior intellectuals were jailed or deported, but few were outright shot, at least at first. Lenin himself even oversaw the release of some scholars from Cheka prisons in the early 1920s.

The reason for this tolerance was simple: Lenin needed the help of the Academy in winning the Russian Civil War: designing technologies, training engineers, and overseeing the restoration of military industry to supply the Red Army. After their victory in the war, the Bolshevik leaders saw science and technology as essential elements to the future success of their revolution and the delivery of their promised utopia. In the words of Katerina Clark, “the emphasis they placed on technological progress was so intensified that it became the measure of advance towards communism.”

The party showered certain areas of scientific research with funding, particularly military research programs and showpiece projects such as the massive Dnieper Hydroelectric Dam. More darkly, they patronized scientific projects they thought would increase their social and political control over the populace: physiologist Ivan Pavlov, famous for his conditioning experiments on dogs, received extensive state support because Lenin saw his theories as potentially useful in eliminating dissent through the psychological conditioning of human beings.

But conflict between scientific expertise and political ideology was brewing. While research laboratories’ practical value rendered them relatively immune to the growing tide of communist political oppression, the Cheka and its successors waged an aggressive war on the country’s teaching institutions (which were then administratively separate). Beginning as early as 1918, the Cheka, Lenin’s secret police force, arrested huge numbers of “bourgeois” instructors, forcibly rewrote school curricula, banned entire fields of study (such as sociology), and shut down dozens of educational institutions.

Spared from such oppression for the moment, Soviet scientists enjoyed a renaissance in the 1920s. Research output flourished, as did international connections. Soviet scientists were allowed to travel abroad, encouraged to read and publish in international journals, and publically patronized, often despite their own elite backgrounds. The Soviet state funded the creation of huge networks of scientific laboratories and testing facilities. The aim was to strengthen the state, Soviet industry, and improve technology in the Red Army. But this relative tolerance of scientific research in the 1920s would soon evaporate.

With the Stalinist Turn in 1929, science would come to be measured by the yardstick of dogmatic communism. Scientific publications that did not fit neatly with Marxist thought risked being banned. Simultaneously, Soviet scientists began disappearing in large numbers. So many would be arrested that the secret police would build a network of prison laboratories attached to the Gulag system, known as Sharashka, starting in 1930. In these facilities, “dangerous” scientists and scholars could work under the careful supervision of the secret police, isolated from society. There, they labored under poor conditions amidst constant fear of deportation to much harsher camps in the Gulag system. The Sharashka would come to contain such illustrious scientists and engineers as Sergei Korolev, the future chief designer of the Soviet space program; aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev; and famed chemist Yakov Fishman.

Besides the harassment and arrest of individual scientists, major institutional changes began to wreck the Soviet Union’s scientific institutions. By 1939, Soviet scientists would find themselves completely cut off from the rest of the world: they were unable to attend conferences overseas, were largely banned from reading international scientific literature, and were blocked from publishing in foreign peer-reviewed journals. Within the country, the quantity and quality of Soviet publications and conferences also began a precipitous decline. The central form of academic publication—the peer reviewed journal—became a dangerous venue. Modest criticisms of other colleagues’ work could mean imprisonment for author or reviewer if misunderstood by a semi-literate party functionary.

The impact on long-term scientific research in the Soviet Union was tremendously negative. With science led by political concerns rather than the search for truth, pseudoscientists soon abounded. The most infamous was Trofim Lysenko. A poor peasant by birth, the lower-class Lysenko found favor with political elites, including Stalin, in the increasingly repressive environment of the 1930s. His main “scientific” insight was that Mendelian inheritance—the basis of modern genetics—was entirely false. Instead, he claimed that he could “educate” plants through specialized training, and that those traits would be inherited by future generations. In the words of journalist Sam Kean, this preposterous idea was “akin to cutting the tail off a cat and expecting her to give birth to tailless kittens.”

Lysenko’s ideas would have been bad enough confined to the university, but he claimed that his ideas could massively increase agricultural yields. Given enormous support by Stalin himself, tens of thousands of acres of farmland would be turned over to Lysenkoist methods. Instead of growing, the crops rotted. After deploying his techniques nationally, Soviet agricultural production dropped, exacerbating famines that would kill millions in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet because his ideas fit with classical Marxism—and its idea that environmental conditioning was all-powerful in shaping behavior—Lysenko would retain the political patronage of Stalin until the end of the latter’s life. Even worse, Lysenko would use his position to have his intellectual opponents sent to prison or psychiatric hospitals, putting the entire field of biology in the Soviet Union back decades.

Communism claimed to be scientific, based on immutable laws of history. And while the early Soviet Union did patronize scientific research on a tremendous scale, it was mostly in the service of increasing state power. When the tide of politics shifted in 1929, a rich and vibrant scientific community would soon face oppression on a vast scale. The results were more than academic: they would increase the scale of suffering for average citizens, and destroy the lives of thousands of dedicated scholars.