Triumph of T. D. Lysenko

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The name of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976) has been synonymous with the devastating effects that ideological dogmatism had on scientific inquiry in the Soviet Union. Actually, the story of Lysenko’s battles with Soviet geneticists is a good deal more complicated and its outcome was less typical of the relationship between science and ideology than is often recognized.

Of peasant background, Lysenko rose to prominence in the mid-1930s as an agronomist who was sharply critical of Soviet scientists for pursuing genetic research which he regarded as evidence of their slavish adherence to “bourgeois” biology. Instead of the Mendelian genetics championed by Nikolai Vavilov, Lysenko saw in “vernalization,” that is, the application of cold and moisture to seeds before planting, tremendous possibilities for expanding agricultural yields. His claims to have transformed a variety of winter wheat into spring wheat and to have achieved other breakthroughs, though lacking in scientific merit, resonated with Stalin and other political authorities who were desperate for advances in food production. They also appreciated his home-grown, “proletarian” plain-spokenness as compared to the restrained rhetoric of academic science.

Despite a purge of the biological establishment in the late 1930s and the arrest of Vavilov in 1940, genetic research survived. In 1947 an article critical of Lysenko’s approach was published in the main Soviet philosophical journal, and these criticisms were repeated at conferences of biologists later in the year. In April 1948, Yuri Zhdanov, son of the Leningrad party boss, Andrei Zhdanov, and a chemist by education, addressed a gathering of party officials in his capacity as head of the Science Sector of the party’s Central Committee. Attacking Lysenko for his tendentious application of I. V. Michurin’s selective plant breeding techniques and his attempts to suppress other approaches, Zhdanov called for more criticism and self-criticism in science. However, after Lysenko wrote to Stalin complaining of persecution and offering his resignation as president of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences (VASKhNIL), it was Zhdanov, Jr. who had to write a repentant letter for his “incorrect report … on matters of Soviet biology.” Subsequently, non-Michurinists engaged in samokritika, and all genetic research in the Soviet Union was halted until the mid-1960s.

The August 1948 session of the Agricultural Academy at which Lysenko triumphantly presented his report, “On the Situation in Soviet Biology,” was one of five such occasions in the late Stalin period when scientific disputes were settled by party intervention. However, in the cases of philosophy (1947), linguistics (1950), physiology (1950), and political economy (1951), the outcomes were less clear-cut and less easily lend themselves to a dichotomy between ideological imposition and “true science.” What was characteristic of all five discussions was the transfer of the rites of Communist political culture to academic life in which the operational procedures and rhetorical vocabularies were stable, but the experts could not know in advance which competing faction would win the party’s imprimatur.

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