When we consider symbols of science gone ethically wrong, the first person that comes to mind is not a real human being but rather a fictional character, Professor Frankenstein. Though Mary Shelley’s classic novel remains indispensable centuries after her birth, perhaps references to unethical sciences ought to invoke a real individual: the Soviet Union’s most infamous ideologically-motivated quack, the biologist and agronomist Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976).
In Stalinist Russia, standard Darwinist models of evolution, which increasingly focused upon the new concept of genes, were dismissed as the product of decadent capitalist thinking, partly on account of their origin in Western lands like Great Britain. Supposedly, to acknowledge natural selection, or “survival of the fittest” as a phenomenon in the animal kingdom also meant giving credence to humans competing in a free-market economy.
The mentally unbalanced Lysenko stubbornly refused to believe in genes himself, instead coming up with all kinds of bizarre quack ideas about different species helping one another to co-exist and flourish, as Marxist theory implies they should. This idea of animal cooperation was proposed to counter the view that nature is essentially an endless competition to the death, reminiscent of degenerate free-market capitalism, and Lysenko’s ideas soon made him Stalin’s favorite scientist.
Throughout his career, Lysenko systematically abandoned any commitment toward objective truth. Genes do exist – but, according to certain Soviet Marxist interpretations of the matter, they should not. Therefore, Lysenko set out to ‘prove’ that they did not … by falsifying his own experimental results.
As he once said: “If you want to obtain a certain result, you will obtain it … I need only such people as will obtain the results I need.” In other words, what he wanted were willing accomplices in acts of mass scientific fraud.
Lysenko’s fame lay in his misguided attempts to increase annual Soviet wheat yields via a process known as ‘vernalization’. This is a somewhat genuine phenomenon, known of for centuries, although the self-taught ‘peasant professor’ Lysenko, being proudly ignorant, allegedly did not know this.
Vernalization involves exposing crop seeds to low temperatures and moisture prior to sowing. In this way, seeds could potentially be encouraged, or “educated”, as Lysenko preferred, to grow into harvestable crops earlier in the year, lessening the chance of them encountering killer frosts and snow. Alternatively, they could thereby be made hardier and able to grow in harsher conditions, thus opening up the icy wastes of northern Russia to become a new Siberian breadbasket to replace the original Ukrainian breadbasket about to be ruined by enforced collectivization and vernalization.
Lysenko’s misguided methods were overblown and did not work. Yet, the seeds within Russia’s fields continued to be sown and reaped in Lysenkoist fashion anyway, ultimately leading to mass famine.
History Repeats Itself
Ultimately, Lysenko was discredited in the USSR following Stalin’s death. Thus, you may think such tragedies are wholly a tale of the distant past in Russia – yet, as I found when writing and researching my new book, Hitler’s & Stalin’s Misuse of Science: When Science Fiction Was Turned Into Science Fact by the Nazis and the Soviets, this is sadly not so. Incredibly, in today’s Russia, Lysenkoism is now coming back into fashion.
Contemporary attempts to rehabilitate Lysenko center upon a controversial but not necessarily wholly illegitimate new field known as ‘epigenetics’. This posits that a limited transfer of acquired characteristics between generations can indeed occur via standard processes of genetic inheritance in which genes are switched ‘on’ or ‘off’ based upon the life experiences (not simply the innate family biology) of an offspring’s recent ancestors like parents or grandparents.
Therefore, epigenetics is not actually true Lysenkoism at all, as it involves genes, those very same corrupt Western items Lysenko refused to believe in. Yet, if you ignore this awkward fact, epigenetics can easily be made to sound like Lysenkoism to a popular audience, lending it immense propaganda value to Russian nationalists and pro-Stalin apologists, who are rife in President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian Russia of today.
Support for Lysenko implies shared support for his greatest patron, Stalin, who is famously one of Putin’s main role models in life, hence his constant contemporary political purges. If Lysenko was right, goes this apparatchik logic, then so was Stalin, and if Stalin was right, then so is his modern-day heir Putin.
Many Are Cold, But Few Are Frozen
Handily enough, contemporary Russian pseudoscientists had an excellent potential experimental resource to prove Lysenko’s theories were true not only for seeds, but also for human beings – namely, survivors and descendants of the 1941-44 Siege of Leningrad (now St Petersburg), when perhaps as many as 1.2 million Soviet city-dwellers, cut off from the outside world by encircling Nazi forces, starved or froze to death.
Lack of food meant frost-bitten Leningraders were forced to eat cats, dogs, rats, wallpaper, glue or bits of their own children for sustenance, meaning only the hardiest survived, having been forcibly ‘vernalized’ by Hitler. Presumably, only those with genes already well-suited towards famine conditions had survived the siege, with these inherent qualities toned by four years of constant day-to-day managing on abnormally few calories, which should have meant their children and grandchildren had epigenetically inherited such resilience too.
This theory has today been widely disseminated in unquestioningly sensationalist fashion throughout national Russian media – because one of the supposed ‘super-babies’ made in Leningrad was none other than Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, born in Leningrad in 1952, eight years after his older brother Viktor perished in the siege of the same city.
Putin Himself On a Pedestal
In 2009, geneticist Oleg Glotov tracked down 206 of the siege’s final survivors, finding they were more likely than control subjects to enjoy three specific gene variations lending certain metabolic advantages during times of low-calorie intake, as in a siege. This was indeed suggestive, but the small sample was really too small to draw definite conclusions. However, such trivialities never prevented Lysenko from drawing his own unwarranted conclusions from limited data, and the Russian media did precisely the same, as seen in a 2018 ‘documentary’ film, Blockade, Blood, Genetics.
At the premiere, Russian war veterans and loyal politicians were treated to news that, besides Putin, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, had also inherited vernalized super-genes from his besieged ancestors, as had Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s former Chief of Staff, and Sergei Naryshkin, Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service.
Not only did these lucky people receive greater stamina and capacity to survive famines, they epigenetically inherited “a high sense of [civic] responsibility for what is going on in the country” and a particular “psychological behavior group” which naturally caused them to ascend to positions of national power – their destiny was quite literally written in their “golden genes”. Putin’s position as Stalin 2.0 thus became pure scientific inevitability, caused by the “physical and moral hardships” endured by his parents.
Oleg Glotov was wheeled out to claim his studies showed how iron willpower, forged within times of strife, could be passed on via vernalization; Ironman Putin was thus the best man to steer Russia in uncertain times like today. “Leningrad blood,” the film concluded, still “beats in the hearts of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren” like President Putin.
It would be more accurate to say that Stalinist pseudoscience still beats on in the politically poisoned heart of Mother Russia. We in the West today are always being told in soothing tones to apolitically “follow the science.” That’s all very well – but what if the ‘science’ is just following the politics?
Hitler’s & Stalin’s Misuse of Science: When Science Fiction Was Turned Into Science Fact by the Nazis and the Soviets by S.D. Tucker is published in hardback by Pen & Sword/Frontline Books (ISBN: 9781399073158). All relevant references can be found within.