How po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence slowed a na­tion’s progress.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

In the fi­nal chap­ter of “Stalin and the Sci­en­tists,” Si­mon Ings re­calls how by the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union boasted twice as many sci­en­tists as the United States and Western Europe com­bined. Decades af­ter the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion of 1917, the am­bi­tious dream of a truly sci­en­tific-athe­ist Soviet su­per­state had fi­nally been achieved. At least in the­ory. As Ings shows, a great para­dox lay at the heart of the Soviet state: While rapid sci­en­tific progress was needed on a mass scale to ad­vance the cause of a utopian so­cial­ist na­tion, the Soviet regime didn’t want to grant the science com­mu­nity within Rus­sia any in­tel­lec­tual free­dom or au­ton­omy, fear­ing that it might end up un­der­min­ing the so-called science of Marx­ism.

The Bol­she­viks reg­u­larly made pub­lic pro­nounce­ments on the im­por­tance of sci­en­tific matters for the ad­vance­ment of world so­cial­ism, which Ings re­pro­duces here in some de­tail. Leon Trot­sky, founder of the Red Army and one of the lead­ing in­tel­lec­tual voices of the rev­o­lu­tion in its early days, proph­e­sied in 1922, for in­stance, how “man will put for­ward a goal [to] raise him­self to a new level to cre­ate a higher so­cio-bi­o­log­i­cal type.” Six years later, the mass mur­derer, para­noid dic­ta­tor and then-leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, de­clared that young peo­ple “must seize” the fortress of science “if they want to truly re­place the old guard.”

And yet, as Ings ex­plains, just as Stalin was pub­licly cham­pi­oning science in the name of the com­ing com­mu­nist utopia and set­ting up a num­ber of in­sti­tutes and prizes, he was also ar­rang­ing the sack­ing, im­pris­on­ment and mur­der of in­di­vid­ual sci­en­tists who dared to ques­tion the of­fi­cial party line on Soviet science.

Ings de­tails how top Rus­sian sci­en­tists had to deny the works of New­ton, Ein­stein, Men­del and oth­ers if they wanted to avoid ar­rest, the gu­lag or death.

The au­thor pro­vides two ex­cel­lent ex­am­ples of Stal­in­ist-type purges re­lat­ing to science that were typ­i­cal of the era. In 1927, Trot­sky, al­ways more in­ter­na­tion­al­ist and cos­mopoli­tan in out­look than Stalin, pub­lished “Cul­ture and So­cial­ism,” which strongly made the case for un­der­stand­ing the work of Sigmund Freud. But three years later, the Rus­sian Psy­cho­an­a­lytic So­ci­ety was dis­banded, and Freud’s work ceased to be pub­lished in Rus­sian. Trot­sky even­tu­ally was mur­dered in Mex­ico on Stalin’s in­struc­tions.

Rus­sian physi­cist Boris Hessen also suf­fered. Hessen, who pub­licly ar­gued that sci­en­tists had to de­fend their work be­yond sim­ple philo­soph­i­cal con­clu­sions, was ar­rested in 1935 and died in a Soviet prison in 1938.

Ings un­der­scores the bru­tal hu­man cost that ac­com­pa­nied sci­en­tific ad­vance­ment in the Soviet Union in the early 20th cen­tury. And yet, the au­thor shows that de­spite the op­pres­sive con­di­tions, Soviet science did man­age to pro­duce some achieve­ments. In par­tic­u­lar, the Soviet Union trans­formed a back­ward peas­ant so­ci­ety into a gi­ant su­per­power at the fore­front of global tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment. It was the Soviet Union, af­ter all, that sent the first satel­lite — Sput­nik 1 — into space in 1957.

Ings’s finely crafted and in­for­ma­tive book is a must read for un­der­stand­ing how the ideas of sci­en­tific knowledge and tech­nol­ogy were dis­torted and sub­verted for decades across the Soviet Union, all in the ser­vice of the most am­bi­tious ex­per­i­ment in so­cial engi­neer­ing the world has ever wit­nessed. J.P. O’Mal­ley is a jour­nal­ist based in Bu­dapest.


Joseph Stalin, left, and Leon Trot­sky both held up science as crit­i­cal to the ad­vance­ment of world so­cial­ism. Be­hind the scenes, though, Soviet sci­en­tists were op­pressed and purged.

STALIN AND THE SCI­EN­TISTS A His­tory of Tri­umph and Tragedy, 19051953 By Si­mon Ings Atlantic Monthly. 508 pp. $28

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