Stalin and the Scientists, Joseph Ings [Review]

Somehow, reading about the Soviet history has become my hobby. Readers should therefore appreciate in advance that my comments here are from a particular standpoint. And I should also note that I have no love for the Soviet state: I think that Ronald Reagan was more right than wrong when he called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.”


I also grew up in the shadow of the Cold War in the American Midwest. The demotic understanding of the USSR was that they were the bad guys–pre-1991, they were bad guys who wanted to kill (enslave? humiliate?) us, and post-1991 they were the bad guys who lost because their system was bad. The sophisticated explanation, based on a mishmash of Orwell, Chambers, and Koestler (often as translated through third- and fourth-hand impressions of those texts), was that Soviet society was a particular kind of evil, a melange of the gray and the violent.

Reprogramming myself from that perspective began with, surprisingly enough, a Time-Life book called, simply, The Soviet Union. I encountered this on my middle-school library’s shelves, which meant that this had to have happened post-collapse (1993 or 1994). I think I read it eight or nine times; I know for certain I stole it from the library (a sin, to be sure, but I don’t think that I’ve deprived anyone of its circulation!).  I was enthralled by the portrait of Soviet normalcy it portrayed: people getting married, people going to work, people attending poetry readings (a novel thought in more than one way), people engaging in “hero projects” to build the trans-Siberian railroad, and so on. The overwhelming takeaways were that the Soviets were … normal. Poor. Constricted. But normal. Everyday people made their life there, and considered other ways of living strange.

Heady stuff at 12 years of age

I know now about the fine variations in Soviet strategies of rule–the distinctions between 1937, 1957, and 1977 in the USSR are almost as familiar to me now as the parallel changes in, say, British life would be. But it’s in the spirit of that first shock that a culture could exist on so fundamentally different lines that I continue to read about Soviet history. In essence, I’m still trying to square the puzzle of my childhood: how could people living in a system so different from mine nevertheless seem so similar?

Simon Ings’s Stalin and the Scientists speaks more to my chosen career now (although I wish for a companion volume: Stalin and the Social Scientists). How did Soviets at the height of Stalinism do science? Ings’s answer is: cautiously, but with more dedication than one would expect.

Ings’s world of Soviet science focuses on the mixture of the political and the scientific. As he writes (xiv), “In the end, only obedience mattered. Stalin believed that science should serve the state.” For a political scientist, I will confess to a slight frisson at the idea that STEM should be so subordinated to the political; contemporary American discourse makes the opposite claim (frequently to its demerit). Of course, the result of this was awful: “It was counterproductive. It was tantamount to wrecking.” (xv) This led to a bizarre paradox: “By the time Stalin died on 5 March 1953, the Soviet Union boasted the largeest and best-funded scientific establishment in history. It was at once the glory and the laughing stock of the intellectual world.” (xv)

This was the system that produced both the first artificial satellite and Trofim Lysenko’s counter-Darwin explanation of evolution, both the first man in space and the waste of Kazakhstan’s virgin lands. So what happened?

At this point,  I have links to share. To learn more about the Soviet science system, I recommend:

One trick is that to read Soviet history you need to think like a Soviet, not like an American or an Englishman who views the Soviet system as irrational. No! It was a rational, realistic, and successful system viewed on its own deep logic–even though it was a failure both from the perspective of emancipation (its political logic) and production (its economic logic). The Soviet system survived where the Nazis did not; it went toe-to-toe with the American system on a military and scientific basis; and it permitted (“enabled” is not quite the right world) Russia to become the core of a Soviet and a Communist empire. And many people miss it. Reading those articles–and, of course, Ings’s book!–go some way to help explain how a system that classical liberals mocked as being unable to last instead made a bid for global dominance that, who knows, the KGB agent in the Kremlin may help come to pass.

Lysenko makes an appearance, but as one player among many and contextualized so that one understands both the permissive and the final causes of his rise. Ings begins with a recapitulation of science’s role in Marxism–including how Lenin, in a book that subsequent generations alternately ignored and canonized, argued that Marxism contained a superior theory of physics. For the Bolsheviks, the question of how the material related to the social was a treacherous one, since theirs was a social science based on material presuppositions.

Once in power, therefore, the Bolsheviks turned to science to legitimate their claim to rule– but also demanded that science obey Marxist commandments. They combined an enthusiasm for science with a belief that they were scientists: “The Bolshevik state invested a great deal of time and money in making science a subject of popular interest. Their effort was sincere: they truly meant the Soviet Union to be the world’s first scientifically run state….The cult of science lay at the foundation of Soviet rule.” (116) And therefore “Old Bolshevik hands, Party leaders, and key bureaucrats were themselves dedicated amateur philosophers of science [who[ ruled in the name of scientific government and were honour-bound to pronounce on scientific issues” (189).

This did not turn out well. As Ings describes the entire story,  “It is, ultimately, the story of how impatient believers turned on the scientific community and demanded that the future happen right away.” (xvi) During the 1920s, the Bolsheviks proved suckers with anyone with a “scientific” account of anything–one gets the idea that the Communist version of TED talks found an appreciative and a gullible audience in the hirsute revolutionaries. A sample sentence: “In January 1927, Trotsky published his article ‘Culture and Socialism,’ in which he made his most enthusiastic appeal for a sympathetic understanding of Freud’s work.” (p. 107)  Stalin’s ascent quelled this period. Ings continues his account of the Freud-Trotsky affair by noting that “To receive such support from the man who at the very moment was being defeated by Stalin in the struggle for control of the leadership of the Communist Party was the kiss of death for Soviet sychoanalysis.”

The Terror swept up scientists in swirls of repression, informing, and score-settling, although it was not until late in the 1930s that paranoia and anti-Western (especially anti-German) thought crippled the scientific endeavor. One is struck by the lazy leftism (in terms of scrutiny, not belief) that afflicted many Western scientists, such as the biologist Hermann Mueller, who concluded that life in the USSR, being scientific, must also therefore be freer. (This is a routine point, but an astonishing one: at midcentury, and even after Stalin, many Western and non-Western intellectuals concluded that the USSR was the country of the future.) The tightening vise of Stalinist rule prompted some to recant and leave–and others to seek the paradoxical freedom of the prisons. In prison, which meant being already an admitted enemy of the state, researchers could pursue their projects as virtual slaves who nevertheless were free from the arbitrary persecutions afflicting their nominally free compatriots. Many, of course, could neither flee nor envision imprisoning themselves, and so either bent with the winds or were snapped by the whirlwind.

The place of Lysenkoism deserves and receives special treatment. Ings links Lysenko’s appeal to his class origins and the earlier plant-breeding efforts of the peasant hero Ivan Michurin.  Lysenko’s early successes allowed him to command ever greater attention from the center, and the opportunism of his scientific betters let him work his way up to the top of the Soviet science echelon. In this, Ings detects more than just simple bureaucratic politics:

From the very start, and at the highest level, Stalin’s decision to reject genetics, and rehabilitate Lysenko, evoked either bemusement or dismay. Historians have had no easy time of it either. Superhuman efforts have been made to show the strategy, the Realpolitik behind Stalin’s decision. These efforts are not so much wrong as insufficient….it is true that Lysenko represented home-grown science, while Mendelian genetics prided itself on being international. …[I]t was necessary to champion Lysenko, the patriot, and vilify genetics as a nest of ‘cosmopolitanism’. But here again, this is not nearly enough of an explanation. … Nuclear physics was an international, cosmpolitan effort–but no one now felt a burning need to contradict Einstein. The state took physics seriously, and wanted to lead the field by any means necessary….

The sheer peculiarity of Stalin’s decision raises a possibility of the sort historians try very hard to avoid. Is it possible, even likely, that the foibles and prejudices of one man, and one man alone, had enormous consequences for the whole of the science base of the Soviet Union? Did Stalin singlehandledly destroy genetic science in his own country for no better reason than that he was a keen gardener with ambitions for lemon trees and set views about how plants grew?” (360-1)

Indeed, yes, Ings concludes: “Stalin, while in some ways a very modern ruler, was also the last in a long line of European philosopher kings. He shared with his fellow Bolsheviks the idea that they had to be philosophers in order to deserve their mandate.” (361) Is it so amazing that the same Stalin who decreed definitions of nationalism, who edited screenplays, who censored poems, and instructed Shostakovich on how to compose would also consider himself competent to decree science? Indeed, if he were not competent to do so, then how could he–the supreme dialectical materialist–sit on his throne?

And yet the consequences of this attitude culminate in what Ings quotes Stephen Jay Gould as describing as “the most chilling passage in all the literature of 20th century science” during a debate in the Academy of Sciences–one of the most august scientific bodies in the world–over whether to continue pursuing Mendelian genetics: (366)

“Before I pass on to my concluding remarks,” Lysenko announced…,”I consider it my duty to make the following statement. The question is asked in one of the notes handed to me, What is the attitude of the Central Committee of the Party to my report? I answer: The Central Committee of the Party has examined my report [to extinguish Mendel] and approved it.” … The transcript concludes, ‘Stormy applause. Ovation. All rise.'”

Ings is careful to note that most scientists responded to the turbulence of Stalinism by lip service: “Leaders in all disciplines, survivors of the Great Purge, had learned their parts well, and used [purges] to pursue their own agendas: declaring their loyalty, sticking the knife into the handful of people they didn’t like, and laying a layer of protective political cant over whatever work they happened to be engaged in at the time.” (p. 370) Such shows of conformity saved many a scientific neck–and project.

Yet the cumulative effect of such politicization was disastrous. Ings writes, rightly, that “Soviet science was extraordinary, and ought to have delivered many more miracles than it did.” The first socialist state–the first scientific state–ended by having to import American grain and steal Western computers. It conquered chess but could not produce automobiles. (For more in this vein, see Frances Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty.) And the heroic projects that formed the best propaganda posters were among the worst decisions. The construction of Magnitogorsk, for instance, long celebrated even in the West, was built to fulfill the Plan with new steel: but ” there were no towns nearby, so an entire city would have to be built for the construction workers …. no one had bothered to get a good estimate of how much ore was really sitting in [“Magnetic Mountain”]. Worst of all, there was no coal nearby [for smelting]; it would have to be brought, over a phenomenal distance, by train” (p. 430).

Ings’s book is sprawling and engaging. Most nonfiction books peak early, and Ings’s is an exception only in that it is bimodal: the first quarter and the last eighth are more interesting than the middle, not least because he allows himself in those pages a sort of synoptic view that aids the reader who isn’t on a first-name basis with all the academicians of the Stalinist period. His sourcing is impressive but his citations are thin; he notes in his acknowledgments that “not being an academic, I am under no pressing obligation to thank every scholar, department, and library”, but perhaps he could have told us where the quotations came from.

His conclusion gropes toward the question that animates me in reading about the Soviet times: what does the Soviet experience tell us about us? If we view the USSR as an extraordinary but also quite mundane country, we cannot say that its experiences are so outlandish that they have nothing to contribute to a broader understanding of humanity and human society. Ings notes that the Western mythos of science is no weaker than the Soviet one was: “The rest of us think we have generated so much knowledge and technology that we’ll soon be able to ignore and forget the last 10,000 years of human experience…We are all little Stalinists now, convinced of the efficacy of science to bail us out of any and every crisis, regardless of what science can actually do, impatient of anything scientists might actually say” (434).

On the one hand, it would be poetic justice for capitalism and democracy to succumb to the same hubris that science will bend to political need–to solve climate change, to control AI, to do whatever it takes to ward off the end of the world–that doomed the Soviets. On the other hand, democratic control of science seems not quite as heavy-handed as the Soviet version. On the third hand (Lysenko would approve), the conditions for instituting such controls seem to have arrived at last.