Daniel Orlovsky

The transcript follows, but also look at this presentation on Trofim Lysenko made by Physics postdoc Pavel Nadolsky.

Trofim Lysenko and Lysenkoism

DO=Professor Daniel Orlovsky
JC=Professor John Cotton
RS=Professor Randall Scalise

JC>> We're very fortunate to have a guest today. That little reading quiz we did last time, we just took a poll so I'm not going to bother to give it back to you. If you were here, you got a 1. We were just curious if anybody had heard of Trofim Lysenko and one person had, which is really not a surprise. I suppose that his career ended fifty years ago. It's unlikely that you would have heard of him. Besides that, he was in the Soviet Union, now known as Russia, not here. And Dr. Dan Orlovsky in the History Department is going to talk to us about the pseudoscience career of Trofim Lysenko and it's an example of how much damage pseudoscience can do.

DO>> OK. I'm delighted to be here. I'm not a scientist; I'm a historian. And I do give lectures in my own courses on Soviet science and even on Russian science from time to time. It's a very interesting subject. And the question we're going to look at today concerns this man, T. Lysenko. ... And how it is that one man became dominant in the field of biology in the Soviet Union, so dominant, in fact, that he was able to engineer, if you will, the abolition of the study of genetics as it was known in the rest of the world, officially in the Soviet Union. And that happened after WWII, in about 1948. It signified the ultimate triumph of Lysenko and Lysenkoism, and the coming to complete domination in the area of Soviet biology of his own ideas which were rather strange as we'll see. And I guess that's why he's included in your course, which is about pseudoscience, because his ideas were not very well grounded in science as it was done even in the Soviet Union by its best practitioners.

But in order to understand Lysenko and his pseudoscientific ideas, you have to understand a little bit about the Soviet Union and the revolutionary project and the context. The context is incredibly important for understanding this man and his work. And the context has to do with the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the establishment of the world's first Soviet state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in October of 1917. And you have to understand the importance of ideology here.

I don't know what the Russian Revolution signifies to you, but it was the first attempt in the world to establish a socialist state and to build socialism. And it was built on the ideology of Marxism or Marxism/Leninism. And I guess the best way to look at that is that the ideology of Marxism/Leninism had as its aim, among other things, the complete negation or overcoming of capitalism, the market, private property, individualism, bourgeois culture, bourgeois society, and things like that. And the idea was to create a new kind of human being, a socialist human being, who would flourish in a system which came to be known as Communism.

Actually Marx and his partner Engels wrote quite a bit, well especially Engels, wrote quite a bit about science. They were materialists. They adopted the philosophy of dialectical materialism in their writings about the natural world and especially about the social and political world and they believed that revolution was a natural part of history, that revolution would result in the overcoming of the past and the reunification of essentially alienated human beings with their own selves. For them, what made human beings human was interaction with the physical material world. Labor was that activity and labor had become alienated through history, but in the newest phase of history, communism, that dichotomy would be overcome and people would become whole unalienated human beings.

Now, it's important to remember as background to all this that Russia was a very, in a funny way, advanced place scientifically before 1917. It had a network of research institutions; it had the Academy of Sciences; it had made great world contributions in various areas of science and particularly theoretical science, areas like mathematics, chemistry, and so on were very highly developed in Russia before 1917.

OK, the Soviets come to power and there's a new agenda. What is the new agenda? It's building socialism; it's overcoming the past; it's trying to find a way to create what Marx had predicted would happen which was to build some socialist society out of capitalism, to overcome capitalism, to negate it. And what happened is that for about a decade in the 1920s science went on sort of the way it had been going on in prerevolutionary times with these research institutes without much attention to applied science in those institutes as opposed to theoretical science. But by the end of the 1920s, and this is very important, the Soviet Union was poised to finish its revolution. And the man most associated with that, you probably heard his name, was Stalin.

How many of you have not heard the name Stalin? Nobody's going to raise a hand about that. Stalin became the ruler, in effect the dictator, in the Soviet Union when Lenin died in January of 1924, and for a while he pursued Lenin's policies in the 20s. It was known as the new economic policy. It was an attempt to build socialism gradually, an attempt to nurture the peasants. It was largely still a peasant country. It was, in a way, a very different kind of policy than what had taken place during the revolution and right after. But Stalin, when he came into his own, in the mid 20s, already took steps to move away from this and in 1928-29 he launched the final phase of, really, the Russian revolution, to complete the building of socialism, to make Russia a great power, as he put it in one of his speeches, to prevent what had happened throughout history, which was that Russia in his eyes had been taken advantage of and been beaten (he used the term "beaten"). We've been beaten by the Mongols, we've been beaten by the French, invaded by this one by that one. Now the Soviet Union was going to become a great industrial military country and it was the capstone. The capstone was going to be put on this project of building socialism. And he embarked on a plan to build socialism which had two, really three, dimensions.

The first one was industrialization, rapid planned industrialization, according to the five-year plans. The second was the collectivization of the peasantry. War was declared on the peasants to finally break the power of the peasants to hijack the revolution, blackmail the revolution, withhold grain from the markets. Stalin's aim was to destroy the traditional peasant commune, their traditional way of life, and to create a socialist agriculture in huge collective farms, or state farms, that would be bureaucratized, that would be mechanized, that would be advanced, that would represent socialist agriculture in its true form. This was a bloody mess.

The richer peasants were declared to be "kulak"s, comes from the Russian word fist, and war was declared on them, class war, a war of extermination. And the peasants were, in fact, largely forcibly collectivized between 1929 and about 1933. Not only was a war declared on the peasants, but famine occurred in large areas of agrarian Russia, especially in Ukraine, which was a very large area, today an independent country larger than France, and a place where agriculture had always been the prevailing mode of economic activity.

Some people, Ukrainians, US supporters, people in Europe and Canada, accused Stalin of genocide, actually, in fomenting famine in Ukraine in 1931, 1932. Still, the Soviet State was successful in collectivizing the peasants, brutally, and in a manner that left the peasants quite disaffected, and in a manner that, if you study the subject, you'll know did not solve the problem of Soviet agriculture. In fact, it's a problem that went on into the 50s, 60s, 70s, right up to the end of the Soviet Union in 1989 under Gorbachev. Running like a red thread is the agrarian problem in Russian and Soviet history.

The third area of revolution was cultural revolution. Stalin conducted a cultural revolution, beginning in 1929 that is the elimination of alternative forms of culture and cultural expression, alternatives to the official, dominant, cultural formula which was called socialist realism, which said that only the Party could determine what was proper in culture and that culture had to contribute to the building of socialism. It had to provide a positive model; it had to provide a heroic model. It had to be supportive of the Party agenda. The goal: to create a new type of human being, actually that had been the goal from the very beginning in 1917, a new kind of human being devoid of bourgeois egotism, bourgeois individualism, bourgeois habits of speech. A whole range of attitudes were promoted that were to represent a new kind of socialist being, but after about 1929, it became very one-dimensional, one-sided. There would be only one official mode of cultural expression, whether it be in art, literature, architecture, music. And as we will see, this kind of spilled over into the realm of science as well. It spilled over into the realm of science as well. And this is the background, this revolution that Stalin is conducting, largely from above, but not entirely because he had many willing participants like Lysenko in many areas of human endeavor who became chiefs and dictators and bosses in various realms of culture, social science, architecture, promoting the Stalinist point of view on finishing the revolution, on what was revolutionary, and what was therefore acceptable.

Now, in all of these realms of cultural activity, new modes of institutional behavior were developed beginning in the late 1920s. Throughout the 1920s there was a kind of tug-of-war between people who were extreme ideologues and people who were active, creative in a variety of these cultural, scientific disciplines. It wasn't clear which side you had to be on to be a good Communist. There was a certain amount of toleration, but this all came to a crashing end about 1928-29, and on into the early 30s. And what you had there then was the coming to the fore of a set of institutions that kind of governed the way all this cultural, scientific activity would take place.

What do I have in mind? I have the rise of the Party itself as a control mechanism, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the [???], the rise of the political police known in those days as the OGPU, eventually known as the NKVD, and then the KGB. The police had a very big hand in pressuring people, persecuting, prosecuting people who strayed away from the cultural line, the Party line. You had institutions. The State became even more bureaucratized. Ministries and branches of the Central Committee of the Party that controlled research and development funds, research institutions, and that sort of thing.

You had the takeover, this is very important, the takeover of the autonomous universities and especially the autonomous Academy of Sciences by the Party. That happened at the end of 1929, went on into the early 30s. It meant that, unlike our universities which are autonomous, largely, where faculties have power, where even the administrators have, largely, independence from the state, you had here the State putting Party people into the key positions. You could no longer be a leader in these institutions unless you belonged to the Party, unless you followed Party discipline.

Rituals, ritual discussions, ritual self-criticisms, ritual discussion of the background of the researchers and the scientific personnel. It became necessary to be a member of the right social class in order to gain entrance to these institutions, either a worker or a peasant. It was no longer acceptable to have come from the old generation of so-called bourgeois scientific personnel. You had to have the right pedigree. They pursued a policy of affirmative action, in a kind of twisted, distorted, bizarre Stalinist fashion. You had to be not of the right race, but of the right class background. You were promoted if you were from the right class background, nevermind what the question of scientific or cultural talent might be.

There ritual criticisms, ritual critiques, ritual discussions, ritual unmaskings. This is what institutional cultural scientific life started to become rapidly after 1928-29. If you fell on the wrong side of the ideological divide, if you had the wrong class background, you could be in big trouble. You might simply be shut out and not have a place, an outlet for your cultural or scientific endeavors, or you might have some worse fate, especially later in the 1930s when, as you know if you studied history, beginning in 37, really 36 37 38, there were large-scale purges that affected almost every Soviet institution, but very much especially the lead institutions of culture, science, and even the Communist Party and the Red Army itself, where tens and hundreds of thousands of people were arrested and sent to labor camps which often was a death sentence, or shot for anti-Soviet activities of the most absurd and far-fetched type. This went on until, really, the end of 1938. It was only stopped because it was too stressful for the society. It could not bear the blood-letting and, of course, a big war was on the horizon and the attention of the authorities turned, I think, to that question.

So that's a bit of the background and it's a very serious background, something you have to really take into account to understand how this one man came to be what he was and came to promulgate bizarre notions of biology that were accepted by the State and he was elevated into a position of ultimate authority in biology.

Let me stop for a second. Do you have any questions about anything that I've said so far, by way of background? We don't have a lot of time. OK. No questions? Then I'll go forward.

Who was Lysenko? Lysenko was a peasant. He was born in 1898 in Ukraine near the city of Poltava. You can see right away that his social background was a good thing for him. He wasn't the son of a bourgeois merchant family like his rival for example, Vavilov. Vavilov was a very famous, very serious geneticist, plant breeder, very brilliant man who in the late 20s early 30s had a whole network of institutes, had been well plugged into international science. Vavilov lost out to Lysenko in the 1930s. He was the son of wealthy merchants, had a cosmopolitan education, had worked in the West, was into the international scientific community. These were all very, very suspect things in the 1930s. What happened to poor Vavilov? Eventually he was arrested and shot in 1940, and it took a long time for him to be rehabilitated. It's a very sad, tragic story, actually, this whole Lysenko business. It's kind of symbolic, emblematic of the worst excesses of Sovietism. It's one of those class examples of Sovietism that show you really much about how that system worked, what it was, and how it was capable of tragic results, really, for the Soviet people.

Now what can we say about Lysenko? He rose up as a kind of common agronomist in the 1920s and what made Lysenko centrally prominent is the story that I have just told you. The government was looking for, starting in 1929 with the collectivization of the peasantry, heroic people to sponsor heroic deeds, heroic deeds that were in line with the government vision of transforming Nature. The ideology of Sovietism was based pretty much on the notion that this kind of rational utopian ideological construct, dialectical materialism, would result in the transformation of Nature. There had been famine. There had been agrarian problems. They saw collectivization as a solution to these problems and they were looking for scientific arguments, scientific programs, that were practical, that promised immediate results, that promised a victory over Nature. You see the whole program was coded already to look at what Lysenko would offer up as one of the solutions that was a miracle. It was sort of like, we're Soviet, he's ideologically pure, he's correct, he can overcome Nature and he can build a new Soviet agriculture.

And the other thing was that it would draw in the peasantry. It would draw in the peasantry to practical activity, it would lessen their animosity toward the regime, it would lessen their tendency to hold the regime hostage by not sowing grain, not harvesting grain, not selling grain. And Lysenko came from the proper social background, he rejected the outside world, he rejected the West, he rejected bourgeois science. In a way, he was kind of the perfect type, the perfect Soviet type to front for a Soviet biology, a Soviet anti-genetics, that promised victory over Nature, that promised the end of famine, that promised immediate production, immediate results in the context of the great campaign, the great battle that was collectivization, that was the building of Socialism.

What did he propose? Well he proposed two things really. One of them early in his tenure, from the late 20s into the early 30s, and it was called vernalization. The two things are connected, vernalization. Again, I'm not a scientist, but his notion was that temperature and the environment would determine the development of plants, and not genes, not genetic codes, nothing like that. He believed that if you applied moisture, the proper amount of moisture, and the proper changes of temperature, regulation of cool temperatures to seeds that you could sow a winter wheat in the spring, that you could speed up the actual growth of plants through the various stages.

The most important thing was that environment was the key determining factor in the stages of plant development. He conducted a bunch of experiments that were really pseudoexperiments. That was very typical in areas of Soviet science and in Soviet life in general. Experiments that required a lot of labor but that were not very rigorous and that couldn't be duplicated in the West when people tried to duplicate them.

And they were experiments that kind of showed the funny condition of life in Soviet Russia, in the agrarian sphere anyway. You know, vast numbers of seeds were put out by vast numbers of peasants in trays but the environment could not be controlled very readily because the technology was very backward. Everything was extremely inefficient and despite this he claimed results and got huge numbers of people involved in vernalization. And vernalization was declared the official line of Soviet plant breeding and Soviet agronomy. Institutes were created. He got his own journal. Scientific papers were generated. And by the mid 30s, he was reigning supreme at the end of the first phase of collectivization using vernalization as his trademark which he tried to extend into other areas, other plants, grains, potato growing, all kinds of things. And anyone who deviated from this was highly suspect and subject eventually to a loss of professional place and the ability to conduct science in the Soviet Union.

In fact, in the climate of the 30's, the fact that vernalization often failed and that agricultural yields were not what he said they would be, in the curious twisted logic of Soviet reality, failure was for him a success because he and those who supported him had so much invested in it that they simply declared that the failures were the result of sabotage or wrecking, that there were counter-revolutionaries at work that had nothing to do with vernalization itself, and the more there was failure the more his position was actually strengthened as we went into the purges in 37,38.

It is perverse, an absolutely perverse twisted kind of logic, but when all power is in the hands of certain institutions and when they are promoting someone like Lysenko you can see (it's probably hard for you to imagine) but you can see how that kind of thing might actually happen. When people are in power, they don't like to hear counter arguments to the prevailing truth, the previaling logic, the prevailing language. You can see it in all kinds of institutions actually. The Soviet experience was that kind of situation writ large with human lives very much at stake.

OK. The other thing that he... Well, what developed from vernalization was a vision of biology that he had in general, a more general vision which developed in the late 30s as well and it was called the theory of nutrients, and here he took it all one step further from the realm of applied agronomy and plant breeding into the areas of general biology and heredity. And he said there that essentially not only was environment very important in acquiring characteristics but that environment actually determined heredity, that all plants pass through phases, that heredity was built up from conditions of the external environment over many generations and that it was possible, indeed it was the fact, not just possible, that environmentally determined change could be inherited and was inherited, that plants assimilated external conditions, and these external conditions that were assimilated became attached to what he called "internal particles" which may sound like genes but were not genes because they were mutable and inherited, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, a kind of Lamarckian kind of vision of evolution, of biological change that had been suggested many decades earlier in Europe and had been largely rejected.

The last phase is very interesting. You might ask, well this sounds kind of bogus and ridiculous but we can sort of understand it in the context of collectivization, industrialization, purges.


What happens to Lysenko? You figure, OK Lysenko... By the way, I mean while all this is happening in Soviet biology, this kind of takeover by an ideology that has a slight kernel of validity but which is totally bogus by international standards. By the same token the Soviets are doing physics at a high level. I always like to point out to students when we get to the post-World War II period that the Soviets actually rather quickly were able to build an atom bomb and a hydrogen bomb. And people will say, Oh it's because they had spies. They had good spies. Well, they did have some good spies, it's true, but it wasn't only because of that. It was because of the nature of the system, and the fact that the Soviets are a brilliant and talented people and not in every sphere of life did something like Lysenkoism dominate and the Soviets had some very brilliant physicists.


The Soviets were able to build an atom bomb and a hydrogen bomb. They had very advanced physicists, but moreover they were capable of mobilizing resources, human, economic, physical resources. If they decided they wanted to do something, they could put 200,000 people to work, they could put the KGB in charge which they did on the atom bomb project. If you stepped out of line, that was the end of you. People worked, people believed, people were somewhat patriotic, even quite patriotic in the advances of Soviet science.

But my question is, how did Lysenko continue his triumphs after World War II, after the bloodbath of World War II? After the creation of a kind of new Soviet mythology based on victory over fascism? The fact is he still had the support of Stalin and key backers in the Party bureaucracy. There been discussions in 1936 and 39, people had opposed Lysenko. We now know this from the archives. 1948, the same thing, the Lenin Agricultural Institute had a big discussion and Lysenko wound up again carrying the day. He had the backing of Stalin and at that meeting in 1948, genetics as it was studied in the rest of the world and in the non-Lysenko, the left-over non-Lysenko portions of the Soviet scientific [???] was banned. Genetics was completely out, not to be restored until the death of Nikita Kruschev, really, in the mid 1960s. Why did this happen? Again ideology, again the Soviet context, it was the Cold War. With the height of the Cold War, 1948, the beginnings of the great confrontation between the West, the capitalist world, and Communism, a race that would last right up until your childhood, 1989, 1991, depending on how you want to look at it.

What were the hallmarks of the situation? In 1948, Stalin was extremely paranoid about the West. He saw it as (he always saw it this way but this was even heightened) as out to destroy the Soviet Union and the Communist Project. So anything foreign was highly suspect and forbidden. And again the idea that the Soviet Union could go it alone with its own valid Soviet Marxist form of biology was the only accepted ideological vision of that era. You can get into big trouble in the Soviet Union post World War II for any contact with foreigners let alone a foreign, an international scientific community.

And Lysenko was able to, again, politically promote himself as the voice of pure Communist science, proper class-based, proper Soviet, proper nationalist patriotic Russian Soviet science. And was able to get the backing ... There was a pretty serious debate we now know ... scholars have gotten into the archives and there were people who opposed him, there were people very high up who wanted to see change, but they could not pull off a victory as late as 1948. And Lysenko was able to solidify his position and have banned, actually banned, Western genetics or genetics period, from Soviet science.

And then he ... the twilight of his career was quite fantastic. In the era of Nikita Kruschev, in the years 1954, say, to 1964. Kruschev was a self-styled agrarian expert himself and he believed... Stalin as you know died in 1953... and big changes were in the works. The Soviet Union would actually, beginning in 56, go through a process called deStalinization, where they took down his statues, where they took him out of the Kremlin wall, I mean, excuse me, the mausoleum he shared with Lenin, and buried him around the corner in a wall, in a much more obscure place. He was accused of the cult of personality, but Nikita Sergeyevich Kruschev also still believed in the miracle, the notion of a biological agrarian miracle to solve Russia's problems. He believed that Communism would overcome Nature in a dialectical fashion.

And so he opened up the virgin lands in central Asia, he tried to move many peasants to Asia, and he got Lysenko to sponsor the growing of new forests in central Asia, which Lysenko promised could be done, despite the fact that the soil and the climatic conditions were absolutely antithetical, hostile to the growing of these forests. Lysenko said, well I will produce them in a kind of cluster fashion, we will prepare the seedlings properly, and we'll do it according to my philosophies accepted in Soviet science, and it turned into a great fiasco, and a great disaster.

And then a little bit later, in the 50s, Kruschev got the notion that the Soviet Union needed to eat... people in the Soviet Union needed to eat more meat to overtake the West and there had to be more dairy products with a higher butterfat content, and Lysenko promised that he could do cattle breeding that would result in cattle that produced milk with a higher butterfat content, thereby fulfilling the plans of Nikita Kruschev. Again, disaster occurred.

S>> How do you spell Kruschev?

DO>> No problem. You've heard of him, right? He was the leader between 53 roughly, although there was a power struggle, and 64, when his comrades removed him because they didn't like his harebrained schemes, as they called it, and they didn't like his deStalinization very much either. He's the guy who had the funny debate with Richard Nixon in the kitchen, and he used to bang his shoe on the UN desks when he came to the United States, and he was a very funny witty character. We have film of him in the media center with this debate with Nixon. It's better than Saturday Night Live, it is a truly amazing, truly humorous confrontation by a witty and ruthless also individual.

Anyway he kept Lysenko in power as well. He got rid of Stalin; he tried to deStalinize the country but he kept Lysenko, because he too needed... he wanted ... he believed in the notion of the heroic Soviet miracle in agriculture. And he needed a science that would back that up, so he became also a believer in Lysenko.

Well, all of this set back Soviet biology decades and harmed Soviet agriculture and I think it's part and parcel of the failure of the Soviet Union and its ultimate collapse which was in some measure an economic collapse, an agrarian collapse, I mean they never figured out, in fact, how to industrialize the country properly and how to grow food properly, effectively. They were clouded by these fantasies of utopia and I will stop right here.

RS>>Let's thank Dr. Orlovsky.


JC>> We just have time for a comment. It seems there was nothing in the Cold War, there was nothing the United States could have done, that would do as much damage to the Soviet Union as they did to themselves with Lysenko.

DO>>In a way, yes. In a way, that's true. And the damage they did in their own economy, through the administrative command structure which, you know, was good at doing certain things but lacked the capacity to adapt and to assimilate and to ... you know, there was so much paranoia about international science they never wanted to fully become part of it so I think that hurt them worse.