In the early 1920s, the Soviet Union had some of the best agricultural science in the world. Russian scientists were routinely doing amazing, groundbreaking work in biology and genetics and were a vital part of the scientific agricultural revolution that was sweeping the world.
The problem was that the Soviet Union had a huge gap between theory and practice. Soviet research institutes were first-rate, while Soviet farms, well, they were still being run on medieval principles. It was a problem they’d inherited from Tsarist Russia, which had been plagued by a lack of basic infrastructure for centuries.
The country didn’t have a free press capable of mass-producing or disseminating books describing the modern methods of scientific agriculture. Of course, that didn’t matter much since the average farmer wasn’t able to read. The government could always hire specialists to teach the farmers, but the nobility had next to no interest in the plight of the peasantry.
Even if farmers could be taught, what then? Most of them couldn’t afford to buy a seed drill or dig proper irrigation trenches. They certainly couldn’t afford to buy newly-developed seed varieties or vast quantities of nitrogen fertilizer. The only people in the country with the necessary funds were bored nobles turned gentlemen farmers and a handful of kulaks that had managed to scrape their way into the middle class after the liberation of the serfs.
World War I and the Russian Civil War hadn’t helped the situation. Germans, Whites and Reds ravaged the countryside, commandeering all the grain and livestock they could get their hands on. After the fighting was over, the Soviets had continued the practice to prop up urban centers, and of course, they had also purged the gentlemen farmers and kulaks as class enemies.
The response of farmers when faced with ignorant bureaucrats who were willing and able to confiscate not only their grain but also their fodder and seed stock was logical, if somewhat cruel. They slashed their output to a subsistence level so when the agents of the state came calling, there was nothing left to take. As a result, the early years of the Soviet Union were also a period of terrible famine.
It was a state of affairs that couldn’t last. As part of the First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932) the Soviets made a huge push to collectivize agriculture. Private property was confiscated, farms were consolidated, farmers relocated, all so the state could rebuild its agricultural infrastructure along the lines of a modern industrialized economy.
The chaos that resulted was tragic, but to paraphrase Game of Thrones, chaos is also a ladder.
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was born on December 30, 1898 in Poltava in the Ukraine. People would later remember him as a bright boy, industrious and ambitious. Like most of the children in his community, his childhood education consisted of two years of primary school, in actuality little more than a vo-tech school focusing on horticulturalism.
In 1916 he applied to the Vocational School of Agriculture and Horticulture in Uman, but flunked the portion of the entrance exam dealing with scripture. (Which, as we all know, is so very important in agriculture.) Not to be deterred, Lysenko spent months memorizing the Bible and re-took the entrance exam in 1917. This time, he made it through.
After graduating from Uman he was hired by the state sugar industry, given some specialist training, and deployed to Belaya Tserkov as a “beet selection specialist.” He spent most of his time tending to common garden plants It was a good (if unexciting) job, but it wasn’t enough for Lysenko.
At this point, the Communist Party was actively pursuing a policy of educating and promoting students from the lower classes. Lysenko took advantage of that program by taking a correspondence course from the Kiev Agriculture Institute.
When he graduated in 1925 he was rewarded by being hired as a junior specialist by the All-Union Institute of Plant Industry. Under the direction of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, the All-Union Institute had grown into a sprawling organization conducting basic and applied research in almost every aspect of botany, agronomy and horticulture.
The All-Union Institute sent him to the Ordzhonikidze Central Plant-Breeding Experiment Station in Ganja, Azerbaijan. Now, I know hearing “ganja” made you perk up, so let me dash your hopes right now: this isn’t some Soviet version of Reefer Madness. Anyway, it was not an exciting job, but by Soviet standards it was a pretty plum position.
Under most circumstances, this was probably the best lot Lysenko could have achieved in life. He was a praktik, a specialist or technician with great practical experience, but no theoretical understanding of what he was doing. He didn’t have the advanced education necessary to move into a more senior role, and he lacked the curiosity and intellectual rigor to acquire it.
Of course, a life in Soviet Union in the 1920s was hardly “most circumstances.” It served up chaos and opportunity on a platter, in this case, a 1927 visit to Ordzhonikidze by Pravda reporter Vitaly Fyodorovich. For whatever reason, Fyodorovich was immediately taken by Lysenko and the article he published, “The Winter Fields,” described the young technician in glowing terms:
If one is to judge a man by first impression, Lysenko gives one the feeling of a toothache… Stingy of words and insignificant of face is he; all one remembers is his sullen look creeping along the earth as if, at very least, he were ready to do someone in. Only once did this barefoot scientist let a smile pass, and that was at mention of Poltava cherry dumplings with sugar and sour cream…
Lysenko is solving (and has solved!) the problem of enriching the soil without animal or minimal fertilizers, by planting winter crops in the barren fields of the Transcaucasus winter… The barefoot professor Lysenko now has followers, pupils an experimental field; and the luminaries of agronomy visit in the winter, stand before the station’s green field, and gratefully shake his hand.
Almost everything in Fyodorovich’s article was, well, wrong. Like most reporters he had little or no understanding of science. Lysenko was not some scientific maverick expanding the frontiers of knowledge, just a technician running experiments designed by others. And not exciting experiments, either — boring basic research into the the effect of leguminous vegetables on nitrogen levels in the soil. He hadn’t “solved” anything.
But Fydorovich did have an eye for a good story, and “young peasant makes good” is exactly the sort of puff piece that the Soviet state was looking for. And that piece opened up all sorts of doors for young Trofim Denisovich Lysenko.
Shortly after Fyodorvich’s article, Lysenko published his first real scientific paper. He had developed a hypothesis was that plants required “a determinant quantity of heat” to reach the various stages of their development. To prove this hypothesis, he had been making detailed observations of the temperature and then trying to use those observations to derive formulae which could be used to determine the best temperatures to maintain for each stage of a plant’s development.
Agricultural scientists largely ignored Lysenko’s paper, and rightly so. It provided no new insights, party because the author was ignorant of all previous research that had been done on the problem, and partly because his math skills were terrible and several basic mistakes rendered his formulae useless. At least the pages and pages of raw observational data were useful. In general, it was treated like a C- paper — a good start, but try maybe try harder next time.
Well, try harder next time he did. While he was gathering data, Lysenko noticed that winter wheat would prematurely produce shots after a brief exposure to the cold and damp. Building off his idea of “a determinant quantity of heat heat,” he wondered if this could be used to speed up the growth process of winter wheat.
If you’re wondering why this is important, well, welcome to the club. I read book after book and paper after paper and only one bothered to really explain it in simple terms. To make a long story short, winter wheat has a long growing period that spans several seasons. That long growing period means there’s a greater chance of crop loss, and means that you can really only plant winter wheat in temperate regions which don’t have bitter winters. Spring wheat, on the other hand, has a short growing period which is less risky and suitable for more climates. The downside is that the yield for a crop spring wheat is a lot smaller than that of winter wheat.
If you could speed up the growth process of winter wheat so that it grew in the same amount of time as spring wheat, you’d have the best of both worlds: a short growing period and high yields.
Lysenko tried out the process on his family’s (not-yet-collectivized) farm, by having his father bury a bag of winter wheat in a snowdrift and then planting it in the spring. The results seemed to be incredible: the winter wheat finished its lifecycle in a single season, and the yield seemed to be higher than that of spring wheat.
These promising initial results were developed into a technique he called “vernalization” — the transformation of winter wheat into spring wheat. It involved chilling seeds, exposing them to water, and then rotating them to ensure a thorough and even soaking. He presented the process to the presidium of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences (VASKhNIL) in 1931.
Once again the scientific community was more than a little skeptical.
When you boiled vernalization down to its essence it was just a fancy way of soaking seeds before planting, and that was nothing new. Soaking the seeds for an extended duration increased the chances of loss to mold and fungus, and the constant rotation of the seed pile threatened to damage young sprouts. That rotation also required the diversion of labor from other important tasks on a collectivized farm, an externality that needed further investigation.
Lysenko’s claims about crop yields also came under fire. He claimed his vernalized winter wheat produced 2.4 metric tons of grain per hectare, which was an astounding 350% of the yield of regular old spring wheat. They pointed out that his paper contained no hard data, and utilized small sample sizes with no controls. And he was also comparing apples to oranges, using data from the famine-stricken years of 1927 and 1928 as a baseline.
In the end, most scientists decided to be cautiously positive. After all, that’s the scientific spirit. Vernalization was an unproven idea, but an interesting one. More experiments needed to be conducted before any conclusions could be made.
Others, though, had a very different take.
The start of the First Five-Year Plan had been marred by poor weather and famine which caused grain shortages, and the ongoing stresses of collectivization were causing a precipitous drop in production. The state were looking for something, anything, to help ensure the food security of the Soviet Union.
The scientific community wasn’t helping. Oh sure, it was still producing first-rate science, but it was also skewed towards basic research, exploring abstract and intellectual ideas which required lengthy testing and validation. To call scientists cautious might be an understatement — they were frequently pessimistic in the extreme, presenting worst-case scenarios and timelines as a given.
This may have been done as an attempt to temper the unrealistic expectations of politicians and bureaucrats desperate for solutions. If so, it backfired.
Instead politicians and bureaucrats began to turn to “peasant scientists” and outright cranks who promised quick and easy fixes for the complicated problems facing the nation. Pseudoscientists like Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, who compulsively crossbred fruit trees looking to create the perfect hybrid varietal but never managed to create anything useful; Vasiliy Robertovich Vilyams, who preached that the only thing that determined the success or failure of a crop was the texture of the soil; Alexander Leonidovich Chizhevsky, who promised that radiation treatments would produce giant vegetables; and P.I. Spielmann, who argued for the the “biorization” of seed (whatever the heck that means).
These men promoted pure wild pseudoscience based on idiosyncratic personal intuition and outright magical thinking. Scientists were horrified, thinking that perhaps they had not effectively communicated to the government how crazy and unscientific these ideas were, and how potentially damaging these they could be if not rigorously tested.
The scientists hadn’t picked up the scent of desperation in the air.
The government didn’t have time to do five to ten years of cautious experimentation when it had people starving right now. They were willing to plow full steam ahead with any idea, no matter how crazy, on the chance that it might pan out down the line. If it failed, well, nothing had been lost by trying. If it paid off, everyone involved would be heroes of the Motherland.
By constantly complaining, the scientists were starting to sound less like cautious men, and more like obstructionists.
That’s when vernalization came onto the scene. Lysenko pushed the idea with the easy charm of a showman, dazzling his audience with facts and figures that they didn’t understand and emphasizing key points with dramatic flourishes and gestures that felt more like a stump speech than a lecture.
Politicians were sold. Vernalization was exactly the sort of easy-to-understand and shovel-ready project they were looking for. Lysenko was praised to the high heavens in the pages of Pravda, given a private laboratory at the All-Union Institute of of Plant Breeding and Genetics in Odessa, and tasked with rolling out vernalization on a national scale.
In 1932 Lysenko oversaw the first limited trials of vernalization. Well, “oversaw” is probably giving him too much credit. He merely sent out circulars describing the vernalization process to collective farms, politely encouraged them to try it, and then sent out questionnaires at the end of the year to ask how things had gone.
Lysenko’s officially published report claimed that some 19,277 hectares had been sown with vernalized winter wheat, resulting in a small increase in crop yields.
Unfortunately, those results are specious at best. There were no experimental controls. Self-reported data is often garbage, especially since collectivized farmers tended to respond to official inquiries with whatever answer was likely to make the the questioner happy. Many of the questionnaires were not returned or only partially filled out, so Lysenko filled in the gaps with fudged numbers and very optimistic assumptions. Other problematic cracks were spackled over with anecdote, speculation, and outright propaganda.
The government plowed ahead with mass trials of vernalization in 1933. A small fortune was spent on specialized equipment to help refrigerate and rotate seeds, and thousands of man-hours of work were diverted to operate them. Unfortunately, the machinery provided difficult to operate which wound up damaging and destroying seeds, leading to a decreased yields and grain shortages.
Despite these failures, officials continued to push for vernalization in the desperate hope that their gamble would pay off. To help minimize losses, Lysenko announced that it would be better to vernalize spring wheat, and simplified the process to the point where it involved little more than giving seeds a quick polar bear swim before planting. Agricultural officials responded by mandating that the number of acres planted with vernalized seed should be doubled or even tripled each year.
Had vernalization actually been adopted on a mass scale, Soviet agriculture might have been ruined. What saved it were the farmers, who had seen that the process was garbage and wanted nothing to do with it. So they just reverted to their old techniques, and kept on filling out questionnaires saying that they’d planted vernalized wheat.
The failure of mass vernalization would have ended Lysenko’s career, if he hadn’t known how to work the news cycle to his advantage. His failures were never as widely reported as his successes, and he always arranged to have them drowned out by some exciting new project he was working on.
In this case, that new project was to produce a new hybrid variety of wheat.
One of the goals of the First Five-Year-Plan was to increase crop yields by 35%, which was insanely optimistic. In the end, output increased by 15%, and that was achieved only by increasing the amount of acreage planted. The average yield per acre actually declined. As these failures became evident in 1931, bureaucrats once again turned to scientists to fix the problem, asking them to develop new high-yield hybrid varieties of wheat. The timeline was incredibly aggressive: they wanted them ready within the next 4-5 years.
With their usual caution, scientists responded that it couldn’t be done. Hybridization was a slow, steady process with a lot of potential pitfalls and dead-ends. They bluntly told the government that it took about 15 years to develop a successful new hybrid, and that they couldn’t guarantee results.
Lysenko, on the other hand, agreed to the government’s terms and as a result he gobbled up the lion’s share of the research funding.
Of course, he couldn’t do it. Lysenko had plenty of self-confidence but no understanding of genetics. His response was mostly just to breed everything with everything else and hope for the best. More often than not he’d discover that negative qualities had won out, as when he crossed a disease-resistant but late-ripening variety of wheat with an early-ripening but low-yield variety, only to wind up with a variety that was late-ripening, low-yield and not disease-resistant at all.
His other problem is that he couldn’t create varieties that bred true, though he had no one to blame for that but himself.
He had assimilated a weird folk idea that if left to their own devices, the quality of plants would deteriorate from year to year, but that vigor could be restored to their line through cross-pollination. He explained it to non-scientists this with a simple analogy, referring to self-pollination as a “forced marriage” that produced unhappy children, and cross-pollination as a “marriage of love” that produced happy ones.
The problem here is that modern wheat is naturally self-pollinating and that ideally you’d want to let an experimental hybrid grow unmolested for a few generations to make sure you’d actually managed to create a stable new variety. Instead, Lysenko compulsively cross-pollinated his wheat each generation, essentially undoing all his initial work.
When experienced geneticists pointed out the madness in Lysenko’s methods he responded by moving the goalposts, claiming that only the first generation after a cross mattered.
When his five years were up, Lysenko had almost nothing to present, just one half-promising batch of seeds without enough stock left to perform serious tests. So he decided to skip testing entirely and distributed the seed right to farms. It wound up being withdrawn shortly afterwards. It wasn’t much better than existing varieties and made terrible bread.
The failure didn’t harm Lysenko, because by this point he had made himself unassailable by involving himself in one of the scientific controversies of the day.
At the beginning of the 1930s, Soviet genetics was having a bit of a philosophical crisis: namely, were genetics and evolution compatible with Marxism?
The country’s established biologists and geneticists thought the question was a stupid one. Marx and Engels had praised Darwin in their writings, and modern genetics had just picked up where Darwin had left off. They had decades of experimental research and sound science on their side.
Many young scientists, centered at the Timiryazev Biological Institute and led by Isaak Izrailevich Prezent, thought otherwise. They had come of age after the revolution, spent their whole lives saturated in socialist thought, and it had influenced their reading of Darwin in a way that made it more compatible with dialectical materialism.
- They rejected the very idea of genes, instead proclaiming that heredity was an inherent property of all organic material, and one that could not be analyzed or understood through chemistry and physics.
- While they did not deny that mutations occurred, they proclaimed that they occurred so infrequently that natural selection of mutations could not be the cause of evolution.
- Instead, they argued that organisms changed as a result of stresses placed on them by the environment during their development, and it was these changes that were heritable.
Now, the problem was not that these young scientists were debating genetics and evolution. They were relatively new disciplines and there was a lot of weird conjecture floating around that needed to be challenged. The problem was that these young scientists were arguing backwards from Marxist philosophical principles instead of moving forward based on observation and testing.
In 1929, Prezent encountered Lysenko’s paper about vernalization at the First All-Union Congress of Geneticists and Breeders. The philosopher realized that vernalization fit nicely into his new theory of evolution. He approached Lysenko, praised his paper, and suggested the young technician try to somehow link vernalization to Darwinism.
It was the first time in his life that Lysenko had ever heard Darwin’s name.
It was a match made in heaven. Lysenko’s practical achievements and proletarian background were used to bolster Prezent’s philosophical arguments, and Prezent’s academic credentials helped make up for Lysenko’s inability to cogently express his ideas in a scientific manner. Never mind that Lysenko’s practical achievements were entirely illusory, and Prezent’s academic credentials were in philosophy and not science.
Working together, they came up with a new explanation for vernalization. Before, Lysenko had claimed the vernalization process speed up of the development cycle of wheat. Now, Lysenko and Prezent claimed that vernalization used external stimulus to transform winter wheat into spring wheat at a cellular level.
When it came time to name their new theory, the settled on “Michurinist biology” after crank horticulturist Ivan Michurin, who had just died. Probably because “Lysenkoism” and “Prezentism” sounded a bit egotistical. (Later, the name also helped Lysenko distance himself from his own theory when it didn’t fit with what what he was trying to accomplish.)
With this new theoretical underpinning for his work, Lysenko was now being acclaimed by Pravda as one of the “Stakhanovites of agriculture” and being praised by Stalin himself. As he accepted these plaudits, Lysenko always made sure to throw in an a personal attack on his enemies.
You know, comrades, wreckers and kulaks are located not only in your collective farms… They are just as dangerous, just as resolute in science… And whether he is in the academic world or not in the academic world, a class enemy is always a class enemy…
As Lysenko’s star rose, biologists and geneticists pushed back hard against his ideas. They were led by Vavilov, who had only been too happy to support Lysenko when when he was raking in state funding for VASKhNIL but felt that attacking the foundations of genetics was a step too far. Soon officials had to step in to prevent an all-out war between disciplines.
The Fourth Plenary Session of VASKhNIL in December 1936 was officially devoted to the reconciliation classical genetics with Michurinism. In his opening speech, Academy president Alexsandr Muralov reminded delegates to stay away from airy theoretical matters, but he also included this worrying quote from Stalin:
Science is called science because it does not recognize fetishes, does not fear to lift its fist against the obsolete, and closely listens to the voice of experience, practice.
The problem was, of course, that Lysenko represented “practice” and everything his “voice of experience” was saying was provably incorrect. Geneticists could not, would not defer to this non-scientific nonsense. Their sole concession was to couch their criticism purely in scientific terms. Lysenko showed no such restraint, and his arguments amounted to little more than meritless assertions of fact and ad hominem attacks on his opponents, accusing them of being obstructionists and slaves to bourgeois Western ideas.
Geneticists thought they had won the debate, and scientifically speaking they had. They didn’t realize Lysenko was targeting his arguments, not to them, but to party officials and the general public. To those groups Lysenko came off as an embattled revolutionary thinker, and his enemies came off as bloodless academicians with no practical accomplishments.
It was probably not best look to have as the Great Terror hit full swing.
Lysenko’s scientific and political opponents were rounded up and purged. Their opposition to Michurinism was rarely the sole reason they were targeted, but it made no difference. The end result as that VASKhNIL was purged of anti-Michurinists, and Lysenko and Prezent came out on top. And I mean on top.
In February 1938 Lysenko was made president of VASKhNIL.
Lysenko rewarded himself by relocating his operations from the Ukraine to the Lenin Hills estate outside of Moscow. It had previoulsy been Lenin’s summer cottage and was attached to a 1,500 hectare farm. Lysenko turned it into a show farm, a standard for collectives around the nation to aspire to. Mind you, it was little more than a Potemkin village, better-funded and manned than any collective farm.
For the most part Lysenko was satisfied to rest on his laurels. He continued to push for collective farms to adopt vernalization, in spite of its repeated failures, and continued to develop countless new hybrid varieties of wheat, none of which ever amounted to anything. He made a few attempts to pursue other avenues of research, but they too rarely panned out.
The study of genetics in the Soviet Union was crippled for years. Though the science itself was not officially discouraged, no student would dare pursue it when they saw what had happened to its current and previous practitioners.
The Ultimate Triumph
World War II forced the Soviet Union to open itself up to the west in ways that had previously been forbidden. During the mid- and late-1940s scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain were able to have a free and open exchange of ideas for the first time in decades.
It became clear to some Soviet scientists and bureaucrats that their agricultural sciences significantly lagged behind the West. And much of that lag could be attributed directly to Lysenko and his ongoing suppression of genetic research, which had accounted for most of the gains in the West.
If the situation was to improve, Lysenko had to go.
At the time, Lysenko looked weak and vulnerable for several reasons.
First, there was the confusion of Western scientists, who were being exposed to Michurinism for the first time and were utterly baffled by it. Lysenko couldn’t brush aside their criticisms as easily as those of his countrymen, because they had a track record of both theoretical and practical success.
Then, during the War, Lysenko’s brother had collaborated with the Nazis, and when they abandoned the Ukraine he left the country with them. Being related to a traitor reflected poorly on Lysenko. People had been purged for far less.
The country was also facing widespread drought and famine, and as the war receded into the past it couldn’t be used as an excuse. Lysenko had proposed a number of solutions to combat these agricultural shortfalls that had proved ineffective, including more vernalization, planting on directly on stubble to save time on plowing, heating soil in a vain attempt to “revive” dormant microorganisms, and pursuing the development of branched varieties of wheat. The famine eventually passed, no thanks to Lysenko, who received an official rebuke for his failures (albeit a mild one).
And then there was cluster planting. This had started as another of Lysenko’s labor-saving ideas: throw a bunch of seeds into a single hole in the hopes that one of them would sprout. Any gardener can tell you this is a terrible idea, because those seeds are just going to compete for the same resources. Maybe one will survive and turn out stunted, but it’s just as likely that all of the sprouts will die.
When this was pointed out, Lysenko got defensive and claimed his detractors were lying. In fact, he took it one step further and denied that members of a species never directly competed with each other for resources. If only one plant survived, he claimed, it was not because it had “beaten” its siblings. It was because its siblings had chosen to die for the greater good. His rebuttal was brash and bombastic and utterly devoid of science.
How to explain why bourgeois biology values so highly the “theory” of intraspecific competition? Because it must justify the fact that, in the capitalist society, the great majority of people, in a period of overproduction of material goods, lives poorly.
All mankind belongs to one biological species. Hence, bourgeois science had to invent intrapsecific struggle. In nature, they say, within each species is there is a cruel struggle for food, which is in short supply, and for living conditions. The stronger, better-adapted individuals are the victors. The same, then, occurs among people… We Soviet people know well that the oppression of workers, the dominance of the capitalist class, and imperialistic wars have nothing to do with biological laws. They are all based on the laws of a rotting, moribund, borgeois, capitalist society.
There is no intraspecific competition in nature. There is only competition between species.
Bourgeois biology, by its very essence, because it is bourgeois, neither could nor can make any discoveries that have to be based on the absence of intraspecific competition, a principle it does not recognize. That is why American scientists could not adopt the practice of cluster sowing… By means of the fabricated intraspecific competition, “the eternal laws of nature,” they are attempting to justify the class struggle and the oppression by white Americans of Negroes. How can they admit absence of competition within a species?
Whatever the reasons, Lysenko looked weak and defensive. In 1947, organic chemist Yuri Andreyevich Zhdanov took advantage of this apparent weakness by publishing a series of editorials stridently attacking Lysenko for dragging politics into science as a way of covering up for his failures.
Zhdanov was the perfect person to lead the attack. In addition to having scientific credentials above reproach, he was also well-situated politically: his father Andrei Alexandrovich was a member of the Politburo, and his wife Svetlana Alliluyeva was Stalin’s daughter.
For once, Lysenko was unable to retaliate in kind. Instead, he was forced to call a special session of VASKhNIL in August 1948 to investigate the conflict between Michurinism and Western genetics and make a report to the Politburo.
It was a lively debate, to put it mildly.
Emboldened geneticists once again attacked Michurinism for being anti-scientific, and Michurinists attacked geneticists as obstructionists who believed in the flawed Mendelism-Weissmannism-Morganism of the decadent capitalist West. Each side accused the other of being racists and eugenicists. Lysenko even came under criticism from his own allies, for not being Michurinist enough.
And then it turns out it wasn’t really a debate at all.
On the final day of the session, Pravda printed a letter from Yuri Zhdanov to Stalin retracting his criticism of Lysenko and begging for forgiveness. That should have been the first clue to the geneticists that something was up.
In his closing remarks, Lysenko delivered the final blow. The report that they were supposed to be compiling right now? He’d already written it. It backed Michurinism and denounced genetics as bourgeois pseudoscience. He’d submitted it to the Central Committee weeks ago, and they’d already signed off on it.
Behind the scenes Lysenko had been politicking, appointing loyalists to fill empty seats on VASKhNIL and writing to Stalin in an attempt to save his job. He’d essentially gotten permission from the state to lay a trap for his enemies.
In effect, anyone who had spoken out against Michurinism during the special session had committed treason. They were promptly purged. The science of genetics completely vanished from the Soviet Union.
Lysenko once again reveled in his victory, racking up his three Orders of Lenin and a seat on the Supreme Soviet. He backed a major motion picture about the life of Michurin directed by Alexander Dovzhenko with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich. There were even songs written about him.
Merrily play on, accordion
With my girlfriend let me sing
Of the eternal glory of Academician Lysenko
He walks the Michurin path
With firm tread
He protects us from being duped by Mendelist-Morganists
Catchy. Real “top of the pops” stuff.
Observers in the West were utterly bewildered by what happened. As far as they could tell, the Soviets had just outlawed an entire branch of science for purely political reasons. They felt like they had to respond with the harshest possible criticism, lest their own governments follow suit.
Only it didn’t quite work out that way. It turns out a lot of top geneticists were also Communists, and, well, they weren’t too keen on the idea of criticizing the soviet state directly. So most of the criticism came from scientists in other fields, which took away a lot of the sting.
Not that any of it ever saw the light of day inside the Soviet Union anyway.
Since he now had total power, Lysenko started getting stranger and stranger. He started to make bold claims about his ability to transform one species into another. He claimed to have transformed wheat into rye, cabbages into rutabagas, and sunflowers into strangleweed. He even claimed he could transform warblers into cuckoos by feeding them hairy caterpillars. It was all very bizarre.
He also allied himself with Olga Borisovna Lepeshinskaya, whose scientific theories dovetailed nicely with his own. Well, I say scientific theories, but really they were a mystical belief in an unknowable form of “living matter” which could not be observed or comprehended. Lepeshinskaya also believed she could create life from inorganic matter and cure all known diseases with injections of common household baking soda.
In the early 1950s Lysenko threw himself whole-heartedly into the Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature. Under his direction collective farms attempted to slow erosion by creating forest belts with cluster planting, turning other areas into vast grasslands, and building new reservoirs and ponds. The plan failed spectacularly, thanks to the intraspecific competition that Lysenko denied. By 1952 half of the forest belts he’d planted had died, and by 1956 only 5% remained.
In this rare case, Lysenko’s overpromising came back to bite him. In 1952, Stalin began to think his subordinate had a swelled head, and began to allow some mild criticism of his erstwhile ally in order to deflate it.
And then in 1953, Stalin died and the new regime of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was not nearly as keen on subordinating science to the needs of the state. They were especially eager to get rid of Stalin’s cronies.
Still, they had to tread lightly. Lysenko was still a member of the Supreme Soviet and had to be treated with some respect. They couldn’t just open up the floodgates — that would create pure unadulterated chaos, and Lysenko thrived on chaos. Instead, they had to start with a slow trickle and let it build over time.
First, they went after Olga Lepenshinskaya for promoting her quack baking soda cures. Since Lysenko had made her theories a linchpin of Michurinist biology, that was a huge blow to the underpinnings of his theories. Scientific journals even began to expose Lysenko’s obvious lies, like his supposed transformations of species, but had to be careful not to attack the man directly or openly support genetics.
By 1956, Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA finally began to circulate inside the Soviet Union. This proved to be the final straw, since the country could no longer deny the emerging field of molecular genetics and the great agricultural advances it had enabled in Western agriculture. Criticism started to mount, and Lysenko was forced to step down as president of VASKhNIL.
At first it seemed like his reign of terror was over. Then Khrushchev ran into a new problem: the impending failure of the country’s collective farms. They’d failed to keep pace with the country’s development, and famine loomed on the horizon. Once again, when asked for solutions the scientists were overly cautious, while Lysenko promised immediate results. Never mind that he was partially responsible for the imminent disaster. By 1961 he was back in power as president of VASKhNIL.
This time, though, he overreached. None of his crazy quick fixes could make a dent in the enormous structural problems of the collectives. In 1963 the Soviet Union had to import grain for the first time in its existence, and soon Khrushchev and Lysenko were both out and genetics was back in.
The new regime conducted a thorough audit of Lenin Hills and discovered that it was a sham. Lysenko had spared no expense on his model farm, ensure it had the latest and greatest, and even then he couldn’t produce results. When the data was finally untangled, it was discovered that the farm cost a small fortune to run and actually had worse output than other farms of comparable size. Even so, it was largely hushed up.
Of course, even when he was on the outs with the government, criticism of Lysenko and Michurinism had to be kept purely on a scientific level. No criticism of the man himself was allowed, lest it blow back on to the state, which was above reproach.
He was allowed to quietly live out the rest of his life, and died in 1976.
In the end, Lysenko and Michurinism set back the study of biology and genetics in the Soviet Union for two generations. The country did its best to play catch-up after Lysenko was deposed, but serious damage had already been done.
It’s tempting to understand the rise and fall of Michurinism as a battle of ideology vs. truth, science vs. pseudoscience, theory vs. practice, ambition vs. capability. And it is certainly all of those things. But I think there’s a more important lesson we should take away from all this that are just as important.
When the Soviet government turned to science for help, scientists responded in the least helpful way imaginable: as if they were talking to fellow scientists. What they were saying was true, but their response was couched in a way that seemed negative and hostile to those outside their discipline. And the scientists never bothered to change the tone or structure of their message despite repeated failures to reach their target audience.
Lysenko may have been full of empty promises and untenable ideas, but he knew how to speak the government’s language in a way that would be understood and seemed helpful. This was why scientific criticisms of Lysenko ultimately failed to have an effect on his popular support: scientists were already against him, and to non-scientists it was all incomprehensible gibberish anyway.
So remember the two-step Trofim Lysenko path to success: structure your message to suit your audience, and positivity sells.
There’s a whole section about Michurinism in Martin Garner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. That puts Lysenko in the company of such notables as hollow Earth messiah Dr. Cyrus Reed Teed (Series 4’s “We Live Inside”), electron-denier Bayard Peakes (Series 5’s “I’m the Naughty Boy”), chromotherapist Dr. Dinshah Ghadiali (Series 5’s “Normalating”), and flat-earther Wilbur Glenn Voliva (Series 6’s “Marching to Shibboleth”).
If you’re looking for other influential figures who applied science for political reasons, there’s always educator H.H. Goddard, whose studies of “feeble-mindedness” were used to support eugenic policies across the world. We discussed Goddard in Series 8’s “Common Clay.”
J.D. Bernal was one of the British scientists who was slow to criticize Lysenko, due to his loyalties to the Communist Party. He also plays a role in the story of World War II’s weirdest super-weapon, the “Habakkuk” iceberg aircraft carrier, which we discussed in Series 10’s “Wonder Marvelously.”
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