Book review: ‘Stalin and the Scientists’ by Simon Ings

Vitali Vitaliev finds lessons for today’s engineers in a new account of the relationship one of history’s great tyrants had with technology.

This book made me feel like a living anachronism. No wonder - despite being born a year after Stalin’s death, as the only son of a Soviet scientist who was a doctor of physics and one of the co-creators of the Soviet A-bomb, I pretty much lived through the real-life 20th century drama that Simon Ings so poignantly recounts.

The drama went on well after the dictator’s demise and to me ‘Stalin and the Scientists’ is full of familiar stories and no-less-familiar (I would say painfully familiar) characters and faces. As a journalist and editor with the Soviet satirical magazine Krokodil in the 1980s I even had a dubious privilege of sitting on the same editorial board with Boris Yefimov, the legendary, if fairly tame, Soviet cartoonist whose drawing lampooning genetics - branded ‘pseudo science’ by Stalin and his factotums - is reproduced in this book.

The half century-long saga chronicling the relationships of the tyrant and ‘his’ scientists, both tempestuous and grotesque, is a tale that should be known to all who value freedom and creativity, particularly modern scientists and engineers. By bringing back to life the tragic careers of many a Soviet scientist - Vavilov, Michurin, Kapitsa, Korolev and Vernadsky, to name just a few - Ings shows clearly that although fear of the tyrant can trigger a certain degree of conformist creativity, it eventually backfires and becomes not just scientifically counterproductive, but perilous and even lethal.

The little known story of the Vavilov-led Pavlovsk Botanical Station is a striking example. Vavilov’s Leningrad-based Bureau of Applied Botany contained 380,000 examples of 2,500 species of painstakingly collected seeds and plants, including fruit, potatoes, rye and other crops, some of which were planted at the Station, located 45 miles outside of the city. Staff had no time to evacuate the unique collection before the 1941-43 German blockade and the largest part of it was left behind – a horn of plenty in the middle of the besieged city, where people were forced to eat footwear, pets and even resorted to cannibalism.

Sitting on piles of top-quality seeds and cereals, the Station scientists kept guarding the collection and never touched a single seed themselves. They preferred starvation to using some of the samples as food. To quote Ings: “In January, AG Schchukin died at his writing table, holding in his hand a packet of peanuts he had hoped to send off for a grow-out. GK Kreyer, head of the herb laboratory, died of starvation. OS Ivanov, a rice specialist, also succumbed, surrounded by several thousand packets of rice. LM Rodine died among packets of carefully preserved oats.” The world famous botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov himself was soon arrested and sent to a gulag where he died of exhaustion and malnutrition.

What drove those heroic scientists? Devotion to the cause? Their communist beliefs? Or were they motivated by fear and orthodox selfishness, which stopped them from saving themselves, their families (including small children) and hundreds of fellow Leningraders from painful death? The final judgment is left to the reader.

This book, resplendent with tragedy and pain, is not devoid of a satirical touch. “Comrade Stalin was a great scholar – a coryphaeus of many a science,” the famous Soviet bard Vladimir Vyssotsky wrote ironically. Yet, believe it or not, ‘the Great Scientist’ was one of Stalin's official titles. He himself believed in his scholastic prowess and even penned several articles on linguistics. Or take the odious figure of Trofim Lysenko - Stalin's semi-literate henchman, the enemy of everything new and progressive - who was officially known as Stalin's Chief Scientist’ and ‘the Red Academician’.

Sadly, if there is an element of comedy in this overwhelmingly tragic story, it is minuscule and almost insignificant – no more than one per cent of a 100 per cent brilliant book.

‘Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953’ by Simon Ings is published by Faber & Faber (£20, ISBN 9780571290079)

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