Early Soviet Science

Figure 1.-- A Soviet TV serial entitled "Nikolay Vavilov" was broadcast in 1990. One scene from the shows shows a a squad of Young Pioneers that participated in the Young Naturalists program (Yunnaty). They are shown participating in the opening ceremonies of the the annual meeting of the USSR Agricultural Sciences Academy (VASHNIL) in 1938. Vavilov was a notable botonist that ran afoul of Stalin. This was a topic that was not discussed in the Soviet Union for years.

The Soviet Union inherited from Tsarist Russia a competent if relatively small scientific establishment. One of its brightest lights was Nikolai Vavilov. He was a botanist who before World war I was one of the leading figures in the developing new science of genetics. He was recognized as a great mind by foreign scientidts. He traveled widely into many extreme enviroments to amass one of the lsrgest plant and seed collections in the wotld. He was obsessed with purse science, but had a very practical goal in mind. He saw that genetics could be used to breed hardy crops that wre both drought- and insect resistant. This could greatly expand agricultural producivity. This of course would seem to be just the sort of science that a Bolshevik regime which clsaimed to be based on a scientific systen could endirse to better mankind. And at first this seems to be what happened. Lenin himself took a personal interest in Vavilov's seed collection. Lenin ordered that an institute be established for a plant-breeding station where Vavilov could pursue his work (1921). The research station was never adwquately funded. But much worse was to come after Stalin seized control of the Sovuiet state. Science became heavily politicized, but Vavilov's personal tragedy was that Stalin took a personal dislike to genetics. Stalin and the Bolseviks were determined to create the new Soviet man through education and persuasion. Yet genetics was finding that inheritance was a powerful factor. That was not what Stlin wanted to hear. And he had an option. Stalin was drawn to a politically correct scientific charlatan--Trotim Lysenko. Lysenko rejected Darwin and because of his peasant origins was just the kind of person Stalin needed. And the fact that Lysenko had no foreign contacts or admirers made him even more accecptable to Stalin. The two men argued in scientific meetings, but as funding was wihdrawn from Vavilov and the NKVD began harrassing him, the Soviet scientific establishment knew that siding with Vavilov was dangerous. Finally the NKVD arrested Vavilov and he died from starvation in the Gulag. [Pringle] Soviet genetics never recovered.


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Created: 6:02 AM 12/7/2008
Last updated: 6:02 AM 12/7/2008