Friday, 29 September 2017

Book Review: Stalin And The Scientists by Simon Ings

Title: Stalin and The Scientists
Author: Simon Ings
Publisher: Faber
Page Extent: 528

Both science and technology served as important tools of national politics and identity and they were used to launched a backward Russia to the forefront of global development. The main reason for the failure of Soviet sciences was the Soviet Ideology. For an ideology that claimed to be scientific, the Communist Party was astoundingly intolerant of diverse scientific ideas and theories. Their love of science was as great as their ignorance of it. Their ideas and ideals need to be understood in order to understand the Revolution and Soviet history generally.

"Russia's political elites embraced science, patronized it, fetishized it, and even tried to impersonate it."
-Simon Ings, Stalin and The Scientists

This book shows us how the scientists and politicians during the Soviet time tried to fuse politics and science into one unified government. Ings included as many scientists, historical figures, politicians, philosophers and important events as he could while flawlessly threading it all together into a brilliant and informative piece of non-fiction. He conveys the tragedy and the triumph of science in the Soviet Union and he illustrates how short sighted and paranoid Stalin was capable of being. In this book, though, we get more of the tragedy and less of the triumph. 

I was absolutely stunned by the depth and detail that Ings has included in this book. As an experienced science writer, Ings was able to condense some very technical science into easy-to-understand language.

There are three main sections in this book and they are split into 21 chapters. This book discusses the relationship between science in Soviet Union and actual practice. There were also discussions on the terrible murderous treatment of those scientists who were involved in the study of genetics and biology. 

What the author presents here is a well researched and complex picture of the relationship between the leaders and scientists in Russia that has its successes and failures. Science was subverted by Stalin's personal desires, and only those following the party line got to play. He saw the importance of science and technology to the internal and external power of the state and he believed the direction of science endeavor should be moulded by his will. From Lysenko, Vernadsky, Luria, Vavilov, Pavlov Timofeev-Ressovsky and Zhdanov, Ings delves into the overall contributions that some of the most influential individuals in the Soviet Union's history gave to it's Science community.

Stalin's favourite scientist, Lysenko developed his theories from practical applications and this fit the Marxist propaganda that brilliant industrial innovations would arrise from the working class. He rejected the science of genetics particularly as developed by Gregor Mendel and Thomas Hunt Morgan in favour of "Michurinism". Lysenko promised more rapid, and less costly increases in crop yields than other biologists believed possible. He claimed that wheat plants raised in the appropriate environment produce seeds of rye. Under Stalin, Lysenko held great power and his claims rarely challenged. He became director of the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. and president of the powerful V.I. Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences.



Stalin supported Lysenko's theories so much that he even coined the term "Lysenkoism" which was the pseudoscientific movement Lysenko had for hybridization. When research and education in standard genetics were outlawed, some geneticists had suffered secret arrest and death.

 Below, some of my favourite scientists and excerpt:

Nikolai Vavilov was a patriotic Russian scientist who had a dream of ending Russia's famines forever. Although he was not a member of the Communist Party, he strove to make a name for Soviet science in the world and to prove that USSR could produce great thinkers as great as anywhere else.  He travelled all over the world to gather countless samples of the world's hardiest varieties of every plant imaginable. You would think that such dedication would have been appreciated. However, under Stalin's regime, he fell suddenly and swift from favor. You will spend the first half of this book in awe of everything that Vavilov achieved.

One the most prominent neuropsychologists of the twentieth century and he was a great figure in several areas of intellectual endeavor. His books include Higher Cortical Functions in Man (1966), The Working Brain (1973), and Basic Problems of Neurolinguistics (1976).

"By the time Stalin died on 5 March 1953, the Soviet Union boasted the largest and best-funded scientific establishment in history. It was at once the glory and the laughing stock of the intellectual world."

Overall, I find this book to be a welcome find which should be of interest to either scientifically or historically minded readers. Ings has written a brilliant and informative book that is a warning about those deluded people who try to politicise science.

Thank you so much Faber for giving me the chance to read and review this amazing book!