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Posted by: on Jun 9, 2017 | No Comments
Stalinist Science
By Nikolai Krementsov


I picked up this book by chance in the UT library as I was investigating the Soviet milieu in which Vygotsky, Luria, Leontiev, and others in this tradition were working. After I finished it, I noticed that Anton Yasnitsky cites it in his dissertation as a major influence. And I can see why. Krementsov wanted to investigate the unique aspects of the Soviet science system, not superficially, but deeply and with an appropriate understanding of how different actors worked. Specifically, he examined how the Soviet science system led to the Lysenko controversy and how scientists in different disciplines resisted the Lysenkoization of their disciplines while still appearing to comply.

Not only does this account describe the milieu in which Soviet science developed, it directly discusses how some of the major players of Soviet psychology—such as Chelpanov, Kornilov, and Luria—navigated the milieu.

In Chapter 1, "Russian Science in Transition, 1890-1929," Krementsov sets the scene. Soviet science did not suddenly spring into being in 1917—it was built on pre-Revolutionary institutions. For instance, Chelpanov's Institute of Experimental Psychology had relied on private patrons before 1917; after 1917, he found patrons among the state agencies to keep the institution going (p. 20). Indeed, the patronage system became an important component in Soviet science, and "allowed scientists to use the influence of their powerful patrons in various state and party agencies," concentrating power in the hands of a few spokespeople: in a sense, Vavilov was plant science and Ioffe was physics (p.22).

Beginning in 1918, the Bolsheviks had a "liberal and accommodating" policy toward existing research institutions, but a "stern and aggressive" attitude toward educational institutions (p.23). "As a result, a number of university professors quit teaching and concentrated exclusively on research"—creating "a dichotomy between teaching and research that became a characteristic feature of the Soviet science system" (p.24). (Recall that in 1936, the Pedology Decree condemned the fact that pedology researchers exerted control over the curriculum of teachers and dismantled pedology.)

In the 1920s, orthodoxy hardened in each discipline, and scientists began to attack each other on ideological grounds (p.26). Science had to be Marxist; cf. Kornilov's 1923 argument that led to his replacement of Chelpanov (p.26). Of course, scientists such as Kornilov, Bekhterev, and Luria appropriated the Marxist lexicon to support their own ideas, ideas that opposed each other; this lexicon use signaled loyalty to the Bolshevik state (p.27).

In Chapter 2, "The Stalinization of Russian Science, 1929-1939," Krementsov notes how the "Great Break" of 1929 began a new era across Russia, including in the sciences (p.31). "Crash industrialization" required mobilizing the population as well as its resources, leading to massive propaganda campaigns, manufactured famines, an expanded secret police, and show trials, as well as the centralization of all power under the Communist Party—which was itself controlled by Stalin (p.31). A new system of agencies was created to oversee science policy (pp.32-33), eventually overseen by "the Central Committee's Administration of Agitation and Propaganda (Agitprop)" (p.33). The OGPU, and later its successor, the NKVD, shadowed scientists, routinely investigated their loyalties, and cleared both visiting foreign scientists and USSR scientists who wished to travel abroad (p.33). In 1930, the OGPU's Economic Division began to advise the government on science policy (p.34)—and possibly was behind "the creation and development of the unique system of sharashki, the labor camps where imprisoned scientists worked on research in their specialties" (p.34)!

For canny operators, the "system of personal links between science spokesmen and commissars that had emerged in the 1920s" had served them well, but this system "was undermined in 1929-1930 by sudden changes in the leadership of practically all commissariats and governmental agencies" (p.34), forcing scientists to find new patrons (p.35). Patronage became dangerous during the Great Terror of 1936-1938: "Many scientists were arrested and imprisoned (and in several cases shot) for alleged association with such newly uncovered 'enemies of the people'" and "the multiple governmental and party patrons of the 1920s, then, were replaced in the late 1930s by a single patron—the Communist Party's Central Committee" (p.35).

Importantly for the story of Soviet psychology, "In 1932 almost all institutions that conducted research in fields related to medicine were welded into one monstrous institute—VIEM" (p.37). In the early 1930s, it was possible to invite "foreign specialists to work in [the USSR's] scientific institutions"; as the decade wore on, these opportunities dried up in favor of isolationism, and "After 1939, Soviet science's international contacts were almost completely severed" (p.44).

In late 1930, a campaign launched by Stalin proclaimed that "science had a 'class nature' and followed the principle of partiinost' (literally, party-ness), hence, Soviet science must be 'proletarian' and 'Communist'" (p.47). For an example, the author quotes Razmyslov's 1934 criticism of Vygotsky and Luria (p.47). Partiinost' amounted to "science's subordination to party goals and aims" (p.48).

Also in the early 1930s, "a campaign for the practicality of science also gained momentum" as a way of ensuring that science served the State; "applied research started to be considered the essence of science" (p.47; again, cf. the Pedology Decree). And "scientific criticism also acquired a 'patriotic' accent during the 1930s" (p.47; cf. the subsequent criticism of Vygotsky and Luria's 1930 book Studies on the history of behavior, which summarized Western sources just before this turn happened).

As Krementsov summarizes much later in the book, "Three sets of universal rhetorical assertions—partiinost', Marxism, and practicality—embodied the Bolshevik image of science, an image that originated within the 'Communist' science of the 1920s and developed through the political campaigns of the 1930s. They became the obligatory attributes of 'Soviet' science and the 'Soviet' scientist, which the scientific community routinely exploited in its self-portrayal and self-representation in its dealings with the party-state bureaucracy" (p.216). This rhetoric was temporarily displaced during World War II, but returned during the Cold War (p.216).

Other features of Soviet science emerged during this time: public discussions (p.51), self-criticism, and jubilees (p.52).

In Chapter 3, "Stalinist Science in Action: The Case of Genetics," Krementsov moves into the extended case of Lysenkoism. In the 1920s, Russian genetics advanced quickly, partly due to international contacts (p.56). But in the 1930s, the increasing centralization of the science system led to intradisciplinary competition for resources—and the increasing politicization made that competition hardball. In agricultural plant science, Trofim Lysenko—who, with his peasant background, lack of academic training, his lack of academic ties, and his total focus on practical concerns, was ironically the ideal Soviet scientist—began acquiring power in the discipline (p.58). Lysenko's doctrine, "agrobiology," "was cast as the basis for the whole of Soviet agriculture." Agrobiology was cast as a Soviet science, unlike genetics. By 1935, "Vavilov, the main spokesman for genetics, was dismissed from the presidency of VASKhNIL" and "Lysenko and a number of his allies were appointed members of the academy" (p.59). In summer 1936 (a busy summer—in June the USSR banned abortion and in July it essentially banned pedology) VASKhNIL had a public discussion over genetics; this discussion led to the Fourth Session of VASKhNIL in December, "entirely devoted to the controversy" (p.59). The geneticists appeared to carry the day (p.60), but not long afterwards, "the Great Terror proved strategically damaging for genetics mainly because a number of its spokesmen, and all their principal partners within the party-state apparatus, perished" (p.61). In addition, the institutions that had been bastions of genetics lost their power and faded away (p.61). By 1940, Vavilov was arrested as a British spy and genetics lost its strongholds (p.78).

In Chapter 4, "World War II and the Sweet Fruits of Victory," Krementsov discusses the profound changes in the science system due to the Nazi attack on the USSR on June 22, 1941: "Suddenly, everything changed" because "the party-state bureaucracy recognized the vital importance of science and gave its scientific community new responsibility and respect" (p.95; recall that during the War, Luria and Leontiev were put in charge of rehabilitation hospitals and focused on rehabilitating injured soldiers). The Party swelled as citizens were admitted on the battlefield, without the customary indoctrination (p.97). Scientific authority expanded (p.97). Between 1943-1946, the government rewarded scientists with awards, orders, and prizes (p.99). But the sharashki also expanded, including closed research institutions dedicated to the atomic bomb and weaponry (p.103).

With this shift in terrain, "In 1945 Soviet geneticists launched an attack against Lysenko's domination over their field," seeking support first from the Central Committee (p.105). "By mid-1947, despite Lysenko's fierce resistance, the geneticists had gained ground" (p.105). They gained support partly because the USSR joined the Allies against the Axis during World War II, which led to a restoration in scientific relations with the West; they "used international acclaim for Soviet genetics to undermine Lysenko's authority" (p.115).

But, of course, this international support was a two-edged sword. In Chapter 6, "The Fateful Year: 1948," Lysenko triumphed at the August VASKhNIL meeting, having gained the intervention of Stalin himself (pp.158-159). The Cold War had begun, and the strictures of Stalinist science suddenly returned. Stalin was himself neo-Lamarckian (p.166) and sympathized with Lysenko as early as 1935 (p.159). In intervening, Stalin was sending a message: as Krementsov summarizes, "now it was the party-state bureaucracy, not the scientific community, that was responsible for defining which scientific concept was correct. The party apparatus displayed unambiguously its power and intentions, turning the VASKhNIL meeting into a lesson Soviet scientists had to learn, an example they had to follow" (p.183).

Chapter 7, "Talking the Talk: Ritual and Rhetoric" examines the fallout among the scientific disciplines. Interestingly, Krementsov says, "Despite their ritual rhetorical obeisance to the new party control of the content of science, they in fact sought to counteract the party's seizure of control and to reassert their own hegemony over their disciplines" (p.194). Specifically, "In biology, medicine, pedagogy, psychology, and linguistics, scientific leaders sought to protect their existing intellectual and institutional agendas by sanctifying them as quintessentially Michurinist—and hence 'preapproved' by the Central Committee" (pp.194-195; for an example of the 1948 reaction to Lysenko's triumph by Soviet psychologists, see this review). For my purposes, let's focus on the reaction by the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences in a meeting on Sept 4, 1948 (p.204). Kornilov, who was "academy vice-president and academician-secretary of its Psychology Division, presided" (p.205). The president, Kairov, "criticized" and "unmasked" and etc., as one might imagine, but also called attention to "'questions of the influence of heredity, environment, and upbringing on the development and shaping of human beings'" (p.205)—the Pedology Decree, which had criticized the two-factor causality of heredity and environment—was only 22 years in the past. Smirnov, who was "director of the Institute of Psychology," "urged that all psychological works be reassessed from a Michurinist perspective" (pp.206-207).

Across the Soviet science system, scientists "skillfully employed the resources of their professional culture to show the party bureaucrats an image they wanted to see" by deploying "three major rhetorical techniques developed and tested during the 1930s: the juxtaposition of 'us' and 'them,' the use of 'criticism and self-criticism,' and the invocation of 'founding fathers'" (p.218). Re the third technique, the Cold War meant that such founding fathers all had to be "native" (p.223).

Ultimately, Krementsov argues, outside of agriculture, the Michurinist revision was illusory, or in his terminology "rhetorical" (p.239). Mainly, "resolutions named persons who had already been dismissed by the Central Committee"; others had a good chance of keeping their jobs. And some "Mendelists" found safe havens in practical labs (p.240). One geneticist, who headed a department that had been liquidated, appealed to Stalin by emphasizing "the possible military importance of genetics work with microbes"—and "the letter proved effective" (p.252).

Krementsov wraps up in Chapter 9, "The Realities of Stalinist Science: Careereism and Institutional Rivalry," Krementsov overviews how Lysenko became a model for accumulating personal and professional power (p.254).

Overall, this book helped me to understand the Soviet scientific milieu much better, and I'll be consulting this review frequently to help me contextualize the writings of Soviet psychologists at different points. It has already helped me to better understand the context behind a book I reviewed recently. If you're interested in Soviet science, trying to understand Soviet psychology's development, or just interested in the dangers of partisan science, definitely pick it up.