Science and Politics

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our winter MainStage production of Hunger.

As we are in rehearsal for the upcoming production of Chris Hainsworth’s adaptation of Elise Blackwell’s novel Hunger one of the fascinating aspects of the play are the real people who worked at the Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad (now the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry) particularly two scientists and soviet politics.

Nikolai Vavilov was a world-renowned biologist and geneticist; he was also the son of a millionaire. He formulated the Law of Homologous Series.  He was eager to prove his loyalty after the revolution through his hard work. He was interested in the origin and spread of grains and collected seeds to study plant diversity and plant breeding based in evolutionary genetics.

While foreign travel was still quite limited in the Soviet Union, Vavilov was trusted to lead expeditions to collect seeds and plants in more than fifty countries earning him fame in the Soviet Union and internationally.  Soviet newspapers ran headlined articles on his travels such as “Vavilov crosses the Andes” which appeared in Izvestia or “Vavilov visits with Japanese Scientists” in Pravda. He published The Geographic Origins of Plant Cultivation in 1926. The same year he was awarded the Lenin Prize, the highest Soviet distinction for science.  He set up the Academy of Agricultural Science and was in charge of the Institute of plant breeding. At age 36, he was elected to the Soviet Academy of Science. However, Vavilov’s devotion to science would prove his undoing.

“Unfortunately the qualities of goodness and almost childlike naiveté, which it was so wonderful to find in so great a man, sometimes prevented him from understanding clearly enough the true character of other people. I would not wish to give the impression that Nikolai Ivanovich could not distinguish between one person and another. He saw the shortcomings in certain colleagues, but reckoned that devotion to science would re-educate them.” Colleague professor Lidia Breslavets on Nikolai Vavilov

Vavilov was far more focused on being a good scientist than a good politician. In the 1920s-1930s the mood was changing in the Soviet Union and the “intellectual” was becoming mistrusted for not being involved in manual labor and from a fear intellectuals might have sympathy with the decadent West.  “The worker” was idealized in films, books, and music. Vavilov’s elite background and his lack of interest in politics were both against him in the changing political landscape.

In Spring1933, he was called before the Central Committee. They were displeased with his trips abroad and claimed they were expensive and produced nothing of use. Vavilov insisted that the committee would see the scientific reasons behind his trip.  He did not recount the meeting, but he was never able to leave the Soviet Union again.  The NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs – or secret police) had already started a file on him and was collection and coercing denunciations from fellow scientists.

If Vavilov and his work were in decline, Trofim Lysenko, a young man of peasant origins who had been trained on the experimental stations was rising politically.

Vavilov was initially supportive of the younger Lysenko. Lysenko was a believer in Vernalization, which as he applied the theory, relied on the idea that the manipulation of seeds (by keeping them moist, or changing the temperature) could produce higher yielding crops.  Vavilov was interested to see if his theories worked and wanted them to be tested scientifically process. He was unaware of Lysenko’s open contempt for his own genetic research.

Lysenko fit the new model of a soviet worker given the opportunity to rise through hard work. He could not read other languages and so did not keep up on the scientific discoveries in other countries.  He was especially contemptuous of geneticists. Friends joked of him, “Lysenko is sure that it is possible to produce a camel from a cotton seed and a baobab tree from a hen’s egg.” Lysenko would, in fact, claim that he had obtained wheat from wheat, barley and rye plants, which are different genera.

In August 7, 1927, an article in Pravda published a glowing article on the 29-year-old Lysenko and the success of his techniques in growing a successful pea crop after the winter. The article also suited the political trends of the moment. Lysenko had not attended a university he was described as a “barefoot scientist” who was a worker close to the land and had practical ideas rather than being a lab studying “the hairy legs of flies.”

Lysenko’s theories and biography dovetailed with a moment in 1931 when the Soviet government was placing emphasis on the practical application of science and forcing the collectivization of farms. Lysenko’s theories were accepted as proof of practical results without having been thoroughly tested or verified. When Lysenko’s experiments were not successful he blamed other scientist for sabotaging his work.

In Moscow, in February 1935, Lysenko addressed a group of government workers, including Stalin. Lysenko chose to portray the legitimate scientific debate surrounding vernalization as class warfare.  He said,

“It is not only on your collective farms that you can come across rich farmers who wreck our system . . . they are no less dangerous and no less active in the scientific world. I have had to put up with a good deal in all kinds of disputes with so-called scientists concerning vernalization, in my efforts to develop this method, and I have had to withstand quite a few hard blows in my practical work. Comrades, it cannot be said that class struggle has not been going on, and is not still going on, on the vernalization front.  . . the class enemy always remains an enemy, whether he’s a scientist or not.”

Stalin interrupted the speech with “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko, bravo!” and the room erupted in applause.  Three months later Lysenko was made an academician and in three years he would become the president of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Science.

It was a watershed moment in the scientific and political direction of the country. Vavilov and his fellow geneticists were deprived of funding and resources to conduct their research. Ultimately, like earlier purges, scientists who openly criticized Lysenko and his method were arrested and imprisoned.

“I have never been a spy or a member of any anti-Soviet organizations. I have always worked for the good of the Soviet state. – Vavilov’s answer to an NKVD interrogator’s question

In a dramatic fashion in July 1940, while Vavilov and some of his scientists were on their way to a meeting a black car of men pulled up and said he was needed in Moscow. Vavilov believed he was being called into a meeting and went with them. Later a second black car filled with men was sent to collect all his papers and belongings. The NKVD had arrested him.  They planned his arrest this way so that few people would realize he had been arrested. When his arrest became known his old mentor Pyranishnikov started agitating for his release at great risk to himself. He nominated Vavilov and his efforts at seed collection for a Stalin prize and ultimately succeeded in getting his sentence commuted to 20 years in a labor camp. Vavilov died at the age of 55 in a prison hospital on January 26, 1943 from malnutrition.

It was not until the mid 1950s that Vavilov’s reputation and scientific work would be rehabilitated.

Sources and for Further reading:

Amasino, “Vernalization, Competence, and the Epigenetic Memory of Winter,” The Plant Cell, American Society of Plant Biologists, Oct., 2004, pp. 2553-2559

Joravsky, “Soviet Marxism and Biology before Lysenko,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jan., 1959), pp. 85-104

Lukashev, “Soviet War Science,” The Science News-Letter, Vol. 42, No. 16 (Oct. 17, 1942), pp. 250-252

Popovsky, The Vavilov Affair

Pringle, The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov

Roll-Hansen, “Wishful Science: The Persistence of T.D. Lysenko’s Agrobiology in the Politics of Science,” Osiris, Vol. 23, Intelligentsia Science: The Russian Century, 1860–1960(2008), pp. 166-188