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The barefoot scientist and the Great Leap Forward

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One of the oddest cases I came across while researching “Don’t Get Fooled Again” was that of Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko, Stalin’s “barefoot scientist”, who must rank as one of the greatest fraudsters of the modern age.

Lysenko, an agronomist by training, first rose to prominence in the late 1920s, when the Soviet state newspaper Pravda credited him with “turning the barren fields of the Transcaucasus green in winter, so that cattle will not perish from poor feeding, and the peasant Turk will live through the winter without trembling for tomorrow”. He managed to hold sway over Soviet science for most of the next four decades, less because of his scientific abilities than for his talents in self-promotion – and for the ruthless way that he dealt with his enemies.

Lysenko managed to present himself as the embodiment of a Communist ideal, the “barefoot scientist”, a peasant genius whose expertise derived not, primarily, from books, but from his practical understanding of the problems facing the Soviet worker, born of his own toil in the fields. His theories were likewise very agreeable to the Communist authorities, both in spirit and in consequence. Lysenko argued that, just as human nature could – as the Soviets believed – be fundamentally remoulded by the application of Marxist-Leninist principles, so the nature of plants could be transformed by the application of Lysenkoism. Wheat could be “trained” to thrive under Arctic conditions, simply by soaking the seeds in freezing water. Lysenko also rejected as “bourgeois” the Darwinist idea that organisms of the same species would naturally compete for resources. He insisted that, on the contrary, crops  that were sowed very close together – be they pea plants or apple trees – would in fact co-operate with each other, and thrive, through a kind of agricultural “class solidarity”.

But there was one very big problem with these theories: they didn’t work. And when they began to be put into practice, lots of people starved. But the famines of the early 1930s seem to have done little to dent Lysenko’s reputation.

When statistical analysis by other Soviet scientists found no evidence to support his claims, Lysenko stepped up his use of inflammatory and politicised rhetoric. He declared that “mathematics has no relevance to biology – that is why we biologists do not take the slightest interest in mathematical calculations that confirm the useless statistical formulas of the Mendelists”. Lysenko rejected whole swathes of work as “bourgeois pseudo-science”, flatly denied the existence of genes as a bourgeois invention, and denounced geneticists as “fly-lovers and people haters”.  In a speech before Stalin in 1935, Lysenko announced that “a class enemy is always an enemy whether he is a scientist or not”. “Bravo, comrade Lysenko!” came the response from the Soviet leader.

Over the next few years, Lysenko and his followers became increasingly vicious in their attacks on their fellow scientists. The geneticists Muralov, Meister and finally one of the country’s leading lights, Nikolai Vavilov, were arrested and jailed. Many others followed, with those who were not deliberately killed often dying in prison, as Vavilov did in 1943. Lysenko, meanwhile, was made President of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and subsequently became – ironically – head of the Institute of Genetics within the prestigious Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Lysenko’s influence in the USSR began to decline after the death of Stalin, but his ideas had begun to spread beyond the Soviet Union. China’s Mao Zedong, in particular, was inspired by the claimed successes of Lysenko’s theories in the USSR, and in 1958 sought to make them a key component of his “Great Leap Forward”. This was a plan to transform Chinese industry and agriculture, by the application of Communist principles, with the aim of economically surpassing the capitalist West within 15 years.  Along with Lysenko ideas about “close planting”, Mao sought to impose the collectivisation of farming, and orchestrated a nationwide campaign to kill every sparrow in China. These measures failed disastrously – agricultural production plummeted Although the extermination of sparrows meant that there were fewer birds eating grain, there were also fewer birds eating locusts. Much of the food that had survived Mao’s efforts to revolutionise agriculture was devoured amid the worst Chinese locust plague in living memory. Historians estimate that more than 20 million people may have died before the Great Leap Forward was abandoned, in 1961. While Lysenko’s ideas were only one component of the disaster, they certainly will not have helped.

Lysenko’s downfall finally came in 1964, following a speech by the Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, at the General Assembly of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Among Soviet scientists, physicists enjoyed a relatively priveleged position due to their importance to the country’s nuclear programme, and were thus one of the few groups able to speak openly. Sakharov accused Lysenko of being “responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists”. The dam had broken, and within months the Academy of Sciences carried out a damning investigation into Lysenko’s work, which largely destroyed his reputation.

Yet Lysenko’s fate was in sharp contrast to that of his victims. Where Vavilov and his fellow geneticists had been imprisoned or killed, Lysenko was allowed to live out a comfortable retirement, dying in relative obscurity in 1976.

Lysenko was very much a creature of the Soviet era, but he has many heirs. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I explore some of the parallels between Trofim Lysenko and his modern-day successors.

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Written by Richard Wilson

July 22, 2008 at 10:12 am

One Response

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  1. […] this process, with the result, at the extreme (as in the Soviet Union and Communist China), a wholesale national disaster can unfold without those in power ever facing up to the reality of what’s going on – less still being held […]


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