J.P. O’Malley is a journalist based in Budapest.
In the final chapter of “Stalin and the Scientists,” Simon Ings recalls how by the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union boasted twice as many scientists as the United States and Western Europe combined. Decades after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the ambitious dream of a truly scientific-atheist Soviet superstate had finally been achieved.
At least in theory.
As Ings shows, a great paradox lay at the heart of the Soviet state: While rapid scientific progress was needed on a mass scale to advance the cause of a utopian socialist nation, the Soviet regime didn’t want to grant the science community within Russia any intellectual freedom or autonomy, fearing that it might end up undermining the so-called science of Marxism.
The Bolsheviks regularly made public pronouncements on the importance of scientific matters for the advancement of world socialism, which Ings reproduces here in some detail. Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army and one of the leading intellectual voices of the revolution in its early days, prophesied in 1922, for instance, how “man will put forward a goal [to] raise himself to a new level to create a higher socio-biological type.” Six years later, the mass murderer, paranoid dictator and then-leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, declared that young people “must seize” the fortress of science “if they want to truly replace the old guard.”
And yet, as Ings explains, just as Stalin was publicly championing science in the name of the coming communist utopia and setting up a number of institutes and prizes, he was also arranging the sacking, imprisonment and murder of individual scientists who dared to question the official party line on Soviet science.
Ings details how top Russian scientists had to deny the works of Newton, Einstein, Mendel and others if they wanted to avoid arrest, the gulag or death.
The author provides two excellent examples of Stalinist-type purges relating to science that were typical of the era. In 1927, Trotsky, always more internationalist and cosmopolitan in outlook than Stalin, published “Culture and Socialism,” which strongly made the case for understanding the work of Sigmund Freud. But three years later, the Russian Psychoanalytic Society was disbanded, and Freud’s work ceased to be published in Russian. Trotsky eventually was murdered in Mexico on Stalin’s instructions.
Russian physicist Boris Hessen also suffered. Hessen, who publicly argued that scientists had to defend their work beyond simple philosophical conclusions, was arrested in 1935 and died in a Soviet prison in 1938.
Ings underscores the brutal human cost that accompanied scientific advancement in the Soviet Union in the early 20th century. And yet, the author shows that despite the oppressive conditions, Soviet science did manage to produce some achievements. In particular, the Soviet Union transformed a backward peasant society into a giant superpower at the forefront of global technological advancement. It was the Soviet Union, after all, that sent the first satellite — Sputnik 1 — into space in 1957.
Ings’s finely crafted and informative book is a must read for understanding how the ideas of scientific knowledge and technology were distorted and subverted for decades across the Soviet Union, all in the service of the most ambitious experiment in social engineering the world has ever witnessed.
By Simon Ings
Atlantic Monthly. 508 pp. $28