In what I would describe as “the laziest paper I ever wrote as an adult”, I got to do some biographical research about Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov and Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (okay, example given: while I’m putting in the patronymics here because that’s their… names… I didn’t have to wiki that because their full names were in the first sentence of the paper. Like it was a book report.)
The story of Lysenko and Vavilov is that Vavilov was a brilliant botanist in the early USSR. Lysenko was a rampant fraud, who manipulated his way into the highest position in the government short of Stalin by faking results that better suited Soviet theories of the world. Lysenko wasn’t content to have helped murder millions of people through a famine his science provided the excuse for, however, and he also drove all competing biologists out of the field. Vavilov was one of these victims. He’d originally nurtured the beginnings of Lysenko’s career, if this whole thing wasn’t ironic enough. Vavilov famously created a seedbank in Leningrad that was enormous and contained vitally important botanical variation that was intended to help save Soviet agriculture after the war. I actually don’t know if that happened. But some of Vavilov’s assistants starved to death in the seedbank surrounded by edible grain. Vavilov did not have that chance, because Lysenko had had him put on trial for being anti-state and he’d died in the gulag instead.
Under the cut is just basically the same things I always think about Lysenko and Vavilov so if you’ve heard me talk about this before this is quite redundant.
The thing is that this is often presented as a cautionary tale about the evils of state-driven ideological science. And it’s not. First of all, Vavilov did ideologically-driven science too. Whether or not he had a choice about it is an open question, but you don’t get to be the head of biology in Leningrad in the 1930s by sticking to your principles, unless your principles are so passionate that they obscure your scientific understanding. And then, remember that he actually nurtured and tried to mentor Lysenko; that means nurturing and mentoring Lysenko’s version of vernalization, even though it didn’t work. During the Ukrainian famine. Vavilov didn’t reject Lysenko’s science until he was already comprehensively fucked and the government was publicly building its case against him.
Second of all, Lysenko’s ideas were barely-scientific anti-Darwinism. Actually the USSR loved Darwinism when Lysenko was first working. Natural selection was a vital component of Marxist philosophy. Lysenko’s ideas weren’t lauded because they fell naturally into Soviet ideology, they were selected because he was a master propagandist.
And third, starving to death surrounded by edible seed samples, even when you’re pretty sure that the city will fall and this is all pointless, is comprehensively ideological.
The truth is, much of science will always be driven by a state ideology. We can try to independently make sure the results that are published are true; we can’t really do much about the fact that those with the power and money dictate what results are sought out or published in the first place. Unless we have the power and the money. It’s hard to see a lesson to squeeze out of Lysenko, unless it’s not to allow lying little murderers who aren’t ashamed of any action in their pursuit of power to get it. Or like, don’t become friends with young biologists you’re slightly suspicious of and try to protect them because they seem like nice dudes, because they’ll kill you eventually. It’s not a great moral. Don’t be born into a dictatorship! Thanks, I’ll keep that one in mind.
Anyway. It’s a vivid story.
Alexander Stchukin died at his writing table, holding in his hand a packet of his most prized peanuts that he had hoped to send off for a grow out. The custodian of Vavilov’s many oat collections, Liliya Rodina, died of starvation, as did Dimitry Ivanov, who as his own life failed, stowed away thousands of packets of rice. … There were others as well — Steheglov, Kovalevsky, Leonjevsky, Malygina, Korzun — some who perished by starving, some riddled by sickness, others by shrapnel. Wolf, the herbarium curator, was hit by a missile shell fragment, and bled to death. Gleiber, the archivist of Vavilov’s field notes, died in the midst of those papers rather than leave his post.
Googling this I came across this study-abroad student’s account of going to the Vavilov Institute, which is indeed strange and wonderful. Probably as good a place to leave this as any.