Lysenko, Once Again

by Michael D. Gordin

Editor’s note: The 2020 Derek Price/Rod Webster Prize recognizing excellence in the scholarship published in Isis was awarded to Michael Gordin, Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University, for his article “Lysenko Unemployed: Soviet Genetics After the Aftermath,” v. 109, no. 1 (2018). Here, Michael shares some of the backstory of how he came to writing about this topic, as well as the implications of his findings for future scholarship.

I first heard about Trofim Lysenko in my second semester of college, and it has proven very hard to get him out of my head. A good many historians of science, not just Soviet specialists, can rattle off his story pretty easily: after years of wrangling between classical geneticists and those who supported Lysenko’s theory of heredity that adapted notions of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, in 1948 Joseph Stalin backed Lysenko and genetics was forced underground in the USSR until 1965, when Lysenko fell from grace. I was gripped, especially by 1948: Why would a state almost annihilate a science?

My fixation with 1948 was broadly shared, not least by pundits who cry “Lysenkoism” anytime a government tries to act on a scientific finding they do not especially care for (e.g., imposing a carbon tax to counteract anthropogenic climate change). Interest in Stalin’s intervention in 1948 has shaped most of the rich literature—surely the best studied episode in the history of Russian science—which has filled in the complex history that led to Stalin’s fateful decision. A much smaller body of work explores 1965, although that question is equally fascinating: once a state has made the catastrophic decision of backing a fraudulent/incorrect/incoherent (pick your adjective) doctrine, why does it reverse course? That decision marked an important step on physicist Andrei Sakharov’s path to becoming one of the most powerful voices for human rights within the USSR.

About eight years ago—Lysenko still rattling around my brain pan—I began to wonder about that periodization of 1948–1965. Historians regarded the narrative as over when Lysenko lost the directorship of the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of Sciences, freeing Mendelian genetics from its last remaining fetters. That was the end of the story if you are a Western geneticist, decrying the Soviet travesty from across an ocean, and perhaps even if you were a Soviet geneticist, coming in from the cold and working to rebuild your science after it has lost several generations of young acolytes. But it wasn’t the end for Lysenko, and that’s the story of my article.

Lysenko died in 1976, eleven years after his story was supposedly “ended” by the dethroning of his doctrines as Soviet orthodoxy. What happened next? I knew a few things already. I knew he was never kicked out of the Academy of Sciences—that was important for Sakharov, since the precedent of never defrocking an academician despite political disapproval held for him too. I knew that one of my advisors, Loren Graham, had once lunched with Lysenko in the early 1970s. (It’s a terrific anecdote: you can read about it in his Moscow Stories.) And I knew that Lysenko had a personnel file in the Archives of the Academy of Sciences, but that nobody (including myself) had really bothered with the final years of it. So I bothered.

The details are in the article, but there are two points that speak to our present moment (and not just 1948 or 1965). The first seems really obvious in retrospect: it takes time for things to end. Lysenko lost the positions that effectively made him the despot of Soviet biology, but—despite Western caricatures of the Soviet Union—this wasn’t about just one person. Dozens of Lysenko’s backers continued to occupy very powerful posts, and thousands of trained agronomists had been raised on his doctrines. A few (quite old) geneticists were brought out of retirement or the physics institutes where they had been laying low, but the material (human, laboratory, pedagogical) they had to work with were necessarily products of the Lysenko era. It took time to retrain and reorient biology, just as it always takes time to rebuild after a catastrophe. Aspects of Lysenko’s doctrines persisted, and it still has advocates in today’s Russia, fifty-five years after the “Lysenko Affair” ostensibly ended. Their survival surprised historians of Russian science, but they shouldn’t have. The Lysenko crowd never left; they were just hard to see.

Why they were hard to see is the second point, about writing the history of the contemporary. Historians of science often like to ply their trade when the events being chronicled are safely distant, when it seems easy to determine the “end” of the story. But we do not get to enjoy that illusion (the clarity of an ending is often illusory) when compelled to write the history of something contemporary. Many events fall in this category: the atomic bomb, quantum theory, recombinant DNA… their historiographies began immediately.

The same was true for Lysenko. The cornerstones of the historiography of Soviet genetics were created in that interim period between Lysenko’s fall in 1965 and his death in 1976. (One of them, David Joravsky’s The Lysenko Affair, won the Society’s Pfizer Prize in 1971.) Those of us working within this scholarly tradition inadvertently inherited the mistaken assumption that nothing essential to understanding the Lysenko story was underway in the 1970s. There is a caution there for the many of us who increasingly turn our attention to historicizing the present and recent past: of necessity you must select a concluding moment for your narrative, and the next generation of scholars is bound to think you picked wrong. They’ll be right.

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