- William Hartston
- Sue Broom
Listen now 15 mins
Science and politics have never felt comfortable with each other, but the relationship sank to a brutal low in Russia in the 1920s. The Communist Revolution had delivered power to the masses, but the masses weren't delivering the goods. Agriculture, and in particular cereal production, was high on Stalin's list for attention – the drive to increase productivity was immense and the new science of genetics had a vital role to play.
Nikolai Ivanovitch Vavilov, an extraordinarily gifted agriculturalist and academic, realised this. He started to look scientifically for ways to feed the people.
Another up and coming scientist, Trofim Denisovic Lysenko, understood far better the minds of politicians. Blending his style of botany with Stalin's version of Marxism, he gained the state's full support and was put in charge of the whole future programme of cereal production.
As Vavilov continued his own research, support for Lysenko began to diminish as his claims began to sound increasingly far-fetched. Eventually Lysenko began to make Vavilov and his followers the scapegoat for the short-comings of his own programme.
Lysenko's skill was to paint his critics in a politically damaging light. Ultimately this led to the arrest of Vavilov in 1940, charged with wrecking Soviet agriculture. Shortly after his arrest, Vavilov's health deteriorated rapidly and he died in prison. He was only one of thousands of Soviet geneticists wiped out in the Stalinist purges, and every such death only strengthened Lysenko's position.
It was not only a tragedy for Soviet scientists: it was also a tragedy for Soviet science. Vavilov had lost his life for allegedly holding back the development of Soviet agriculture - Lysenko stayed in power even after Stalin's death despite doing just that, and aroused more negative passions than few scientists have ever managed.