restricted access Stalin as Lysenko's Editor: Reshaping Political Discourse in Soviet Science
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Stalin as Lysenko’s Editor:
Reshaping Political Discourse in Soviet Science


This article is devoted to the background of the session of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences (VASKhNIL) that was held from July 31 through August 7, 1948, and that ended in the rout of genetics in the USSR and triggered similar campaigns in other sciences. Following the meeting, the Soviet system undertook the creation of its own, “new” kind of science, which differed radically from world science. The possible reasons for the intervention by Soviet authorities in science have been repeatedly discussed in both Western and Soviet historical and scientific works.1 But one question has remained unclear: to what extent were Stalin and other prominent Soviet political leaders personally involved in the organization of the campaigns of intervention? [End Page 439]

The VASKhNIL session was convened quite suddenly and without the prior knowledge of most of its members. Evidently Trofim Lysenko—the president of the Agricultural Academy, the principal opponent of genetics, and the leader of the so-called new, “Michurinist” biology—had obtained support from some political source. In his concluding remarks at the session, he declared that his paper had been approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party;2 but there was no corroboration of this claim from the Party itself. A few days after Stalin’s death, in March 1953, Lysenko declared in a newspaper article in Pravda that it had been Stalin himself who had read and edited the original text of his talk at the 1948 session.3 But this claim was suspect: a critical campaign against Lysenko was unleashed during the last months of Stalin’s life, so it is not clear whether Stalin’s support of Lysenko was as absolute as Lysenko claimed—all the more so since the other witness had died. This specific question raises the larger issue of the extent to which these campaigns were actually controlled by political authorities.

For example, it might well have been, not Stalin, but some other member or members of the Politburo or the top Kremlin bureaucracy who orchestrated the campaigns. It has been well known for a long time that Andrei Zhdanov—the number two man in the Party in the postwar years and the official in charge of Soviet science, ideology, and culture—had launched a major campaign against Western trends in Soviet art, music, and literature beginning in 1946 (a cultural “pogrom” known in Russia and the West by his name, Zhdanovshchina). Thus we know that such campaigns could be led by other Party leaders, and there has been great curiosity about Zhdanov’s role in genetics, as well as the possible relation of the Lysenko campaign to other contemporary attacks on culture. His role is especially problematic, however: as David Joravsky (and Conway Zirkle before him) noted, Zhdanov certainly did not support Lysenko.4 These complications make the clarification of Stalin’s possible role even more important. [End Page 440]

This article presents some archival finds that go a long way toward settling these questions.

Opening the Soviet Archives

The discovery is best understood in the context of what was happening among younger historians of science in the USSR and in the Soviet archives after the initiation of glasnost. Around 1988 an informal group of younger researchers and graduate students associated with the Institute for the History of Science and Technology, in Moscow and Leningrad, began to organize itself.5 At that time, popular periodicals had became preoccupied with even fixated on, telling the real story of Soviet history under Stalin, particularly things that had been hidden or lied about. It was especially common for virtually all Soviet scientists to be portrayed as morally pure victims of Stalinist oppression—this was certainly the way all the scientists wrote about their history. But for this group of younger historians, the story did not seem quite so simple. We all were fascinated less by the history of ideas than by what might be called the “political” dimension of the history of Soviet science, but we suspected that some scientists had supported the regime, for ideological and other reasons. Most important, we realized...