- Was There Ever a “Stalinist Science”?
Was there ever really such a creature as “Stalinist science”?1 The term carries the perplexing heft of an oxymoron. If it is “Stalinist,” then it is repressive, controlled, borderline irrational, and focused on power; if it is “science,” then it is universal, disinterested, self-regulating, and focused on knowledge. There was obviously plenty of science during the period of Stalin’s domination of the Soviet power structure (1927–53), but broad disagreement continues over whether (and if so, to what extent) we as scholars should call this science “Stalinist.” Did it partake of the Soviet experience in anything other than temporal coincidence? If there was such a thing as “Stalinist science,” then how does it change our understanding of the ostensibly irrational features of Stalinism? Or the rational features of science?
This is not merely an abstruse question that concerns the few historians and sociologists of science (and the odd philosopher) who investigate the Soviet epoch—such as the scholars involved in the six volumes under review. The issue of Stalinist science should be central for all historians of science, but even more so for historians of the Soviet Union. For the Soviet Union was, if anything, in large part a scientific and technological project—and every component of that project can be tied to Stalin and Stalinism. Stalin himself was instrumental in the three most transformative developments in science during the entire Soviet period: the Bolshevization of the Academy of Sciences (1928–32); the construction and detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb (1949); and the criminalization of genetics and the granting to Trofim Denisovich Lysenko control over the life sciences in the communist world (1948).2 Each formed not just a significant episode in the development of science in the Soviet Union; each also represented key transformations in Stalinist governance tout court—the set of institutions, practices, and, [End Page 626] crucially, concepts by which the regime exerted control over both its intellectuals and the rest of the population.
For almost 60 years, writing on Soviet science in general, and Stalinist science in particular, has been dominated by one major episode: the Lysenko affair. As has been described many times—Lysenkoism remains far and away the most comprehensively covered aspect of the history of Soviet science, ahead of even nuclear weapons and the space race—in the August 1948 session of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences (VASKhNIL), Academy President T. D. Lysenko, reading a speech we now know to have been edited by Stalin, declared genetics to be a “bourgeois science” and proscribed further research into the field, thereby officially abolishing genetics until after the mid-1960s and the removal of Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev’s continued support.3 Despite its Khrushchevian end...