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  • Was There Ever a “Stalinist Science”?
  • Michael D. Gordin (bio)
Alexei B. Kojevnikov, Stalin’s Great Science: The Times and Adventures of Soviet Physicists. 384 pp. London: Imperial College Press, 2004. ISBN 1860944205. $36.00.
Eduard Izrailevich Kolchinskii, Biologiia Germanii i Rossii–SSSR v usloviiakh sotsial′no-politicheskikh krizisov pervoi poloviny XX veka (mezhdu liberalizmom, kommunizmom i natsional-sotsializmom) [Biology of Germany and Russia–USSR amid the Sociopolitical Crises of the First Half of the 20th Century (among Liberalism, Communism, and National Socialism)]. 636 pp. St. Petersburg: Nestor-Istoriia, 2007. ISBN 5981871725.
Anastasiia Mikhailovna Korzukhina, Ot prosveshcheniia k nauke: Fizika v Moskovskom i S.-Peterburgskom universitetakh vo vtoroi polovine XIX v.–nachale XX v. [From Enlightenment to Science: Physics in Moscow and St. Petersburg Universities in the Second Half of the 19th and the Beginning of the 20th Centuries]. 261 pp. Dubna: Feniks+, 2006. ISBN 5927900666.
E. B. Muzrukova, ed., Nauka i tekhnika v pervye desiatiletiia sovetskoi vlasti: Sotsiokul′turnoe izmerenie (1917–1940) [Science and Technology in the First Decades of Soviet Power: The Sociocultural Dimension, 1917–40]. 495 pp. Moscow: Academia, 2007. ISBN 5874442537.
Ethan Pollock, Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars. 288 pp. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN-13 978-0691124674, $35.00 (cloth); 978-0691138251, $24.95 (paper).
Susan Gross Solomon, ed., Doing Medicine Together: Germany and Russia between the Wars. xvii + 533 pp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. ISBN 0802091717. $68.00. [End Page 625]

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...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-5000
Print ISSN
1531-023x
Pages
pp. 625-639
Launched on MUSE
2008-08-14
Open Access
No
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