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The Story of Stalin’s Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century

by Peter Pringle

Pub Date: May 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7432-6498-3
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

A tragic story of the totalitarian suppression of knowledge—one that is all too familiar to history, even in our own time.

Pringle (Day of the Dandelion, 2007, etc.), former Moscow bureau chief for The Independent, recounts that in that city he lived on a street named for Lenin’s otherwise little-known brother. Down the way, on a grid named as a kind of “Who’s Who of the old USSR and its socialist allies, even Ho Chi Minh,” was Vavilov Street, named after the great physicist Sergei Vavilov, whose admitted brilliance was nothing compared to that of his brother Nikolai. A kind of Indiana Jones of the plant world, Nikolai was always tearing off in search of rare einkorn or interesting hybrids. Pringle records a meeting of Vavilov and American botanist Luther Burbank, with the former concluding that “it was difficult to learn anything from Burbank—‘the artist’s intuition overwhelmed his research.’ ” When the Bolsheviks came to power, Lenin, though despising the intelligentsia, recognized their at least temporary usefulness as technocrats in the new state, and Vavilov was allowed to continue his research in plant genetics and agronomy. Stalin was less kindly disposed toward the knowledge-working class, and he gave pride of place in the new Soviet science to the quack Trofim Lysenko, who dismissed Mendelian genetics in favor of a particularly ungainly kind of Lamarckism. Vavilov generously insisted that his scientific colleagues hear Lysenko out, even though “there was no proof of the inheritance of acquired characteristics,” as Lysenko insisted. Lysenko won out with his theories of vernalization; the result was a killing famine, one of several the Soviet Union endured. For his part, increasingly marginalized in a politicized scientific community, Vavilov wound up in the Gulag.

The war on science is an old story. Pringle lends it specific weight with this chilling story of a man who, had he survived, might have saved millions of lives.