Picking through a minefield of Soviet utopia and paranoia.
All sciences would coalesce into one, and this science would usher the new socialist being—so believed the Soviet state in its promulgation and censoring of brilliant Russian scientists from the establishment of the Bolshevik order onward. British novelist and science writer Ings (A Natural History of Seeing: The Art and Science of Vision, 2008, etc.) builds from the utopian vision of lofty scientism advocated by Lenin and Alexander Bogdanov in 1904 to the surviving crop of nervous scientists under Stalin, who were busy trying to make thermonuclear weapons in the late 1940s. The first hurdle for true scientists—e.g., the mineralogist and geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky—was the crippling material conditions in Russia, a situation caused largely by successive famines in the early 1920s and the rampant backbiting in the Academy of Sciences and other official agencies that effectively monitored and restricted intellectuals. The new order was in a hurry to bring on a “revolutionary generation,” and above all, the Bolsheviks needed engineers, removing specialists from universities and ensconcing them in well-appointed institutes that became hives of bureaucratic and competitive disgruntlement. After Lenin died, Stalin moved to industrialize the country by fiat and quickly “rattle through the stages by which true communism might be achieved.” Ings moves somewhat unevenly through these stages of increased authoritarianism, beginning with Stalin’s Great Purge, which sacrificed many brilliant scientists and intellectuals such as Nikolai Vavilov, an internationally revered botanist whose fall was startling (“We shall go to the pyre,” he predicted). “Pure science” did not exist, and many scientists were galvanized in Stalin’s “Plan for the Great Transformation of Nature,” a grand deforestation and dam-building project to make even the natural world yield to the plan.
A provocative and increasingly chilling work that shows how scientists in the nascent Soviet Union were sacrificed to the Soviet dream of building the ideal state.