Russian geneticist and ethicist Birstein takes a well-documented and highly disquieting tour through the abominations of Soviet science.
Buttressing his contentions with recently declassified Russian state documents, Birstein argues that Soviet-era scientific academies were pawns of the state, in particular the secret services, and that their activities were subordinated to the needs—some good, but mostly bad and ugly—of the state’s survival. Perversions of scientific integrity ranged from the ravings of Lysenko to the construction of nuclear weapons. But what primarily interests Birstein is the scientific community’s role in developing biological and chemical weapons to fight enemies of the state and its willingness to test these weapons on humans. The subjects were prisoners, often those about to be executed, who were pumped with poisons designed to be used for assassination or tested with drugs to determine their suitability for interrogation. Thus the Soviet Union joins the shameful list of countries (including the US, Germany, Japan, and Britain) that have used humans for unethical biomedical experiments. Birstein names names, both in the hopes of understanding the individual motivations of the state agents and to pay tribute to those who resisted these activities. The latter’s stories are inspirational in the extreme. Occasionally, Birstein slips into overeasy judgments (e.g., the Bolshevik's “naked desire for power behind their grand promises”), which sounds alarms for readers to proceed carefully. Yet mostly he is impassioned but credible, and perhaps most distressing when he notes that “the present secret service is not ashamed of the past” and may well be conducting similarly barbaric experiments on Chechen prisoners today.
A cautionary tale of science gone terribly wrong.