TD LysenkoNI Vavilov
TD Lysenko (1898 - 1976)                                                                                      NI Vavilov (1887 - 1943)

Science & Politics in the Soviet Union: The Fate of Genetics, 1930 - 1964

Following the collapse of the Russian Empire and the ensuing Civil War, agriculture in the Soviet Union in the 1920s remained in a state of massive crisis during the forced changeover from a small-farm, agrarian-based economy towards an industrial economy based on collective farms. Whole-sale elimination of the Kulak peasant class, and bureaucratic mismanagement, led to widespread famines that provoked the Soviet government to search for any possible solution to the critical lack of food.

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898 – 1976) was a Russian peasant agriculturist, who achieved notoriety in the late 1920s by his advocacy of vernalization, a method by which seeds from winter-strains of wheat were treated to freezing temperature prior to planting. This allowed them to be planted in the spring. The method was well-known, but scientific data had shown that it produced only marginal increases in yield. Lysenko, instead of performing controlled experiments, made extravagant claims that vernalization increased wheat yields by as much as 15%, and also that the modified growth was inherited between generations. Soviet propaganda favored inspirational stories of peasants who, through their native ability and intelligence, came up with solutions to practical problems. Lysenko was widely presented as such a genius who had developed a new, revolutionary technique.
Lysenko also built on the ideas of Michurin, another peasant horticulturist who advocated  Lamarckism, and claimed to have effected permanent changes in plant species through hybridization, grafting, and other non-genetic techniques. [Michurin’s methods have parallels in the work of the American plant breeder Luther Burbank]. The notion that acquired characteristics could be transmitted to an organism's descendants was seen as consistent with the social theories of Marx and Engels, who argued that nature and human society were infinitely plastic. Lysenko's  methods were also seen as a way to engage peasants directly in an "agricultural revolution," instead of opposing government 'reforms'. He went on to advocate other dubious methods, such as cluster-planting of trees, scattering seed on stubble fields, and even inter-species transformations (the sort of things that might be expected with contaminated seed)

Soviet geneticists at the time were well-established among the world leaders in the field, including Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900 - 1975), whose "Genetics and the Origin of Species" was a seminal contribution to the New Evolutionary Synthesis, and Sergei Chetverikov (1880 - 1959) whose work on population genetics anticipated Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright
In particular, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887 - 1943) amassed a huge seed bank collection for breeding.
He pioneered efforts to develop new strains of crops that were specific for the many growing regions in the USSR, by use of controlled crosses and heritability studies. Left-leaning Western geneticists including Nobelist  HJ Muller visited Vavilov to promote East-West cooperation. However, such methods are require several generations to show results, academic geneticists were constrained by their actual data and could not hope to match Lysenko's extravagant claims. They were also no match for Lysenko's political tactics, which presented genetics as 'western bourgeois science'.

Support from Joseph Stalin (1879 - 1953) enhanced Lysenko’s status. In 1935, during the height of the Yezhov Terror, Lysenko gave an address to the Politburo in which he accused "Mendelist - Morganist" geneticists who opposed his theories as setting themselves against Marxist-Leninism. Stalin was in the audience, and called out "Bravo, Comrade Lysenko, Bravo." Lysenko thereafter began an campaign of extreme demagoguery to slander geneticists who still spoke out against him, and to replace the staff of genetics research units in Soviet laboratories with his own followers. Many of Lysenko’s scientific opponents, including Vavilov, were imprisoned and died in the Gulag after denunciation by Lysenko. (At the time of his arrest, Vavilov had just been elected President of the International Congress of Genetics, but was refused permission to travel abroad. Vavilov died of starvation in a prison cell.).

Following World War II, Stalin instituted a new "anti-Cosmopolitan" campaign intended to suppress any influence from the West. In 1948, a carefully stage-managed scientific debate between the two schools at the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences was terminated by the announcement that the Central Committee had approved Lysenko's position paper, and Lysenkoism would henceforth be taught as "the only correct theory". In the subsequent scramble for survival, Soviet geneticists and biologists were forced to denounce each other and any work that contradicted Lysenko's theories. The anti-Cosmopolitan campaign extended to many spheres of Soviet science and culture. Notably, the "anti-Formalist" campaign in music targeted the most prominent Soviet composers including Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, and Khachaturian.

Lysenko’s domination of Soviet agriculture was essentially complete from 1948 – 1964. Following the death of Stalin in 1953 and eventual consolidation of power under Nikita Khrushchev in 1958, realistic assessment of serious shortfalls in Soviet agriculture as compared with successes achieved by genetic means in the West came to question, and criticism of Lysenko was again permitted. Scathing reviews of Lysenko's results and methods contributed to Khrushchev's fall in 1964, and he was removed from all positions of authority by 1966. Soviet biology had lost an entire generation to the political ambitions of an ignorant demagogue.

Lysenko died in isolation in 1976. His western obituary noted, “Even the fruit flies were killed.”

All text material ©2015 by Steven M. Carr