Soviet genetics began to lag behind the world since 1948, after an extended meeting of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences named after V.I. Lenin (VASKhNIL). After this, the country stopped teaching genetics, books about it were confiscated from all libraries and destroyed, and most genetic scientists were fired. About this in interview Doctor of Biological Sciences, Professor, Corresponding Member told Lenta.ru RAS, chief researcher at the Institute of General Genetics named after. N.I. Vavilova RAS Ilya Zakharov-Gesehus.
The scientist noted that from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s, the practice of ideological struggle with scientific opponents in the natural sciences was formed in the USSR. It was called Lysenkoism, after the name of the academician Trofima Lysenko.
Lysenkoism is, first of all, a product of the socio-political life of the country during the reign of Stalin
Doctor of Biological Sciences
As the professor said, before the start of Lysenkoism, “Soviet geneticists were approximately on the same level as their European colleagues and were significantly inferior only to the American ones.” However, after mass famine in many regions of the country, the authorities decided to increase the number of agricultural research institutions, which could not be provided with qualified personnel.
“As a result, a huge stream of ambitious and illiterate half-educated people poured into agricultural science, who did not want to delve into the complexities of scientific knowledge, but were aggressively opposed to “bourgeois” specialists. It was they who were led by Trofim Lysenko,” explained Zakharov-Gesehus.
Charlatan or fanatic
Ilya Zakharov-Gesehus, who personally communicated with Trofim Lysenko, notes that the academician was not a charlatan.
“He can rather be called a person with a paranoid personality type, who blindly believes in what he preaches,” noted the doctor of biological sciences.
One of the main provisions of Lysenko’s teaching was the denial of genes as a unit of heredity and the role of chromosomes as the material carrier of heredity. According to Lysenko, heredity is characteristic of any cell particle, not just the chromosome, and living organisms change adequately to environmental conditions.
“In other words, Lysenko and his supporters believed that plant grafting changes their heredity,” the biologist concluded. “However, geneticists studying the mutation process were convinced that variability cannot be directed, since it spreads in all directions.”
According to him, Lysenko was in the right place at the right time, and the successful career of the “people’s academician” is largely due to the fact that he could communicate with Soviet leaders in a language they understood and had a great gift of persuasion.
Since the mid-1930s, having received support at the very top, Lysenko and his supporters began to increasingly turn to ideological slogans and apply political labels to their opponents. Thus, Lysenko based his speech at the Second Congress of Collective Farmers-Shock Workers in February 1935 on exposing class enemies in science, which earned him an enthusiastic remark from Stalin himself, who was sitting on the presidium:
Bravo, Comrade Lysenko, bravo!
However, as Ilya Zakharov-Gesehus says, no one has yet proven that Lysenko personally wrote denunciations against his opponents: “When Lysenko’s supporters accused their scientific opponents of being reactionary, of adhering to bourgeois ideology – can this be considered a denunciation? I think that by the standards of that time, yes.”
“Crossing before bourgeois science”
“After the victory in the Great Patriotic War, Lysenko began to present completely crazy ideas about the theory of evolution. Now he denied intraspecific struggle and began to preach the idea of degeneration of species, that wheat could turn into rye, and cuckoos could be born from the eggs of small forest birds. Of course, this outraged all biologists (botanists, ornithologists) who know Darwin’s evolutionary theory,” the biologist told Lente.ru. Despite his high patronage, due to Lysenko’s statements, significantly more biologists were already opposed to him than in the 1930s.
To combat his opponents, the academician began to actively act using administrative methods: first he wrote a letter to Stalin complaining about his opponents, and then got a meeting with him. This can be called a new stage of Lysenkoism, which coincided with the beginning of the Cold War and the struggle of the Soviet Union against the “pernicious influence of the West.”
The turning point was the August session of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 1948, which ended with the triumph of Lysenko’s supporters and the “pogrom of genetic science in the USSR.”
Lysenko managed to maintain his influence even after Stalin’s death: “There were rumors that Lysenko personally grew corn at Khrushchev’s dacha, and that their wives were very friendly. I don’t know how reliable all this is, but I remember conversations about it well.” At the same time, thanks to nuclear physicists and personally Igor Kurchatov Partial rehabilitation of genetics has begun in the country. As Zakharov-Gesehus emphasized, after Western scientists deciphered the structure of DNA in 1953, it was important for physicists to know how radiation affects heredity.
But Lysenko’s final collapse came only after Khrushchev’s resignation:
Scientifically, this happened almost immediately; administratively, a little later, in 1965.
According to the biologist’s recollections, almost immediately after Khrushchev’s removal in October 1964, articles about the successes and prospects of Soviet genetics began to appear in newspapers, and by the end of 1964, the journal Science and Life published an article by a Nobel laureate, member Central Committee of the CPSU Nikolai Semenov with direct condemnation of Lysenko.
After Lysenko’s resignation from the post of director of the Institute of Genetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences (now the Institute of General Genetics), Soviet science was finally freed from Lysenkoism. At a meeting of the USSR Academy of Sciences, academician Andrey Sakharov this is how he spoke about Lysenko and his supporter Nikolai Nuzhdin:
Nuzhdin, together with Lysenko, are responsible for those shameful and difficult pages in the development of Soviet science, which are now, fortunately, ending