LYSENKO AFFAIR."THE BAREFOOT PROFESSOR"
THE DEFEAT OF SOVIET GENETICS
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko's ideas about plant breeding and heredity contradicted the laws of Mendelian genetics, but promised great agricultural benefits for the Soviet Union. Lysenkoism refers to the process by which the Soviet state and Communist Party supported Lysenko's views and silenced his detractors. Lysenkoism became emblematic of all that was wrong with Soviet science policies and a cautionary tale about the detrimental effect political leaders can have on the development of science.
Lysenko was born to a peasant family in Ukraine in 1898. Considerable ambition, determination, and a strong memory (which made up for poor reading and writing skills) led him from his village school to a regional vocational school. In 1922, benefiting from Soviet affirmative-action policies for workers and peasants, he became a correspondence student at the Kiev Agricultural Institute. Upon graduation in 1925, he moved to an experimental plant selection station in Azerbaijan. Lysenko's first brush with fame came with a 1927 article in Pravda that described his experiments with planting leguminous crops to enrich fields. The article contrasted his findings with the supposedly impractical theories of university-trained scientists who worked with the "hairy legs of flies." Lysenko's propaganda value as a "barefoot professor" outweighed the actual validity and originality of his claims. Before scientists could verify what he had done, Lysenko was on to his next major "discovery," a process he called "vernalization." By dampening or cooling winter varieties of wheat, Lysenko claimed that he could turn them into spring varieties capable of producing higher yields. He either did not know or simply ignored the fact that other scientists had worked on and abandoned this idea. Soon, vernalization became Lysenko's recipe for solving a full range of agricultural problems and the foundation for a whole theory of heredity. Lysenko held that characteristics acquired through exposure to environmental factors could be inherited by subsequent generations. He rejected the existence of genes and dismissed the breakthroughs of Gregor Mendel, August Weismann, and Thomas Hunt Morgan that were at the core of modern genetics. That there was no experimental basis for Lysenko's assertions did not seem to deter him or his growing list of followers in the agricultural establishment. Revolutionary zeal, not measured caution, was the order of the day.
Initially such scientists as Nikolai Vavilov, the leading Soviet plant geneticist, nurtured Lysenko, perhaps because of Lysenko's popularity with the press and political leaders and perhaps because he promised precisely the kind of revolutionary agricultural advancements the state and Communist Party expected of Soviet science. But Lysenko did not return the favor. Instead, he took every opportunity to chastise geneticists for not recognizing the practical value of his experiments. He did not hesitate to use the language of class struggle, depicting himself as a representative of proletarian science and the geneticists as representatives of bourgeois science. With the aide of the Marxist-Leninist philosopher Isaak Prezent, Lysenko filled his speeches with references to Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin. Prezent also helped Lysenko realize the benefits of describing his ideas as building on the work of the humble plant breeder and Soviet hero Ivan Michurin. Using the label Michurinist allowed Lysenko to place his theories within a Russian scientific tradition that was distinct from allegedly Western and capitalist genetics.
In 1935 Lysenko delivered a particularly divisive speech at a conference of agricultural shock workers in the Kremlin. Joseph Stalin, who was in attendance, responded by clapping and shouting, "Bravo, Comrade Lysenko, Bravo!" Even as it became increasingly clear to specialists that Lysenko's practical proposals did not bring about the results he had predicted and that his theories were untenable, challenging his views became increasingly risky. By the end of the 1930s Lysenko had managed to trade in on his notoriety to secure key positions in the academy and government: between 1935 and 1940 he became an academician of the USSR Academy of Sciences, director of the Odessa Institute of Genetics and Breeding, director of the academy's Institute of Genetics (replacing Vavilov), president of the Lenin All-Union Agricultural Academy (VASKhNIL), and the deputy head of the USSR Supreme Soviet. Geneticists still managed to win some official support for their work, but Lysenko convinced agricultural ministers, philosophers, and party leaders that "Michurinism" was more practical, patriotic, and progressive than genetics. In 1940 Lysenko's vitriol contributed either directly or, at the very least, indirectly to Vavilov's arrest as a British spy. Vavilov died in prison in 1943.
After World War II, some geneticists continued to challenge Lysenko's claims in scientific meetings and articles in scholarly journals. They even received some support in early 1948 from Yuri Zhdanov, head of the Science Section of the Central Committee and son of the party secretary, Andrei Zhdanov. But Stalin accepted the distinction Lysenko made between progressive Soviet biology and reactionary Weismannism-Morganism. In a private letter Stalin reassured Lysenko that "the future belongs to Michurin." In May 1948 Stalin chastised the younger Zhdanov for criticizing Lysenko. On July 31 Lysenko gave a speech to a session of VASKhNIL distinguishing his materialist, home-grown, practical work from the idealist, foreign, impractical theories of geneticists. Even though the speech was printed in Pravda (suggesting the party's approval), some scientists in the audience challenged Lysenko's authority to define Soviet biology. Lysenko responded at the end of the meeting by informing the audience that the Central Committee had approved his speech in advance. To challenge his scientific ideas was now tantamount to challenging the Communist Party itself. The Central Committee set about firing geneticists and appointing Lysenkoists to administrative posts in academic and teaching institutions.
Scientists in other fields used the situation in Soviet biology as a template for settling controversial issues, but with less success than Lysenko. By the end of Stalin's reign Lysenko's control of Soviet biology began to face challenges from within the party apparatus and from agricultural ministries that were consistently disappointed by the results of applying his ideas. But widespread criticism was possible only after Stalin's death in 1953. Nikita Khrushchev, apparently agreeing with scientists and administrators who complained about Lysenko's abuse of power, removed him from the presidency of VASKhNIL. But Lysenko soon managed to charm Khrushchev with promises of advances in corn breeding and dairy cow breeding at a time when the leader had staked much of his domestic and international reputation on the improvement of Soviet agriculture. Lysenko's final defeat came only with Khrushchev's ouster from power in 1964.
Graham, Loren R. Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.
Joravsky, David. The Lysenko Affair. Cambridge, Mass., 1970. Reprint, Chicago, 1986.
Krementsov, Nikolai. Stalinist Science. Princeton, N.J., 1997.
Soyfer, Valery N. Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science. Translated by Leo Gruliow and Rebecca Gruliow. New Brunswick, N.J., 1994.