The Soviet Union's Scientific Marvels Came From Prisons

Faced with exile in Siberia, some of Russia's best scientists opted to do research for the government behind bars.

Stoyan Nenov / Reuters

There’s no shortage of stories about clashes between science and politics throughout history, and there are plenty still being written today. Scientific evidence has been distorted and manipulated in the name of ideology since Galileo suggested the earth revolved around the sun. But perhaps few battles may be as dramatic as the one that unfolded in the Soviet Union in the early 20th century, under the rise of the Bolshevik regime.

In the 1920s, Joseph Stalin tried to turn science into an arm of the Russian state, putting researchers under strict political control to ensure their obedience. He sought the kind of research that validated political doctrine, not the kind that relied on the scientific method. At one point, Stalin supported a scientist who denied the existence of genes but had promised that his germination theory would yield many crops and pull the Russian people out of famine.

Turns out, though, that’s not how science works, and for years, scientists would pay the price. They were praised, promoted, and well-funded if the Bolsheviks saw use for their specialties, and fired, interrogated, or jailed if they didn’t. They became swept up in deadly purges. The stories of some of these scientists, mostly young men, are told in Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 1905-1953, by Simon Ings. Ings follows Soviet science from the early days of the revolution until Stalin’s death, an era of political terror that somehow managed to produce formidable technological achievements, like the Russian space program. “You were safe only as long as you could demonstrate your powerlessness,” Ings writes. “And if Stalin raised you, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, he would cut you down.”

I spoke with Ings about this period in Soviet history. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Marina Koren: So your book is called a “history of triumph and tragedy,” but there seemed to be a lot more tragedy than triumph for the scientists you describe. If the state didn’t kill you, famine would, and if you were lucky enough to be doing work, your lab was poorly supplied or your home could be overrun with refugees. How did anyone get anything done?

Simon Ings: Before the [October Revolution in 1917], what you had were a remarkable generation of scientists and a handful of well-educated capitalists who wanted to produce a new kind of education for a new kind of Russian state. So even before the revolution was happening, there were institutions being set up along the lines of the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Germany. The reason the Bolsheviks reacted so strongly against that generation, against liberal academics, is that these were not simply people who had a sort of general opposition to the communist project. These were themselves revolutionaries, who had conducted a failed revolution in 1905, who were capable of running a state. They were serious competition for the control of the state, and so one of the reasons people were able to get things done is they were surprisingly well-organized even before the revolution [in 1917].

Looking a little bit later, you had the Bolshevik desire for education. It’s rather like the saying, ‘he did terrible things, but he made the trains run on time.’ The Bolsheviks did terrible things, but they really believed in public education. There were something like 80 institutions running in the immediate, post-October Revolution period, most of which was set up under the Bolshevik regime. They didn’t have money to give you, but they had buildings and they had a bit of furniture. And for a generation that couldn’t actually get much done under the Tsarist regime, to have the support of the government was an extraordinarily exciting time.

The final reason people were able to get things done is they were thrown into prison. And they were thrown into the kinds of prison that enabled the state to rely upon your good works, because you had no political voice. This is the system known as sharashka, or sharashki, plural. The idea actually came from academics themselves. A party of engineers did not want to be sent to Siberia and had written to [senior official in the Soviet secret police] Lavrentiy Beria, saying, look, if you don’t send us to Siberia, give us a problem and we’ll solve it for you. Just let us stay in the warmth and give us some pencils and we’ll work for you. Beria took them up on this.

Koren: So some of the Soviet science and innovation came straight from prisons?

Ings: They wouldn’t have won [World War II] without it. There were a lot of engineering marvels created through the sharashka system, and perhaps the biggest marvel of all was the world’s most reliable space program.

Koren: How did Stalin’s system create a foundation for that space program, and allowed the Russians to launch Sputnik into space in 1957, four years after he died?

Ings: It was Stalin’s regimentation of the state that made Sputnik possible, which is a very unfair thing to say, because what really made Sputnik possible was the talents of the people who actually did the work. Stalin’s regimentation created the sharashka system, which gave people the space to do work. Nowhere else would’ve given people the space to work like that. Tasked with [building] the atomic bomb, tasked with producing a space program, only the sharashki could deal with such a project. In the American experience, it’s not wildly different. At the same period, you start having Lockheed create and hide groups of researchers [to develop fighter jets during World War II]. The idea of a small team working within an organization—that is a very good way of solving technical problems. It’s a very good academic idea, but it came out of imprisonment.

Koren: Isn’t that kind of crazy?

Ings: Well, it speaks to, how do you want to get science done? What you need to do is give people a lot of money and leave them alone. And that’s a very difficult sell if you’re dealing with public money. How do you justify handing money over without very obvious returns? When you look at the hoops that today’s researchers have to jump through, in terms of impact of their research, and what this research is likely to achieve, and what the applications of this research are—it astounds you that anything ever gets discovered at all. You arrive at a solution of, throw a bunch of people in prison and leave them alone, you know? But to have got there after the deaths of how many millions of people, it makes one pause for thought. It really does.

Koren: What were sharashki like?

Ings: One that plays the biggest part in my book is the one geneticist Ressovsky Timofeev ended up in. He found himself in a gulag, nearly died, was rescued, and put in a sharashka. He ended up on this island in this rather beautiful part of the country, on a very beautiful lake with the Ural Mountains in the background and flowers awaiting him on his doorstep—and far in the distance, men with dogs and some barbed wire. He was working for an economist who knew nothing about science, but Timofeev’s research was supported to the point where he was producing data that is still used by the United Nations today to measure the radiobiological load of radioactive releases in the soil. If you’re working at how serious a nuclear accident is, you’re using figures that Ressovsky Timofeev was coming up with in the sharashka.

Koren: Stalin sought to, as you write, “make science over in the service of the state.” What was his vision for Soviet science?

Ings: The entire Bolshevik project is premised on the idea that you can make government scientific. There is that wonderful moment in the 1870s, when everything seemed as if it was about to be explainable in terms of everything else. Marxism is supposed to be that science, the science that will actually put all the other sciences in the science of the state. But the clever, scientific community is realizing it doesn’t work, that scientism doesn’t work. There’s an immediate crisis. Stalin’s response is to conceal it, to talk over it, to look for practical solutions.

Koren: How did the scientists and engineers fit into that?

Ings: He tried to get the young educated as fast as possible in batches, in brigades. On the other hand, he tried to wipe out generations that were operating under the old patronage system [that funded scientific research.] Stalin’s attempt was to do away with the patronage system by becoming the only patron. By making the state the only possible patron, you have this absurd situation in which even as engineers are being paid more than they’ve ever been paid before, you’re also getting show trials in which engineers are shown the door or exiled or shot.

Koren: It did seem like someone could be running a medical institution one day and sentenced to hard labor the next. What happened to scientists when the state liked them, and when it didn’t?

Ings: Each specialism lost people during the Great Purge [ordered by Stalin to scare and eliminate opposition between 1936 and 1938]. When that happens, people want an explanation for what happened. They think, if genetics got it in the neck, it must have been because of the genetics. But most of the purges were to do with bureaucracy, not with learning. We tend to look at the research and think, how did the research rub people up the wrong way? Where we should be looking is, what patrons they had, what clients they had, what institutions did they run, whose ear did they have. The astronomers at Pulkovo were important because of whose ear they had, because of where they were getting their funding. It wasn’t because they were spotting things in the stars that were rubbing the Stalinist regime up the wrong way.

Koren: Many scientists seemed to move in and out of exile, and it didn’t always seem like a bad career move.

Ings: The classic example of that is Alexander Luria, who led what on the surface looks to be a normal life. He never betrayed anyone, he had foreign visits, he had good correspondence with colleagues all over the world. But he did this by ducking and diving, and he moved from institution to institution. He was never exiled, but he simply jumped before he was pushed. It was possible to land on your feet, to make exile work you. To be pushed out of the center, from Moscow to Odessa, could actually play to your hand. It could be out of your advantage to be out of the limelight.

Koren: There was a lot of deception and back-stabbing among scientists themselves. I’m thinking of Trofim Lysenko’s decision in 1939 to send his rival Nikolai Vavilov on a expedition to the Caucasus so he could replace Vavilov’s department’s staff. Can you tell me more about those dynamics?

Ings: You have these big organizations that are stuffed full of people who were alive before the Revolution, who hold more to a liberal democracy scheme than to a socialist scheme, and so you have these internecine rivalries between generations. It’s made worse by the fact that at the time in Russia, you didn’t have a retirement age, and that’s a really big problem. People were staying in posts until they dropped dead, and these guys lived quite a long time. So unless you stabbed people in the back, there was no way move forward in your career.

Koren: You write that “Soviet science was extraordinary, and ought to have delivered many more miracles than it did.” What were some missed opportunities?

Ings: Genetics. Only America was ahead of the Soviet Union. Germany was recruiting Russian geneticists in order to catch up. The ability to square evolution and natural selection was a Soviet development, if you trace it back. The problems the Americans were agonizing over simply weren’t known to the Russians, so the Russians got a bit of paper and worked it out. They weren’t aware that this was supposed to be difficult. All the pieces were in place for the Soviet Union to become streets ahead of everyone in genetics, even the Americans—and that’s saying a lot, because the Americans were amazing.

Koren: So what happened?

Ings: The people running the vernalization project, [a failed attempt to boost crops by regulating the temperature of seeds], like Lysenko, could simply turn around and say, you’re sitting in the lab with fruit flies and we’re generating this many more crops. What are you doing for the state? Have you not noticed there’s a famine going on? Genetics was doomed because it could not lie to the extent that Lysenko could lie. Lysenko just had to point at these mistaken figures and say, look, vernalization works. Genetics seemed to have no practical consequences.

Koren: So Lysenko basically used his powerful position to push genetics out of favor.

Ings: And it was because he couldn’t do math. His philosopher sidekick, Isaak Prezent, couldn’t do math either. He made it a point of principle that math should not be part of biology. The moment you mix up political discourse and scientific discourse, you’re at a very, very dangerous point. It makes these conversations incredibly hard. It makes fact impossible. It makes truth impossible.

Koren: You write at the end of the book that “we are all little Stalinists now, convinced of the efficacy of science to bail us out of any and every crisis.” What do you mean?

Ings: Let’s take an example reasonably local to you, what’s happening with the EPA. The EPA has over the years, on the basis of international work, come up with this set of data which are troubling to oil-based industries. Global warming is another example. We look for scientific solutions that aren’t going to upset the apple cart, and the thing about scientific solutions is that they do always upset the apple cart. Time and again we look for scientific solutions that aren’t scientific at all. We look for quick fixes, and we expect science to come up with quick fixes. Politics deals with the human world, and most people are reasonable. Science doesn’t. Science deals with the world out there, which is profoundly unreasonable. There’s not another earth to go to, and we’re not going to be able to bail ourselves out through a technological fix. And we’ll blame the scientists for this. We’ll blame the scientists for this every time.