The Soviet Era's Deadliest Scientist Is Regaining Popularity in Russia

Trofim Lysenko’s spurious research prolonged famines that killed millions. So why is a fringe movement praising his legacy?

Trofim Lysenko measures the growth of wheat in a field while two men watch.
Trofim Lysenko measures the growth of wheat in a collective farm field near Odessa, Ukraine. (Hulton Deutsch / Corbis / Getty)

Although it’s impossible to say for sure, Trofim Lysenko probably killed more human beings than any individual scientist in history. Other dubious scientific achievements have cut thousands upon thousands of lives short: dynamite, poison gas, atomic bombs. But Lysenko, a Soviet biologist, condemned perhaps millions of people to starvation through bogus agricultural research—and did so without hesitation. Only guns and gunpowder, the collective product of many researchers over several centuries, can match such carnage.

Having grown up desperately poor at the turn of the 20th century, Lysenko believed wholeheartedly in the promise of the communist revolution. So when the doctrines of science and the doctrines of communism clashed, he always chose the latter—confident that biology would conform to ideology in the end. It never did. But in a twisted way, that commitment to ideology has helped salvage Lysenko’s reputation today. Because of his hostility toward the West, and his mistrust of Western science, he’s currently enjoying a revival in his homeland, where anti-American sentiment runs strong.

Lysenko vaulted to the top of the Soviet scientific heap with unusual speed. Born into a family of peasant farmers in 1898, he was illiterate until age 13, according to a recent article on his revival in Current Biology. He nevertheless took advantage of the Russian Revolution and won admission to several agricultural schools, where he began experimenting with new methods of growing peas during the long, hard Soviet winter, among other projects. Although he ran poorly designed experiments and probably faked some of his results, the research won him praise from a state-run newspaper in 1927. His hardscrabble background—people called him the “barefoot scientist”—also made him popular within the Communist party, which glorified peasants.

Officials eventually put Lysenko in charge of Soviet agriculture in the 1930s. The only problem was, he had batty scientific ideas. In particular, he loathed genetics. Although a young field, genetics advanced rapidly in the 1910s and 1920s; the first Nobel Prize for work in genetics was awarded in 1933. And especially in that era, genetics emphasized fixed traits: Plants and animals have stable characteristics, encoded as genes, which they pass down to their children. Although nominally a biologist, Lysenko considered such ideas reactionary and evil, since he saw them as reinforcing the status quo and denying all capacity for change. (He in fact denied that genes existed.)

Instead, as the journalist Jasper Becker has described in the book Hungry Ghosts, Lysenko promoted the Marxist idea that the environment alone shapes plants and animals. Put them in the proper setting and expose them to the right stimuli, he declared, and you can remake them to an almost infinite degree.

To this end, Lysenko began to “educate” Soviet crops to sprout at different times of year by soaking them in freezing water, among other practices. He then claimed that future generations of crops would remember these environmental cues and, even without being treated themselves, would inherit the beneficial traits. According to traditional genetics, this is impossible: It’s akin to cutting the tail off a cat and expecting her to give birth to tailless kittens. Lysenko, undeterred, was soon bragging about growing orange trees in Siberia, according to Hungry Ghosts. He also promised to boost crop yields nationwide and convert the empty Russian interior into vast farms.

Such claims were exactly what Soviet leaders wanted to hear. In the late 1920s and early 1930s Joseph Stalin—with Lysenko’s backing—had instituted a catastrophic scheme to “modernize” Soviet agriculture, forcing millions of people to join collective, state-run farms. Widespread crop failure and famine resulted. Stalin refused to change course, however, and ordered Lysenko to remedy the disaster with methods based on his radical new ideas. Lysenko forced farmers to plant seeds very close together, for instance, since according to his “law of the life of species,” plants from the same “class” never compete with one another. He also forbade all use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Wheat, rye, potatoes, beets—most everything grown according to Lysenko’s methods died or rotted, says Hungry Ghosts. Stalin still deserves the bulk of the blame for the famines, which killed at least 7 million people, but Lysenko’s practices prolonged and exacerbated the food shortages. (Deaths from the famines peaked around 1932 to 1933, but four years later, after a 163-fold increase in farmland cultivated using Lysenko’s methods, food production was actually lower than before.) The Soviet Union’s allies suffered under Lysenkoism, too. Communist China adopted his methods in the late 1950s and endured even bigger famines. Peasants were reduced to eating tree bark and bird droppings and the occasional family member. At least 30 million died of starvation.

Because he enjoyed Stalin’s support, Lysenko’s failures did nothing to diminish his power within the Soviet Union. His portrait hung in scientific institutes across the land, and every time he gave a speech, a brass band would play and a chorus would sing a song written in his honor.

Outside the U.S.S.R., people sang a different tune: one of unwavering criticism. A British biologist, for instance, lamented that Lysenko was “completely ignorant of the elementary principles of genetics and plant physiology ... To talk to Lysenko was like trying to explain differential calculus to a man who did not know his 12-times table.” Criticism from foreigners did not sit well with Lysenko, who loathed Western “bourgeois” scientists and denounced them as tools of imperialist oppressors. He especially detested the American-born practice of studying fruit flies, the workhorse of modern genetics. He called such geneticists “fly lovers and people haters.”

Unable to silence Western critics, Lysenko still tried to eliminate all dissent within the Soviet Union. Scientists who refused to renounce genetics found themselves at the mercy of the secret police. The lucky ones simply got dismissed from their posts and were left destitute. Hundreds if not thousands of others were rounded up and dumped into prisons or psychiatric hospitals. Several got sentenced to death as enemies of the state or, fittingly, starved in their jail cells (most notably the botanist Nikolai Vavilov). Before the 1930s, the Soviet Union had arguably the best genetics community in the world. Lysenko gutted it, and by some accounts set Russian biology back a half-century.

Lysenko’s grip on power began to weaken after Stalin died in 1953. By 1964, he’d been deposed as the dictator of Soviet biology, and he died in 1976 without regaining any influence. His portrait did continue to hang in some institutes through the Gorbachev years, but by the 1990s, the country had finally put the horror and shame of Lysenkoism behind it.

Until recently. As the new Current Biology article explains, Lysenko has enjoyed a renaissance in Russia over the past few years. Several books and papers praising his legacy have appeared, bolstered by what the article calls “a quirky coalition of Russian right-wingers, Stalinists, a few qualified scientists, and even the Orthodox Church.”

There are several reasons for this renewal. For one, the hot new field of epigenetics has made Lysenko-like ideas fashionable. Most living things have thousands of genes, but not all those genes are active at once. Some get turned on or off inside cells, or have their volumes turned up or down. The study of these changes in “gene expression” is called epigenetics. And it just so happens that environmental cues are often what turn genes on or off. In certain cases, these environmentally driven changes can even pass from parent to child—just like Lysenko claimed.

But even a cursory look at his work reveals that he didn’t predict or anticipate epigenetics in any important way. Whereas Lysenko claimed that genes didn’t exist, epigenetics take genes as a given: They’re the things being turned on or off. And while epigenetic changes can occasionally (and only occasionally) pass from parent to child, the changes always disappear after a few generations; they’re never permanent, which contradicts everything Lysenko said.

Epigenetics alone, then, can’t explain Lysenko’s revival. There’s something more going on here: a mistrust of science itself. As the Current Biology article explains, Lysenko’s new defenders “accuse the science of genetics of serving the interests of American imperialism and acting against the interests of Russia.” Science, after all, is a major component of Western culture. And because the barefoot peasant Lysenko stood up to Western science, the reasoning seems to go, he must be a true Russian hero. Indeed, nostalgia for the Soviet era and its anti-Western strongmen is common in Russia today. A 2017 poll found that 47 percent of Russians approved of Joseph Stalin’s character and “managerial skills.” And riding on the coattails of Stalin’s popularity are several of his lackeys, including Lysenko.

On the one hand, this rehabilitation is shocking. Genetics almost certainly won’t be banned in Russia again, and the rehabilitation effort remains a fringe movement overall. But fringe ideas can have dangerous consequences. This one distorts Russian history and glosses over the incredible damage Lysenko did in abusing his power to silence and kill colleagues—to say nothing of all the innocent people who starved because of his doctrines. The fact that even some “qualified scientists” are lionizing Lysenko shows just how pervasive anti-Western sentiment is in some circles: Even science is perverted to promote ideology.

On the other hand, there’s something depressingly familiar about the Lysenko affair, since ideology perverts science in the Western world as well. Nearly 40 percent of Americans believe that God created human beings in their present form, sans evolution; nearly 60 percent of Republicans attribute global temperature changes to nonhuman causes. And while there’s no real moral comparison between them, it’s hard not to hear echoes of Lysenko in Sarah Palin’s mocking of fruit-fly research in 2008. Lest liberals get too smug, several largely left-wing causes—GMO hysteria, the “blank slate” theory of human nature—sound an awful lot like Lysenko redux.

Like the Soviet Union itself, the “science” of Trofim Lysenko has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Yet the dangers of Lysenkoism—of subsuming biology to ideology—continue to lurk.