Continuous Agricultural Failure
Russia and then the USSR had long suffered from inconsistent agriculture. Farming techniques had remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Food shortages and regional famine were regular features of the pre-1940 period. It was a massive problem, and thus required a typically Soviet ‘massive’ response.
Stalin thought that practical application of Lysenko’s theories of inheritance would uniquely provide the USSR with the means to grow its own food. The crucial factor in the entire episode is that Stalin fully believed in the scientific arguments on which Lysenko’s work was based. It is known as Lamarckism and contends that a living thing can pass on characteristics it gained during its own lifetime to its offspring. This is a fundamental departure from the Darwinian approach of genetic suitability to adapt to the environment.
As the rest of the world was developing new and important approaches to agriculture, the USSR was held back and damaged for decades by the combination of Lysenko and Stalin.
The Struggle in Soviet Biology: Lamarckists against ‘bourgeois genetics’
Lysenko and his followers had risen to prominence in the 1930s with boastful promises that they could do what ‘normal’ agronomists could not – fulfil the demands of the government by developing new species that would ensure sufficient harvests within 3-4 years. When the results did not materialise, Lysenko blamed poor cooperation from the ‘bourgeois genetecists’ – those opposed to his theories – and consequently a significant number of them were arrested and died in the camps. Lysenko’s theories rejected Darwinian evolution and genetics. He employed dubious scientific standards to his experiments. It appears his results were often falsified. However, he was brilliant at one thing – giving the political masters what they wanted to see and hear. It also happened that Stalin was an interested and quite knowledgeable domestic fruit tree cultivator. Thus the situation was ripe for the sycophantic agronomist to team up with the dictatorial amateur gardener, with predictably disastrous results.
The Lysenko Affair
In 1946, Georgi Malenkov was disgraced over a scandal involving aircraft production. His position – Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and confidante of Stalin – was given to Andrei Zhdanov. He was in charge of all ideological and cultural affairs for the whole country.
1948: Yuri Zhdanov, son of Andrei, and also husband of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, was, at the age of 29, head of the Scientific Section of the Central Committee. He publicly criticised Lysenko at a party scientific seminar. Lysenko was afraid this might mean that he had fallen out of favour with Stalin, so he wrote to him, complaining of being unfairly treated. Zhdanov’s remarks had been delivered as personal opinion, not official policy, and indeed Stalin had no prior knowledge of them.
Stalin wanted to regain control of culture, from which he had been distracted by the war with Germany. The other main members of the elite were Beria and Molotov.
Beria and Malenkov had worked closely together during the war, and now Malenkov saw his chance to possibly regain his former position – Yuri Zhdanov, in criticising Lysenko, one of Stalin’s favourites, had opened up a line through which his father, Andrei, could be attacked. Thus Malenkov teamed up with Beria to try to push out the older Zhdanov.
Stalin, sharing Lamarckist beliefs, decided that Lysenko would be allowed to give a speech at a forthcoming conference that would carry the tag ‘Approved by the Central Committee’. Thus the entire scientific community was given an unequivocal message as to where the supreme leader stood.
Yuri Zhdanov apologised. Stalin considered his son-in-law had acted with youthful lack of caution and should not be punished. However, Andrei Zhdanov, Yuri’s father, was sidelined and sent away to a sanatorium to ‘recover his health’. Malenkov took over his responsibilities as Secretary of the Central Committee, and A. Zhdanov died within a month from two heart attacks.
Sequence of events:
1930s Lysenko rises to prominence – Darwinian geneticists arrested and murdered
1946: Andrei Zhdanov arrives in Moscow from the successful defence of Leningrad and takes the job of the temporarily disgraced G. Malenkov.
1947/48: Yuri Zhdanov and Svetlana (Stalin’s daughter) get together. Stalin wants the couple to live with him.
1948 April 10: Yuri Zhdanov criticises Lysenko’s scientific ability in public.
1948 April 17: Lysenko writes to Stalin, complaining.
1948 May: Lysenko receives no reply, so tenders resignation from President of the Academy of Natural Sciences of the USSR. Resignation had to be discussed by the Politburo. Yuri Zhdanov apologises to Stalin.
1948 May 31: Stalin tells Politburo and others of the need to support Lysenko.
1948 June: Andrei Zhdanov writes a Government Directive on Biology with a supporting report, to be delivered to leading scientists. Malenkov and Beria lobby against Zhdanov.
1948 July: Stalin announces that Lysenko himself must present his own report on biology at his own conference. It is to be made known that Stalin backs the report. The 49 page report is written by Lysenko and then edited in detail personally by Stalin.
1948 July 31-Aug 7: Lysenko delivers the report. He is now the unrivalled king of Soviet agricultural science.
1948 Aug: Andrei Zhdanov sent to Central Committee Sanatorium – Malenkov takes his job.
1948 Aug 29: Andrei Zhdanov suffers heart attack.
1948 Aug 31: Andrei Zhdanov dies.
1948 Sep 26: Lysenko appears on cover of this issue of Ogonek, publicising to the whole country his position in Soviet science
Also in this issue:
The Capital of Belorussia amid forests of building sites
On Komsomolskaya Street in Minsk new areas of
beautiful new buildings are growing
This refers to the accelerated reconstruction of Minsk, which was almost completely destroyed in the war.
The back cover of this edition is something rather rare these days: A government advertisement encouraging people to smoke cigarettes. It says:
Ministry of food industry
of the USSR