The Scientist, the Impostor & Stalin: How to Feed the People 2017
Distributed by Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
DVD , color, 88 min.
Stalinism, History of Science, Communism, Biology
Date Entered: 10/05/2018Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach
The question of political, cultural and social influence on science is both academic and one that has much broader implications, given the extreme dependence of modern societies on the scientific enterprise. The question looms especially large for historians of Soviet science. During the Stalin period ideologists and politicians believed that there was such a thing as a Soviet and communist science, as distinct from the supposedly false one created by the capitalist West. Concrete results in higher production in agriculture, along with ideological litmus tests, would provide the ultimate measure of scientific truth. At the same time, the Soviets recognized that certain scientific truths were universal and beyond politics – though just which ones were often unclear. In the absence of clear direction from the dictator, scientists appealed for political support against their colleagues, characterizing bad science, in their view, as not merely bad science but as possibly masking counterrevolutionary politics.
This documentary tells the tragic story of Soviet biology from the 1920s to the 1960s. The field was divided by the search for an ideologically acceptable approach, yet one that would also boost agricultural productivity. The struggle pitted the world-renowned Soviet botanist and geneticist, Nikolai Vavilov, against a figure who claimed to represent the genius of the Soviet people, the agronomist Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko, dubbed the “Barefoot Professor” by Soviet journalists, exploited the disastrous system of Soviet agriculture to promote himself as someone in possession of the keys to biology that would solve all the Soviet Union’s agricultural woes. Soviets leaders were so desperate for quick fixes that they allowed Lysenko, who rejected the entire field of genetics, to purge the biology profession of all who questioned the scientific value of his ideas. Those ideas suggested that seeds, like humans, were so malleable and adaptable that they could be coaxed into growing in environments that otherwise would not permit them to thrive. He ultimately argued against the entire field of genetics, reasoning, in ways that dovetailed with the Soviet political line, that all traits came from environmental factors (nurture) rather than through inheritance (nature). The end result was the arrest and death of Vavilov (in a Soviet prison during WWII) and the dominance of Lysenko into the 1960s.
This relatively short documentary, less than one hour long, places the clash between the two scientists into the context of the failures of Bolshevik agricultural policies. The film traces those failures to the very beginnings of their seizure of power in 1917 and on through the disastrous policies of collectivization in 1928 that ultimately triggered a famine in which as many as 8 million died. The scale of the disaster made the regime even more desperate for a scientific savior – especially one such as Lysenko, who had no qualms about promoting untested and unproved methods that he promised would solve the Soviet grain problem. It also inspired the search for scapegoats, such as Vavilov, who had supposedly contributed to the disaster by pursuing science that did not serve a seemingly practical purpose.
The documentary, produced and directed by the talented filmmaker Gulya Mirzoeva, uses excellent archival footage to tell this compelling and gripping story. It is also a story that retains its relevance in an era where science faces a myriad of pressures to serve the interests of political persuasions of various stripes. What this documentary shows above all is that intense political pressure and a demand for concrete results, combined with impatience and little respect for intellectual independence, spells disaster for the scientific enterprise – and for the society that depends on that science.