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?
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.
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.