The Atlantic

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.
Source: 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

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