Scientific Collectivization

Starting in the 1930’s and continuing throughout the 1950’s in Russia, Joseph Stalin ruled with complete authority and controlled nearly every aspect on Russian life. His policies of collectivization and industrialization, along with the horrific measures he used to develop the socialist Russian society he had envisioned, are well known today; however, these events are but a few of the many efforts employed by Stalin during his time as the leader of Russia. Among the less notable, yet extremely significant, actions that Stalin put in place during his reign was a sort of collectivization of science in Russia.

Like in many facets of society, Stalin realized that scientific research in socialist Russia was lagging behind that of its capitalist rivals to the west. It was very clear that if Russia could not catch up in this, as well as the many other features that had been hampered by years of backwardness, they would almost certainly be crushed by capitalism, and Stalin sought to prevent this defeat by any means necessary. His solution to the problem of scientific inferiority can be seen in a speech given to higher educational workers in 1938. In this address, he argues, to some extent, for a collectivization of science. Stalin says,

To the progress of science, of that science which will not permit its old and recognized leaders smugly to invest themselves in the robe of high priests and monopolists of science; which understands the meaning, significance and omnipotence of an alliance between the old scientists and the young scientists; which voluntarily and willingly throws open every door of science to the young forces of our country, and affords them the opportunity of scaling the peaks of science, and which recognizes that the future belongs to the young scientists.” (Stalin, 1938)

The message he sends is for the barriers between scientists to be broken down and for the complete disclosure of all scientific research to allow everyone access to new breakthroughs and discoveries. This on the surface seems to be a solid idea. If all of the great minds in a nation compiled their research and brain power, it seems certain that science would progress by leaps and bounds, aiding Russia in surpassing the rest of the world in the field. However, there is an underlying message in this speech. Stalin wanted a shift in science away from the old researchers, whom Stalin has very little control over, to the new up and comers, or “young scientists”, whom Stalin can easily sway. This was essentially a ploy to allow Stalin to gain supremacy over the whole scientific field by appointing younger individuals that were either loyal to Stalin already or could easily be influenced to do his bidding. This mirrored his ascension to political dominance where he forced out the older members, who remained loyal to the ideals of Lenin and did not firmly back Stalin, and replaced them with his younger loyal supporters. In any event, this speech was one of the first steps towards collectivizing scientific discoveries. Instead of each individual working towards their own findings, all scientists were encouraged to work publically and give any information they unearthed to the leaders of science who would then use it for the benefit of all Russia. Interestingly, Stalin described these leaders of science not as the leading researchers but rather political figures and others who are not part of the scientific world, such as Lenin and Stakhanov. Stalin used this to set into effect the collectivization of ideas, which boasts many similarities to his collectivization of grains.

Trofim Lysenko
Trofim Lysenko

One great example of the extent and the detriments of this scientific collectivization can be seen in Stalin’s efforts to bolster the work of a man by the name of Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko was a Ukrainian peasant who trained as a biologist at the Kiev Agricultural Institute. Despite having some training in the field, Lysenko never really developed the skills necessary to conduct meaningful research that would generate data to back up his findings, and as a result, much of his work lacked validity. Despite this significant problem, Lysenko brought his talents to Russia and made bold claims against some of the leading scientific theories of the period, namely those presented by Gregor Mendel in regards to genetics. It was heavily accepted at the time that Mendel’s theory of genetics, by which traits in offspring are inherited from the parents, was the most likely explanation for inheritance and variation, yet Lysenko chose to align with the much less accepted theory of Jean-Baptist Lamarck. Lamarck hypothesized that variation was due to the inheritance of acquired traits which, despite having some support in the 1800’s, had lost strength in the scientific community by the 1900’s. Despite this, Lysenko based much of his work on Lamarck’s theories and made claims that he could solve the issues with grain growth in Russia’s inhospitable climate. His claims, despite having a significant lack of foundation and proof, caught the eye of Stalin who brought Lysenko into the spotlight. Stalin saw an opportunity to take an impressionable peasant “scientist“ under his wing, whom he could use to bolster the scientific presence of socialist Russia, while at the same time calling into question the scientific views of the west.  Stalin’s propulsion of Lysenko’s ideas went so far as to silence any critics of his by means of exile or even placement in prison camps. Lysenko was used as a puppet throughout Stalin’s lifetime and was influential in pushing rebellious peasants back into farming with many of his seemingly fail proof solutions to the farming problems in Russia. But no matter how much support Lysenko received from Stalin it still did not make his flawed research legitimate, and it was the Russian people, most notably the peasants that paid the price. Lysenko’s findings proved highly unsuccessful upon their implementation in many areas of Russia, and in many cases thousands of peasants lost their lives due to famines caused by Lysenko’s agricultural methods. But in true Stalin fashion, these events were kept quiet and Lysenko was praised for his success. It was not until Stalin’s death that Lysenko’s errors were finally pointed out and his research completely discredited. Stalin’s backing of Lysenko, rather than propelling the country ahead of the west, actually sent Russia backward. (Carroll, Lysenkoism)

Here is an interesting video highlighting the work of Lysenko and its impact on Russia.




Stalin, Iosif. “Speech delivered at a Reception in the Kremlin to Higher Educational Workers.” Pravda, May 17, 1938. (accessed October 13, 2013).

Carroll, Robert T. the Skeptics Dictionary, “Lysenkoism.” Last modified December 09, 2010. Accessed October 13, 2013.

2 Replies to “Scientific Collectivization”

  1. Great post. Very enlightening discussion of why Stalin chose to elevate Lysenko. Did you find any other scientists who found prominence for supporting views contrary to mainstream consensus in the West?

  2. Thanks for putting Lysenko on the table (so to speak)! Your discussion sets out the basic problem (that Lamarkian perspectives didn’t really work) really nicely, and I like the concept of “collectivization of science.” Things get really complicated in terms of Lysenko’s influence and the resurgence of the geneticists later on. You might want to consult this module in 17 moments for a future post? (Or addendum to this one?). Also – love the video!

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