Because of lockdown, they couldn’t meet in person, but that didn’t stop Adam having a virtual meet up with his co-author Harriet Frosh on launch day. How did it go?0
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Is Trofim Lysenko the Most Overlooked Villain in History?
How is Lysenko Relevant to Dystopian Fiction?
Who was Trofim Lysenko, and what was his role in the deaths of millions of innocent men, women and children?
It’s probably not a coincidence that the majority of the population has no idea who Trofim Lysenko was and why he caused the death of tens of millions of people by starvation.
As Stalin’s Chief Geneticist, Lysenko was highly influential in the Soviet government. He was considered an authority on inheritance and genetics. He was a fierce critic of the monk, Gregor Mendel, accepted by modern science as being the founder of genetic theory. Mendel described the rules of heredity and the actions of invisible “factors” that we now call genes. Lysenko dismissed Mendel’s theories on inheritance, instead stating that the characteristics of an organism reflect the information passed down from the “experience” of its parent organism and not from a “physical” property such as DNA. An example of Lysenko’s theory is the “experience” of a parent giraffe trying to reach high up into a tree for food would influence the offspring to be born with a longer neck.
It was this critical reasoning (or lack of it) that led to Lysenko decreeing that Soviet grain should be subject to cold and humidity in order to increase its yield. He also commanded that seeds should be planted close together. The crops failed on a massive scale, but this fact didn’t deter the Soviet government from continuing to espouse and implement policies based on Lysenko’s theories for many years.
Lysenko was extremely influential within the Soviet government. He was to the communist government the personification of the ideal scientist. His route to science from his peasant upbringing was the “perfect picture” of socialist achievement and ethos, earning him the name, The Barefoot Scientist.
He trained in Kiev and Azerbaijan and had achieved self-declared success in getting peas to grow in winter. Characteristically, he would report success in the results of each of his experiments before any objective measures were available.
Millions died from the 1932-33 famine that arose because of Lysenko’s policies. Millions of Ukrainian lives perished in what is known as the Holodomor, recognised since 2006 by the international community as an act of genocide by the Soviet state. The adoption of Lysenkoism by Mao Zedong led to the Great Chinese Famine that killed up to 55 million people between 1959 and 1961. Mao was quite reassured to see the rice either side of the train tracks. In fact, these crops were only healthy because they had been newly planted specifically for his tour across China.
How does history explain Lysenko’s remarkable success at influencing Stalin and the Soviet establishment to adopt his agricultural techniques? Firstly, Lysenko was truly brilliant when it came to self-publicity. In equal measure, he was extremely intolerant of dissent and would attack verbally anyone who disagreed with him. Importantly, scientists who challenged Lysenko and the received wisdom at the time that the theory of genetics was “wrong” were not only marginalized but condemned either to destitution or death for being outside of the accepted groupthink.
“condemned to destitution of death for being outside of the accepted groupthink”
What is extraordinary is that despite the obvious mass crop failure and the consequent starvation, Lysenkoism continued to be adopted by the establishment well after the discovery by Watson and Crick (and Rosalind Franklin I should add – but that’s another story!) of the double helix of DNA in 1953.
What has this got to do with writing? It is often said that politics in writing does not sell. This has a basis in truth. In modern times, we have seen a polarization of political thought that pits exponents of the opposite side of the argument against a societal fracture line. We can point out exceptional writers such as Orwell and Huxley. Perhaps they are the exception, or perhaps the dystopia depicted in their novels reflect dangers that are always there in any human society, and we all recognize this fact. Perhaps we enjoy dystopian fiction because we can all recognize the jeopardy of the blind acceptance of received wisdom delivered by an arrogant and powerful figure, the following of the latest Zeitgeist and the groupthink that bedevils political establishments. We all recognize these dangers. Perhaps this why there are so many conspiracy theorists (ever more so with coronavirus…), and why Orwell and Huxley’s stories have subsequently been used on an almost constant basis as memes for political arguments in modern political discourse, by almost every side of an argument.
Where writing becomes the polemic’s friend is where they bury a controversial idea within their narrative, often with the intention of putting an idea forward that would not normally be open for discussion or debate.
The genius of Oscar Wilde is exemplified in his play, The Importance of Being Ernest. First performed in 1895, it was at a time when homosexuality was not only outlawed but deemed socially unacceptable. The characters, Jack and Algernon, live a double life. The “respectable” Jack who lives in the country becomes “Ernest” in the city. Algernon invents the character, Lord Bunbury, whom he has to visit, and the terms “Ernest” and “Bunburying” are used in the play euphemistically. The meaning of terms, Ernest and Bunbury may seem obvious to the modern reader. The Victorian audience were, however, by a degree separated from their meaning just enough to appreciate the wonder of the play without the burden of their collective social judgement. The play was a huge success but was closed after 86 performances, when Wilde was imprisoned and sentenced to two years’ hard labour for the outing of his gay relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas that year. The judge described his case as “the worst he’d ever tried” and decried the sentence as “totally inadequate” but the maximum he could give for the particular crime. In Game of Thrones style, cries of “shame!” drowned out Wilde’s response to his sentence.
Stalin famously is quoted as saying, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” The relative anonymity of Lysenko to modern history may itself be a social statement. The precise number of deaths he was responsible for could never be accurately measured. Was it 35 or 65 million? How much does the difference in the 30 million between those numbers matter to us? Is Lysenko the greatest villain in history? Maybe he’s been forgiven by the modern-day collective for being perceived as having good intentions, despite his arrogance and his closed mind. Maybe that’s something we should be talking about.
It would seem a fact of the collective human condition that speech and thoughts should be subject to the social courtroom of groupthink. The “Thought Crime” in Orwell’s 1984 described it well. We collectively hear the arguments, but through our very natures, embrace received wisdom and groupthink to protect ourselves from being cast out by society. Thank goodness for dystopian fiction, and thank goodness for the brave writers who throughout history have tried to tackle some of the great failings of human societies by putting forward new ideas challenging conventional wisdom, hidden within their stories.
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My father, Lewis Frosh was just 8 years old on 4th October 1936 when he witnessed the Battle of Cable Street – a procession by Oswald Mosley and his antisemitic blackshirts, and the East End and Jewish communities’ counter-protest.
His is a rare eyewitness account of the Battle of Cable Street from the perspective of a child. History has documented the children at the counter-demonstration who threw marbles under the hooves of the charging mounted police. I have not, however, seen any of these children’s personal experiences documented. Until today.
This video video documents the experience of the then young body Lewis Frosh, who joined the counter-protests against the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Now aged 92, he was interviewed by his son, Adam Frosh, who also put the video together to commemorate the 84th anniversary of the protest against fascism.
We remember this important event where workers, socialists and the Irish community stood united, side by side with the Jewish community to stop the march of Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts. The treatment of the protestors by the police was particularly harsh. Despite this, Mosley was forced to stop the march, as the protesters chanted the Spanish civil war slogan “No pasaran” – “They shall not pass“.
Humans are fascinated by power. We seek personal power in many forms, such as in wealth, physical and mental strength. However, we are not just interested in power for our own gain, but we are also fascinated by others who wield it.
When thinking of aliens, one typically envisions a species much more technologically and culturally advanced than our own. We tend to imagine them as the ones who will visit and communicate with us, rather than the converse. We even visualise them as having the power to destroy our species and planet – a fact that both terrifies and intrigues us. Perhaps this explains our attraction to aliens. We see them as beings that can wield power beyond the capabilities of mortal humans.
Our fascination for superheroes and their villainous counterparts therefore comes as no surprise. They can perform feats that we could only dream of, inspiring the imaginations of both children and adults alike. The popularity of Marvel and DC is a testament to this – we never tire of seeing superheroes, new or old, on the big screen.
But I would argue that power is not the main reason we are so attracted to these figures. Instead, it is their humanity that fascinates us most. There is a reason that dei ex machina are frowned upon in literature – an all-powerful intervention by an unseen force for the greater good is not what intrigues us. Instead, it is the villain who is convinced to change sides, the hero who learns the importance of protecting those dear to them. Power is undoubtedly a concept that intrigues us, but it means nothing without the presence of flaws within the characters who wield it.
Humans are social creatures, and we take pleasure in identifying with others. Aliens are fascinating to us because they represent an outer force that we could perhaps relate to and communicate with. Superheroes struggle with problems just as we do, dealing with issues of loss, self-esteem, change and more. We enjoy being reassured that true power comes from inside a person. The hero cannot beat the villain without discovering something important about themselves and others around them, despite all their otherworldly abilities.
By a similar construct, we are also fascinated by ancient religions and stories involving pantheons of gods. In many ways these gods resemble modern superheroes – they are extremely powerful, but flawed just like us, which makes them very human. Gods were laughed at and cheered on by the ancient listeners, as they are to this day by a modern audience. While we find their powers intriguing, we are more interested in how people with human psychologies would use them, perhaps far more fascinating to us than a faceless and all-powerful deity, who will invariably use their powers for good. Instead, we see gods in both modern and ancient stories use their powers for mortal pleasures, such as sex, self-validation, and revenge.
If Achilles put aside his anger and fought in the Trojan war from the beginning, there would be no story to tell. Instead, his human emotions and psychology have immortalised the brilliant tales of the Iliad and its aftermath in the Odyssey. We want to see Achilles succeed in overcoming his emotions and therefore make the right decisions – not make the right choices from the beginning. Of course, his power fascinates us, but it is the withholding of it that is just so intriguing.
Maybe it is this concept of the withholding of inestimable power that we find so intriguing about aliens. Why have they chosen to not make contact with us? If they arrive, will we be able to communicate with them rationally? We imagine that aliens have the capacity to destroy us all, but we would like to think there will be something in their moral system that will stop them from doing so. We typically imagine them as human-like in appearance, and we hope that their personalities are human-like too.
Power is something that endlessly intrigues us, but it means little to us when not considered in conjunction with the human psyche. A perfectly good and moral person with limitless power would not make for a great story that we can relate to and look forward to. Instead, we want to see flawed beings that are similar to us. We want to see how they struggle against emotional and physical torments despite their great power. It comforts us to know that true power is found within ourselves – and that if we keep on trying, good will eventually prevail.
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It’s not an easy task to spend time studying the newly colourised photographs on the Faces of Auschwitz website, let alone read the stories from the Holocaust. Maybe it’s easier for me than many. Being a descendant of Polish Jews, when I read the string of tragic stories, I can identify with the suffering through a form of ancestral relationship to it. That doesn’t mean I can experience it more than anyone else, but it does give me a sense of connection to it.
The Faces of Auschwitz post about Prisoner 7675 haunted me in a special way. We know what she looked like, we know she was Jewish and we know she was murdered in Auschwitz on June 19th, 1942. There are many posts that provide considerable detail into the names and lives of Auschwitz’s victims. It’s fairly natural that the more we know about an individual, the more we can relate to them. Prisoner 7675 falls within a separate category, where the observer is left to use their imagination to fill in the unanswered questions. What was her name? Where did she come from? Did she, and does she have any family?