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.
Why was Lysenko so Influential?
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 of Starvation”
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.
The Lessons of History
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.
Dystopian Fiction Reflects the Reality of Human Societies
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.
The Genius of Oscar Wilde
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.
The Bravery of the Dystopian Novelist
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.
Is Trofim Lysenko the most overlooked villain in history? – Without a doubt!
Is Lysenko’s story relevant to dystopian fiction? – Absolutely!
Adam Frosh is the co-author of Space Taxis. It is available for purchase here.
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