Stalin and the Scientists (2016)


Longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2016

Scientists throughout history, from Galileo to today’s experts on climate change, have often had to contend with politics in their pursuit of knowledge. But in the Soviet Union, where the ruling elites embraced, patronized, and even fetishized science like never before, scientists lived their lives on a knife edge.

The Soviet Union had the best-funded scientific establishment in history. Scientists were elevated as popular heroes and lavished with awards and privileges. But if their ideas or their field of study lost favour with the elites, they could be exiled, imprisoned, or murdered. And yet they persisted, making major contributions to 20th century science.

Stalin and the Scientists tells the story of the many gifted scientists who worked in Russia from the years leading up to the Revolution through the death of the “Great Scientist” himself, Joseph Stalin. It weaves together the stories of scientists, politicians, and ideologues into an intimate and sometimes horrifying portrait of a state determined to remake the world.

What the reviewers said

In Stalin and the Scientists, Simon Ings has produced one of the finest, most gripping surveys of the history of Russian science in the twentieth century. Deeply researched and written with a sense of burning importance, Ings’ book ranges widely from politics to philosophy, from economics to biography to recount the monumental successes of Russian scientists and the Soviet state’s Mephistophelean embrace of the scientific community. It is a fascinating work that both inspires and terrifies.
Douglas Smith, author of Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

His storytelling skill is everywhere evident; the book — which was longlisted last week for the Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction — is lively, dramatic, intriguing and often very funny. Ings also has a wonderful ability to explain complex notions.
Gerard DeGroot, The Times, 1 October 2016

His monumental chronicle follows hordes of brilliant scientific chancers who welded their talents to the fledgling union, only for many to ‘disappear’ into the gulags, or mentally atrophy under the leaden hand of bureaucracy. Ings ably tweezers the discoveries and disasters out of this political train-wreck.
Barbara Kiser, Nature, 29 September 2016

An artful synthesis of basic science and political infighting
Andrew Robinson, The Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2016

Ings has a gift for making complex scientific questions intelligible.
—Donald Rayfield, Literary Review, 1 October 2016

By bringing back to life the tragic careers of many a Soviet scientist – Vavilov, Michurin, Kapitsa, Korolev and Vernadsky, to name just a few – Ings shows clearly that although fear of the tyrant can trigger a certain degree of conformist creativity, it eventually backfires and becomes not just scientifically counterproductive, but perilous and even lethal… a 100 per cent brilliant book.
Vitali Vitaliev, Engineering & Technology, 18 October 2016

With fiction in mind, William Styron once said that a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. The same is true of the finest non-fiction, and Simon Ings’ Stalin And The Scientists is a great book. Titles can be misleading, and this is not another biographical perspective on the Soviet dictator, but rather a vast tapestry of Russian history from the mid-19th century, when many of the scientists who feature were born, to after Stalin’s death.
Vin Arthey, The Scotsman, 26 October 2016

[An] ambitious … thoroughly researched book … the discussion is well informed and lively, with clear explanations for the general reader of the scientific (and ideological) issues involved.
Evan Mawdsley, BBC History Magazine

Ings takes the odd liberty with general Soviet history but he tells the sorry story of Soviet science with gusto and flair. Understanding the failure of the USSR to achieve a revolution in science is vital to understanding the failure and collapse of the Soviet system.
Neil Robinson, Irish Examiner, 19 November 2016

Ings conveys the tragedy and the triumph of science in the Soviet Union, though the tragedy outweighs the triumph in his account. A different choice, with more emphasis on physics and mathematics, would have tilted the balance more toward triumph. Ings is interested in people, their characters, choices and the positions they found themselves in, and he succeeds in bringing out their personalities. This is a fascinating story of brilliant scientists and charlatans, of visionaries and careerists, of civic courage and moral cowardice. The author explains the scientific issues in a clear and simple way, so that the reader is aware of the issues at stake. He does not use Russian-language sources, but he makes extensive use of the large English-language literature on the subject.
David Holloway, Guardian, 29 December 2016

This book was waiting to be written. In the mid-20th century the Soviets competed with, and frequently bettered, Western science. They put rockets into space, built nuclear weapons and pursued novel scientific research on an unprecedented scale, creating whole scientific disciplines in the process. By Stalin’s death in 1953 the Soviet Union was the largest and best-funded scientific establishment in history. Yet this is the first comprehensive survey in English.
Barnes Martin, The Oldie, December 2016

In Stalin and the Scientists, Simon Ings, culture editor at New Scientist (UK), very effectively relates a set of stories—compelling, often horrifying, sometimes both at once—of the most singular period in the history of Russian science. Singular, but nevertheless firmly anchored in pre-Stalinist Russian history and reaching into the future, too. To get full value from the book, readers would ideally take it together with Vucinich’s volumes and the mainly post-Stalinist Manipulated Science by the Russian scientific journalist Mark Popovsky, who observed at first hand much of what it reports.
Aileen M. Kelly, American Scholar, 5 December 2016

[Ings] is a gifted writer. Stalin and the Scientists is a good single source for anyone approaching Soviet science for the first time.
Loren Graham, Wall Street Journal, 20 February 2017

Ings is an entertaining storyteller who often captures the essence of things — Stalin was indeed “the last in a long line of European philosopher kings.” Filled with priceless nuggets and a cast of frauds, crackpots and tyrants, this is a lively and interesting book, and utterly relevant today when the Trump administration is challenging the scientific establishment on climate change. We in the West have long laughed at the “Coryphaeus of Science,” but has the United States now elected its own?
Simon Sebag Montefiore, New York Times, 27 February 2017

Ings’s finely crafted and informative book is a must read for understanding how the ideas of scientific knowledge and technology were distorted and subverted for decades across the Soviet Union, all in the service of the most ambitious experiment in social engineering the world has ever witnessed.
J.P. O’Malley. Washington Post, 17 March 2017

“a dazzling, often astonishing prism through which to view the Soviet experiment”
—Peter Pomeranzev


Like it or not, these are the people we need to save America

As I write, President Donald Trump has just accused former incumbent Barack Obama of having tapped his campaign phones during the 2016 election season. I doubt very much whether this will be a major issue by the time these words are read. Most likely it’ll have been overtaken by “FAKED” nuclear exchanges over the South China Sea.

Kleptocracy moves faster than ordinary politics. Across the media, opinion writers are having to learn how to think like crime reporters. It’s frightening, but undeniably exhilarating.

Old forms of civic engagement seem hardly relevant now. On April 22, scientists will gather across the world to protest the Trump administration’s de facto dismantling of the EPA, veiled threats directed at programs of vaccination, cuts in NASA’s climate-studies funding, and any number of other depredations. All very noble, to protest this outrage, and necessary in its way.  But the rest of us might just as easily marvel at the alacrity and efficiency with which groups of suddenly vulnerable people round themselves up. The spectacle of well-educated people congratulating themselves on their effortless (because sacrifice-free) “intersectionality”, while at the same time complaining about their job security, is unlikely to prove particularly edifying, least of all since the “cosmopolitanism” so necessary to science (I mean devotion to an idea or ideas bigger than the nation state) is rapidly becoming synonymous with disloyalty.     

The March for Science was conceived on a Reddit forum as recently as 20 January, yet  we already find ourselves operating at an entirely different level of discourse. Science illumines small, detailed corners of the world, but it’s the entire reality of that world that’s under threat now. We are dealing with an administration that, when not lost in the toils of its own mythomania, will quibble over what is even in plain sight.

Studying an existential crisis of this magnitude requires no scientific apparatus. Consider this classic bullet-through-the-foot statement from Trump aide Myron Ebell: “We will be ceding global leadership of climate policy to China,” Ebell said on 1 February. “I want to get rid of global climate policy, so why do I care who is in charge of it? I don’t care. They can take it as far as I’m concerned, and good luck to them.” [1]   

Well, really, who needs luck? Knowing what climate change is, what causes it, and what needs to be done about it is — among many other things — a recipe for printing money, which is why China, the world’s fastest-growing green economy, just invested $360 billion into renewable energy production. US industries either innovate to address the carbon problem, or they join the tobacco companies in the shadowlands of lobbying, litigation, and spin: not quite dead, but no longer really alive.

The default Trump position on America’s scientific institutions is that they have become blunt weapons in the service of an over-centralised state. We know what this would look like were it true (and how far it actually is from American reality) when we look at Stalin’s Russia. Genetics was banned in Russia in 1948 — its institutions destroyed, careers truncated, individuals sacked and internally exiled — because the findings of genetics flatly contradicted promising but badly flawed state-sponsored agricultural trials of new crop varieties. If new varieties could be generated at will (and genetics said they couldn’t), then the countryside could be industrialised overnight, speeding the development of the Soviet Union towards communism within a single generation. The state had ambitions for science and, centralising its efforts around a handful of top-heavy institutions, ensured that those ambitions drowned out the very findings it had paid to obtain.

When climate change-denying Republicans invoke the bogeyman of overpaid lackey climatologists working to a misguided, politically motivated programme, they’re not pointing at nothing. Indeed, they’re pointing at what happened to the largest and best-funded science base in history. The problem is that theirs is an argument from analogy. Which is to say, no argument at all. Flim-flam, if you prefer.

It hardly matters now. If exploited to the hilt by US industry (and let’s be honest, we all want to go out with a bang) Trump’s climate policies — his devotion to fossil fuels and rejection of the Paris protocols — are more than sufficient over four short years to set global temperatures on a course topping 2.5 degrees, at which point our much-maligned globalised civilisation will collapse from the sheer cost of its own insurance premiums.

Some more flim-flam while we await the End Times. So Obama was Stalin, was he? Knowledgeable in both science and in politics but unable to separate the one from the other? Then Donald Trump is Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia: reactionary, vain, deaf to the entreaties of his ever more carefully hand-picked advisors, until, at the last, only the Rasputin-like whispers of Steve Bannon catch his ear.

Let’s indulge this bad habit of arguing from analogy a little further, and ask this interesting question: how did Russia’s academics react against Nicholas II’s lame-duck regime? They held marches. They published pamphlets. They organised strikes. They pinned their liberal and cosmopolitan colours to their sleeves, and wrote angry letters to the papers. They achieved virtually nothing until, in 1905, they got canny. They became political. They stood up for an idea of civics rooted in the European enlightenment. They fomented a revolution. They even got the Tsar to convene a parliament, in which they were the ministers.

Ultimately, this “constitutional-democratic”  movement failed. It refused to cohere, it sought compromise where it should have fomented discord, collaborated where it should have opposed. It died from politeness. A dozen years later, its failure made Bolshevik extremism possible and the rest, as they say, is history.

History, yes. But not destiny. The people who march in the name of science on Saturday 22 are taking but the first step on what promises to be a long and frightening journey. We should not expect too much from them yet. But neither should we pull our punches. Like it or not, and certainly if Trump lasts into a second term, these people, thanks to their educations and well-thumbed passports, their urbane reflexes and all the advantages that leisure has bestowed on them, are best placed to be the champions of our by then virtually extinguished civic life.

We are going to have to teach these snowflakes how to fight.

Stalin in Bristol

The Bristol Festival of Ideas have invited me along to Waterstones, The Galleries, Bristol, to talk about Stalin’s scientists on 24 April at 7pm. “The Soviet Union’s sciences were the largest and best funded in history,” it says in this here programme, “and were at once the glory and laughing stock of the intellectual world” — a description that might well apply to me. Anyway, I’m going to be speaking. Come listen. Tickets are £6.