“Some only appear crazy. Others are as mad as a bag of cats.”


“In her old age, Olga Lepeshinskaya became entranced by the mystical concept of the ‘vital substance’, and recruited her extended family to work in her ‘laboratory’, pounding beetroot seeds in a pestle to demonstrate that any part of the seed could germinate.”
Stalin’s more eccentric scientists are the subject of this blogpost for Faber & Faber.


Come journey with me to Zochonis TH A (B5)!


‘Putting the Science in Fiction’ – an Interfaculty Symposium on Science and Entertainment – takes place there on Wednesday 25 April 9:30am to 5pm.

Zochonis TH A (B5) is, in fact, in Manchester. Well, it’s a bit of Manchester University. Oh, I don’t know, I’ll just turn up early and find some corridor to sit down in and start screaming; someone’s bound to find me and steer me to the right place sooner or later.

Once there, I’ll find myself in good company. Confirmed speakers include Stephen Baxter,  Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Geoff Ryman (the eminence grise behind this junket), Justina Robson and Matthew Cobb, among many others.

Watch us all “forge new relationships between the scientific community and the arts/entertainment community”. There is no cost for the workshop, but spaces are limited so you will need to book a place by contacting scienceinfiction.manchester@gmail.com

And visit http://bit.ly/yxgLGQ

It won’t tell you where Zochonis TH A (B5) is, but at least you’ll know I’m not making it up.

What Soviet science did for us


I’m preparing a series of talks for Pushkin House in London, to tie in with a long project on science under Joseph Stalin. While we’re finalising the programme, these notes will give you an idea what to expect.

Russia’s Other Culture: science and technology in 20th century.


Early in the twentieth century, a few marginal scientists bound themselves to a bankrupt government to create a world superpower. Russia’s political elites embraced science, patronised it, fetishized it, and even tried to impersonate it. Many Soviet scientists led a charmed life. Others were ruined by their closeness to power. Four illustrated talks reveal how this stormy marriage between science and state has shaped the modern world.


1. The Men Who Fell to Earth: How Russia’s pilots, parachutists and pioneers won the space race.
November 2011.


In the 1950s and 1960s Sergei Korolev and the Soviet space programme laid a path to the stars. Now Russia is our only lifeline to the technologies and machines we have put in orbit. Simon Ings is joined by Doug Millard, Senior Curator of ICT & Space Technology at London’s Science Museum, to trace Russia’s centuries-old obsession with flight. This was the nation that erected skydiving towers in its playgrounds, built planes so large and so strange, the rest of the world thought they were fakes, and outdid Germany and the US in its cinematic portrayal of space. The nation’s soaring imagination continues to astonish the world.


The talk coincides with 50th anniversary of pioneering space travel by Yuri Gagarin


2. Prospectors: Why Russia sits on plenty and never gets rich
January 2012


The old boast ran that Russia governed an empire with more surface area than the visible moon. Still, 40 per cent of it lay under permafrost, and no Romanov before Alexander II so much as set foot in Siberia. Defying nature, the Bolsheviks forcibly industrialized the region, built factories and cities, and operated industries in some of the most forbidding places on the planet. Beginning with the construction of the Transsiberian railway, and ending with the planting of the Russian flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, this is a story of visionaries and idealists, traitors, despots, and the occasional fool.


The talk will form part of a week of activity marking the fifth anniversary of Pushkin House’s establishment in Bloomsbury.


3. Red Harvest: What Russia’s famines taught us about the living world.    
March 2012


After the civil war, the Bolsheviks turned to the revolutionary science of genetics for help in securing the Soviet food supply. The young Soviet Union became a world leader in genetics and shared its knowledge with Germany. Then Stalin’s impatience and suspicion destroyed the field and virtually wiped out Russian agriculture. Stalin was right to be suspicious: genetics had promised the world a future of health and longevity, but by the 1940s it was delivering death camps and human vivisection. Genetic advances have made possible our world of plenty – but why did the human cost have to be so high?


4. “General Healthification”: Russia’s unsung sciences of the mind.
May 2012


The way we teach and care for our children owes much to a handful of largely forgotten Russian pioneers. Years after their deaths, the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, the psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the pioneering neuroscientist Alexander Luria have an unseen influence over our everyday thinking. In our factories and offices, too, Soviet psychology plays a role, fitting us to our tasks, ensuring our safety and our health. Our assumptions about health care and the role of the state all owe a huge debt to the Soviet example. But these ideas have a deeper history. Many of them originated in America. The last lecture in this series celebrates the fertile yet largely forgotten intellectual love affair between America and the young Soviet Union.

“What of it, let them die!” – Sergei Oldenburg in Moscow

Baby steps towards an anecdotal history of Russian science…


Sergei Fyodorovich Oldenburg, secretary, Academy of Sciences (1863– 1934)

On 13 July 1921, Maxim Gorky appealed to the world for help; less than three months later later, Frank Golder, a native of Odessa with a PhD from Harvard University, found himself steeped in the horrors of the great Russian famine.

Golder had come from Washington to survey the extent of the catastrophe for Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration. His reports painted a terrible and complex picture. Russian agriculture had been virtually wiped out by a world war, a revolution, a civil war and then, in 1921, a drought. A government scheme to redistribute food had further alienated Russia’s traditionally suspicious peasant class; many buried and even burned their crops, sooner than hand them over to the Red Army. A survey team member wrote: “There were abandoned homes in the communes by the score, the roofs and wooden parts taken off for fuel, and the walls of mud and straw falling into decay. Everywhere we found emaciated starving children, with stomachs distended from eating melon rinds, cabbage leaves and anything that could be found, things which filled the stomach but did not nourish…”

Arriving in Penza, south-east of Moscow, Golder found the town stricken with cholera and typhus. There were next to no medicines. An 800- bed hospital there had only two thermometers, and the administrator’s best assistant, “thoroughly discouraged”, had committed suicide the day before.

In Moscow, things were better, but even among the reasonably well provided-for members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 21 had died from disease and malnutrition.

Golder got the impression that Sergei Oldenburg, the Permanent Secretary of the Academy, would soon be joining them. “It is so pitiful and so heart breaking that it completely upsets me,” Golder wrote, recalling his visit for his friend and patron Ephraim D. Adams. “I wish you could meet him for he is one of the most scholarly, cultured and kindly men that I have ever met.” Oldenburg, nearly 60 by then, was bedridden. He was barely able to reach the scraps of toast on his table, let alone chew them. He had spent the past four years trying to support his own family, the orphan children of his brother, his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren, all on about nine million roubles – or five US dollars – a month. The children had bread every day: for the rest of the family, it was a weekly treat.

Sergei Oldenburg was one of the privileged ones: highly-educated, patrician, a personal acquaintance of Vladimir Lenin, and engaged in work vital to the state. Along with other scholars, he had even been recieving a dole, although, as he wrote, “it needed the limitless authority of Lenin and the enormous popularity of Gorky to carry off the issuing of an ‘academic ration’. For this exceptional ration was created before the eyes of the hungry masses who had set themselves the task of destroying all privileges and hierarchies.”

Class resentment, exacerbated by the emergency, was indeed fierce: Frank Golder recalls how one professor called upon the representative of the Crimean government – a young female Communist – to point out that professors in the Crimea were dying of hunger. “What of it?” she had replied. “Let them die!”

Since the October Revolution, Sergei Oldenburg had worked “like a giant” trying to keep up the Academy, trying to find the Academicians something to eat, trying to keep on good terms with the Bolsheviks while striving not to alienate the anti-Bolsheviks. Oldenburg, a world-renowned Orientalist, grandson of a Full General in the Imperial Russian Army, and with a modest amount of blue blood running through his veins, was a liberal nationalist; never a communist. In 1905 he had served in the Russian Provisional Government as Minister of Education. Unlike his political colleagues, however, he had chosen to remain in Russia following the Bolshevik takeover. When Golder, seated at Oldenburg’s bedside in Moscow, talked strenuously about American state recognition, and the good American investment capital might do to save the country, Oldenburg’s mixture of national pride, and his precoccuption with the redemptive powers of suffering, marked him as a leftover of a bygone age:

“Our salvation can not come from without but must come from within and we, as a government and to some extent as a nation have not yet confessed and repented our sins… Let us recover slowly, let us suffer some more the cruel pangs of hunger because it is the only way to get well and strong… All the suffering, all the misery we have endured and are enduring is teaching us Russians to think clearly and that is a great step in the line of progress.”

Oldenburg was certainly a clear thinker: a scholar of Buddhism who welcomed and enjoyed the company of the growing number of Academicians who were natural scientists. The Academy itself was old, founded in 1724 by Peter the Great. It had always been a more reliable friend to the State than the universities, and had enjoyed a privileged position, as a sort of expert arm of the Russian civil service. Oldenburg knew how to convey the Academy’s value to those now in power. He emphasised the practical benefits working with the Academy. His close friend Vladimir Vernadsky had established the Academy’s Commission for the Study of Natural Productive Forces (KEPS) – a key asset in negotiations with the government. Oldenburg asked for money and independence; in return, he could help the State develop greater self-sufficiency in raw materials and manufactures, and even help Lenin with his over-ambitious plan for the rapid electrification of Russia.
It was never an easy compromise, but Lenin, for his part, understood how important the Academy was to the Russia’s survival. (When, in 1922, a Proletkult bigwig wrote a Pravda article hostile to the Academy, Lenin, unimpressed, scrawled in the margin: “And what percentage of [his] loyal proliterians know how to build locomotives?”) So Sergei Oldenburg survived the famine, the flood that inundated his apartment in 1924, and even the attentions of “that black cloud from Moscow”, the astronomer Vartan Ter-Oganezov, an ideologue whose ambitions to remake science in the image of Bolshevism earn him a chapter later in this account. In this chapter, we will see how Oldenburg, with astonishing political dexterity, shaped the future of the world’s largest scientific institution: a sprawling organisation that fed and clothed almost all the people whose lives and and careers are described in this book.

From the beginning, Russian scientists had reservations about communist ideology. Until the “Great Break” and Cultural Revolution of 1929 there was not one member of the Academy of Sciences who was also a member of the Communist Party. But few Academicians could resist the allure of Sergei Oldenburg’s vision of the the Academy’s future: a scientistic programme of modernisation that offered many influential positions to the scientists and engineers willing to work with the communist government. The new Academy grew vast, comprising hundreds of research institutes spread across the USSR. Its central control structure appealed to Lenin’s notorious successor Joseph Stalin. But it appealed just as much to Academicians of Oldenburg’s stripe and generation: men who, in Tsarist times. had argued for nothing else.
Class resentment, wielded as a weapon by Joseph Stalin, eventually destroyed the arrangements Oldenburg spent so many years maintaining. Oldenburg was dismissed from his post during the “Great Break” of 1929. His legacy lived on, nonetheless: a collosal working institution, often troubled, often compromised, but recognised the world over as a pillar of world science.