Stalin’s meteorologist

I reviewed Olivier Rolin’s new book for The Daily Telegraph

750,000 shot. This figure is exact; the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, kept meticulous records relating to their activities during Stalin’s Great Purge. How is anyone to encompass in words this horror, barely 80 years old? Some writers find the one to stand for the all: an Everyman to focus the reader’s horror and pity. Olivier Rolin found his when he was shown drawings and watercolours made by Alexey Wangenheim, an inmate of the Solovki prison camp in Russia’s Arctic north. He made them for his daughter, and they are reproduced as touching miniatures in this slim, devastating book, part travelogue, part transliteration of Wangenheim’s few letters home.

While many undesirables were labelled by national or racial identity, a huge number were betrayed by their accomplishments. Before he was denounced by a jealous colleague, Wangenheim ran a pan-Soviet weather service. He was not an exceptional scientist: more an efficient bureaucrat. He cannot even be relied on “to give colourful descriptions of the glories of nature” before setting sail, with over a thousand others, for a secret destination, not far outside the town of Medvezhegorsk. There, some time around October 1937, a single NKVD officer dispatched the lot of them, though he had help with the cudgelling, the transport, the grave-digging. While he went to work with his Nagant pistol, others were washing blood and brains off the trucks and tarpaulins.

Right to the bitter end, Wangenheim is a boring correspondent, always banging on about the Party. “My faith in the Soviet authorities has in no way been shaken” he says. “Has Comrade Stalin received my letter?” And again: “I have battled in my heart not to allow myself to think ill of the Soviet authorities or of the leaders”. Rolin makes gold of such monotony, exploiting the degree to which French lends itself to lists and repeated figures, and his translator Ros Schwartz has rendered these into English that is not just palatable, but often thrilling and always freighted with dread.

When Wangenheim is not reassuring his wife about the Bolshevik project, he is making mosaics out of stone chippings and brick dust: meticulous little portraits of — of all people — Stalin. Rolin openly struggles to understand his subject’s motivation: “In any case, blinkeredness or pathetic cunning, there is something sinister about seeing this man, this scholar, making of his own volition the portrait of the man in whose name he is being crucified.”

That Rolin finds a mystery here is of a piece with his awkward nostalgia for the promise of the Bolshevik revolution. Hovering like a miasma over some pages (though Rolin is too smart to succumb utterly) is that hoary old meme, “the revolution betrayed”. So let us be clear: the revolution was not betrayed. The revolution panned out exactly the way it was always going to pan out, whether Stalin was at the helm or not. It is also exactly the way the French revolution panned out, and for exactly the same reason.

Both French and Socialist revolutions sought to reinvent politics to reflect the imminent unification of all branches of human knowledge, and consequently, their radical simplification. By Marx’s day this idea, under the label “scientism”, had become yawningly conventional: also wrong.

Certainly by the time of the Bolshevik revolution, scientists better than Wangenheim — physicists, most famously — knew that the universe would not brook such simplification, neither under Marx nor under any other totalising system. Rationality remains a superb tool with which to investigate the world. But as a working model of the world, guiding political action, it leads only to terror.

To understand Wangenheim’s mosaic-making, we have to look past his work, diligently centralising and simplifying his own meteorological science to the point where a jealous colleague, deprived of his sinecure, denounced him. We need to look at the human consequences of this attempt at scientific government, and particularly at what radical simplification does to the human psyche. To order and simplify life is to bureaucratise it, and to bureaucratise human beings is make them behave like machines. Rolin says Wangenheim clung to the party for the sake of his own sanity. I don’t doubt it. But to cling to any human institution, or to any such removed and fortressed individual, is the act, not of a suffering human being but of a malfunctioning machine.

At the end of his 1940 film The Great Dictator Charles Chaplin, dressed in Adolf Hitler’s motley, broke the fourth wall to declare war on the “machine men with machine minds” that were then marching roughshod across his world. Regardless of Hitler’s defeat, this was a war we assuredly lost. To be sure the bureaucratic infection, like all infections, has adapted to ensure its own survival, and it is not so virulent as it was. The pleasures of bureaucracy are more evident now; its damages, though still very real, are less evident. “Disruption” has replaced the Purge. The Twitter user has replaced the police informant.

But let us be explicit here, where Rolin has been admirably artful and quietly insidious: the pleasures of bureaucracy in both eras are exactly the same. Wangenheim’s murderers lived in a world that had been made radically simple for them. In Utopia, all you have to do is your job (though if you don’t, Utopia falls apart). These men weren’t deprived of humanity: they were relieved of it. They experienced exactly what you or I feel when the burden of life’s ambiguities is lifted of a sudden from our shoulders: contentment, bordering on joy.

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

unnamed

“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.

 

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

Baby steps towards an anecdotal history of Russian science…

Pomogi

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.

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

Baby steps towards an anecdotal history of Russian science…

Pomogi

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.