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.”

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“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.

 

Red Harvest

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Come join me on Wednesday 14 March at 7.30pm, and discover what Russia’s famines have revealed about the living world.

This is the third in a series of lectures I’m giving at Pushkin House, the Russian cultural centre in London. It is part of a large work in progress: a history of science under Stalin’s rule. The book is due out in 2014 from Faber and Faber. 

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?

Pushkin House, 5a Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2TA. Tickets  are £7, conc. £5 (Friends of Pushkin House, students and OAPs). The box office is on 44 (0)20 7269 9770, but you can always take a chance and pay on the night.

What Soviet science did for us

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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.