Trofim Lysenko and Lysenkoism

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Podcast Transcript

In the early 20th century, a Soviet agronomist named Trofim Lysenko developed some unique theories of biology and genetics. 

He rose to the top of the Soviet hierarchy in his field, and Stalin himself endorsed his theories. 

The result of the implementation of his ideas was nothing short of disastrous.

Learn more about Trofim Lysenko and Lysenkoism on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Soviet Union did excel in a few areas of science and technology. They put the first satellite into orbit and put the first human in space. They had very good mathematicians, chess players, and of course, produced some of the greatest ballet dancers in the world. 

However, they were some areas in science and technology where they fell flat and one area in particular where they were downright backward. This backwardness had devastating consequences for the Soviet people. 

The key player in this story is Trofim Lysenko. 

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was born in 1898 in what was then the Russian Empire and what is today the city of Karlivka, Ukraine. 

He studied at the Kyiv Agricultural Institute, where he took up an interest in agronomy. 

Lysenko grew up poor. He actually didn’t learn how to read until he was 13, and he often dressed like a peasant when he attended university.  

When the communist revolution came around, he was totally on board. His poor background and his manner of dress made him very popular in communist circles. He was dubbed the “barefoot scientist.”

In fact, he was so on board with communism his political views began to influence his scientific research. 

His early research focused on trying to grow peas in colder climates, which would have been a pretty handy thing to be able to do in Russia. One of the things he discovered was that peas could sprout faster when the seeds were kept at lower temperatures. 

Today, people who have investigated Lysenko’s research have concluded that he probably fabricated his results. 

Fabrication of results aside, even if his conclusions were correct, it would just be something that was a property of the peas he was studying. These peas sprout at lower temperatures. Nuff said.

However, Lysenko took the conclusions of his research to a whole other level. He thought he was actually converting one species into another by exposing it to cold temperatures. 

He thought he could take winter wheat and turn it into spring wheat, which was two totally different species, by exposing winter wheat seeds to cold temperatures. This actually can allow winter wheat to sprout in the spring, but this had been known for centuries. 

The Soviet newspapers praised him in the late 1920s for his revolutionary work, which was the product of new Soviet thinking and would pave the way for an agricultural revolution. 

What Lysenko had done was rediscovered Lamarkism. 

What is Larmarkism?

In the early 19th century, the theory of how biological traits were passed from generation to generation was developed by a French zoologist by the name of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. 

Lamarck’s theory held that acquired characteristics from the parent would be passed along to its offspring. 

For example, if a blacksmith worked with a hammer for years and developed muscles in his arm, then muscular arms would be passed down to the blacksmith’s children. 

The Larmarkian explanation for why giraffes have long necks is that they would stretch their necks to reach food, which would actually make their necks longer. Once they acquired long necks, their offspring would now have long necks as well. 

Anyone who has taken even a semester of high school biology knows that that isn’t how it works. 

Lamarckism was discredited by the later work of Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, and other geneticists, who showed that genes were hereditary traits passed along from one generation to another. 

Lysenko totally denied the existence of genes. 

He went well beyond that, however. 

He believed that you could plant crops extremely close together because plants of the same species, or class as he described it, can’t compete with each other. 

He thought that the amount of milk a cow could provide had nothing to do with genetics but how well the cow was treated. 

He claimed that Cuckoo birds, which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, were actually created when birds were fed hairy caterpillars. 

With his techniques, he said he could grow orange trees in Siberia.

When he was presented with mathematical and statistical evidence that his theories were wrong, he countered that mathematics had no place in biology. 

Moreover, all of his theories were couched in the language and terminology of communist ideology. 

Plants growing together was compared to class solidarity. Cows producing more milk because they were treated well was compared to the better treatment of workers. 

His collection of beliefs that biology was class orientated in nature became known as Lysenkoism. 

The communist party ate this up. Not only did they think that his theories provided scientific confirmation of their political beliefs, but they also wanted to promote people from lower economic classes to higher levels of power.

So, the proletarian Lysenko was put in charge of Soviet agriculture in the late 1920s after the collectivization of Soviet farms caused a massive famine. 

The one person who really loved Lysenko’s work was none other than Joseph Stalin. 

Stalin personally edited many of his speeches, and when Lysenko gave a speech praising the collectivization of farms, Stalin was the first person to stand up and applaud, shouting, “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko. Bravo.”

Lysenko’s standing kept increasing within the Soviet scientific system. 

His photo would hang on the wall alongside Stalin’s at research centers and laboratories. 

Beginning in 1934, purges began of Soviet geneticists who disagreed with Lysenkoism. Some scientists were sent to gulags in Siberia. Some created fake research data to show their support for Lysenkoism, and others issued public retractions and apologies. 

Some prominent geneticists were executed, including such names as Izrail Agol, Georgii Karpechenko, and Georgii Nadson.

In 1940, Lysenko was appointed the head of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR’s Academy of Sciences,

It was in 1940 when the man who was perhaps the greatest Soviet geneticist, Nikolai Vavilov, was imprisoned. 

Vavilov was a fierce critic of Lysenko and feared that his pseudoscience would hurt Soviet agriculture. Vavilov was the namesake of the Vavilov Institute in Leningrad, which held one of the world’s greatest seed banks. 

Researchers at the Vavilov Institute protected the seed collection with their lives during the siege of Leningrad despite the famine which raged in the city. 

Vavilov died in 1943 in a Soviet work camp in Siberia. 

The Soviet Union, who probably had the world’s greatest geneticists prior to the rise of Lysenko, had their entire community gutted. Over 3,000 genetic scientists were purged in one fashion or another.

During this entire time, the science of genetics was advancing in the rest of the world. Lysenko’s theories were known in the west, and he was dismissed as a crank and a crackpot. 

British biologist Sydney Harland said Lysenko was “completely ignorant of the elementary principles of genetics and plant physiology.”

Lysenko brushed aside this criticism as simply politics. He denounced western genetics as “bourgeois” and that western science was “imperialist” and “fascist.” He called the geneticists that studied genetics in fruit flies “fly lovers and people haters.”

In 1948, genetics was officially declared a “bourgeois pseudoscience,” and Lysenkoism was the official scientific policy in the Soviet Union.

Lysenko’s influence didn’t start to wane until 1953, when two momentous things happened: Stalin died, and the DNA molecule was discovered. 

With Stalin gone, many of the Soviet geneticists that were purged were rehabilitated. It became possible to once again present theories that were counter to Lysenkoism. 

However, Lysenkoism still lingered on in the Soviet system and still had some limited support under Kruschev.  It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that it was finally removed as official policy. 

In 1964, Nobel Prize winning physicist Andrei Sakharov denounced Lysenko in the General Assembly of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. He said, 

He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.

After this and the removal of Kruschev from power in 1964, the flood gates opened, and the tables turned on Lysenko.

The president of the Academy of Sciences declared that the prohibition of criticizing Lysenko was over. 

He was removed from all his positions and became a pariah in Soviet scientific circles. 

Surprisingly, his photo was reportedly still hanging in some research facilities in the Soviet Union as late as the 1980s. 

However, by the time he was removed, the damage had already been done. 

Soviet agricultural output had actually gone down in the decades that Lysenko had influence, despite it going up dramatically almost everywhere else on Earth. Programs to create hybrid strains of wheat and corn, as was being done in the west, were closed. Lysenko also banned the use of fertilizer or pesticides. 

Forced implementation of Lysenko’s ideas worsened the Holodomor famine in Ukraine in the 1930s. 

Lysenkoism became the prominent theory in communist China from 1949 to 1956, and the implementation of its theories contributed to the famine which occurred during the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961. 

Believe it or not, there has been a minor revival of Lysenkoism in Russia in the last several years. This has mostly come from political commentators, not from scientists. 

As much as the Soviet Union managed to make advances in disciplines such as rocketry and nuclear science, they literally went backward in the life sciences. By the end of the cold war, they were decades behind the West.

This was entirely due to a single man who was able to impose his theories on a country, not through the scientific method, but via force. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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