Thursday, 15 March 2012

Red Harvest: What Russia's Famines Taught us about the Living World

Tonight's lecture at Pushkin House, third installment I believe in the series "Russia's other culture: Science and technology in the 20th century" covered the cross-road between two subject matters that contributed more than a few of the modern myths, namely genetics and the Soviet union.

As expected, we ended up discussing Stalin's army of monkey-men.


The gentleman giving the talk, who's name, in good collectivist fashion, does not seems to appear on the venue's website, covered a large area of mainly Russian history, starting with the apparently proverbial Vernadsky to give us a quick insight first in 19th century agriculture and a few basics on evolutionary theory and it's precursors and offshoots, from Lamarck to saltation. His name was confirmed to be Simon Ings

Peter Kropotkin, (1842-1921)

He concluded, and this turns out to be of particular interest for me, with a discussion of Kropotkin's interests in naturalism (of which I had no knowledge) and in particular in his savory introduction of the concept of mutual aid, in order to explain why do animals (and humans) collaborate to ensure their survival, in the face of the survival of fittest. As concept goes, individual might indeed compete to acquire limited resources but will cooperate when faced with their environment. Although the phenomenon can be commonly observed in many groups of animals, the question of "why" or "how" does this happens was apparently left unanswered, which as often ends up filled with vague enough notions to produce myths.
Followed a classy exposé of the developement of evolutionary theory, biology and ultimately genetics in Russia and the Soviet Union, from the academy of agricultural sciences and Vavilov to Pavlov, with the tragedies we came to expect from the Stalinian era.


From the wealth of anecdotes, one deserve particularly to be reported: Ilya Ivanov revolutionized the russian agriculture by achieving the horse artificial insemination, multiplying the number of foal per stallion by no less than 25, which, for a rural country where the horse was still the main energy, meant a drastic improvement. Surfing the wave of his popularity he experimented with a variety of interspecies hyrids like the zebroid.

Eclyse, a German zebroid

After WW1 the development of vaccines required testings on monkeys and chimps in particular as their genome is so similar to the human one, and to further their biological experimentation Ivanov was sent to find monkeys around the world - He apparently convinced Lunacharsky, commissar to enlightenment, to extend this to an experimentation of breeding human-monkeys hybrids. Ivanov was allowed by the french government to buy some chimps and to conduct his experiments in French Guinea. According to Wikipedia, the monkeys inseminated failed at reaching pregnancy, and Ivanov was never allowed by the french government to inseminate humans with monkey semen.

Ilya Ivanov

As often at this time a change of cultural policy decided of the scientist fate who was to die in exile after the interruption of the project - after the soviet government itself apparently engineered public discontent concerning the ethics of the experiment, and undoubtedly with the help of the world medias, blew it out of proportions into Stalin's army of monkey-men, which was to inspire, among others, Planet of the Apes.


The second myth was not propagated by occidental pop culture but by the memory of the Holodomor and other catastrophic famines: Trofim Lysenko came from a peasant background and his radical ideas concerning agricultural theory, that was to be called vernalisation, akin to the idea of freezing the grain before planting it, made him an excellent candidate to the role of heroic, mythic stackanovite.
Lysenko seemed to have believed in a form of Kropotkin's Mutual Aid theory which he extended to vegetable realm, apparently stating in one mail exchange that he believed that seeds would sacrifice themselves for the survival of the specie rather than compete with each others for resources as stated in the more traditional forms of agronomy.
Protected by the state apparatus, his (many) opponents in his field censored, he was offering a quick solution to the recurrent problem of famines in the under-industrialized soviet agriculture, and his poorly (if at all) tested theories were applied wasting billions of rubles of grain. The most spectacular aspect of the story remains the many years which, faced with the terrible consequences of the policy, the soviet establishment categorically refused to acknowledge lysenkoism as a hoax.

Trofim Lysenko

Much more than the monkey army myth this fits with our concern - Lysenko seemed to extend the moral values central to soviet and fascist philosophies, that is the sacrifice of the individual for the collective, from the world of ideas into the world of things. One of the definitions of myth this could hint at is the historical event in which the ideal reality manifest itself in the physical world, through human means or not.


I have a particular love for Lunacharsky and faced with the absence of translation of his opus "Religion and Socialism" (yiddish aside) I decided to learn Russian. He was one of the main proponents of the short-lived but very interesting God-Builders movement that would later be declared anathema by Lenin. Embrassing the secular religious aspects of marxism, I suspect (from the rare fragments I have had the chance to read) it had to do with an interpretation, in the line Feuerbach, of religion as an expression of human creativity, if not of religion as art.
Seeing Lunacharsky involved in the legendary monkey-man epic, I cannot help but extrapolate a cosy little theory:
In order to reconcile religion and science, one must reconcile the idea that man comes from the monkey and tha god made man in his image. The sole possible conclusion to this syllogism is that god was a monkey. Then maybe, just maybe, in endorsing the creation of a superman/supermonkey, Lunacharsky was hoping to further, litterally, his agenda of God Building. Maybe.

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