Cover image for The perversion of knowledge : the true story of Soviet science
The perversion of knowledge : the true story of Soviet science
Birstein, Vadim J.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
xx, 492 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Reading Level:
1460 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library Q127.S65 B57 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



During the Soviet years, Russian science was touted as one of the greatest successes of the regime. Russian science was considered to be equal, if not superior, to that of the wealthy western nations. The Perversion of Knowledge , a history of Soviet science that focuses on its control by the KGB and the Communist Party, reveals the dark side of this glittering achievement. Based on the author's firsthand experience as a Soviet scientist, and drawing on extensive Russian language sources not easily available to the Western reader, the book includes shocking new information on biomedical experimentation on humans as well as an examination of the pernicious effects of Trofim Lysenko's pseudo-biology. Also included are many poignant case histories of those who collaborated and those who managed to resist, focusing on the moral choices and consequences. The text is accompanied by the author's own translations of key archival materials, making this work an essential resource for all those with a serious interest in Russian history.

Author Notes

Vadim J. Birstein, Ph.D., a Russian-American geneticist and historian, is the author of more than 140 scientific papers and monographs. A member of the Russian Academy of Science for over twenty years, he was a dissident who experienced firsthand the cruelty of the Soviet regime's control of science. He lives in New York City

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Speaking from personal experience and aided greatly by archival materials and reference books made accessible in the 1990s, geneticist Birstein offers a comprehensive account of 80 years of governmental control and censorship of science in the Soviet Union. He describes how academic and research scientists in the nation's scientific institutions were replaced with political functionaries who often had no knowledge of the sciences they represented. He emphasizes Stalin's favorite, the fraudulent geneticist Lysenko, and also the biochemist Mairanovsky, who in his poison lab experimented on prisoners, often fatally. Birstein graphically describes some of those experiments, as well as secret-service tortures, referring briefly to experiments on supposed volunteers in the U.S., Canada, and England. Early on he says he wants readers to ask what they would have done in the same circumstances, and later he tells the stories of several scientists who took firm ethical stands and survived. Demonstrating how science, research, and education were frighteningly perverted, he provokes concern about Russia's current lack of support for science and how dangerous it may be. --William Beatty

Publisher's Weekly Review

Russian-American geneticist and historian Birstein's first trade book is the story of "the state control of science in the Soviet Union." A comprehensive history of how Russian scientists were ruled by their government from the Bolshevik revolution through its post-perestroika present, the volume focuses especially on doctors who conducted state-authorized experiments on political prisoners while developing poisons and chemical weaponry that were eventually used in a rash of political assassinations during the 1950s and '60s by way of covert weapons such as umbrella tips and poisoned bullets. But very little of this material reads like an Ian Fleming novel; it's more like a college textbook. With over 100 pages of notes, biographical sketches and translated materials, the text is so finely detailed that it runs the risk of confusing readers with its sheer volume of information. Moreover, most of the original documents Birstein relies upon are still classified and "these documents are... frequently written in a special metaphoric language used by NKVD/KGB offices. Only since 1997 have three fundamental reference books been published in Russian that have allowed me to put the events in Soviet science into historical context." These shortcomings are unfortunate, as the subject of state secrecy and chemical weapons development is both important and timely. In uncovering the Soviet labyrinth of plot and secrecy, Birstein builds labyrinths of his own and casual readers might not be willing to wind their way through to the end. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Russian American geneticist Birstein chillingly relates the consequences of totalitarian control of scientific research in the USSR, foremost the use of political prisoners as experimental subjects. Although Nazi and Japanese human testing was internationally condemned, similar Soviet-era "research" remains little known in the West despite the complicity of prominent scientists and leaders. Birstein chronicles the effect of Lysenkoism on the careers, and lives, of Soviet biologists who resisted or cooperated with this corruption of science by ideology. Birstein and his father were scientists confronted with this dilemma, and his account is admittedly personal: "I would like the reader to ask: What would I do in such a situation?" His personal agenda sometimes intrudes as speculation in an otherwise detailed account drawn from sources not previously available in English. Numerous, endlessly changing acronyms for Soviet political, security, and scientific agencies also slow one's reading. Birstein warns of a return to Soviet-style policies in Putin's Russia; but his book can also be read as a universal cautionary tale, when many again appear willing to sacrifice human rights in the name of security. As he notes, "Uncontrolled secret research performed by secret services or the military tends to end up with experiments on humans, no matter what country is involved." Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. L. W. Moore formerly, University of Kentucky



Chapter One SCIENCE UNDER SIEGE To give a list of all Soviet scientists who were repressed by the secret police would be not only impossible but tedious. --L. R. Graham, What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from the Russian Experience? After their successful 1917 coup d'état, the Bolsheviks made control of scientists and other Russian intelligentsia one of their first priorities. Their primary concern was members of the intelligentsia who had participated in the Provisional Government, which existed between the February Revolution and the Bolshevik takeover in November. During this brief nine-month period, the Academy of Sciences, universities, and other scientific institutions became independent from state control for the first and last time in their history. The Bolsheviks were well aware that these professionals were capable of quickly understanding the naked desire for power behind their grand promises.     In 1928, a corresponding member of the academy (elected in 1927), the noted metallurgist Vladimir Grum-Grzhimailo (1864-1928) wrote a particularly prescient note to the Presidium of the Scientific Technical Directorate of the Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom): Marx's theory is a backward hypothesis, which has already lost ground. It was created when muscular [physical] labor flourished and when almost zero technical and industrial knowledge was available. Now everything is changing, and I am absolutely convinced that in 50 years there will be no proletariat. The ideal of engineers is ... a plant without workers. This will provide people with such abundance of life resources that there will be no need for the class struggle. Capitalism is very successful in introducing this future culture ... But in fact the power in Russia is in the hands of Bolsheviks ... [They] want to experiment with the creation of a Socialist state. The price for this will be extremely high ...     Naturally, after this letter the election of Grum-Grzhimailo to full membership in the academy was blocked. Fortunately, Grum-Grzhimailo died soon after he wrote this note and escaped the attention of the OGPU forever.     On December 21, 1934, seventeen years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the famous eighty-five-year-old physiologist and academician Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), wrote a letter to the Sovnarkom: To the USSR Council of People's Commissars: ... You believe in vain in the all-world revolution ... You disperse not revolution, but fascism with great success throughout the world ... Fascism did not exist before your revolution ... You are terror and violence ... How many times did your newspapers write: "The hour [of the world revolution] has come"? The result was that new fascism appeared in different places. Yes, because of your indirect influence fascism will take over step-by-step the whole civilized world, except its mighty Anglo-Saxon part (England, and, probably, the United States), [which] has already introduced the core of socialism--that labor is the main duty and real dignity of a human being, and it is the basis of relationships between people that provides each person with the opportunity to live. They will reach this ideal [socialism] preserving all their precious cultural achievements, which cost many sacrifices and much time ... We have been and are living now in the atmosphere of continuing terror and violence ... Am I alone in thinking and feeling this way? Have pity on the Motherland and us. Academician Ivan Pavlov Leningrad, December 21, 1934.     It is amazing how profoundly Pavlov understood the role the Bolshevik regime played in world politics. But Pavlov was alone in his revolt. Because he was the only living Russian Nobel Prize winner, he enjoyed a unique position in Soviet scientific society. His institute had received state support on the personal order of Vladimir Lenin since the takeover. Despite this, at the beginning of the 1930s, the OGPU had five volumes of "operational materials" from informants on Academician Pavlov.     The Sovnarkom chairman, Vyacheslav Molotov, to whom I will return several times in this book, answered the academician on January 2, 1935: I would like to tell you my frank opinion that your political views are completely baseless and unpersuasive. For instance, your examples of "civilized states" such as England and the United States ... I can only express my surprise that you tried to make categorical conclusions on principal political questions in a scientific area which you, apparently, have no knowledge of. I can only add that the political leaders of the USSR would never allow themselves to use such ardor [Molotov used the very ironic and insulting Russian word retivost ] in questions of physiology, the field in which your scientific authority is without question. With this, I will allow myself to stop answering your letter. Chairman of the USSR SNK V. Molotov I have sent copies of your letter and my answer to President of the Academy of Sciences A. P. Karpinsky.     But Molotov was disingenuous to say that those in political power would never allow themselves to interfere in questions of physiology. At the time Pavlov wrote his appeal, science and scientists had already been thoroughly infiltrated by the Bolsheviks, and the Party constantly intervened in science and scientific matters. By sending copies of Pavlov's letter and his own answer to President Karpinsky, Molotov evidently expected Karpinsky to restrain Academician Pavlov.     Of course, from the perspective of Bolshevik ideology, the old intelligentsia only had to be tolerated until it could be replaced by newly trained scientists from the ranks of the proletariat. These newcomers would be totally obligated to the system and thus completely compliant. The Bolsheviks used poisonous propaganda to turn the masses against the old intelligentsia, accusing them of being "bourgeoisie" a concept hard to understand today since the word, which means a middle-class person concerned with materialist gain and conventional morality, describes the majority of people in contemporary developed countries. However, in the 1920s and 1930s in Russia, it resonated for the majority of Russians, who had never had an opportunity to own anything of real value. The "bourgeoisie," according to Bolshevik ideology, was by nature the main enemy of the working people and should be exterminated. This idea was put in action from the very beginning of the Bolshevik regime--in 1917 and 1918, Russian cities witnessed the massacre of hundreds of educated people by revolutionary sailors and soldiers on the streets. THE ACADEMY OF SCIENCES: BEGINNINGS In contrast to Western Europe and the United States, the Academy of Sciences was created in Russia before any of the universities were established. The St. Petersburg (Imperial) Academy was created by Peter the Great in 1725. On December 27, 1725, the first meeting of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences and Arts took place, but Peter the Great died before he approved the academy's governing statutes. Peter's daughter, Empress Elizabeth, finally approved them on June 24, 1747. On September 30, 1783, on the order of Catherine the Great, a second Imperial Russian Academy was established in St. Petersburg. Functions of the academies were overlapping, with the St. Petersburg Academy in charge of natural and humanitarian sciences and the Imperial Russian Academy in charge only of humanitarian sciences. On October 19, 1841, Tsar Nicholas I ordered the two to merge into one--the Imperial St. Petersburg Academy. The Russian Academy became its Russian Language and Literature Division. The statutes of the St. Petersburg Academy were approved by Nicholas I in 1836 and were in force until 1927. The first Russian university opened in Moscow in 1755. In 1917, before the February Revolution, there were forty-four full members of the academy, and the academy had authority over five laboratories, seven museums, the Russian Archaeological Institute in Constantinople (now Istanbul), the Pulkovo Astronomic Observatory, with two departments near St. Petersburg, the Main Physical Observatory of the Meteorology Service, and twenty-one scientific commissions.     Members of the academy enjoyed very high status in Russian society. Academicians received the title of tainyi sovetnik (privy councillor), which was equivalent to the rank of general in the army. In 1727, the eleven founding members introduced three categories of membership: adjunct or assistant academician for junior scholars with potential; ordinary (or full) member; and extraordinary academician. In 1759, the additional title of corresponding member was added for members who lived outside St. Petersburg. There were also foreign and honorary members. In 1917, there were forty-four academicians and a staff of 176 members. Historians and linguists were most numerous (twenty-four members), followed by biologists (seven), geologists (four), mathematicians (four), and chemists (three). There was also a physicist, an astrophysicist, a meteorologist, and an economist) The majority of academicians were university professors and continued their university careers after their election to the academy.     In 1917, before the revolution, the academy included many internationally known scientists. The majority were specialists on history and linguistics, but there were also prominent natural scientists. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov was the most famous. In 1904, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his study of nervous mechanisms controlling the digestive glands. His surgical experiments created a new scientific discipline--physiology. Pavlov's book Lectures on the Work of the Digestive Glands , published in Russian in 1897, was immediately translated into German, French, and English. As one of his devoted students, Professor Boris Babkin, wrote, "[A]fter 1898--the date when the German translation of Pavlov's book appeared--every physiologist and every clinician based his study of the normal and abnormal physiology of the alimentary canal on Pavlov's Lectures ."     Some other biologists were also famous. The work of Academician Vladimir Zalensky (1847-1918; known as Salensky in German publications) was the first to describe the early embryogenesis of invertebrates and low vertebrates, including sturgeons. The botanist and academician Vladimir Palladin (1859-1922), a devoted supporter of Darwinian evolutionary theory, was one of the first scientists to study plant respiration. In contrast, two other botanists and academicians, Andrei Famintsyn (1835-1918) and Ivan Borodin (1847-1930), were known for their opposition to Darwin's theory.     Academicians-chemists, physicists, and mathematicians also achieved international recognition. Aleksei Kurnakov (1860-1941) was a distinguished physical chemist who studied alloys. Pavel Valden (1863-1957; or Paul Walden) was an organic chemist who emigrated after the revolution to Germany and from 1919 headed the Chemical Institute of Rostock University. Vladimir Ipatieff (1857-1952) was a unique specialist on catalytic reactions at high temperatures and studied the nature of the separation of metals under hydrogenation pressure. Later, he played an important role in the creation of the Soviet chemical warfare industry, as will be discussed presently. However, in 1930, he refused to return to the Soviet Union and eventually moved to the United States. Aleksei Krylov (1863-1945) was called "an encyclopedist of naval arts and sciences: he was a mathematician, a shipbuilding engineer and theoretician, an artillery expert, and a historian of science." Academician Aleksei Lyapunov (1857-1918) was known for his works on probability theory. Academician Pyotr Lazarev (1878-1942), a physicist and biophysicist (he worked mainly in molecular physics and photochemistry) developed a theory of oceanic currents and the change in the earth's climate over geological periods.     But this does not mean that the academy always elected the most qualified Russian scientists. In 1880, the most distinguished chemist of the time, the author of the Periodic Law of atomic weights, Dmitrii Mendeleev (1834-1907), was not elected to the academy. In 1893, the academy voted against the full membership of another scientist, mathematical crystallographer Yevgenii Fedorov. His theoretical models of the structure of crystals were confirmed later by X-ray studies. In 1901, Fedorov was elected as an "adjunct" member, but in 1905 he resigned from the academy because, as he stated at that time, the academy was a hindrance to modern organization of scientific work. Furthermore, before the February Revolution, the academy did not accept scientists of Jewish origin.     After the outbreak of World War I, the role of the academy as coordinator of scientific research became extremely important. In spring 1915, the General Assembly of the Academy unanimously decided to create the Commission for the Study of Natural-Productive Forces (KEPS), to be headed by Academician Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1934), a mineralogist, crystallographer and geochemist, one of the most independent-minded Russian, and later Soviet, academicians. The special War Chemical Committee chaired by Academician Ipatieff was another example. The committee had five branches: explosives, poison gases, incendiaries and flame throwers, gas masks, and acids. Academicians Aleksei Kurnakov and Pavel Valden took part in its work as permanent members.     According to the academy statutes adopted in 1836, which stayed in effect until 1917, the president of the academy was selected from the elite of Russian society and then appointed by the tsar. The last appointed president, Great Prince Konstantin Romanov (a member of Tsar Nicholas II's family), died on June 11, 1915. After the February Revolution of 1917, the Provisional Government approved changes in the governing statutes proposed by the academicians regarding the election of their president. On May 15, 1917, for the first time in the history of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, the academicians voted for their president. Aleksandr Karpinsky, a prominent geologist, was elected unanimously (twenty-seven academicians attended this meeting). The botanist Ivan Borodin was appointed acting vice president. On July 11, 1917, at Meeting No. 39 of the Provisional Government, the Imperial Academy was renamed the Russian Academy.     During the final years of the tsarist regime, the academy did not support the conservative politics of the government, seeing all too clearly the incompetence of the government, especially in the areas of science, technology, and the economy. P. Vannovsky, minister of people's education, was in charge of supervising the day-to-day affairs of the academy, with his decisions being approved by the tsar. When politically sensitive matters were involved, Nicholas II simply ordered Vannovsky to ignore the academicians' opinion. The most scandalous situation occurred after the election of the famous writer and opponent to the regime, Maxim Gorky (his real name was Aleksei Peshkov) as honorary academician. On February 25, 1902, Nicholas II ordered that this "mistake" be corrected and on March 11, 1902, the official magazine Pravitel'stvennyi Vestnik [Governmental Bulletin] published a note that the academy had canceled the election of Gorky. The minister did not even bother to inform the academy of this publication. Only on March 29, 1917, after the February Revolution, did the official Vestnik Vremennogo Pravitelstva [Bulletin of the Provisional Government] announce: "The Literature Branch [of the academy] has confirmed the writer A. M. Peshkov's (M. Gorky) Honorary Academician membership." The article was signed by the permanent secretary of the Academy of Sciences, Ordinary Academician Sergei Oldenburg. Later, the Orientalist Oldenburg (1863-1934) played one of the key roles during the Sovietization of the academy, trying to save the remnants of the academy's independence.     The academy supported the Provisional Government completely, but, unfortunately, it was weak and indecisive. On July 21, the government was reshuffled, and Aleksandr Kerensky, minister of war and navy, became its chairman. Permanent Secretary Oldenburg was appointed minister of people's education, and the geochemist academician Vernadsky became deputy minister. He continued to serve as deputy minister after Oldenburg's resignation on August 31.     Most academicians regarded the Bolshevik takeover on November 7, 1917, as a national catastrophe. Discussions about the political situation in the country were held at two emergency meetings, on November 18 and 21, 1917. At the second meeting, a strong anti-Bolshevik resolution was adopted. Only the chairman of the chemical committee, Lieutenant General Vladimir Ipatieff, was against the resolution.     But Academician Vernadsky went further, participating in an attempt to continue the work of the Provisional Government underground, after most of its members had been arrested. On November 19, the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda [The Truth] published an order of the Military-Revolutionary Committee (VRK) to arrest members of the underground government. Vernadsky was on the list. The VRK was established by the Bolshevik-dominated Petrograd (named Leningrad after 1924) Soviet on October 12, 1917, and was the engine of the Bolshevik takeover. From October 29, 1917, on, it affiliated itself with the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK), the beginnings of the Soviet government. Usually the VRK is considered the predecessor of the first Soviet secret service, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission, or VCheKa. Three days later, the academy voted to send Vernadsky "to the Southern part of the country because of his bad health ..." The same day, he was able to leave Petrograd for the Ukraine and his life was saved. In the Ukraine, Vernadsky managed to escape the terrors of the Bolshevik/White Russian Civil War and in March 1921, returned to Moscow. He was detained soon after, in July 1921.     At the last emergency academy meeting, on December 22, 1917, it became evident that the new regime would not subsidize the academy if it did not recognize the authority of the Sovnarkom. In January 1918, President Karpinsky began negotiations with the commissar of education, Anatolii Lunacharsky. Financial support for academicians and the future goals of the academy under the new government were discussed. The Commissariat of Education (Narkompros) wanted the academy to turn immediately to the problems of industry. Finally, a kind of compromise was achieved--the academy received financial support, and a special commission developed a plan for the study of natural resources and the creation of physical chemistry and applied chemistry institutes.     Despite the Bolsheviks' promises of financial support, the economic situation for the academy became desperate in 1918, the first year of the Civil War. From 1918 to 1919, nine Petrograd academicians died from hunger or dystrophy. Among them were botanist Andrei Famintsyn and zoologist and embryologist Vladimir Zalensky. Zoologist Dmitrii Anuchin (1843-1923) and botanist and plant physiologist Vladimir Palladin died soon after. Only botanist Ivan Borodin, zoologist Nikolai Nasonov (1855-1939), and Ivan Pavlov lived to witness the replacement of the old academy members with new Soviet academicians and the transition of the academy into a huge structure of research institutes under Communist Party control.     In 1919, things got a little better. Academician Ipatieff recalled: At length in 1919 the members of the Academy of Sciences were given a monthly ration of forty pounds of bread, two pounds of buckwheat, two pounds of sugar, and one pound of some kind of vegetable oil or butter. Only Academy members were so treated. A month or so later the government gave all registered scientists monthly rations, a "scientist" being defined as one who had published scientific articles ... The scientists were divided into groups, and for two years each group came for its rations on days announced in advance. The more well-to-do scientists carried away their rations on sleds in the winter and in little carts in the summer; others used their backs. These rations undoubtedly saved the lives of many talented men ...     Due to Lenin's special decree dated January 24, 1921, the famous academician Ivan Pavlov and his colleagues were able to continue their physiological research during the Civil War. The decree ordered establishment of "a special committee" to be chaired by Maxim Gorky, who would be given "the broad powers to direct this committee to create as soon as possible the most favorable conditions for safeguarding the scientific work of Academician Pavlov and his collaborates."     Also, the special Commission to Improve Living Conditions of Scientists (KUBU), chaired by Honorary Academician Gorky, was organized in December 1919. In November 1921, it became the Central Commission, or the TseKUBU. Ipatieff gives details: Later, the scientists were divided into five groups, the fifth including only the few who had international reputations, the classifying being done by the so-called KUBU. Financial assistance was based on the same classification ... Being in the fifth group, I received seventy "gold" rubles [$35] a month, while the monthly pay of the first group was about ten "gold" rubles [$5] ... Besides this, special buildings were reserved for scientists at various health resorts and the KUBU decided which scientists were to go to them. (Continues...) Excerpted from THE PERVERSION OF KNOWLEDGE by Vadim J. Birstein. Copyright © 2001 by Vadim J. Birstein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. xi
List of Acronyms and Abbreviationsp. xiii
Forewordp. xvii
Acknowledgmentsp. xix
Introductionp. 1
1 Science Under Siegep. 15
The Academy of Sciences: Beginningsp. 18
The Tactical Center Casep. 24
An Appeal Without an Answerp. 28
Class Selectionp. 33
The Last Strawp. 39
Cleansingp. 41
The Party Knows Betterp. 45
The Doctors' Plot Case, the Allilueva Case, and the JAC Casep. 51
Memoriesp. 69
Psychological Underpinningsp. 77
2 Deadly Sciencep. 81
The First Secret Laboratoriesp. 84
The Laboratory of Death: A Short Historyp. 97
The Lab After Mairanovskyp. 103
Experimentsp. 113
Warfare and Sabotagep. 120
The Victimsp. 127
Executionsp. 131
3 Collaboratorsp. 143
Mairanovsky's Careerp. 143
Mairanovsky's Colleaguesp. 166
Scientists Who Knew and Approvedp. 168
The Gulag's "Academicians," Gidroproekt and Dalstroip. 177
The "Academicians" Bridging Security and Politicsp. 184
"Honorary Retirement" for Executionersp. 188
Informersp. 192
Some Bitter Thoughtsp. 196
4 Resistancep. 201
Nikolai Koltsov's Study in 1920p. 202
Protestors of the 1930s-1940s: Vavilov and Pryanishnikovp. 209
Within the Atomic Projectp. 241
Some Oppositionp. 247
The August 1948 Session: General Factsp. 249
Those Who Lost and Those Who Gainedp. 255
A Typical Lysenkoistp. 262
The Cruzin Casep. 266
Two Who Did Not Bowp. 270
More Opposition in Moscowp. 276
Dissent from the Late 1950s to the 1970sp. 280
General Remarksp. 287
Epiloguep. 297
Notesp. 307
Appendix I Biographical Sketchesp. 391
Appendix II Translated Documentsp. 433
Selected Readingsp. 457
Indexp. 465

Google Preview