Lysenko's Time

At the beginning of the 1930s, Joseph Stalin’s policies resulted in in a terrible famine in large areas of the Soviet Union, and particularly Ukraine. Millions of people died, most of them, strangely enough, farmers responsible for growing wheat.

Since then there has been a lot of debate around the nature of the famine. Was it exacerbated by natural factors? Was it due to bad production policies? Or bad distribution policies? Was it a necessary result of agricultural “reform?” Or was it a  result of the enforcement of reform policies by force, despite the refusal and resistance of the farmers? 

Some Ukrainians are even convinced that the famine was the result of a deliberate strategy and was, in fact, a massacre to ensure the complete submission of Ukraine.

What is certain is that the policies that led to the famine were strongly opposed at the time, both from within the ruling Communist Party and from outside it, and that the famine did not come as a surprise to the opposition, which ranged from politicians to experts to farmers.

What is certain also is that Stalin at the time was busy eliminating dissidents as well as all possible future rivals and his old comrades from the Bolshevik Revolution. And so the main tools with which the regime confronted the famine were repression and propaganda.

In this context, Trofim Lysenko came to prominence as the ideal propaganda tool: a son of the proletariat, born in rural Ukraine, who had taught himself the sciences of biology, agriculture and genetics without depending on the academic institutions inherited from the bourgeoisie and the era of the Tsars. Lysenko was introduced to Soviet society as a hero of the revolution, able to work miracles, to fruitfully plant seeds outside their seasons and to double the productivity of the land through the strength of his loyalty to the revolution and to the party.

Lysenko’s star rose quicky under the direction of the authorities, Stalin was not bothered about paltry details like the viability of research or the accuracy of experiments or Lysenko’s adherence to scientific methodology. He was not worried by the unanimity of the scientific community that Lysenko was either supremely ignorant or a criminal fraud. Stalin’s problem was political – how to persuade his people to endure the famine and live with want while submitting to his regime? Science would be no use to him, but the Lysenko Myth might be.

At the direct command of the leadership, Lysenko became the most important Soviet scientist, and the state established research institutes and scientific magazines devoted to Lysenkoism. Lysenko’s critics were faced with terror and smear campaigns, deprived of work, jobs and promotions until – at the peak of Lysenko’s power – a law was issued that criminalised critiquing his theories or conducting any experiments that might disprove them.

With the excuse of confronting the conspiracies of the capitalist West and its Fifth Column among the weak-faithed bourgeois scientists, the most important principles of scientific research were disregarded: that all results and theories are open to doubt and experiment, revision and discussion.

Most Soviet scientists submitted. Some wrote papers supporting Lysenko’s theories in return for holding onto their posts, some used the situation to denounce their colleagues and dispose of their rivals, most turned away from research in biology and genetics and concentrated on areas which Lysenko had not invaded and theories not subject to absurd ideological conflict.

This situation lasted approximately two decades. Lysenko’s authority was not broken until the death of Stalin.

Lysenko appeared in the context of a dictatorship seeking to construct a great state; an empire controlling half the world. His effect was to damage and disrupt science and to entrench authoritarianism to the extent that those who exposed him and destroyed his myth, when it became permissible to do so, still ended up in exile and in concentration camps because they imagined that the license for a scientific critique of Lysenko’s nonsense was also a license for a political critique of Lysenko’s patrons.

So what about another Lysenko who appears at the heart of a miserable military regime whose ambition is simply to hold onto an impoverished, corrupt, dependent state? Lysenko here appears in order to peddle illusions: the valiant army is able – with science – to perform a miracle that will put an end to all disease.

In prison, all sources of information are official except the daily papers. I couldn’t attend the mockfest on the net and I never got all the “kofta” riffs but I made myself wait patiently for the serious critiques, the professional unmaskings and the scientific dismantlings I would read in the papers – for our time is not Lysenko’s time, and his feeble press conference fell far short of convincing propaganda.

But the papers came empty of any criticism. Our respected journalists didn’t even take the trouble to contact any “sources.” Lysenko’s mystical fabrications were reproduced verbatim. I waited for the comment pages. The next day, Khaled Montaser’s column in Al-Watan was the only sceptical – although exaggeratedly polite – voice. The following day, Esam Heggi joined him, finally declaring that the affair was a huge scandal. Even so, his statement was published only in Al-Watan and ignored by the rest of the papers. And so the days followed with no critique and no unmasking and the only “revelations” being the treachery of Esam Heggi and the insolence of the youth online. 

Things changed after Friday (I understood later that this was the effect of Bassem Youssef’s TV episode), even though dissident voices remained constrained within the boundaries of courtesy and hesitancy and insistence that the “detection machine” was viable but the “treatment machine” needed more research and the conference needed a more professional production. And until Bassem Youssef published his article no-one dared to say that all Lysenko’s discourse was hallucinatory mumbo-jumbo, even though that was obvious to any science high school graduate.

I was naïve. This is not the first Lysenko to appear at this critical stage in our nation’s history. We have, for example, an entire court that was originally concerned with urgent cases in civil litigation and that has recently become Lysenkoism’s flag-bearer in judicial affairs. It issues pronouncements that bear no relation to any text, agreed interpretation or legal logic but that replace previous “final” judgements of the State Council; it convicts and imprisons with no reference to the law, it accepts cases outside its competence and rejects cases at the heart of its specialisation. The state – with a constitutional judge at its head – bases wide-ranging resolutions on its pronouncements, and the newspapers publish no objection from the specialists and the experts.

The Lysenko of the Ministry of the Interior announced the end of terrorism. “Anyone who wants to test us,” he offered, “just come close.” And then the security directorate of the capital was blown up. At one point, some newspapers shyly criticised him because his officers did not check the identity of the people they had detained before torturing them, but it was rare for anyone to be bold enough to declare openly that the whole business is run by charlatans.

A Lysenko insists that there is such a thing as “clean coal” and another Lysenko insists that there’s no such thing as Swine Flu. Lysenko claims that a maximum wage policy is being implemented. As for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam there’s been such an opacity of Lysenko-style statements swarming round it that I’ve lost all hope of understanding anything about the size of the danger facing us or our plans to confront it.

I imagine that the web is flooded with unmaskings of Lysenkos, so most of you may not notice their absence from the newspapers, but it’s worth noting. We do not yet have laws against critiquing Lysenko, and it’s unlikely that writers, journalists and specialists will be harmed if they unmask and expose, if they speak out with a sharpness equal to the enormity of the scandal, instead of oscillating between silence and support and justification and embarrassed advice-giving. These Lysenkos do not have the power to stop every newspaper.

The fear, then, is of the Big Lysenko, he whose star is rising despite his failure, who insists on pronouncing on everything even outside his field despite his clear ignorance of most things even within his field. But everybody sings of his genius; the miracle-working son of the establishment, for whom laws are passed and rivals and opposers and doubters smeared, who is hysterically promoted to cover the catastrophes and crimes of his employers.

Don’t be distracted by a small Lysenko away from the Big Lysenko. And don’t be distracted even by a Big Lysenko from the real power screened behind him. Authoritarianism in the Soviet Union did not end with the exposure of Lysenko or with the death of Stalin, nor even with the fall of the Soviet Union. Authoritarianism does not reside in an individual however powerful, but in the structure of the state and its institutions.

Advisors tell them – politely – to abide by the mechanisms of science and its procedures, to market their achievements properly so the reputation of their institutions doesn’t suffer. They warn us that we diminish respect for the state by going too far in spreading doubt, and by making fun of Lysenko. And they conveniently forget that Lysenko exists to put a pretty face on power, he exists to hide ugly truths behind deceitful myths.

The rise of Lysenko from the heart of every important institution at this time does not mean that there’s a failure to market the good but misunderstood essences of those institutions, it means that the essence of the institutions is corruption and bankruptcy and failure. Any good reputation they enjoy is a lie. Throughout their long history, these institutions have given us nothing except a long line of Lysenko lookalikes trying to cover their failure, their oppression, their happy dependency, their constant letting down of the people, their carelessness with lives and their violations of dignity.

Oppressive laws and fear-inspiring actions and the promotion of ignorance have succeeded in keeping intact the myth of every big Lysenko, until we have a state that is at one with authoritarianism and its institutions with Lysenkoism. In Russia, Stalin died and Lysenko fell. In Egypt, when the last ambitious tyrant fell, Lysenko took power and spent half a century cloning himself until every official and every spokesperson and every expert became Lysenko. The miracles multiplied and want remained constant.

They’re right. Exposing Lysenko destroys respect for the state and ruins the reputation of its institutions because it – simply – exposes their corrupt core. If your mission is to repair the reputation of the institutions and patch up respect for the state, join them and try to produce a modern, stylish Lysenko difficult to unmask. If your mission is to reform the heart of the state and the reality of its institutions, don’t content yourself with exposing Lysenko; focus on those who employ him.

Alaa Abd El Fattah