Trofim Lysenko

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Trofim Lysenko

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (Russian: Трофи́м Дени́сович Лысе́нко) (September 29, 1898November 20, 1976) was a Soviet biologist who, during the 1930s, led a campaign against agricultural genetics now known as Lysenkoism, which lasted until the mid-1960s in the USSR.



Lysenko, the son of Denis and Oksana Lysenko, came from a peasant family in Ukraine and attended the Kiev Agricultural Institute. In 1927, at the age of 29, while working at an experiment station in Azerbaijan he was credited by the Soviet newspaper Pravda with having discovered a method to fertilize fields without using fertilizers or minerals, and that he had proved that a winter crop of peas could be grown in Azerbaijan, "turning the barren fields of the Transcaucasus green in winter, so that cattle will not perish from poor feeding, and the peasant Turk will live through the winter without trembling for tomorrow" (a typical peasant "miracle" of the early Soviet press). The winter crop of peas, however, failed in succeeding years.

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Lysenko speaking at the Kremlin in 1935. At the back (left to right) are Stanislav Kosior, Anastas Mikoyan, Andrei Andreev and the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin

Such would be the pattern of Lysenko's success with the Soviet media from 1927 until 1964—reports of amazing (and impossible) successes, which would be replaced with claims of new successes once the old ones became failures. What mattered more to the press was that Lysenko was a "barefoot scientist"—an embodiment of the mythical Soviet peasant genius.

Lysenko's "science" was practically nonexistent. When he had any clearly formed theories, they were generally a mismash of Lamarckism and various confused forms of Darwinism; the majority of Lysenko's work consisted of "practical directions" for agriculture, such as cooling grain before it was planted. Lysenko's primary procedure was a mixture of so-called "vernalization" (by which Lysenko generally meant anything he did to plant seeds and tubers) as well as hybridization. During one period, for example, he picked a spring wheat with a short "stage of vernalization" but a long "light stage," which he crossed with another variety of wheat with a long "stage of vernalization" and a short "light stage." He did not explain what was meant by these stages. Lysenko then concluded on the basis of his stage theory that he knew in advance that the cross would produce offspring that would ripen sooner and as such yield more than their parents and thus did not have to test many plants through their generations. Though scientifically unsound on a number of levels, Soviet journalists and agricultural officials were delighted with Lysenko's claims, as they sped up laboratory work and cheapened it considerably. Lysenko was given his own journal, Vernalization, in 1935, with which he generally bragged about forthcoming successes.

The Soviet press reported great successes from Lysenko's early initiatives, though in the end they would almost all result in failure. What most caught the Soviet government's eye with Lysenko was his success at motivating peasants, however. Soviet agriculture was deeply damaged by the mandatory collectivization movement in the early 1930s, and many peasants were at best unenthusiastic and at worst prone to destroy their grain to keep it away from the Soviet government. Lysenko energized the enthusiasm of the peasants, making them feel truly in control and participants in the great Soviet revolutionary experiment. By the late 1920s, the Soviet political bosses had given their support to Lysenko. Lysenko himself spent much time decrying academic scientists and geneticists, claiming that their isolated laboratory work was not helping the Soviet people. In his personality, he was quick to anger and could tolerate no criticism. By 1929 the skeptics of Lysenko were politically censured for only being able to criticize rather than prescribe new solutions. In December 1929, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave a famous speech elevating "practice" above "theory", elevating the judgment of the political bosses above that of the scientists and technical specialists. Though the Soviet government under Stalin gave much more support to genuine agricultural scientists in its early days, after 1935 the balance of power abruptly swung towards Lysenko and his followers.

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Lysenko studying wheat

Lysenko was put in charge of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the Soviet Union and made responsible for ending the propagation of "harmful" ideas among Soviet scientists. Lysenko served this purpose faithfully, causing the expulsion, imprisonment, and death of hundreds of scientists and the demise of genetics (a previously flourishing field) throughout the Soviet Union. This period is known as Lysenkoism. Particularly, he bears responsibility for the death of the greatest Soviet biologist, Nikolai Vavilov, at the hands of the NKVD. After Stalin's death in 1953, Lysenko retained his position, enjoying a relative degree of trust from Nikita Khrushchev. However, mainstream scientists were now given the ability to criticize Lysenko for the first time since the late 1920s.

In 1962 three of the most prominent Soviet physicists, Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich, Vitaly Ginzburg, and Pyotr Kapitsa, set out the case against Lysenko, his false science and his policy of political extermination of scientific opponents. This happened as a part of a greater trend of combatting the ideological influence that had held such sway in Soviet society and science. In 1964, physicist Andrei Sakharov spoke out against Lysenko in the General Assembly of the Academy of Sciences:

he is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudoscientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists. [1] (

The Soviet press was soon filled with anti-Lysenkoite articles and appeals for the restoration of scientific methods to all fields of biology and agricultural science. Lysenko was removed from his post as director of the Institute of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences and restricted to an experimental farm in the Lenin Hills, near Moscow (the Institute itself was soon dissolved). After the dismissal of Khrushchev in 1965, the president of the Academy of Sciences declared that Lysenko's immunity to criticism had officially ended, and an expert commission was sent to Lysenko's experimental farm. A few months later, a devastating critique became public and Lysenko's reputation was completely destroyed in the Soviet Union, though it would continue to have effect in China for many years.

Lysenko died in 1976.

See also


  • Graham, Loren, Science in Russia and the Soviet Union, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Graham, Loren, What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from the Russian Experience?, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998.
  • Joravsky, David, The Lysenko Affair, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
  • Lecourt, Dominique, "Proletarian Science?: The Case of Lysenko", London: NLB ; Atlantic Highlands, N.J. : Humanities Press, 1977.

External links

et:Trofim Lssenko fr:Trofim Denissovitch Lyssenko fi:Trofim Lysenko sv:Trofim Lysenko zh:特罗菲姆·李森科


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