THURSDAY, 11 FEBRUARY 2021
In his 2016 book Stalin and the Scientists, Simon Ings delivers a whistle-stop tour of the role of science and those who practiced it in Russia, and then the USSR, in the first half of the 20th century. He divides this into three sections — Control, Power and Dominion. These respectively take us through the transition of the Russian Empire into the Stalinist USSR, Stalin’s purges and his politicising of Soviet science, and finally the effect of the German invasion in 1941 and the post-war period on Soviet science. Ings chooses to tell the story of Soviet science by focusing on various protagonists. This approach is engaging but somewhat confusing at times due to the sheer number of characters introduced. Nevertheless, his writing style is clear and straightforward, exactly the antidote needed for this kind of structure which also aims to condense around 100 years of cultural and revolutionary history into 400 pages.
As for the themes of the book, these are clear and run throughout: the incompatibility of ideology and the scientific method, the danger of deliberate ignorance and improper application of scientific research to suit political ends, and the role political expediency plays in changing the importance of ideology in the minds of powers that be. For example, previously impractical, ‘unsoviet’ fields such as physics suddenly became much more attractive once development of the atomic bomb became a matter of national security. In the epilogue, Ings holds a mirror up to the reader, challenging them to examine the same blind optimism we place in science to solve our modern issues of resource scarcity and consumerism as that of the early Soviets.