Some friend from Georgia told me that in every village of the Soviet Union there was an expert in nuclear physics.

By contrast, the Soviet Union did not invest into biology at all. As a consequence, people in Russia now do not know how to do biology.

Was it really so crazy?

Soviet Union is fascinating in some sense, I would say.


2 Answers 2


Your friend told you an anecdote, possibly in jest, because the truth seems comically twisted beyond recognition. Historical events dating back to 1930-1960s did influence the development of Soviet science in ways more favorable to physics than to biology. Much has changed since then, including cultural attitudes and government funding, but those events did leave a lasting mark on the tradition.

For ideological reasons Stalin opposed genetics and cybernetics as "foreign influences", and promoted agricultural pseudoscience of the likes of Trofim Lysenko, who promised results in the spirit of "transforming the world", the official Soviet ideology at the time. According to Sakharov, "he is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists." The poisoned atmosphere in Soviet biology during the late Stalin years is portrayed in a celebrated 1987 novel White Garments by Vladimir Dudintsev, which is translated into English. Unfortunately, Lysenko managed to engratiate himself to Khrushchev as well, so he remained a smothering influence in biology until Khrushchev's removal in 1964.

Physics and mathematics, on the other hand, enjoyed a somewhat greater degree of research freedom because Stalin was interested in potential military applications, the nuclear bomb in particular, more than in the ideological purity of physicists and mathematicians. This attracted many bright and independent people to these fields. In 1960s nuclear physics enjoyed broad popularity, physics degree programs at universities even became some of the most competitive ones for a while. Unlike high minded intellectual debates about Snow's "two cultures" the Soviet version of the controversy, nicknamed "physicists and lyricists", became a truly popular culture phenomenon. Interestingly enough, it was public denunciation in 1962 of Lysenko's work as pseudoscience, and of his use of political repression to silence and eliminate opponents, by three prominent Soviet physicists, Zel'dovich, Ginzburg and Kapitsa, that hastened his demise.


I can add to the answer of Conifold some of my own experience (I was a student and then a teacher in Ukraine in 1970-80-s). Soviet Union had excellent education system, on all levels from elementary school to University. Special emphasis was on science education (mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology). All these subjects were mandatory for all high school students, a rigorous curriculum was approved by a government body, and textbooks were written by outstanding scientists.

(Comparing this with the US education system where I work now was a real shock).

Besides this there were "olimpiads" in all these subjects, encouraging students to learn more, and selecting the most talented of them for future careers in science.

Physics and mathematics were especially popular in 1960-s and 1970-s and a career in these areas was considered desirable and had high prestige. Biology was also highly regarded.

Intrusion of the Communist ideology to natural sciences was not felt much after 1970-s. (Unlike to the social and humanitarian sciences like History and Economy, where it was very strong).

The most well-known example of this intrusion indeed happened in biology, but by the 1970-s it was over, and genetics returned to the curriculum. On the other hand, the scientific school in genetics was destroyed in the previous period, and such things leave a long lasting effect. On research, not on "K-12" education.


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