‘Whoever wants to understand Russia should come here and look down at Moscow’. The place Anton Chekhov is describing is the Sparrow Hills (Воробьёвы го́ры); forested parkland rolling down to the banks of the Moscow river with a perfect view over the whole of Moscow. Leaving the hills, the double-decker Luzhniki Bridge carries the metro over the river leading to the Luzhniki Stadium, which hosted the 1980 Summer Olympics. The bridge and metro line were both built in the 1950s during Stalin’s expansion of Moscow. Renamed The Lenin Hills, they also gained the 20-storey tall tower and main campus of Moscow Statue University and a ski jump allowing the brave to hurl themselves into the skies above the capital. Towards the river, the Russian Academy of Sciences was resituated and gained facilities. Among these new facilities was the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences (VASKhNIL) Experimental Research Facility ‘Lenin Hills’. Fields, greenhouses and laboratories under the personal control of the president of VASKhNIL, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. This was Lysenko’s Farm in the Lenin Hills
Lysenko was Stalin’s chosen. He’d been born to a peasant farming family in Odessa, Ukraine during the early years of Stalin’s introduction of collective farming. Collectivisation entailed ‘encouraging’ those who worked the land to do so as part of vast farms managed and run by the state uprooting traditional structures of farming all over the Soviet Union. The disruption this revolution caused lead to declining productivity in Russian agriculture during the 1920s and 1930s. Russia’s climate also lowered yields, with long winters and short growing seasons. Lysenko had been trained in agricultural research under this regime. He was moved to study in Azerbaijan, away from his family. It was there that he discovered the process of vernalisation – chilling winter-cropping seeds then planting them in Spring, shortening the growing season and increasing the yield an area could produce. This instantly brought him to the attention of Stalin. His humble background and the implications for Soviet agricultural productivity turned Lysenko into a Communist superstar. He was rapidly accelerated up the scientific hierarchy. Unfortunately, he was not a trained scientist. All his expertise were gained from his farming background and his results the product of using traditional farming knowledge.
Concurrent with his meteoric rise, events back in his homeland of Ukraine had taken a much, much darker turn. The population was starving. The causes were various, but Stalin’s dictats ensured that not only did millions die, but that as few people as possible knew about it. The nationalist ideals of the Ukranian population were Stalin’s target. Their resistance to collectivism, among other things, was a problem. The Holodomor was the solution that Stalin employed. Once the crops failed, Stalin saw to it that relief was unavailable and help would not be forthcoming. Grain was traded for export instead of feeding the populus. More than seven million died, with Odessa suffering some of the worst of it. Whether Lysenko knew of this from his lofty perch at the top of Stalin’s favoured list is not known. However he was busy asserting his power himself. He’d made the scientifically dubious claim that the offspring of vernalised seeds inhertied their traits, something that genetics already knew couldn’t happen. The Soviet scientific community started rejecting his claims, notably Nikolai Vavilov.
Vavilov was a noted Soviet geneticist of repute. He had amassed the largest seed collection in the Soviet Union, and like Lysenko was working to improve crops and their yields. He was a scientist first and foremost however, and when Lysenko made his dubious claims and announced even more almost miraculous discoveries, Vavilov felt he had to speak out regarding Lysenko’s bizarre claims. Claims that went against accepted Mendelian genetic understanding. It was not wise to pick a fight with Stalin’s chosen. Lysenko used his connections to mobilise the Soviet secret police, the NKVD against Vavilov, who found himself in a Siberian gulag. He died after four years of imprisonment. The same fate met any other scientist speaking out against Lysenko in this or many other scientific areas. Genetics was declared a bourgeois pseudoscience, along with cybernetics, sociology and some others. Apart from a few critical areas, the scientific method was ousted in favour of political ideology and Stalin’s favourites.
With his opponents disappeared and more major breakthroughs claimed, Lysenko got his farm in the beautiful surrounds of the Sparrow Hills, at the centre of the political elite. He went on tours around Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to spread his theories and the proletarian science of productive Soviet Michurian biology. Among Stalin’s towers above Moscow, he received visitors eager to learn his miracles of botany. Some of his first visitors were the neighbours. The People’s Republic of China has emerged victorious in their Civil War against the Kuomintang. The shared Communist ideology made the Soviet’s their closest ally in the early years. Their new embassy was also founded in the Sparrow Hills. They were keen to discover Lysenko’s secrets and were taken on tour of the Lenin Hills Experimental Farm in the year prior to Chairman Mao’s declaration of the Great Leap Forward. One of the first actions was the Four Pests Campaign – a drive to eliminate rats, mosquitoes, flies and, obviously, sparrows. Killing the sparrows was a bad mistake. They fed on many of the pests that ate the crops. Lysenko’s proletarian sciences wasn’t able to contend with this avian massacre and the simultaneous drastic reorganisation of Chinese agriculture, resulting in the Great Chinese Famine. More than 35 million Chinese died inside four years.
Still Lysenko carried on his experiments. After Stalin’s death, things got tougher for a while. Although his main pillar of political support was gone, Lysenko wielded substantial political power himself. Enough to survive doubts being voiced during the early years of Krushchev’s premiership and regain his pre-eminence at the top of the Soviet scientific tree. However his fall was inevitable. The prohibition on criticism of his work lapsed and the scientific community deluged the Ministry of Agriculture with complaints leading to an official investigation of the goings on at his experimental farm. The report six months later was devastating. It was all fake. Scientific method wasn’t followed. The results fabricated. Lysenko was stripped of his positions and power and sent into internal exile. He still had some friends in powerful places and he avoided a trip to the gulag. He was left with his farm and staff, free to continue his research despite it’s having been proved to be pointless.
For eleven further years he worked on his farm, looking across the river to Moscow and the heart of Russia. Near the site where Tsar Alexander I had planned and failed to build the great Cathedral of Christ the Saviour with its neoclassicism and symbols of Freemasonry. Still Lysenko worked night and day. But nothing more was heard of his labours. Whatever he was doing there has been lost deliberately or otherwise. He died there in his late 70s, still researching. The greenhouses remained even beyond the fall of the Soviet Union.