Organized Session

New Perspectives on Soviet Science and Society

Organizer

Michael James Coates III

University of California, Berkeley

Chair

Pey-Yi Chu

Pomona College

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Session Abstract

Historians of science have long studied the ideas and practices of Soviet science for their peculiarities, even as recent scholarship has begun to emphasize the place of the Soviet Union in the international scientific system. At the same time, historians of the Soviet Union have noted the centrality of scientific ideas in the construction of the new Soviet society and new Soviet citizens.
Bridging these histories, this panel seeks to open new lines of inquiry on the history of Soviet science, its relationship with the broader Soviet project, and its place in world history. The papers will address the history of a Soviet encyclopedia project which was intended to transform all of human knowledge in accordance with the principles of Soviet ideology, a joint Soviet-Cuban oceanology expedition which demonstrates the tensions that sometimes emerged in collaborations between those two socialist countries, early Soviet ideas about about hybridization and the human-animal boundary, and the ideological challenges that Darwinism raised in the Soviet Union.

Presenter 1

Making Knowledge Soviet: On the History of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia

Michael James Coates III

University of California, Berkeley

Abstract

This talk is a study of the history of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia [Bol'shaia Sovetskaia Entsiklopediia], which was the primary all-subject encyclopedia of the Soviet Union. Published in three editions between 1926 and 1978, this encyclopedia was intended to revolutionize all of human knowledge, breaking down the metaphysical barriers that "bourgeois science" was said to have erected between the fields of knowledge and remaking them in accordance with the philosophy of dialectical materialism. This would make the sciences philosophically unified and greatly accelerate the progress of science as well as reinforce belief in Soviet ideology by helping readers to develop the correct worldview. In practice, the editors of the Encyclopedia were also tasked with developing much of that ideology, as there were many topics on which no orthodoxy existed. In order to carry out this project, a massive collaborative network which would come to include tens of thousands of scholars and nearly every major educational and research institution in the Soviet Union was developed. Unlike similar projects, such as the roughly-contemporaneous International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, this encyclopedia was completed, but only after many delays and difficulties, during which time the Communist Party's ideology shifted many times.
Much recent research in the history of science aimed to examine the conceptual foundations of science and general ways and styles of knowing under the framework of historical epistemology. Viewed from this perspective, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia is particularly important as it represents a direct attempt to challenge and overthrow precisely these types of long-term conceptual and cognitive structures which underlie modern science. Ultimately, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia was an attempt to create a distinctively Soviet system of knowledge - with enormous consequences for both Soviet ideology and for the production of knowledge in the Soviet Union.

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Presenter 2

Anxiety on the Kovalievsky: Contested Expertise in Cuban-Soviet Scientific Expeditions

Clarissa Ibarra

University of California, Berkeley

Abstract

With the Cuban Revolution's re-initiation of Cuban-Soviet relations in 1960, a slew of joint scientific projects between the two countries ensued. These joint projects were created in order to bring the Soviet Union (the supposed epitome of socialist development) and all its resources into closer contact with Cuba's nascent socialist project. This paper uses the experiences of Soviet and Cuban oceanologists on the research vessel, "Academic Kovalievsky," in 1965-1966, to examine the ways in which both the Soviet Union and Cuba used the language of science to support their visions of (and ultimately, exert control over) how the socialist world should be organized. The paper will use the oceanologists' field notes, research publications, administrative documents and memoirs to interrogate the hopes and anxieties of that encounter between Soviet socialism and the Cuban experience. Both Soviet and Cuban scientists contested each other's scientific expertise as well as expertise in building socialism in the West, creating insurmountable tensions both on and off the research vessel.

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Presenter 3

Darwinism in the Soviet Union

Mirjam Voerkelius

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Abstract

Darwinism appealed to the Bolsheviks as a materialist science and held the promise of being a reliable weapon in their struggle against religion. Yet in spite of the centrality of Darwinism to Bolshevik ideology, efforts to reconcile Marxism and Darwinism were fraught and beset with contradictions. Taking the Moscow Darwin Museum as its starting point, this paper will discuss the specificities of the reception of Darwinism in the Soviet Union. In particular, it will consider how scientists in the Soviet Union sought to reconcile scientific theory with ideology. How were they to resolve the tensions between two markedly differing accounts of natural and human development as represented by Darwin's gradualist theory of evolution that decentered humankind on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Marx's theory of revolution that centered on qualitative leaps? These tensions forced scientists and ideologues to confront fundamental problems pertaining to the place of humankind in nature, and whether the laws of natural history and human history ought to align.

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Presenter 4

Soviet Hybridization and the Human-Animal Boundary

Nicole Eaton

Boston College

Abstract

This paper will explore early twentieth-century scientific research in the late Russian Empire, Europe, and early Soviet Union on hybridization and the human-animal boundary. It will follow the research of a few Soviet and transnational biologists, physiologists, and immunologists, including Ilya Ivanov, a pioneer in artificial insemination and the researcher responsible for the most serious attempt to date to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid; Elie Metchnikoff, the "father of natural immunity" who developed the precursors for contemporary understanding of the human body as a "superorganism" in collaboration with millions of bacteria, and Ivan Pavlov, the physiologist most famous for his work on conditional and unconditional reflexes, but also a pioneer in the science of digestion. These scientists were among the first to engage in experimental biology aimed at breaking through previous limitations of the human species, and their work takes on increasing relevance today, as numerous projects in experimental biology in the US, Europe, and Russia seek to create new life through hybridization and synthetic biology. This paper will show the relation between the scientific discourses and practices in the early Soviet Union from a century ago reveal some of the political, ethical, and cultural assumptions underlying the experiments and research of a wide range of practitioners today, from geneticists to biohackers, from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to synthetic biologists.

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