This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


“Russian is now recognized in American universities as a scientific language,” said a young Californian who was visiting with me the Leningrad Institute for Plant Protection. “Four years ago the universities wouldn’t take it as one of the two languages required for a scientific degree. But now my professors tell me that for my specialty of farm pests, it is the most important language of all. More original work is appearing in it than in any other language. German and French research is older and was translated some years ago. But our universities haven’t funds today to translate all this new research appearing in Russian.”

This American youth hardly connected in his mind the decline in German and French research and the lack of American university funds for translation with the world-wide economic crisis. He knew little of the collectivization of Soviet farming and the stimulus it had given to his branch of science. But across two seas and two continents the results of these causes had reached the aloof halls of a university in California, interpreted thus “Russian—a scientific language—original research not yet found in translation.”

Visiting scientists at the Fifteenth International Physiology Congress which met in Leningrad in August 1935, expressed an appreciation not untinged with amazement at the high respect paid science by the Soviet government and the rapid strides made by Soviet science in recent years. “No government ever ‘took up’ science as has this government. . . .” “Even the Americans are startled by the amount of resources which can be placed at the disposal of science by a government planning on a national scale. . . .” Such were some of the comments which found their way into the press of New York. Professor Walter B. Cannon, of the Harvard Medical School, told the Congress how science suffers today in all the capitalist countries, and added: “In the Soviet Union, where the social importance of science is appreciated, the funds made available for the development and prosecution of science are greater than in any country in the world.” The report of the Congress later given in Science, official organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, noted “the respect with which scientists are treated,” “the important position which science, pure as well as applied, occupies in the national economy,” and the “ardor of the army of young scientific workers.”

Soviet citizens take it for granted—Marxists in fact have taken it for granted ever since the days of Marx—that science must naturally reach a much freer and fuller development under socialism than is possible under capitalism. Capitalism, whose early expansion a century or more ago encouraged and boasted its science, has already reached the stage where science is an embarrassment, since the possibilities of human development which it reveals are unrealizable under private ownership. Science itself under capitalism suffers from a lack of aim. In England the head of the oldest agricultural experiment station in the world told a visiting Russian scientist that he hardly knew what to investigate since the declining condition of farming in England and the antagonisms in Egypt and India prevented the application of everything he discovered. In America the hostility between science and capitalism is only in its first stages, and is marked by increasing suppression of new knowledge which would interfere with profit. In Germany where a collapsing capitalism has taken the form of fascism, there is already a deep distrust of human reason and a propaganda against the very existence of science.

In the Soviet Union science is rapidly expanding. Communism demands the thorough-going application of science to remake all human life; it assumes that the intellect of man can progressively understand and subdue nature to his collective will. “A new historical epoch will begin,” said Engels, “when men and their work will improve to such an extent that all previous achievements will seem as but a feeble shadow.” “We are confident that in our epoch we are entering an era of unparalleled progress in science,” is a typical editorial comment today in 2 Moscow newspaper. President Karpinsky, of the All-Union Academy of Science, spoke of the USSR as “the country where science is given a place of honor,” when he greeted the visiting physiologists “on behalf of hundreds of research institutes.” Even the famous physiologist, L. P. Pavlov, who was always antagonistic to Bolshevik ideas, said recently that he wanted to live to be a hundred because “the Soviet government has given millions for my scientific work and my laboratories flourish as never before.”

Those doubters who fear that state subsidies for science interfere more with scientific freedom than do the subsidies of individual millionaires, and who promote abroad the idea that the Soviets “persecute scientists,” ignore the fact that a high esteem for science is quite consistent with a deep suspicion of individual scientists. Conflicts did persist between the Soviet government and certain scientists who used their knowledge to fight the Revolution. That sabotage by scientists and engineers occurred on a very wide scale during the early years of the first Five-Year Plan has been acknowledged by thousands of former saboteurs. Only when the victory of the Five-Year Plan was assured beyond question did these waverers finally come over to find that socialism gives far greater opportunities for their science than capitalism ever did or could.1 The Academy of Science has been greatly expanded from the three departments, mathematics, natural sciences, and historical philology, which it comprised before the Revolution. It is the center for planning and co-ordinating the scientific activity of the entire country through its twenty-one large departments and its frequent inter-departmental sessions. It works hand in hand with the State Planning Commission which indicates to it the requests for widespread scientific research in particular fields needed for the development of the country. It is also the court of appeal for all scientists who disagree with government departments or research institutes on questions of their work, or who want to do research for which no appropriation yet exists. In all conflicts on the objectives of research the Academy decides, being liberally financed directly under the All-Union government. The city of Moscow has recently assigned to the Academy 1,250 acres on the Moscow River, where the first of forty-two projected buildings are now being built.

More than one thousand scientific research institutes in the USSR, employing 41,000 scientific workers, were claimed at the Physiology Congress by Akulov, Secretary of the Central Executive Committee of the government. Many of these institutes are of monumental size and scope. The All-Union Institute of Experimental Medicine, for instance, is the organizing center of all medical research in the USSR. Scientists, doctors and engineers worked for two years on the construction plan of its new home where 5,500 employees are to study “the biology and pathology of the human being from every aspect.” Hospitals of the institute make continuous study of typical cases of various diseases and healthy people are also studied as “controls.”

One of the largest of the scientific institutions is the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, which correlates the work of nearly sixty institutes for research in soil chemistry, plant protection, livestock breeding, microbiology, agrometeorology and similar branches of science. The work of the agricultural institutes is based upon material obtained in 200 experiment stations and more than 1,500 smaller research stations in state and collective farms. Each of the subordinate institutes is an important organization in itself; the Institute for Plant Protection, for instance, has a central staff of 250 scientific workers and dozens of branches all over the country.

The expansion of Soviet science arises not only from the need of socialism for scientific planning, but from the wide interest and co-operation on the part of the people. The Academy of Science is no secluded institution of the aristocracy; it is the unity of the scientific brains of the country with the masses. Science in the Soviet Union is dear to all the people, for every citizen knows that its discoveries will become his own possession and not the property of a small privileged group. “We scientists used to feel ourselves rather unimportant, since we had already discovered so much more than people were able to apply, but now that the collective farms demand our science, we see our work for several thousand years,” said Vaviloff, Vice-Chairman of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences and world-famous discoverer and creator of new plants.

The wide interest of the Soviet population in science expresses itself not only in honor to scientists but in active participation in scientific work by great numbers of people. Every scientific institution receives much popular co-operation, from workers, farmers, even from children. When the All-Union geological survey sent some two thousand annual expeditions with seventy to eighty thousand participants to explore and map the resources of the Soviet Union during the first Five-Year Plan, these official expeditions became the correlating center of a still broader popular movement. Thousands of grammar school children became “discoverers of our country,” going with their teachers to study geological outcroppings. Tens of thousands of hikers learned from geologists what to look for on cliffs and mountain slopes and occasionally made discoveries of significance. One of the stimulating causes of the first great Pamir expedition came from a Khirghiz nomad who carried a gold nugget several days journey to Samarkand and fought his way through many bureaucratic offices because he “thought the government ought to know about the gold in the Pamirs.”

Every large factory has its bureau of workers’ inventions through which inventive genius of workers finds connection with the wider world. Workers and farmers who make practical discoveries are often asked to report them in their own non-technical words at scientific congresses. Scientists in turn give frequent lectures in factories on subjects applicable to the work of the plant. Analysis of steel by the spectrum method will be reported to a machine-building plant, and discussions on organic chemistry will be given by scientists at a rubber works to a large attendance of interested workers.

So deep and thorough is the interest taken by workers in science that the cleavage between workingmen and scientists already lessens, presaging that time predicted by Marx when the distinction between mental and manual labor will disappear. At a banquet held by the Academy of Science in the Neskuchny Palace in Moscow, a number of leading factory workers were present as guests. A foreign newspaperman, wishing to interview Professor Bach, a well-known member of the Academy, approached a man who was pointed out to him from 2 distance. They chatted half an hour about the revolution in culture, the creation of a new life, and the new type of human being now appearing under socialism. In parting, the correspondent asked for the Academician’s autograph. The man to whom he was speaking started in surprise. “My name Is Ivanov; Bach is the person sitting next to me,” he said, pointing to a man who had been attentively listening. “I myself am a locksmith from the ball-bearing plant.”

One of the most striking examples of the democratization of science is the “laboratory cottage,” which has developed in the last two years on the collective farms. Seven thousand of these centers of experiment are reported in the Ukraine alone. The head of the laboratory is sometimes a teacher of the village school, but more often a self-educated farmer who has the scientific instinct and whose enthusiasm has organized other farmers to make experiments in their fields and correspond with scientific stations.

“This scientific tendency in human beings takes such varied forms,” said an editor, “that one cannot even classify them. In the past these scientific instincts often died stillborn because of poverty. Today we seek them out through many agencies; one of these is our Peasants’ Gazette. Today a new type of experimenter is developing who does not experiment secretly but organizes the masses around him to discover and carry out new ideas. There is often some waste of time and destruction of machinery in these experiments. But this does not worry us. What is important and valuable is that the human being is striving to change, to improve. Waste of time and destruction of materials matters nothing, if thereby we add even one drop of knowledge which enables man to increase his understanding and control of nature.”

One such natural scientist was Akulov, a peasant of the Genichesk district. As a World War prisoner in Austria, he saw one head of grain much bigger than the surrounding heads. He kept it and eventually brought it home to his own garden to breed new giant heads. When the collective farm was formed in his village in 1930, Akulov had four bushels of this special grain to give them. The big heads were planted and cherished until there were several score acres of them. The samples were then sent to the All-Union Institute of Plants and found to be a new variety existing nowhere else in the world.

Seventy-five-year-old illiterate Barashev was another such natural scientist. For nearly twenty years he worked to produce a frost-resistant flax; the collective fields of his farm are harvesting it this year. Pechtilief, in the Leningrad district, stirred up such an interest among his neighbors in discovering why two fields on the same farm gave such different yields, that the whole village became one vast experimental farm, planting several thousand acres in various ways and comparing the results of different types of tillage. Pechtilief appeared before the Congress of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences to demand that scientists find a way to produce a new variety of wheat which should combine the high milling quality of one variety with the non-shattering characteristics of a second. Kolosev, another collective farmer, has challenged the scientists to work out types of seeds and tillage which will insure different ripening times for the various crops and thus get an even load of work through a maximum period for the harvesting machine.

The assimilation of new scientific ideas proceeds far faster under the new collective farm system than under the old individual farming. Some entire districts have already become agricultural experiment stations. In Zhadryansk district, near Cheliabinsk, several thousand experiments were carried on in a single summer with oats, wheat, green peas, sunflower seeds and other crops. Special conferences were held attended by two hundred or more delegates from the various laboratory cottages. All these popular experiments are in constant touch with the scientific organizations of the Commissariat of Agriculture, and are protected against undue loss by a government policy of crop insurance.

Several achievements of Soviet agricultural science are already of world significance. The method of “vernalization,” which changes winter wheat to spring wheat, late cotton to early cotton and biennial to annual plants, has made it possible to grow Algerian wheat beyond the Polar circle, at 67.4 degrees of latitude in Khibiny. The northernmost botanical gardens in the world are on the Kola Peninsula, where experiments with six hundred plants found twenty-five that could be adapted to the Arctic. The Soviet Union has developed its own rubber industry from the newly discovered “rubber” plants, tau-sagiz and kok-sagiz, found in the mountains of Turkestan and cultivated later as far north as the Ukraine. The brilliant work of Michurin in developing frost-resistant varieties of fruits made him famous not only among scientists of the world but among millions of Soviet farmers, tens of thousands of whom journey annually to his plant-breeding station to report on their use of his varieties.

New machines have been developed, a machine for retching flax which is revolutionizing the flax industry, a “northern” combined-harvester suitable for grain of high moisture content. Even the ordinary combine first imported from America has undergone sixty improvements and is said by experts to be the best in the world. Research into soil microbiology has made, according to Vaviloff, “the role of micro-organisms in the soil a calculable factor.” The artificial fertilization of livestock, in which the spermatozoa are sent by mail or airplane from experimental stations to the laboratory cottages, is today applied to half the country’s livestock, insuring rapid improvement of stock from pure-bred males. Under the constant co-operation of collective farmers with scientific centers, the agricultural map of the country is rapidly changing. Sugar beets expand towards the Urals, cotton appears in South Ukraine, irrigation and tree-planting begins to reclaim the wastes beyond the Volga, and wheat marches steadily towards the Arctic. Thousands of acres are today successfully farmed in the Murmansk district on the Arctic Ocean, in place of a scant twelve acres a few years ago.

The most spectacular example of the planned advance of man under the leadership of science is the conquest of the Polar regions, which has stirred the imagination and enthusiasm of the whole Soviet land. Scientists of the All-Union Arctic Institute first seriously broached the idea of a Great Northern Sea Route in 1930, though other scientists declared that traffic along the northern coast of Europe and Asia was “impracticable during the present glacial epoch.” The Soviet government backed its bolder scientists, established the Central Administration of the Northern Sea Route and gave it ships and funds. Step by step the rapid advance was made, first by dozens of expeditions which mapped coasts and charted waters, then by thirty-nine Polar scientific stations, equipped with radio and airplane service, then by trading fleets led by ice-breakers first from the west, then from the east, and then along the whole Polar coast from Atlantic to Pacific.

The whole world remembers the epic of the Chelyushkin, its tragic wreck northwest of Bering Straits, the skillful landing on ice which was crashing around them, the two months of heroic organization of “normal life” in their floating home on the ice-floe, where Professor Schmidt, dressed in deer-skin coat and fur cap, delivered lectures on dialectic materialism or the Freudian theory, and found time to edit the galleys of the Unabridged Soviet Encyclopedia which he had brought from Moscow, and to write a preface to a book on higher mathematics. The history of Polar expeditions has known many examples of daring, but never such courageously casual organization of normal routine under abnormal conditions as this “Soviet Republic on the Ice” which got out its “wall newspaper” with cartoons and self-criticism, and comments on the Communist Party Congress then taking place in Moscow, received by the Chelyushkinites by radio.

Today special ships are built in Soviet shipyards, embodying the experience of the Chelyushkin for the conquest of the northern seas. Steadily the designs of airplanes and clothing have been adapted to Arctic weather and the plane is now the “eyes of the north.” Four ordinary freighters in the summer of 1935 made the whole trip around the north of Europe and Asia, and scores will follow in 1936. The network of heroic scientists, wintering in thirty-nine stations, begins to be supplemented by miners, timber-workers, even farmers. Extensive prospecting has been done for minerals, especially coal and oil to serve the northern trade route. A new type of man is following the explorers and scientists—engineers, technicians, builders of the Arctic. And science pushes farther north in the expedition of the Sadko, to discover, at latitude 82° 40’—the farthest north ever reached in free sailing—the re-emergence of a warm section of the Gulf Stream which may make the northern sea route practicable for more months of the year. Of all the world’s eight ships which have reached during the past half century the latitudes around 80°, two were American, two Scandinavian and four were Soviet ships of the past few years.

It is the support of the whole Soviet country which strengthens these men of the north in their conquests. The entire Soviet population regards these Arctic subduers as their representatives and champions. It shares their lives by radio hook-ups Moscow talks through the six months’ night with Dixon Island, which issues the Arctic Radio News. All Russia thrilled when a young ex-criminal, sent to the far north to “make himself over,” was reassured across three thousand frozen miles by the voice of his factory sweetheart urging him to make good. When a winter childbirth in a distant Arctic station developed complications, the neighbors got the Dixon Island surgeon on the radio and for more than three hours he directed over the air every detail while the whole of a much-worried Arctic listened in. When the child and mother were safe, congratulations poured in from thousands of miles of icebound waterfront.

Even under capitalism science breaks the boundaries of nations, steadily to lift the power of man. Under socialism it becomes the consciously applied and swiftly expanding strength of the whole population, conquering for man his world.


1.  See details in Chap. 3, page 52-3.

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