The politics of human heredity in the USSR, 1920-1940

The politics of human heredity in the USSR, 1920-1940

Adams MB.
Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia 19104-6310.

Abstract

After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Iurii Filipchenko (in Petrograd) and Nikolai Koltsov (in Moscow) created centers of genetic research where eugenics prospered as a socially relevant part of the new “experimental” biology. The Russian Eugenics Society, established in 1920, was dominated by research-oriented professionals. However, Bolshevik activists in the movement tried to translate eugenics into social policies (among them, sterilization) and in 1929, Marxist geneticist Alexander Serebrovsky was stimulated by the forthcoming Five-Year Plan to urge a massive eugenic program of human artificial insemination. With the advent of Stalinism, such attempts to “biologize” social phenomena became ideologically untenable and the society was abolished in 1930. Three years later, however, a number of eugenicists reassembled in the world’s first institute of medical genetics, created by Bolshevik physician Solomon Levit after this return from a postdoctoral year in Texas with H.J. Muller. Muller himself moved to the Soviet Union in 1933, where he agitated for eugenics and wrote Stalin in 1936 to urge an artificial insemination program. Shortly thereafter, Muller left Russia, several of his colleagues were shot, and the Institute of Medical Genetics was disbanded. During the next three decades, Lysenkoists regularly invoked the Soviet eugenic legacy to claim that genetics itself was fascist.

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