A sinister sort of science

  • The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science
    by Vadim Birstein, Basic Books, 2008, pp. 512

In 1978 Bulgarian agents tried to murder Georgi Markov – a Bulgarian dissident then living in London – no fewer than three times. Once, they touched him “accidentally” with poisoned skin cream, designed to cause a heart attack within 48 hours. When that failed, they tried to slip chemicals into his drink. Finally, they came up with an unorthodox but ultimately succesful plan.

While Markov was walking through a crowd, an unknown assailant jabbed him in the leg with the sharpened point of an umbrella. The umbrella was tipped with poison. Markov was dead within hours

Although Bulgarians organised this assassination, the succesful poison – probably a compound called ricin – came from an infamous KGB laboratory in Moscow, known as the “Central Scientific Investigation Institute for Special Technology”. Among other things, the laboratory’s “special technology” included pistols which fired lethal prussic acid, guns which fired cyanide-tipped bullets, truth serums and tranquillisers – all of which sounds like the stuff of James Bond fantasy.

Nevertheless, the laboratories products were used, sometimes with deadly consequences. Markus Wolf, the East German spy boss, recalled in his memoirs how an enthusiastic KGB man was “dispatched to buyers throughout the Eastern bloc bearing wares such as untraceable nerve toxins and skin contact poisons to smear on doorknobs”. Wolf bought some truth drugs from him, and asked a doctor to examine them. The doctor came back, shaking his head, horrified: “Use them without constant medical supervision and there is every chance the fellow from whom you want the truth will be dead as a dodo in seconds.”

Yet the KGB’s secret poison laboratory was not the only nor even the most egregious example of the political abuse of science in the Soviet Union. According to Vadim Birstein, himself once a Soviet scientist, the USSR also persecuted, jailed and executed a wide range of scientists; imposed, for a time, Stalin’s ludicrous version of Soviet genetics (“Lysenkoism”) on a terrified scientific community; used psychiatric “treatments” to torture dissidents; and tested the state’s chemical and biological weapons on prisoners. A wide range of scientists collaborated with the regime, not only helping the KGB to find ever more ingenious poisons, but also to destroy their colleagues and the regime’s victims as well.

A handful of scientists fought back. Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet Union’s best known dissident leader in the 1970s and 1980s, was himself a physicist, one of the fathers of the Soviet thermonuclear bomb. He finally rebelled, he wrote later, after a toast he made at a banquet – “May all our devices explode as successfully as today’s, but always over test sites and not over cities” – was received coldly by the project’s bosses. Suddenly, he understood:

“We, the inventors, scientists, engineers and craftsmen, had created a terrible weapon, the most terrible weapons in human history; but its use would lie entirely outside our control. The people at the top of the Party and military hierarchy would make the decisions.”

To some extent, this is true of all science: there is nothing moral or immoral about an invention, nothing good or bad about technology which can be used either in weapons or in spacecraft. But in the case of the Soviet Union, the fruits of scientific research were not only outside the control of the scientists, they were outside the control of the public at large. No one debated the consequences of a new piece of technology: instead, a tiny group of people determined how it should be used. As often as not, they used it for the destruction of their enemies, internal and external.

Birstein documents many of these myriad abuses, in some cases using new archival material, in some cases relying on older rumours. He throws in quite a bit of other information as well. Indeed, The Perversion of Knowledge is “about” Soviet science in the same sense that War and Peace is “about” the Napoleonic Wars. Soviet science may be the main theme, that is, but the author covers a lot of other ground as well: the general history of Soviet repression, the rise to power of Vladimir Putin, the author’s personal experience as a geneticist, and dissident, in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. But although there is much that could have been discarded, some of the extra information is useful as well.

It is impossible to understand the history of Soviet science without understanding the history of the Soviet Union, and the history of a regime which perverted not only science but art, literature, religion, and patriotism for its own sordid ends.