(Indiana University Press)Loren Graham was one of the first exchange students to enter Russia during the early cold war. He has spent most of his life studying the history of --- and becoming an expert on --- Russian science. He has made dozens of trips to study in the Soviet Union before and after the fall of Communism.
Because of his extensive travels, research, knowledge, and contacts, Graham was, obviously, of great interest to the KGB and the FBI. Moscow Stories gives us twenty-three vignettes of life in Russia for a foreign scientist during the Cold War.
And what stories they are! Being chased around Moscow --- as he is out for his morning jog --- by a KGB agent. Carrying dozens of vodka bottles back to the U. S. for an old friend (Don Mix of BBDO) who was building an advertising campaign for Gilbey's vodka (he wanted unusual bottles for display ads). And then there is a fellow scientist, Ole Mathiesen.
He wanted Graham to deliver a film "on the breeding habits of sockeye salmon of the Columbia River" to Warsaw, to the Institute of Ichthyology. At the border station of Brest, a watchful Soviet customs agent confiscated the film (after a spirited argument with Graham --- the agent claimed it might contain military secrets). The film did not get through, but when Graham returned, months later, to reënter Russia ... as he picked up the film, an officer stopped him. "His intentness once again triggered my anxiety. Maybe this adventure is not yet over, I thought."
"Here at the Brest border station [said the officer] the soldiers don't get to see many movies. This is a lonely post. That film of yours ... is absolutely wonderful. Those rapids, those jumping fish, the forests and the river, the wonderful colors! Thank you for giving us this pleasure."
"We realized that the film I was carrying had been shown over and over again to all the border troops of the region, that it had been a memorable event in their otherwise boring duties."
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I was expecting to be bored to death by a long exegesis on Russian Scientific History, interspersed with self-glorying aperçus, but after a few chapters of Moscow Stories, I knew I was in the hands of a charming story-teller. Graham is two people (maybe more; maybe even, unknown to us, a cold-war spook). He is obviously a wise, studious, and learned professional in his rather stuffy field. But, a miracle: he is also a natural adventure writer.
Given the built-in terror that was part of the Soviet/US landscape for over forty years, his comings and goings, and his obvious charm, infuse the reader with an undercurrent of dread. "How is this nutty professor going to get out of this pickle?" we find ourselves thinking. Such as when two KGB agents grab him, take him far outside of Moscow to a restaurant which the author is quite sure will turn into a set-up, which could get him nabbed, possibly put under house arrest or worse.
How does he get out from under? He uses his natural running ability --- he is a long-time jogger --- to slip out of the back of the restaurant. He runs to the Moscow highway, stops a passing car by waving a fistful of rubles in the air, and thus makes it back to the Metropole Hotel and safety.
Moscow Stories tells us much about student life in the Soviet Union forty-five years ago, about the city of Moscow itself (the footrace with the KGB agent turns into an impressively knowledgeable tour through the old city), of Graham's meetings with famous scientists (and refuseniks), the nitty-gritty of eating, living, and getting by in what was, after all, the second largest Third World country in the world. And the wrangle, always the wrangle ... with the police and customs officials, the petty officials ... which wrangles offer excellent information for anyone, anywhere, dealing with bureaucracy. One must, he suggests, be
extremely polite but at the same time be an enormous bother, showing up every morning early enough to meet the relevant official as he entered the building, soaking up the time of all the personnel in the office while never giving genuine grounds for irritation ... The goal, of course, was to persuade the bureaucrats that it would be easier for them to give me what I wanted than it would be to have to spend so much time dealing with me.
One of Graham's most telling chapters tells of his meeting with the infamous Stalinist geneticist Lysenko. The author had gone alone to lunch at the House of Science in Moscow: "At the back of the room, sitting alone at a table, was a gaunt and homely man. I immediately recognized Lysenko. In the Soviet Union it was not unusual for strangers to sit at the same lunch table so I sat down beside Lysenko, ordered a bowl of borscht from the waitress, and began my lunch."
After a while, I turned to Lysenko, and said, "I know that you are Trofim Denosovich Lysenko. I am Loren Graham, an American historian of science, and I have written quite a bit about you. Several times I have sent you my work."
Without even a blink, Graham asks him about the most pernicious of the stories --- that Lysenko had been responsible for the death of the great scientist Vavilov.
"Lysenko had read [my] books, [but] claimed that he was not responsible for the deaths of the likes of Nikolai Vavilov. 'I disagreed with Vavilov on biological issues but I had nothing to do with his death in a labor camp.'"
Graham knew his history well enough to know that Lysenko was lying, for he had done a donos on Vavilov (he had ratted on him). Lysenko replied,
"I came from a simple peasant family ... When I was a boy, I worked barefoot in the fields and I never had the advantage of a proper education. Most of the prominent geneticists of the 1920s were like Vavilov. They did not want to make room for a simple peasant like me. I had to fight to be recognized. My knowledge came from working in the fields. Their knowledge came from books, and was often mistaken."
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I sent a copy of this story of the meeting --- and Lysenko's denial --- to a geneticist friend of mine. He wrote back: "I'm familiar with Loren Graham. I've read essays of his about Soviet science and about his own student days in Russia, and a few months ago I read his excellent The Ghost of the Executed Engineer. The book recounts the history of Soviet science and engineering, focused initially on one diagnostic case: the story of Peter Palchinsky, a brilliant, idealistic engineer and engineering professor with socialist inclinations, whose professional training occurred under the tsarist regime, and who then lived for eleven years under the Bolsheviks.
"Palchinsky was jailed for a couple of years under Tsar Nicholas II, and after the two revolutions he worked for a while for the Bolshevik regime. He was executed by the Soviet authorities in 1928 --- I repeat, 1928 --- at an early step in the purge of technicians, engineers, architects, etc. [The victims included meteorologists, who sometimes undermined socialist planning by forecasting bad weather.] The process took about a decade to work its way through academic science, where its most drastic effects finally occurred in Biology."
The purge process rested on three social dynamics. The first was the structure of the police state, with a bureaucracy incessantly searching for scapegoats to cover its ass for the endless failures of The Plan. Two, the bureaucracy, including its academic component, was mostly composed of the new class of opportunists and fakers who used ideology as their device for advancement.
The third dynamic --- not well understood in the West --- was the amalgam of ignorance with redneck resentment illustrated so well in Graham's meeting with Lysenko. Lysenko's new class of Biologists rested their authority on their simple proletarian origin, (working barefoot in the fields, etc. etc.) rather than on high-falutin', reactionary ideas like controlled experiments, statistical analysis of the data, and other such bourgeois mystifications. Lysenko was particularly toxic because his fierce ambition was combined with a virtually perfect ignorance of statistics, scientific method, or, indeed, the subject of Genetics. (There were others who were funnier, chronicled by Zhores Medvedev in a couple of books).
"Soviet Biology showed the results for decades. The USSR had 'trained' by far the largest number of academic scientists in the world. Yet, for the whole period of the molecular biology revolution --- the 25 years following about 1957 --- there was far less consequential research work from the huge USSR, with its millions of working scientists, than from tiny countries like Denmark or the Netherlands.
"At higher academic levels, the disciplines of Physics and Chemistry were largely protected from this process, probably because of their military connections. However, Graham explains how the purges also came to dominate lower-level, applied disciplines like engineering. The resulting disasters (of which Chernobyl was only the most publicized) could have been predicted. They were predicted, by individuals like Palchinsky.
"It is worth pondering how seemingly good intentions led to civil war and a series of famines, through the great terror of the 1930s (which really began in the late 20s and continued until 1953) to this sequence of disasters, all culminating in what exists today in Moscow, Kiev, Minsk, and Alma-Ata."
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Finally, one has to hand Graham a couple of stars for restraint, bravery beyond the call of most writers. In what amounts to a two-page throwaway near the end of Moscow Stories, he tells of a brain tumor, a seventeen-hour operation in Boston to save his life, and his recovery ... just in time to meet with Gorbachev in Chicago, in 1992.
In what could have been a whole book for those of us who are chicken-shit when faced with medical crises, this tale is slipped in (and out) without much to-do. Thus we have here a brilliant academic who learned, somewhere, the subtle art of painting himself out of the picture, because he knows he has a far more important story to tell.--- Boris Arkoff, PhD