Monday, November 18, 2013

"Write about the Soviets"

From the letters to the editor, a very interesting comment:
Reading “Chemistry in Nazi Germany” (C&EN, Sept. 16, page 30), I am reminded of my time in the 1980s stationed in Mannheim, West Germany, as a young U.S. Army lieutenant. Right across the river was BASF world headquarters. It was difficult to find out what anyone—chemist or not—from the World War II generation had done during the war. After several years, one local friend admitted to me that his father had been a captain in the Waffen SS. 
I would be interested in reading how chemists and other scientists interacted with the government of the former Soviet Union. While in the Army, I was told at times that U.S. troops were in Europe and that NATO had been formed to finish what our parents’ generation had not—meaning defeat the Soviets. Few people in the U.S. seem to know that the Soviet Union set up a prison work-camp system almost as brutal as the Nazi camps. The Soviet prison camps had no gas chambers but rather had limitless Arctic tundra in which to bury prisoners and political dissenters, who were often worked to death. The mortality rate among Soviet prisoners was alleged to be 60%. 
As your story notes, it has taken 50 years for the truth about chemists in Nazi Germany to come out. I hope it does not take another 50 years to see how our Soviet adversaries enlisted the help of chemists and other scientists in their cause and for their aggressive military ends. Books such as “The Gulag Archipelago,” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and “Dear America!” by Thomas Sgovio, tell the story of this murderous, decades-long Soviet system, but from the point of view of survivors. 
No one has yet examined how the scientific, intellectual leaders within the U.S.S.R. collaborated with the political rulers. I would be glad to see this truth told in the pages of C&EN, however disturbing it may be. 
Mark A. Benvenuto
I would also be interested in such a story on Soviet organic chemistry and also the Soviet chemical manufacturing industry, but I suspect it would be quite the multi-part series.  


  1. What a stupid comment! Plenty has been written on the subject, both by Russian and American scholars. Much of it describes the plight of biologists/geneticists, but you get a good idea as to what was going on.

    Also, there were no "captains" in Waffen SS.

    1. re: Soviet science, can you point me to a good starting place?

    2. "Murder of Vavilov" is not bad at all and a good place to start . There's also an old book I really liked - "Manipulated Science" by Popovskiy, if you manage to find a copy.

  2. It sounds like a very ignorant comment. As with Nazi Germany, what happened in the Gulags is not a deeply held secret. Many people, probably due to a bad education, just choose to be ignorant on the subject. And anyways, by the time this person was stationed in Germany, the Gulag was 30 years in the past. It picked up a bit after WW2, but ended with Stalin's death and Krushchev taking the top job. What were American scientists doing during Japanese interment, Korean war, and pre-civil rights?

  3. "No one has yet examined how the scientific, intellectual leaders within the U.S.S.R. collaborated with the political rulers."

    Let's see, slavery in the Russian Empire ends in 1860s and millions of peasants are not free to leave their village without the permission of the landowner and take jobs without permission of the landowner. After the Russian revolution, USA and other victorious powers try to crush the Red Army and fail, Soviet Union emerges. The Soviet Union educated almost the entire population in a short amount of time and gulags are set up to deal with 'political enemies' and keep the system in place, which promises that after a short time of suffering, a system where all people are equal regardless of race or class, and that the former exploited working classes of the Soviet Union will play a key role in bringing equality to the world.

    During this time, Nazi Germany is rising and spreading theories of how Russians are unter-menschen and that they need 'living space'. The USA is still hostile to the Soviet Union. So, what is a newly educated peasant scientist to do? Say, "Sorry, I don't believe in your system" and get sent to the gulag to be shot? Or would they see themselves as playing a positive role in overall human development because Communism is ultimately more humane and it educated them, and they are also trying to protect the country from people who want to kill them (like Germans and Americans)? Why does the commenter think 'The New Deal' was implemented in the USA in the 1930s? A big reason was to counteract the charisma of communism in the face of capitalism's failure.

    Obviously, having a genocidal maniac in charge of communism was a mistake. And communism doesn't work in retrospect. Stalin got away by claiming that all those in the Gulags were enemies of communism when that wasn't true, and even if true wasn't justified. People really hated 'enemies of communism' after all that had happened during the Revolution, and WW2. The comment made me a bit angry, because it seems like there is a lot of historical perspective and empathy that is lacking for the average Russian peasant whose children suddenly became scientists.

  4. Why does C & E News publish such ill-informed comments? This guy seems like a hold-over from the anti-communist 1950s.

    It was well known when I was in school in the 1970-80s about the gulag system; it was far from being a secret.

    Though there were certainly Soviet chemists who worked on chemical weapons, there were also plenty of American chemists doing the same during those years.

  5. Another of Solzhenitsyn's largely autobiographical works, 'The first circle', deals with the moral conflict of valuable, technically skilled prisoners compelled to work (in relative comfort) for Stalin's regime under the threat of the Siberian labour camps.