Staunton, November 20 – Eugenics is typically more associated with Nazi Germany than with the Soviet Union, but in the 1920s and early 1930s, the USSR had one of the largest and most active eugenics movements in the world. But then, as a result of its overreach, Stalin shut it down, killing, imprisoning or exiling its leading activists.
Stalin probably would have moved against eugenics in any case, but the trigger for his actions, which ultimately led him to attack genetics as well, was a letter from a leading Soviet eugenicist who wrote the Soviet dictator a most unwise letter given what was to happen (ttolk.ru/articles/kak_v_kontse_1930-h_v_sssr_razgromili_evgenikov).
Building on plans to create a eugenics map of the population and a sperm bank to ensure that the next generation would have the best possible features of the Soviet worker, the eugenics specialist proposed to Stalin that Russian women should be artificially inseminated with the sperm of Lenin and Darwin. The result would truly be “new Soviet men,” the geneticist said.
Stalin’s reaction was sharp and immediate. He ordered the closing down of all eugenics activities in the USSR, the execution or jailing those actively promoting it, and the exiling of at least one, the man who wrote the letter in the first place, an American communist Herman Mueller who had been working in the Soviet Union since 1922.
Given Stalin’s reaction, Mueller recognized that he had to get out of the USSR. He left within months and then fought in Spain against Franco. Finally, he returned to the United States in 1940. In 1946, he won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on genetics, much of which was conducted while he was promoting genetics in the Soviet Union.
During the second half of 1936, the Soviet press was filled with attacks on eugenics and eugenicists, declaring it “black hundreds trash” and linking it to the Nazis. Eugenics specialists were at a minimum expelled from the communist party and loss their jobs. In many cases, their fate was much worse, as was that of the institutes in which they worked: those were shut down.
One of the leading fighters against eugenics at that time was Trofim Lysenko, the pseudo-scientist who later conducted the same kind of campaign against genetics.