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Evolution in Times of Revolution: Darwinism, Nature, and Society in the Soviet Union


Darwinism, the Soviet Union claimed, had found its second home in revolutionary Russia. While the Tsarist government viewed Darwinism with trepidation and suspected it of being linked to atheism and revolution, the Bolshevik revolutionaries embraced it for these very reasons. Despite this accepted narrative, the story of evolutionary theory in Russia and the Soviet Union is more complex. First, not all supporters of Darwin in pre-revolutionary Russia were materialists. Second, Darwinism posed vexing problems to Bolsheviks: although they considered Darwinism a cornerstone of their materialistic, scientific, and revolutionary worldview, this dissertation argues that Soviet scientists and ideologues struggled to reconcile Darwin’s gradualist theory of evolution that decentered humankind with their Marxist theory of revolution. This tension between evolution and revolution is apparent from the history of the Moscow State Darwin Museum, an educational and research institution founded in late Imperial Russia in 1907, which is the setting of this dissertation.

Based on archival research conducted in Russia, Germany, and the US, this study analyzes the conflicted history of Darwinism in twentieth-century Russia and the Soviet Union, spanning both sides of the revolutionary divide of 1917. The Darwin Museum as a hub of Darwin-inspired research and dedicated to popularizing evolutionary theory both shaped and reflected the engagement with the British naturalist and his theory in Imperial and Soviet Russia. Its history underscores how much richer the Soviet reception of Darwin was than the well-studied case of Lysenko’s “creative Darwinism.” From comparative psychology to cryptozoological research on the Yeti, the scientists, environmentalists, artists, and popularizers of science linked to the museum puzzled over the conundrum evolutionary theory posed in the political and ideological context of revolutionary Russia. In the end, researchers invoked Darwin but diverged from key aspects of his theory. They criticized the notion that evolution develops gradually, rather than in leaps or revolutions, and they argued that homo sapiens as a species capable of wielding tools and transforming the environment is qualitatively different from other beings. Yet culture in the Soviet Union was not monolithic. Parallel to advancing an anthropocentric worldview during Stalinism that aligned with the Bolsheviks’ aspirations of mastering nature, the Darwin Museum was a center of environmental activism. As seen through the research conducted under the aegis of the Darwin Museum, this dissertation argues for the complexity of the Soviet scientific and theoretical debate on the relationship between humanity and the natural world, which informed the interaction with the environment. In sum, the Darwin Museum with its long history functioned as a key site for research, for shaping future generations of biologists and nature protectionists, and for negotiating the close but conflicted relationship between evolutionary theory and Bolshevik revolutionary ideology.

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