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I've read that in the late 1940s Stalin planned to hold a conference to discuss the ideological difficulties of physics in the Soviet Union, but called it off (presumably because of the successful Soviet atomic bomb test). I understand that there would have been difficulties with things like history, economics and genetics which dealt directly with the past, present and future of the Soviet Union and its people, but what was the logic behind attempting to curtail some of the more esoteric disciplines (Physics, Linguistics)?

Evidence from the Russian wikipedia article "Ideological control in Soviet Science\Physics":

В конце 1940-х годов некоторые физические теории, в частности Копенгагенская интерпретация квантовой механики, а также специальная и общая теория относительности, были также подвержены критике по причине «идеалистичности»[15]. Советские физики, такие, как К. В. Никольский, Д. И. Блохинцев, разработали версию Статистической интерпретации квантовой механики, которая рассматривалась как более соответствующая принципами диалектического материализма[16][17][18].

Однако, несмотря на то, что это первоначально планировалось[6][19], этот процесс не зашел так далеко, как определял «идеологически правильный» вариант физики.

В конце 1948 года началась подготовка Всесоюзного совещания заведующих кафедрами физики, назначенного на 21 марта 1949 года, с целью исправления якобы имевших место упущений в физике.[20][21] Был выпущен сборник статей «Против идеализма в современной физике», в котором подверглись критике советские последователи идей Альберта Эйнштейна.[20][21] Выдвигались предложения разгромить в физике «эйнштейнианство».[21]

Google translate (slightly edited):

In the late 1940s, some of the physical theory, in particular the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, as well as special and general theories of relativity, were also subject to criticism because they were deemed "idealistic" [15]. Soviet physicists, such as KV Nikolsky DIBlokhintsev developed a version of the statistical interpretation of quantum mechanics, which was regarded as more conforming to theprinciples of dialectical materialism [16] [17] [18].

However, despite the fact that it was originally planned [6] [19], this process has not gone as far as defining "ideologically correct" version of physics.

In late 1948, preparations began for the All-Union meeting of heads of departments of physics, scheduled for March 21, 1949, with the aim of correcting the alleged deficiencies in physics. [20] [21] was released collection of essays "Against idealism in modern physics", which criticized the Soviet followers of the ideas of Albert Einstein. [20] [21] Proposals were put forward to crush "Einsteinianism" in physics. [21]

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Before asking WHY Stalin did something, could you give us some evidence THAT he did it? – fdb Jul 29 '14 at 16:39
@fdb Suppressed research in the Soviet Union – sds Jul 29 '14 at 17:18
Thank you for the reference. The physics section talks about "criticizing", not "suppressing". – fdb Jul 29 '14 at 17:35
@fdb Under Stalin's regime these two words were essentially synonymous. Anyway, Russian wikipedia has a more detailed description, which I will add now. – Felix Goldberg Jul 29 '14 at 18:03

Stalin took ideology seriously...

  • He started the Soviet meme "на идеологии мы не экономим" ("we don't skimp on ideology").
  • He also believed that "Учение Маркса всесильно, потому что оно верно" ("The teachings of Marx is omnipotent because it is true").
  • He also understood the critical importance of science and technology.
  • He also continued the age-old Russian national mentality "we are surrounded by sworn enemies" in its class version (workers vs bourgeois instead of Russians vs non-Russians)
  • This lead him to place an overriding importance on the correct indoctrination of scientists - both
    • as the means of improving the scientific work as a part of the "material" Cold War competition
    • to use the Soviet scientists' superiority in the Ideological Warfare.

...but only up to a point

The only reason he did not purge physics of quantum mechanics is that he was told by Kapitsa in no uncertain terms that he will not have an atomic bomb without quantum mechanics (other sources mention Kurchatov and/or Khariton talking to Beria: since the Physics "discussion" was scheduled after Philosophy and Biology, the physicists knew what was in stock for them and fought, so it is likely that there were many such conversations).

Quantum mechanics

The specific reasoning behind his rejection of Quantum mechanics is manifold.

First of all, he did not understand it (which is not surprising, given his lack of scientific background and the complexity of the subject), which, combined with his overblown self-image (decades of flattery took its toll on the aging man), led him to think that it was worthless - especially given some counter-intuitive implications.

Second, quantum mechanics clearly and explicitly contradicted a direct quote from Lenin's book "Materialism and Empirio-Criticism": "Электрон так же неисчерпаем, как и атом" ("Electron is just as inexhaustible as the atom") because it reduced the properties of electron to a few numbers (charge, mass, spin) instead of ascribing it an infinite divisibility. Remember that a quote from Marx/Engels/Lenin was enough to win any argument in the Soviet Union:


Similarly, the Big Bang theory contradicted the doctrine of eternal universe, which made General Relativity unacceptable.

Third, the natural laws of a totalitarian state require suppression of any free thought everywhere. Stalin's laxity in enforcing the rigid ideological control in physics resulted in it being the spawning ground of dissidents (Sakharov, Tverdokhlebov, Orlov) - as well as the excellence of Soviet physics school. The same goes for mathematics, by the way (Esenin-Volpin, Shafarevich, Shikhanovich).


This subject is far from esoteric!

It helps to define the notion of a "people", and the political implications of nationalism in the 20th century are impossible to underestimate.

E.g., Stalin's support for Kurds and Israel had to be scientifically justified (remember, Marxism was supposed to be a science) and linguistics provided a means.

Ref: Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars by Ethan Pollock.

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I'd like to add that at least Hitler deemed Quantum-Mechanics a 'jewish science'; I am not aware of any proof of Stalin thinking the same but it could be one more reason. About linguistics: The feminist movement is really active on that front – user45891 Jul 29 '14 at 16:16
I think it was Relativity rather than Quantum Mechanics that was suppressed by the Deutsche Physik. – sds Jul 29 '14 at 16:25
Generally Relativity and Quantum-mechanics were at odds with the "Luminiferous aether theory" (Äthertheorie) which Lenard tried to push (He actually proved the Photoelectric effect which was important for the groundwork of Quantum Physics and only later became openly opposed to it). In doing that he e.g. labeled Heisenberg e.g. a "white Jew". – user45891 Jul 29 '14 at 19:00
"his overblown self-image (decades of flattery took its toll on the aging man)" he had an overblown self-image even as a teenage boy. – jwenting Jul 30 '14 at 6:40

As you know, quantum mechanics has some difficult philosophical problems even today. In the USSR the main champion of the criticism was Blokhintsev who was a proponent of ensemble interpretation. So in any case this would not be an attack on quantum mechanics as such but an attack on a particular interpretation viewed by some as not compatible with dialectical materialism. It is not really necessary to ascribe any such move to Stalin personally.

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-1 Any major event in USSR was rooted in Stalin's will - especially such major events as scientific "discussions". See the Pollock's book I cite. – sds Jul 30 '14 at 13:04
+1 for annoying sds – user1990 Jul 30 '14 at 21:24
@sds consider the discussion in linguistics. Once Marr en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_Marr was successful to push his own (fringe) theory about language claiming it is more compatible with Marxism-Leninism. But Stalin intervened against his theory publishing his own article against it. If he not intervened, Marr's followers possibly would succeed to destroy their opponents. – Anixx Jul 31 '14 at 4:10
yep, and following Stalin's paper Marr and his followers were defenestrated instead. So what? – sds Jul 31 '14 at 11:25
@sds: The point is that the mechanisms worked here, although in a heavy handed top-down way, and a bogus theory was thrown out of Soviet academics. Another example is the unprecedented unique success of Soviet oil science. Soviet genetic, on the other hand, the opposite happened, and it took until the 1960s for Lysenkoism to be abandoned. – Ron Maimon Jul 17 at 20:12

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