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Space, Science & Stalinism

How the Matt Taylor shirt freakout explains the Soviet Union's self-sabotage
Space, Science & Stalinism

Take a look at that short clip from the European Space Agency. It gives you a sense of how spectacular is the scientific achievement of landing a probe on a comet. Those scientists had to calculate and project the motion of the planets, the comet, and the probe for ten years out. The ESA team had to figure out how to land a spaceship on a rock only three miles wide, one hurtling through space at 84,000 mph, after a looping journey of 3.7 billion miles. And they did it!

This is a thing that human beings did!

But you know, one of those guys who did it wore a trashy shirt to the press conference, so shame, shame, shame. Yes, I think that is the lesson in all this: that the important thing to know about Dr. Matt Taylor is that he is impure.

This morning I was thinking about how bizarre this is, and it occurred to me that this helps answer a question that I had for my son Matthew. Matt has been deeply immersed in reading and thinking about the Soviet space program for a couple of years. In fact, the term paper he’s doing for his Modern Russian History class at LSU is examining the effect Stalinism had on the Soviet space program. One of the great tragedies — or, if you like, idiocies — of the USSR was how Stalin sent Sergei Korolev, the scientist who would later become the father of the Soviet space program, to the gulag in the Great Purge of 1938. Already a top Soviet scientist working on rockets, he was denounced as a traitor by a competing scientist. The NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) tortured him and sent him to Siberia. He was later brought back west and served with other engineers in a slave labor camp. The Soviets very nearly executed him (and did execute some of his colleagues).

Matthew tells me that the Soviet rocket program lost years of progress, and that this posed a direct national security threat to the USSR, given how far and how fast Nazi scientists were going in developing Germany’s rocket capacity. Just before the war’s end, the Soviet government released Korolev, though they didn’t officially drop the charges against him until the late 1950s. He was said to have been deeply damaged by his years in prison. And for all that, he led the Soviet state to amazing heights. Had Stalin not treated him so horribly for his alleged political crimes, and had he not been so broken by that treatment, who knows how far the Soviets would have gone in the space race before Koralev died in 1966?

Obviously Matt Taylor is not Sergei Koralev. Being shamed on the Internet by feminists is galaxies away from being tortured and sent to the gulag. But you see a germ of the same principle that condemned Koralev at work in the Taylor debacle. A scientist achieves stunning, world-historical results for his work, but the most important thing to the commissars is whether or not he is correctly positioned vis-a-vis the politics (or cultural politics) of his society.

This paranoid heretic hunting was not just a Soviet thing. The Nazis were happy to throw out some of their best scientists, and exile their most creative artists, because they were Jews. This kind of thing reached its heights in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, because both countries were led by totalitarian governments, and were in the iron grip of ideology. But it’s important to remember that these regimes were simply extreme examples of a compulsion that is part of the nature of all humans and their societies. To refuse to recognize our own capacity for this kind of self-sabotaging thing is to make ourselves vulnerable to it.

UPDATE: The reader who posts under the title “The Wet One” cites a perfect example: the British government hounding the computer genius Alan Turing to his suicide because he was gay.

UPDATE.2: Nice comment by reader Candles:

Here’s one reason conversations like Rod’s here are valuable, to those of you who want to claim Godwin or whatever.

There are some of us out here (like, say, me) who came of age politically during the Bush years, hated everything about the Cheney/Rumsfeld regime, and instinctively turned left, assuming it was the home of all smart, reasonable, moderate, educated people. We never really confronted what ideology meant, and where it led. We didn’t have to.

Now we have to. The ideological illiberal left has been growing louder, more activist, and more aggressive the last several years. People we know and care about are behaving in fundamentally toxic, anti-liberal ways under the banner of lefty ideology. This isn’t an abstraction. My twitter feed is full of this shirtgate garbage and ideological fervor from people I have to maintain relationships with, and people I care about.

I’m suddenly confronting that these folks absolutely would have been the sorts who, 40 years ago, would have been carting around Mao’s little red book, and would have been apologists for the Soviet regime.

It’s absolutely disheartening. But it’s important, at least for me, to confront. It turns out that a lot more of the critiques from the right about the left have an ugly grain of truth than I had wanted to believe.

I’m still horrified by neocons getting anywhere close to the reigns of power, but I’m starting to grow just as concerned about my lefty friends getting anyone in office who is beholden to them either.



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