The geneticist in Russia : the March 2020 Slavonic item of the month

March has already finished?  This blog post is late??  It is not so easy to tell at the moment…  The subject of this post, the early geneticist William Bateson (1861-1926), might have considered my disorganisation a “trait”.  What must he have thought of the avant-garde when he visited Soviet Russia?

The avant-garde at work

The William Bateson Archive (MS Add.8634) was added to the Cambridge University Digital Library last summer.  Bateson was, as the front page of the collection says, “a pioneering and controversial figure in the early history of genetics” – and indeed so early a figure, he even coined the term for the field.  In 1886 to 1887, Bateson visited Central Asia (then in the Russian Empire) to study the dessication of its western part.  The Aral Sea, so sadly infamous to us for its now near-total water loss, was a particular area of study.  Nearly 1700 images in the archive (starting at image 2311) relate to this trip, which also included a stay in St Petersburg.  Scans of Bateson’s notebooks make up about half of the images, followed by correspondence and other notes.  The final items are photographs and drawings, including the hand-drawn map below (image 3945), described in the top right-hand corner in Bateson’s hand as a “rough map showing localities visited by W.B.”

The section MS Add.8634/F.1-F.10 contains material relating to later foreign trips.  Bateson returned to Russia in 1925, to Leningrad, to join the celebrations of the Academy of Sciences’ bicentenary, only a few months before his death in early 1926.  This visit is covered by images 232-245, a very modest number.  These include:

  • Bateson’s formal invitation to join the Academy as a foreign member in 1924
  • his invitations to celebrate the Academy’s bicentenary (one in French, one in Russian)
  • four photographs described as “Communist ‘propaganda'”, including the one used as the first illustration of this blog post; these start here

These four last images, reproduced below, look rather like staged pieces from some kind of production (I’d be interested to hear if anyone can identify them).  The banners held in the first image represent books, including Karl Marx’ Kapital (volume 3 specifically!).  Those in the last represent different measurements, including the kilogram and arshin.  Sadly there are no diaries or letters in Bateson’s archive which capture his reaction to these images or any performance he might have attended – surely a far cry from the careful, controlled scientific study that was his life’s work.

The other Russian piece in the archive is an obituary of Bateson written by Nikolai Vavilov, the Soviet geneticist who was at the time the head of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Science (Vavilov would go on to see his own genetics work discredited by the authorities, to the disbelief of international scientists, and be arrested in 1941, before dying in prison in 1943 at the age of 55 of starvation).  The obituary appears in a special issue of the Soviet Bulletin of applied botany and plant breeding.  Vavilov had travelled to the UK to study with Bateson before the Revolution, and the start of his obituary begins with the words “Pamiati uchitelia” – in memory of my teacher.

The obituary is in fact the very first item in the archive, and starts here.  Bateson’s name in Russian (Vil’iam Betson) appears at the top.  It is illustrated with a pencil drawing of the geneticist by the artist Ivan Streblov in 1925, presumably done during Bateson’s visit for the bicentenary.

Mel Bach

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