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In the Worship of Science : ACQUIRED TRAITS Memoirs of a Geneticist in the Soviet Union by Raissa L. Berg; translated by David Lowe (Viking Press: $22.95; 453 pp.; 0-670-80254-9)

August 21, 1988|Yakov M. Rabkin | Rabkin teaches history of science and Soviet history at the Universite de Montreal. His book, "Science Between the Superpowers," appeared in New York earlier this year. and

The book is a series of memoirs knit together by one central theme: life of a woman scientist in the Soviet Union. The author is four years older than the Bolshevik Revolution, and she, as a Soviet expression goes, "grew up with the revolution." This does not mean that the Soviet regime facilitated her growth. In fact she grew up against it, and the book is largely an account of her conflict with the official Soviet society as she looks back at it from the position of an emigre.

The book begins in the pre-revolutionary tranquillity of Moscow. Raissa's father, Lev Berg, was a Jew from the Pale of Settlement. He converted to Christianity to overcome the disability of being a Jew in an officially anti-Semitic Russia. This enabled him to enter the country's best universities, and later to become a world-renowned geographer and a full member of the prestigious Soviet Academy of Sciences. A strict vegetarian, he was a follower of the philosophy of Leo Tolstoy, and according to his daughter, "a born tyrant." He avidly assimilated into the elite of Russian culture which, in turn, helped Raissa to become a natural full-fledged member of the country's famed intelligentsia.

In the book, Father appears as the most significant figure in his daughter's life. He emerges again and again in almost every chapter: a mighty protector and provider, a wizard, a revered role model. But he does not appear as an affectionate parent, and this may explain the remarkable brevity and dryness with which Raissa writes about her husband. This is how she describes her husband's and her own move to a new apartment: "We moved into two luxurious rooms with a balcony. Then a marvelous view from the windows of the corner room was revealed to us: the Dutch embassy, the wing of the grand duke's palace, and the uncurtained windows of my father's study, through which one could see his gray hair."

The author candidly admits her propensity for idolatry. Father is clearly an idol but not the only one. Her other idol is science. There is an obvious relationship between her adulation of Father the Scientist and her subsequent devotion to science. A good insight into her world view can be gained from a poetic account of her scientific expeditions that end in an impediment. This is how Raissa first mentions her marriage:

"The flies that I had been studying up until that time were essentially domestic animals, man's inseparable companions. I wanted to study real wild animals, the inhabitants of the fruit forests of the Fergana Valley of the Tien Shan mountains. I needed to go to Central Asia, to a small town named Shakhrisabz. . . . But I never got the chance to see the Fergana Valley, with its light-blue chains of mountains fading off toward the horizon, growing smaller, overlapping each other. Nor did I get to see the wild flies of the fruit forests. The reason was in order to follow one's calling unimpeded, one needs to maintain the freedom of choice at every stage of one's life. I had lost that freedom of choice two years earlier, in 1945. In December of that year I got married."

There is little wonder that the husband lasts only a few years. He is usually referred to by his family name, and, unlike Father, never makes it to become Husband.

While she may be reserved depicting her husband, the author is perspicacious and involved when she writes about dozens of individuals whom she parades in front of the reader. These can be an impoverished drunk from a collective farm, a subtle connoisseur of literature, Mishenka Meilakh, or the satanic dictator of Soviet biology, Trofim D. Lysenko. She writes pages about the mores obtaining in the communal flat, about the life of the privileged scientific elite during World War II, about the corruption of science and literature in a totalitarian society.

Berg's main hero is science, and more specifically genetics. The American reader knows more about the history of Soviet genetics than about the rest of Soviet science. I have seen at least seven books about the Lysenko affair--more than about any Soviet scientist--published in the United States. The fact that genetics suffered an exceptionally cruel fate in the Soviet Union may explain this anomalous fascination with Lysenko.

For several decades, genetic research was virtually forbidden under the pretext of its ideological incompatibility with the ruling Marxism. Under the severe reign of academician Lysenko, geneticists were dismissed, some imprisoned, a few, including the world-famous Vavilov, killed. Thanks to Father and to her loyal friends among Soviet intelligentsia, the author managed to remain afloat in the often absurd world of Soviet science. She painstakingly unveils her life story--the story of a Soviet geneticist--which is both interesting and instructive.

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