UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


Russia’s Rich and their Genes

7 December 2015

Elisabeth Schimpfössl, UCL SSEES

‘In the first place it’s genetic inheritance’, was the most frequent reply I got when I ask wealthy Russians, multimillionaires and billionaires, how they think their parents have helped them to become successful.

A biologist view on things is not limited to the topic of “success” genes. ‘Why are the Jews so smart?’ the financer and Dali and Picasso collector Alexander rhetorically asks me. ‘Because over 2000 years there has been a natural selection for the intellectually best to survive.’

Jews are popular husband material because many Russian women know about their apparently extraordinary potency and the vitality of their genes. As the glamour lady Valentina elucidates, an obvious proof of this is the number of children Jewish men all over the world father.

Childless women are prone to suffer badly because they have not made use of their biological needs to procreate, which leaves them deprived of a chance to become fully-fledged human beings and to feel fulfilled in life (stated both by Valery, an entrepreneur and collector of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, and by the ‘oligarch psychiatrist’ Andrei).

People might actually be very aware that culture, social class and forms of suppression are just as important when generating “ethnic” characteristic, big families and the feeling of failure when female and childless. They might also agree that the passionate reference to genes inherited through bloodline when self-analysing success or political conviction is a rather unsophisticated way of explaining the world and oneself. They might further even concur with the idea that the ability to make ethical choices is part of that which makes us human, and that this does not gel well with the assumption that everything is pre-determined by genes.

Nevertheless, what comes to their minds first are genes and not any alternative explanations. Essentialist reasoning is particularly prevalent in Russia, not because everybody is utterly obsessed with genes, I would argue, but because alternative explanations are not readily available.

One reason why essentialist ideas work particularly well in Russia is because modern, secular ways of ‘naturalising’ the social and the historical have a strong tradition. This is despite the fact that Marx saw consciousness determined by being, something in which early Soviet leaders gleaned great potential for transforming society and creating the new Soviet man.

The late 1920s witnessed a return to emphasising nature. This was very much in the spirit of the time. The scientific and intellectual world of the late 19th and early 20th century – British, German and US politicians and scientists in particular – were taken by the idea that eugenic policies could secure the ‘survival of the fittest’ and thus boost a nation’s eminent stock, reduce the overbreeding by the poor and degeneration through the disabled. The American and British eugenics lobbies remained strong up into the late 1930s and many scientists and politicians in these countries applauded Hitler’s decisive policies in the area.

Initially, Russian and then Soviet scientists followed a similar path, contemplating breeding the strongest and the best in their endeavour to achieve a higher form of society. But soon, Soviet science took a different direction. Early Soviet geneticists, who adhered to Mendelian theories, came to clash with newly emerging Lamarckian agrobiologists over what extent acquired characteristics can become part of inheritance. The latter declared that Darwinism ("Soviet Creative Darwinism") is the closest to Marxist theory and denounced genetics as a fascist science, referring to the links between eugenics and national-socialist race theories. The agrobiologists won the day. Soviet genetic research was banned in late 1940s until the mid-1960s.

During the years when genetics were halted in the Soviet Union, Germany was forced to atone her actions having put their racial theories and eugenics into genocidal practice. Scientists from many other countries also had to find a clean break with an uncomfortable past. Very influential in this process were social scientists, public intellectual and social activists, who by the 1960s challenged ideas of biological determinism. Critical thought, especially feminist thinking, demonstrated that repressive hierarchies imposed on society were man-made and not given by nature and biology. This radically reformed Western thinking.

None of the aforementioned developed in the Soviet Union. This was partly related to the Soviet specific of prioritising science at the total expense of developing social sciences, and partly because genetic explanations were banned for so long, thus becoming an attractive alternative for people who had become disillusioned with the Soviet ideology. The Soviet intelligentsia’s attraction to politically conservative viewpoints came to merge with biological interpretations of history and human behaviour. When compared to the West, the positions advocated by some Soviet “hereditarians” seemed rather extreme and categorical, especially in criminology.

If we move away from the specific field of genetics, Soviet traditionalist ideology had already long dictated that everything was supposed to be in the place allocated to it by ‘nature’, such as respect for traditional family and gender roles and an emphasis on motherhood.

Putin’s conservatism and the rising influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in the new millennium have not significantly intensified biologically driven views, but neither have new ideas emerged questioning, for example, the ‘naturalness’ of patriarchal gender characteristics or of ethnic traits. Many of my interviewees, coming of age in the years of conservative dissent, had adopted naturalised perception of the world, which has not been challenged ever since.