Sunday, December 04, 2016

Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953 - Simon Ings

Sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review


Publisher: Faber & Faber

Copyright: Simon Ings, 2016

ISBN: 9780571290079

Format: Hardback, 528pp

Genre: Popular Science

Buy/Read Now (links):
Goodreads
Amazon US (Released 07.02.17)
Amazon UK

Rating: 3.5/5

Summed up in a few words
Committed. Detailed. Diverse. Interesting.

First Impressions
I have been looking forward to reading some of Faber & Faber's non fiction books so thank you to Amelia for sending me a review copy of Stalin and the Scientists. The most notable success of this book is definitely the quality of the content and dedication of the author, which were both outstanding and inspiring! This book is a political, economical and sociological piece, with the struggle for Russia's survival and the integrity of it's scientific community hanging in the balance. I personally didn't get on with the book as well as I had hoped, I struggled to stay invested and I had problems with the format. I think this is because I am more interested in the physics/chemistry side of science and this is more for those who enjoy a wider spectrum of science/history.

Author Bio
Simon Ings is the arts director editor of New Scientist magazine. His novels include The Weight of Numbers and Wolves. His science writing includes The Eye: a Natural History. He divides his time between a sweltering glass-walled penthouse in Dubai and what may be London's coldest flat, writing and reviewing for broadsheets and magazines including Nature and The Spectator. He blogs sporadically at www.simonings.com (Official Bio)

Book Synopsis
War-torn, unstable and virtually bankrupt, revolutionary Russia tried to light its way to the future with the fitful glow of science. It succeeded through terror, follow and crime - but also through courage, imagination and even genius.

From countless sources and with an eye to world events, Simon Ings weaves together what happened when, early in the twentieth century, a handful of impoverished and underemployed graduates, professors and entrepreneurs, collectors and charlatans bound themselves to a weak and failing government to create a world superpower. He goes on to reveal how Stalin's philosophical obsessions - and his role as the states's Great Scientist - derailed the Soviet Union's great experiment in 'rational government'.

Stalin and the Scientists' cast of characters operates in a heroic scale: from the biologist taking notes of the physiological effects of his own death sentence, to the botanist delivering scientific lectures in a lightless underground cell while his wife, none the wiser, sent food parcels to the wrong side of Russia; from the biologist who resorted to theft, fraud and kidnap to support his work, to the poet-ergonomist building a machine, with pulleys and ropes - to churn out new forms of human being.

By Stalin's death in 1953 the Soviet Union's sciences were the largest and best-funded in history - and were at once the glory and the laughing stock of the intellectual world. (Official Synopsis)

My Thoughts
Russia has fought tooth and nail through famine, war and politics to become the country it is today. Simon Ings has put together the most complete and in-depth piece of non-fiction about the most pivotal and turbulent time in Russia's history and how scientist fought the odds to bring a better life to it's population and reinvigorate it's government with a new structure and fresh minds. Survival was a daily task, food and morale was scarce and everyone was scrambling to help unite the country in one way or another. Though some people fought for progress and unity, while others fought for power.

Stalin and the Scientists sets out to show us how the politicians, scientists and philosophers in Russia tried to fuse science and politics into one unified government. It also describes how over the course of the next several decades that idea slowly crumbled under the watchful eye of Joseph Stalin. I was absolutely stunned by the depth and detail that Ings has included in this book, his command of the material is inspiring. Including as many scientists, politicians, historical figures and important events as he could while seamlessly threading it all together into a comprehensive and informative piece of non-fiction.

From Stalin, Lysenko, Vernadsky, Luria and Marx to Lenin, Vavilov, Pavlov Timofeev-Ressovsky and Zhdanov, Ings delves into the personal experiences and overall contributions that some of the most influential individuals in the Soviet Union's history gave to it's science, health, community and what they also took away. 

The spectrum of content covers so many areas of science and history. From politics, agriculture, biology, genetics, sociology to physiology, philosophy and physics. It is clear that Ings is invested in this subject, teaching, informing and entertaining (when he gets a chance) the reader with the rich and devastating history of the Soviet Union and it's many trials and tribulations. 

The writing is clear, fluent, just the right amount of formal and relentlessly thorough. The format is simple, with three main sections split into 21 chapters all with their own themes and ideas. I had a few minor issues with the text when reading it, the first being that the overall length, in my opinion, was a fraction too long. I found it dragged on in certain areas when it needed to jump ahead to the more poignant material. The second issue was that I found that Ings jumped around the timeline just a bit too much and could have used a bit more of a progressive approach. 

I have read quite a few books on science that feature Russia and it's scientists and I have been looking to fill some of the gaps within this time period, that is why I picked this book in the first place and I can say that Simon Ings definitely helped me achieve this. Stalin and the Scientists was written for a popular science audience, with plenty of history to go along with it, so those looking for a purely scientific piece will have to keep looking.

Overall I have given this book 3.5/5 stars as it didn't quite grip me as well as I would have hoped, but Simon Ings is a talented and dedicated author and he has left an impression with me that makes me want to read more of his books. Pick up Stalin and the Scientists, enjoy it and tell me what you thought about it.

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