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With and Without Galton

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Nikolai Krementsov

Preface

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1This book is an outgrowth of a project I have been pursuing on and off for nearly thirty years: a fully-fledged history of eugenics in Russia. I became interested in the subject at the very beginning of my career as a historian of science in the mid-1980s. Indeed, it was in one of my first public talks, delivered to a May 1989 conference on the social history of Russian science in Leningrad, that I first ventured into this peculiar history. But for the next two decades, numerous other topics captivated my attention and overshadowed this particular interest. Plus, during this very time several scholars in the Soviet Union, the United States, and elsewhere, most notably, Mark B. Adams in Philadelphia, Vasilii V. Babkov in Moscow, and Mikhail B. Konashev in St. Petersburg were publishing extensively on various aspects of that history, and I felt that I did not need to pursue it any further.

2Nevertheless, I kept reading on the history of eugenics worldwide and kept collecting whatever materials pertinent to the history of eugenics in Russia I would stumble upon in archives and libraries while going after other subjects. Eventually, I came to realize that the history of eugenics I wanted to write would differ substantially from the works produced by many others who have taken up the subject during the intervening years. So, I decided to actually do it. In 2010-2014, a research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada enabled me to launch the project in earnest and to spend several months each year hunting for relevant materials in Russian archives, libraries, and museums.

3At first, I approached my subject in a rather conventional way. I studied the institutions, publications, patrons, methods, agendas, and practices of eugenics; followed individuals and various disciplinary and professional groups involved with its development; and explored its representations in contemporary journalism, literature, cinema, and theater in Russia. The stacks of copies, notes, drafts, and plans for projected chapters steadily grew and soon threatened to completely overflow my modest home office and to turn my little project into a multi-volume edition of unmanageable length and undetermined duration. I began writing up (and occasionally publish) pieces and bits of a complex story that was slowly emerging out of the mountain of materials I have collected over the years.

4I would perhaps still be searching through the numerous nooks and crannies of this mountain, if it were not for a Guggenheim Fellowship that gave me a twelve-month leave in the 2015-2016 academic year. The wonderful freedom (from teaching, committees, and other delights of university life) afforded me a peace of mind to rethink my project and reshape it into something very different from what I had at first envisioned. Instead of writing a history of eugenics in Russia by going systematically through its institutional, intellectual, cultural, personal, disciplinary, political, ideological, and many other dimensions, I decided to experiment and to approach my subject from a decidedly different angle.

5In my explorations of various episodes in the history of eugenics in Russia, I noticed a recurrence of one particular book, Vasilii Florinskii’s Human Perfection and Degeneration. Originally published as a series of essays in 1865, it came out in book format less than a year later. For sixty years it lay dormant and apparently unread, but in 1926 it was reprinted and actively discussed. Yet, just a few years later, any references to its existence disappeared and resurfaced again only in the early 1970s. A new edition of the book came out a quarter of a century later, in 1995, and then — just as I was in Moscow doing my archival research — in 2012, it was republished once more. This seemed rather peculiar. Why would an obscure mid-nineteenth-century book be repeatedly revived and forgotten and revived again during nearly 150 years? Intrigued, I began going through my materials with a fine-tooth comb looking for clues. Soon I realized that the life story of this book — of its author, contents, publishers, editors, commentators, and readers — offers a unique lens to cast the history of eugenics in Russia in an unusual and very revealing light. In addition, a novel (for me) way to write a history of science by means of a “biography of a book” promised to be quite challenging and exciting. I hope the results do convey at least some of that excitement.

6St. Petersburg, 8 December 2017

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