Mirjam Voerkelius

  • Fellowship year:2017-2018
  • University: University of California- Berkeley
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Russia/Soviet Union (Modern Europe including Russia)
  • Dissertation Title: Evolution in Times of Revolution: Darwinism, Nature, and Ideology in the Soviet Union.
  • My dissertation examines the conflicted history of Darwinism in Soviet Russia. The Bolsheviks considered Darwinism a cornerstone of their revolutionary worldview with Friedrich Engels having praised Marx and Darwin as discoverers of the laws of history and nature. Darwinism, the Bolsheviks contended, was also a cornerstone in their fight against religion and for a new, atheist and materialist culture. Yet reconciling the theory of evolution with the concept of revolution was a complicated intellectual project. I argue that Darwinism as a gradualist theory that embraced chance, rejected teleology, and decentered humankind posed unique challenges to key Bolshevik suppositions about progress and nature.
    Taking a broad perspective, "Evolution in Times of Revolution" analyzes the history of Darwinism across the revolutionary divide of 1917 and through the entire Soviet period. The setting is the Moscow Darwin Museum, a pre-revolutionary institution founded in 1907 that still exists today. The museum's displays were shaped by the struggle of Soviet Darwinists with the question of whether evolution indeed developed gradually, as Darwin had argued, or in leaps, thus confirming Bolshevism's understanding of history as progressing via revolutions. In addition to popularizing science, the museum housed researchers who worked on comparative psychology, cryptozoology, and extinction. My dissertation thus invites us to discuss the question how legitimate science was defined, and, through the work of the researchers connected to the museum, to explore central problems about the place of our species in nature. How does humankind influence evolution? Are we truly just an animal among other animals? In sum, the Darwin Museum with its long history functioned as a key site for research, for shaping future generations of biologists and nature protectionists through the youth club, and for negotiating the close but conflicted relationship between evolutionary theory with Bolshevik revolutionary ideology.