Ghosts of Forgotten Forms of Science

Online Seminar Series

Over the course of three weeks in late May and early June 2021, the ‘Growing Old in the Soviet Union, 1945-1991’ project organized a series of online seminars under the title of ‘Ghosts of Forgotten Forms of Science: Soviet Biomedical Research in Historical Perspective’.  These seminars were intended to help contextualize Soviet gerontology and geriatrics in their wider biomedical field of inquiry and demonstrate many of the important research findings made by Soviet gerontologists, endocrinologists, biologists, and others over the course of the 20th century.

The first seminar was held on May 27, 2021 and featured two papers on the broad contours of the development of Soviet gerontology.  Prof. Nikolai Kremenstov (University of Toronto), gave a paper on ‘Visionary Biology and Heroic Medicine: Old Age Research and Rejuvenation in Bolshevik Russia’, in which he outlined the origins of Soviet research into ageing and ‘anti-ageing’, and discussed the ideological content of such research.  Following Prof. Kremenstov, Prof. Vladislav Bezrukov (Institute of Gerontology, Kiev) gave a presentation on ‘The Legend of Gilgamesh: Attempts Towards its Fulfilment in Soviet Gerontology’, where the focus was more directly placed on particular Soviet schools of research into biological ageing.

On June 3, two further papers were given, by Dr. Pavel Vasiliev (Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg) and Dr. Anastasia Belaeva (Pirogov Medical University, Moscow). Dr. Vasiliev discussed ‘Making Soviet Drugs in the Heart of Siberia: Clinical Trials of Rhodiola rosea in Tomsk, 1960s-1970s’, while Dr. Beleava’s paper investigated ‘Vegetovascular Dystonia: An Illness Specific to Soviet Culture’.  Together, the two papers and the discussion that followed provided an opportunity to discuss the particularities of the Soviet medical and pharmacological systems, as well as the background medical philosophy of illness and preventative medicine that underpinned much of the research conducted across biomedical fields in the USSR.

Finally, on June 10 the last seminar was held, with two papers by Dr. Anna Ozhiganova (Institute of Ethnology, RAN, Moscow) and Dr. Isaac Scarborough (Liverpool John Moores University). Dr. Ozhiganova spoke about ‘Dolphin Babies: The Late Soviet Project of Infant Swimming and the Creation of a New ‘Superhuman’ Being’, which investigated the scientific and pseudo-scientific approaches taken in the late Soviet period towards the ‘malleability’ of human nature and the ongoing hopes for its perfection.  Dr. Scarborough’s paper, on ‘International Echoes of Soviet Biomedical Gerontology’, worked to reconnect many of the themes discussed in the seminars to gerontology, and to once again emphasise the importance of Soviet biomedical research for many fields of science in other countries as well.

Part of the ‘Growing Old in the Soviet Union’ project’s comprehensive approach to the study of ageing, gerontology, and geriatrics in the USSR, this seminar series provided an important opportunity to consider the field from an interdisciplinary and international perspective.  A number of the papers given during the seminars will also be published in a collected volume forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic, and further information about the seminars and their background can be found here.