Biopolitics in Russia: History and Prospects for the Future (25715-1)

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Biopolitics in Russia: History and Prospects for the Future

1. Introduction

Biopolitics, a field of research employing biological concepts, data, and methods in political science, took shape in the West (originally in the USA) in the 60s and 70s. To a considerable extent, this development can be regarded as a "response" to a conceptual crisis in political science within the United States as some political scientists expressed their concern about the insufficient attention given to human nature and, more generally, inadequate conceptual foundations of political science (see Degler, 1991). For example, this concern was voiced in a Presidential Address to the American Political Science Association by John Wahlke (1979), who reproached his discipline with "pre-behavioralism" despite its professed focus on a science of behavior.

It was also in response to a crisis that biopolitics took root in Russia (and some other countries in Eastern Europe). But in these countries it was not just a conceptual crisis. It was a profound political, social, and economic crisis, associated with a general collapse of the pre-existent social system. Many millions of people have had to go through hard times. Prices skyrocketed, and unemployment soared. Many certainties of Soviet life (e. g., free education and medical care), formerly taken for granted, did not exist any longer. Ethnic strife intensified and resulted in fratricidal conflict (e. g. in Moldavia) and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and Stalin's empire (first Afganistan, the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe, later the disintegration of the the C.I.S. and Chechnya). The economic system became increasingly dependent on mafia structures. In this situation, Russian scholars, politicians, and people at large tried to use any available idea (no matter from what field of science) in an attempt to get an insight into the extremely complex political situation and to find a way to improve it. "In short, Russia and Eastern Europe are industrialized societies characterized by intense social conflicts and the absence of conceptual maps (emphasis added—authors) or intellectual doctrines with which to understand them" (Masters, 1993, p.244).

Biopolitics concentrates on the biological dimension of the human being as "political animal" (Homo politicus) and emphasizes the common behavioral trends in humans and other forms of life. Obviously, this subfield of political science is expected to gain in social importance whenever the political situation favors biosocially determined human behaviors, as distinguished from those that are psychocultural, to use the term suggested by P. Meyer (1987). Such a situation is likely to arise in a period characterized by the collapse of a formerly dominant value system. In this case, normally suppressed or culturally controlled biosocial behavioral trends may become more manifest than usual. Many people in Russia were concerned about uncontrollable outbursts of "bestial" aggressivity, occurring during ethnoconflicts or clashes between different mafia "clans". Another interesting example is provided by presidential (and other politically important) elections in post-communist Russia, which are evidently dominated by "gut feelings". Although political campaigns in all modern societies are heavily influenced by non-verbal communication and primate dominance-submission relationships (cf. Masters, 1989), these effects may seem especially pronounced where institutions and partisan attachments are new and weak. Under such circumstances, evolutionary biology and its socially important ramifications such as biopolitics acquire additional weight, and its concepts can provide the theoretical foundations for a new social "cognitive map".

Biopolitics is also of special interest for Russians because their political life has another significant "biological component", which was the focus of the seminal paper by L. Caldwell (1964). In Russia, the environment has not yet been adequately protected against industrial pollution and destruction. One important issue is the overpopulation stress ("the effects of noise and of crowding on human population", according to Caldwell, 1964), and much public concern is also caused by the abortion issue as well as by other bioehical and bio-medical problems. Hence in many areas of public policy, biopolitics offers necessary substantive information as well as a more generalized "cognitive map" for understanding human nature and politics.

2. Historical

The history of biopolitics on the Russian soil has been short but eventful. It began in the August of 1987, when the 8th International Conference on Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science was held in Russia (partly in Moscow and partly in the Pacific harbor town of Nakhodka). A relatively young scholar in the field of philosophy of science, Dr. Anatoly T. Zub, presented a talk on "Biopolitics—Methodology of Social Biologism in Political Science". Thie presentation, subsequently published by the organizers of the conference, was the first extensive Russian review article on biopolitics1, with references to the works by L. Caldwell, A. Somit, T. Wiegele, R. Masters, S. Peterson, C. Barner-Barry, P. Corning, G. Schubert, J. Schubert, J. Wahlke, J. Laponce, H. Flohr, W. Tonnesmann, and other prominent scholars. In this paper, A. Zub demonstrated his profound knowledge and expertise in the field of biopolitics, which he had been studying since the early 80s. Nevertheless, because scholars at this time had to pay tribute to the still powerful Marxist-Leninist theory, biopolitics was described as a product of bourgeouis thinking in this paper by him.

About a year later, Dr. Alexander Oleskin from the Biology Dept. of Moscow State University (MSU), inspired by the work by A. Zub he had just browsed through, established a seminar on Biopolitics with the help of his colleagues. Originally entitled "Seminar on Bioethics, Biopolitics, and Biotechnology", this seminar is still in operation at the Biology Department of MSU. Once a fortnight, the Seminar brings together a mixed collective composed of professional biologists (E. R. Kartashova, I. V. Botvinko, T. A. Kirovskaya, and others) including mammal ethologists (N. L. Nesterova) , political scientists such as O. V. Borisova (a postgraduate student at the Political Sociology Dept.2 of MSU), philosophers (E.N. Shul'ga) as well as, in some cases, invited politicians and public activists. The Seminar has been repeatedly attended by the Dean of the Biology Dept. of MSU, Prof. Mikhail V. Gusev. Dr. A. Zub gave a talk on biopolitics at one of the Seminar meetings. Some of these meetings took place in the presence of foreign guests, such as Prof. G. Teuchert-Noodt, a neurologist from Bielefeld (Germany) and Mr. J. Briggs, a senior staff member of the Coca-Cola Company (USA).

In 1989, A. Zub produced a comprehensive paper dealing with biopolitics and sociobiology, which appeared in the collection of articles entitled Western Theoretical Sociology in the 80s (published by the Institute for Information in Social Sciences, USSR Academy of Sciences). Zub also suggested a biopolitical research project for his postgraduate student N. Sidyakina. In 1990, she completed her Ph. D. dissertation, largely focusing on the works by R. Masters, P. Corning, and the German astronomer and biopolitician E. Jantsch. P. Corning's attention was attracted by Sidyakina's brief contribution to the materials of an international conference, and he sent her a letter. Shortly thereafter, Prof. Roger D. Masters began to correspond with Dr. A. Zub.

In 1990, N. Sidyakina and A. Oleskin gave talks on biopolitics at the Annual All-Russian Fyodorov Conference (Moscow) dealing with gerontology, life span prolongation, and bioethical issues. In 1991, the year of the failed hard-liners' coup and the collapse of the Communist regime, a group including Prof. M. V. Gusev and Prof. V. D. Samuilov (Director of the Biotechnology Center) from the Biology Dept of MSU, as well as Prof. M. Manakov made two consecutive visits to Athens (Greece), where they met with a charming lady, Dr. Agni Vlavianos-Arvanitis. She was the President of the Greece-based Biopolitics International Organisation (B.I.O.) focusing on the ethical, cultural, legal, environmental, and technological aspects of biopolitics. The second visit (in May, 1991) had an unpleasant surprise in store for the Russian guests, who arrived by boat at the Piraeus Harbor. The Greek frontier guards considered their "shipman's passports" as invalid, and Profs. M. V. Gusev and V. D. Samuilov spent three days and nights in the transit lounge under arrest, having only 250 drachmas (= USD 1.25) with them. On the fourth day, the hapless visitors were released with the personal help of A. Vlavianos-Arvanitis. They were rewarded for their trouble by the very friendly, almost affectionate, treatment they received at the B.I.O. conference. Prof. Samuilov burst into tears on the day of their return to Russia (on another occasion, Mrs. Vlavianos-Arvanitis also shed some tears—this happened when she received a letter from Prof. Samuilov).

A long-term contract was concluded between MSU and B.I.O. On the basis of this contract, A. Oleskin was sent to Greece for 4.5 months. This project resulted in producing the book (by A. Vlavianos-Arvanitis and him) entitled Biopolitics - The Bio-Environment. Bio-Syllabus, published in English (1992) and Russian (1993). Dr. A. Vlavianos-Arvanitis made a number of visits to Russia, and she gave several talks at MSU, the Institute of Philosophy (Russain Academy of Sciences), and other research centers. In December, 1991, a Hellenic-Russian Symposium on Bio-Diplomacy took place in Athens, with participation of Mr. Valery Grishin, one of President Yeltsin's aides. In 1994, B.I.O. organized an international festival commemorating Academician A. Sakharov (the Soviet physicist and political dissident) in combination with a biopolitics conference.