Volume 9, 2018
Breaking the Wall: National and Transnational Perspectives on East-European Science
William deJong Lambert
“The Difference Between No. 1 1928 and No. 1 1930 Is Great Indeed.”
Theodosius Dobzhansky’s Self-Imposed Exile From Soviet Russia - the “Dr. Zhivago Period”
This article chronicles the correspondence between Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) and his colleagues in the USSR in the years following his arrival in the United States on what was to have been a one-year fellowship working in the laboratory of T.H. Morgan at Columbia University. These letters chronicle a period during which Dobzhansky not only realized the enormous potential of Drosophila genetics for unlocking the secrets of evolution, but also that continuing this research would require finding a way to remain in the United States longer than either the Soviet Academy of Sciences, or the Rockefeller Foundation, would allow. Dobzhansky’s exchanges during this period with mentors such as Yuri Filipchenko and Nikolai Vavilov, as well as fellow students and colleagues such as Nikolai Medvedev, highlight the precarious game Dobzhansky played as he attempted to appear eager to return to his homeland, while secretly maneuvering to delay it. By the time it was over Filipchenko would die an early death of meningitis and Vavilov—who had originally been urging Dobzhansky to return and contribute to development of genetics in Russia—would now advise him to remain in the USA. Dobzhansky was nearly forced to return to the USSR after a routine trip to Canada to renew his visa, an outcome that would surely have resulted in imprisonment or worse. In the end he was allowed to stay, however Dobzhansky’s defection was so resented by the Soviet regime that even decades later he would remain an “un-person” in his homeland, whose name and contributions were never officially acknowledged during his lifetime, and his attempts at reconciliation were rejected.