The Invention of Mikhail Lomonosov: A Russian National Myth

By Steven Usitalo, The Invention of Mikhail Lomonosov: A Russian National Myth, Academic Studies Press, (2013) 298 pages.

Reviewed by Vladimir D. Shiltsev, Accelerator Physics Center, Fermilab

Lomonosov book imageRussian polymath Mikhail Vasilevich Lomonosov (1711-1765) is rightfully called the “Father of Russian science” for his tireless promotion of Enlightenment, many outstanding contributions to natural sciences, and the foundation of Moscow University.

Highly praised in Russia but curiously unsung in the West, he deserves a good English biography – hopefully of the type of Robert Massie’s writings on two other dominant Enlighteners of that time, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. The future biographer of Lomonosov will have plenty of storytelling material, as the life story of the Russian genius had arguably had more events, turns and developments than the combined biographies of several great scientific minds of that turbulent century.

His humble roots, youthful religious dissent and return to Orthodoxy, escape from his father’s home in search of scientific education, serious punishments meted out by unforgiving and harsh Russian authorities, outstanding academic training from preeminent German nature philosophers (intertwined with vagabondage, and wingdings and debauches with fellow students), illustrious scientific and administrative career after his return to the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, projective and pathbreaking works in physics, chemistry and astronomy, arduous efforts to transform the Academy and educational system of still backward Russia, a poetic and linguistic genius, courtier maneuvers with top powers and Empresses, a short period of oblivion after the death followed by fast appreciation of his outstanding value to the country–all of this has made Lomonosov so appealing to Russians that for more than two centuries he has been considered Russia’s first scientific genius and the founder of Russian science.

National adoration and worship of Lomonosov were equally supported by both Russian rulers and key cultural figures. Shortly before his death in 1764 the Empress Catherine the Great visited the ailing scientist at his laboratory in St. Petersburg, where she viewed his mosaic art and “observed physics instruments that he had invented as well as several experiments in physics and chemistry.”

Such august attention to Lomonosov continued after his death in the form of the monarchical protection of his memory; in 1792, for instance, Catherine commissioned sculptor Fedot Shubin to create a bust of Lomonosov which was installed at the Empress Palace among the busts of ancient heroes.

In the 1820’s, Catherine the Great grandsons, Emperors Alexander I and Nicolas I, ordered the design and erection of the first monument to Lomonosov in his native Arkhangelsk. Alexander Pushkin, the greatest Russian poet and key transformational figure not only of the national culture but – as some believe – of the Russian national character as well,wrote that “Lomonosov was a great man.” Pushkin continued, “Between Peter I and Catherine II, he was the only indigenous champion of enlightenment. He founded our first university: better to say, he was our first university;” the Moscow university was named after Lomonosov in 1940. A decade later, Joseph Stalin refused a proposal to rename Moscow State University after himself: “The central university in the country can bear only one name – Lomonosov’s”.

For Russian scientists, Lomonosov was of special value and advertence. Dmitri Mendeleyev (1834-1906), inventor of the Periodic Table of elements, wrote in his widely popular textbook Principles of Chemistry “in 1742-1744, i.e., 20 years prior to [Roger] Boscovich, Lomonosov expressed his views on the atomic structure of the matter and his ideas are similar to those accepted by most modern chemists and physicists.” Sergei Vavilov (1891-1951), codiscoverer of the Vavilov-Cherenkov effect (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1958), a historian of science and the President of the USSR Academy of Sciences, dedicated a series of articles on Lomonosov’s scientific legacy, singling out his works in optics and discovery of the atmosphere of Venus.

To my knowledge, Usitalo’s study is only the second book in English fully dedicated to Lomonosov as a nature philosopher (there are many more on his legacy in the humanities, history and linguistics). The previous one was a translation of Russia’s Lomonosov: Chemist, Courtier, Physicist, Poet (J. E. Thai, E. J. Webster, trans., Princeton U. Press, Princeton, NJ, 1952) written by Russian chemist Boris Menshutkin, son of Mendeleyev’s collaborator Nikolai Menshutkin.

Besides that book, a more or less comprehensive scientific biography of Lomonosov could be found in extended texts (dedicated chapters in books) by Alexander Vucinich in Science in Russian Culture: A History to 1860 (Stanford University Press, Stanford , CA, 1963), Henry M. Leicester in Mikhail Vasil’evich Lomonosov on the Corpuscular Theory (Harvard U. Press, Cambridge, MA 1970), and Valentin Boss in Newton and Russia: The Early Influence, 1698-1796 (Harvard U. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1972). Usitalo, as the latter three scholars, is a historian by training and an Associate Professor of History and the Department Chair for History, Sociology, Political Science and Geography at the Northern State University. One can commend his thoroughness, time spent in Russian archives and his commitment to be guided by scientific criteria and search for objective and verifiable knowledge, subject to analysis and generalization.

What was lost in that attempt is “readability” – the book looks more like a kind of extended PhD thesis, with annoyingly numerous distractions (references, footnotes, etc).

Indeed, “erudite and skillfully argued,” this book is not an easy, smoothly guided reading at all, as many pages are dominated by footnotes which contain a lot of information of great interest for a dedicated Lomonosov or Russian history scholar.

The main message of the Usitalo’s book is laid out in the Introduction: “... Lomonosov’s fame has far surpassed any realistic association with the known details of his biography; Lomonosov’s monument is the mythology.... Lomonosov is... of interest primarily as a symbolic figure, until recently an extraordinarily resilient one, who over the course of two centuries came to fulfill the tangible intellectual and emotional requirement that Russian pride demanded in a national myth.”

Over the following five chapters, however, most of the proofs are judgmental: numerous facts of Lomonosov’s biography and development of his fame come with two types of epithets – those facts which fit the overall concept are combined with phrases like “carefully reasoned,” “authoritative” (book, work, scholar), “convincing,” “compelling,” and similar types of positives, while when discussion comes to something that supports an opposite point of view, the author widely uses phrases such as “exaggerated claims,” “dubious interpretations,” “speculative,” “politically biased,” etc.

Usitalo claims that Lomonosov’s myth originates with his own outstanding “selffashioning” that can be only excused by that fact that many of Lomonosov’s contemporary greats did the same.

Indeed, Lomonosov was known for his ferocious ambitions and fostered his image in order to recruit support or to advance his projects, but it was mostly done in his private letters to powerful supporters such as the Counts Vorontsov and Shuvalov. That in fact was much more purpose-oriented and innocent compared to, say, Newton’s personal interference into the work of the “independent committee” to refute Leibniz’s claim to priority in calculus (see, e.g., The Calculus Wars: Newton, Leibniz, and the Greatest Mathematical Clash of All Time by Jason Socrates Bardi, Basic Books, 2007), or Franklin’s “kite story.”

The author also claims that Lomonosov’s reputation as a natural philosopher grew exponentially in years following his death as a result of an expanding political need for Russia to have its own scientific hero. The facts do not support this. If one uses Google’s software Ngram Viewer, for instance, to find the frequency of appearances of Lomonosov name as a fraction of the sum total of words published in Russian language books since 1750 (see such a plot, e.g. in “Lomonosov and the Dawn of Russian Science”, Physics Today, Feb. 2012), it is clear that Lomonosov’s value in the eyes of Russians remained practically unchanged. Peaks in his popularity in the 1860s and in the 1950s coincide with information campaigns launched in the USSR to popularize science and technology and to pay tribute to Russia’s scientific heritage, but overall these bursts left unaffected Lomonosov’s generally very high level of popularity as “The First Russian scientist.”

The author also fails to convey Lomonosov’s scientific accomplishments. Less than 20 references of the voluminous 440 bibliography items are written by natural science scholars and the lengthier discussions are given to those who are critical of Lomonosov’s achievements rather than to those who appreciated them.

For example, more than 15 pages are dedicated to a short essay, “Lomonosov as a Physicist,” written in 1855 by Nikolai Liubimov (1830-1897) and dwelling on Lomonosov’s weaknesses as a mathematician. Less than a quarter of a page is dedicated to Pyotr Kapitza’s more positive review on the same subject. Very little is said about Liubimov’s credentials (he was not at the forefront of modern science, and not fully aware of the molecular, kinetic theory of gases), and Usitalo does not mention Kapitza’s evaluation of Liubimov’s essay as “...untalented rehash of several of Lomonosov’s works”.

It is a shame that the broader Englishspeaking scientific community is exposed to interpretations and evaluations of Lomonosov’s works while the works themselves are not widely available in English. Translations of only 14 of his papers on corpuscular theory appeared in Leicester’s monograph cited above. More availability of Lomonosov’s works would help to convey his scientific significance to the international scientific community.

Overall, I believe that Usitalo’s book might be a useful resource for scholars, in the history of science as a comprehensive compendium of facts, but doubt that it will be appealing to the general public. I can recommend reading and perhaps even purchasing this book to historically oriented colleagues in natural sciences, with the warning that the conceptual canvas of this study should be taken with a grain of salt.

The articles in this issue represent the views of their authors and are not necessarily those of the Forum or APS.