A Martian Stranded on Earth: Alexander Bogdanov, Blood Transfusions, and Proletarian Science

Adept interlacing of three aspects of an influential Russian polymath impresses Yvonne Howell

September 29, 2011

You probably know somebody whose recovery from serious injury, surgery or anaemia was made possible by a blood transfusion. If you yourself have donated blood, you have performed an invaluable service. Today, blood transfusion is an essential part of clinical medicine, so it is surprising to learn that the life-saving procedure became routine only in the mid-20th century. Nikolai Krementsov's account of the early years of blood research in the Soviet Union may be one of the most fascinating stories of how people, politics, science and even fiction intersected in the two decades it took to go from a poorly understood notion of blood exchanges to international reliance on blood banks and transfusions during the Second World War.

But what does the history of an important biomedical science have to do with Martians? What does it have to do with proletarian science? (And, indeed, can science be proletarian?) And what role in this story could have been played by Alexander Bogdanov, the prolific author of articles on Marxist political economy and one of the Bolshevik intellectuals whose rival views most irritated Lenin?

Krementsov's lively, investigative, often subtly wry prose confronts these matters both as a scholarly mystery - how did it come to be that the establishment in 1926 of the world's first research institute of blood transfusion occurred in the medically backwards Soviet Union? - and as a response to the not entirely rhetorical question: "Had Martians taken over Narkomzdrav (the People's Commissariat of Health Protection)?"

Well might the question be posed, given that Bogdanov was the founding director of Moscow's blood research institute. Science fiction buffs will know him as the author of the first real Bolshevik science fiction novel, Red Star (1908), which was intended to help the masses envision the more perfect world their contemporary struggles were supposed to make possible - a world of collective health, prosperity, gender and economic equality, personal and social freedom.

In this better world - which in Bogdanov's novel could only be witnessed by an Earthling who was gently kidnapped by super-advanced Martians to experience their utopian Red Star - even Martian blood was shared between older and younger individuals, so that "elements of vitality" would continuously invigorate their organisms.

Bogdanov's interest in the procedure was more than literary: he had begun secret experiments with blood transfusion among a circle of friends as early as 1923. His luck ran out in 1928, however, when his 12th blood exchange resulted in acute haemolysis and death at the age of 53.

Bogdanov was not only a professional revolutionary and Marxist philosopher but had also trained to be a physician. For him, science (nauka) spanned everything from laboratory experiments to the task of conceptualising a mode of knowledge production that would be for and by the masses. Krementsov shows that Bogdanov's vision of what "socialist" science should be, e.g. practical and justifiable in terms that the masses could comprehend, would not only have real appeal for Stalin but also a profound effect on decades of Soviet science policy, some of which was tragically akin to Martian fantasies.

A Martian Stranded on Earth is the first study in any language to yoke together the three faces of Bogdanov (scientist, Marxist and novelist), in order to reveal how revolutionary dreams of proletarian science and infinitely extended life converged with the institutional and political realities of "big science". Krementsov's exploration of that nexus, which resulted in a dead author of Martian Utopias and an early Soviet institution for blood transfusion research, offers readers a renewed sense of how unpredictably collective imaginings and artistic fictions flow through the veins of today's "biomedical advances".

This slim volume is an example of genuinely interdisciplinary, readable, erudite science history for the educated masses to savour.

A Martian Stranded on Earth: Alexander Bogdanov, Blood Transfusions, and Proletarian Science

By Nikolai Krementsov

University of Chicago Press

192pp, £22.50

ISBN 9780226454122

Published 23 August 2011

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