The geneticist Vladimir Efroimson was born in a wealthy Jewish family in Moscow in 1908. He was the son of a major financier and the grandson of a rabbi.
After finishing a German school, the 16-year-old Vladimir enrolled in the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of Moscow State University, and his choice of subsequent profession was influenced by the fieldwork he did in experimental zoology. However, Efroimson failed to obtain a graduate diploma. When his teacher – Prof. Sergei Chetverikov, a prominent Russian biologist – was accused of being a Trotskyite, Vladimir Efroimson openly came out in his defense. The young student was not deterred by the fact that, by now, he himself was the son of a "wrecker", his father having been sentenced to 5 years in jail.
After being expelled from the university, Vladimir Efroimson worked at various establishments – a zoo, the Radiological Institute, a rabbit-breeding station, etc. At the same time, he wrote scientific papers, being fascinated with human genetics. In the early 1930s, the science of genetics was officially condemned and denounced in the USSR. Efroimson was not untouched by this persecution. In 1932, he was arrested on false charges of organizing anti-Soviet terrorist activity. He survived for three years in the hellish conditions of a camp in Altai Krai. Efroimson was released in 1936, but he was banned from returning to the Medical-Biological Institute and from residing in the major cities.
Being fully committed to science, Efroimson prepared materials on the genetics of the domestic silk moth, and he used these materials as the basis for a book and two dissertations. For a while, Vladimir worked at a sericulture station in Merefa, a small town near Kharkov, Ukraine, where he had moved following his expulsion from the Institute of Sericulture in Tashkent. He later taught German at a school in the small town of Kupiansk in Kharkov Oblast, while simultaneously working on his candidate's thesis. He defended the thesis two weeks before the outbreak of the Soviet-German War.
In late June 1941, in the first days of the war, Vladimir Efroimson showed up at the Kharkov recruitment office and offered his services as an interpreter and intelligence operative. He explained that he had a good knowledge of German language and culture, and was also an expert in literature and human genetics. However, his application was denied because of his criminal record. Thus, he initially served as an epidemiologist in a sanitary battalion. He was later a frontline combatant, taking part in divisional reconnaissance activities.
During his term of service, Vladimir Efroimson was awarded the Orders of the Red Star and the Patriotic War, 2nd class.
At the end of the war, while being stationed in East Prussia, Vladimir Efroimson witnessed the mistreatment (particularly rape) of the local civilian population by Red Army soldiers, and he submitted a report on this to the military council.
After being discharged from the military, Vladimir Efroimson returned to Kharkov, where he began to work at the Department of Darwinism of Kharkov University. In 1947, he defended a doctoral dissertation. However, he was fired from his teaching post a year later, following accusations of "sullying the good name of a university teacher." The actual reason for his dismissal was his translation from English of an article by the geneticist Feodosy Dobrzhanskii, which denounced Trofim Lysenko – the founder of the pseudoscience of Lysenkoism, who was then hailed as a great Soviet agronomist and biologist. Having lost his job, Efroimson became a translator from English. In the meantime, he also gathered all the works written by Lysenko and analyzed them. On the basis of this analysis, he wrote a monograph on the damage caused to the country by Lysenko's theories. Because of this brave and desperate act, Vladimir Efroimson was arrested and accused of libeling the Soviet Army (his persecutors now recalling the report he had written during the war). In protest, Efroimson went on a 15-day hunger strike in jail, demanding that the authorities acknowledge the real reason for his conviction – namely, his opposition to Lysenkoism.
In the end, Efroimson was sentenced to eight years of penal labor and deported to Kazakhstan. He was released in 1955, but was once again banned from residing in the urban centers. He therefore settled in the town of Klin near Moscow.
Only in 1956 was Vladimir Efroimson rehabilitated. He returned to Moscow and found a job as a bibliographer at the Foreign Literature Library. He began to study the scholarly literature on medicine and genetics, which he had been prevented from doing for many years. In 1964, with great difficulties, he was finally able to publish his book Introduction to Medical Genetics.
The mid-1960s saw the beginning of the rehabilitation of genetics in the Soviet Union, and Efroimson was now able to fully devote himself to his life's work.
In 1965, he was awarded the Mendel Medal.
In 1967, Vladimir Efroimson worked at the Psychiatric Research Institute of the Ministry of Health of the USSR, where he headed the laboratory studying the genetics of psychiatric disorders.
Ten years later, Efroimson became a senior consultant at the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. His scholarly works were actively published.
In 1985, Vladimir Efroimson made a resonant public statement. After the premiere of the documentary The Star of Vavilov, which described the fate of Nikolai Vavilov – a prominent Soviet geneticist who died in the Saratov jail in 1943 – Efroimson delivered a very bold and incisive speech about political repression and human courage, asserting that the documentary consisted of half-truths:
"Socialism, which used to reign supreme in our country, and whose crimes have yet to be acknowledged... I am not blaming the moviemakers for their inability to tell the truth about Vavilov's death. They coyly say that he perished in the Saratov jail. He did not 'perish'! He died like a dog. The cause of his death was pellagra – an illness brought on by total, utter exhaustion of the body... "1
Vladimir Efroimson's life credo was: "Homo sapiens is, above all else, homo ethicus," 2 and he followed this principle unswervingly.
Vladimir Efroimson died in Moscow in 1989.
Vladimir Efroimson and his life story served as a model for one of the protagonists of Lyudmila Ulitskaya's novel Kukotsky's Case (2000).