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Lessons from Russia

Alexander Gurshtein

What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from Russian Experience? Loren R. Graham. xvi + 178 pp. Stanford University Press, 1998. $39.50.

Soviet Science under Control: The Struggle for Influence. Jeffrey L. Roberg. xii + 170 pp. MacMillan Press and St. Martin's Press, 1998. $65.

The story of Soviet science and technology is unprecedented. From the very start of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the prevailing idea has been that science should lead the drive to launch a new socialist system of equality and opportunities for all. One popular song at the dawn of the superpower was the "March of Enthusiasts," which referred to the Soviet Union as "the Land of Heroes, the Land of Dreamers, the Land of Scientists."

The utopian vision failed to create a prosperous socialist state but was successful in creating the largest scientific establishment in the world. It was commonplace to praise scientists proudly as the most distinguished individuals of the new socialist culture. Of course, the scientific activity was under Party control. Nevertheless, science held a very prestigious position in Soviet society—and a large one. In a series of passages of Graham's book, there are staggering statistics. An example: On the eve of the USSR collapse in 1991, the total number of personnel officially classified as scientific researchers and faculty was as many as 1.52 million people, a number no nation in the world had ever reached.

Besides its absurd size, the Soviet scientific establishment had another unique feature: In its 80 years it was plagued by two disastrous, traumatic breakdowns. From 1929 until Stalin's death in 1953, it was a subject to oppression of a scale unknown in world history. After 1990, Russian science, the successor to Soviet science, "was subjected to a financial crisis, one still going on, equally unparalleled in modern history, with research budgets slashed to less than a tenth of what they had been," Graham writes.

Is any of this of interest to anyone besides disappointed and long-suffering Russian scientists? Graham claims that this grandiose, Soviet and Russian accidental experiment can serve as a priceless model of how science develops under various circumstances—particularly adversarial ones. Says the author: "We can understand how much our science and our culture are conditioned by our society only if we have another society and another culture with which we can appropriately draw comparisons. The Soviet Union may well have been one of the last modern alternatives to dominant Western patterns with which such comparisons of science can be made. In that sense, the study of Soviet science is also a study of our science."

Throughout his lifelong career as a Soviet science and technology historian, Loren Graham, who holds a joint appointment at MIT and Harvard, has written several books, two of them brilliant and published almost simultaneously in 1993: Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History (Cambridge) and The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union (Harvard). In 1995 he was invited to give the Kendall Lectures at Stanford, and these lectures became the foundation for this new book. Only a person of Graham's background could write such a comprehensive book.

I doubt that even contemporary Russia has a single scholar capable of doing a better job than Graham with this subject. This is owed in large measure to Graham's facility with the material, his open-mindedness and his considerable writing talent.

What conclusions can be drawn from Graham's intriguing book? One is that science is very robust with respect to external stresses: deficits of freedom and money. In the 1920s and '30s probably half of the engineers and a very large percentage of the scientists in the Soviet Union were arrested, and many of them were shot to death or died in labor camps. Many continued their work in prison. Science, however, is not a fragile flower. According to a National Academy of Sciences investigation, despite years of oppression, the Soviet Union had been a leader in certain areas, primarily in mathematics and physics. Graham demonstrates unequivocally that a lack of money is much more devastating for science and technology than a lack of freedom.

Graham also makes a strong case that science is extremely conservative. "The experience of Russia points to the conclusion that scientists are no more willing to reform their own institutions than any other interest group and (are) more articulate in their defense than most. The system of fundamental research that developed in the Soviet Union was in deep need of reform, but the scientists who controlled it have successfully resisted major changes even after the collapse of the system that created it." Surely science cannot improve its infrastructure without mighty outside assistance.

Unlike Graham's high-profile book, Jeffrey Roberg's scholarly presentation is much more moderate, academic and restricted, and it concentrates mainly on the relationship between scientists and the state.

Roberg offers three case studies. The first is a survey of efforts by I. V. Kurchatov, A. D. Sakharov and other outstanding Soviet nuclear scientists to prevent Soviet nuclear-weapons testing from 1958 to 1962, which resulted in the Limited Test Ban Treaty. This event is of special significance to the author because it showed how the scientists moved from their defined role as "bomb-maker" to that of "policymaker." The second case is devoted to P. L. Kapitsa's attempts to improve relations between scientists and the political leadership. He tried to persuade the authorities "that the scientific community would better serve the state if the leaders would show them more respect." Finally, the author explores the human rights issue inside the former Soviet Union—in particular, the role that bomb-making academician Sakharov played in placing human rights on the policy agenda.

In connection with these case studies, the author complains about the Westerners' tendency to oversimplify the post-WWII Soviet situation. He argues that despite the over-centralization characteristic of the Soviet regime, the relationship between scientists and the Communist Areopagus is better viewed as bidirectional. The movement was not at all equal in both directions, but scientists had some influence on the policymakers in some areas. Unfortunately, Roberg doesn't provide enough facts to justify his conclusions.

Although both books will be of interest to many readers, Graham's will be important and useful beyond a small circle of science historians and philosophers. He will find the larger audience of all concerned about the current state of science policy-making.—Alexander Gurshtein, Astronomy, Space Research and History of Science, Mesa State College, Colorado

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