The Soviet Union opened a brand new front of the Cold War with the launching of Sputnik (Otober 4, 1957). The launching of Sputnik was not just a technical achievement with military implications, it also had ideological considerations. Often accounts of the Cold War focus on ideological differences between East and West. Technology played a critical role in the Cold War which is often overlooked. Marxists proclaimed Communism as a new, scientific approach to organizing human society. As a result, science assumed an important ideological status in the Cold war. Obviously if Marxism was the optimal organization of human society, the Soviet Union should be able to produce the best science. And Soviet propaganda trumpeted Sputnik as a symbol of the superiority of Soviet science. In the long run, superior Western technology played an important role in the West's victory. The West's superiority was, however, not apparent in the 1950s. Communism was at the time an ideology embraced by millions around the world. The Russian Revolution and spread of Communism to Eastern Europe and then China seemed to show that Communism was the wave of the future. Soviet technological achieveements like Sputnik was further evidence that Communism, central planning, and atheism were the wave of the future.
The catalog of Soviet crimes is harrowing indeed, mass mirder, concentration camps, war, oppresive occupation, and even engineered famines. Murder on a vast scale was only part of the Soviet record. The Soviet Union also destroyed culture, lterature, and art. Two areas in which the Soviet Union prided itself on was building a modern economy and scientific achievement. The fall of the Soviet Union exposed the weakness of the Soviet economy. Soviet indudstry was both backward and inefficent. Soviet firms were totally unable to compete on the world market with industries in other countries. This leaves science as the other area in which the Soviets claimed great success. The Soviets certainly poured great resources in to science. Soviets schools emphasized both math and science. And the results werec large numbers of competent engineers and scientists. The question that rises is, where are the results. Where are the major schievements and nobel prizes in major scientific firelds: biology, medecine, chemistry, and physics. In particular, where are the scientific achievements in agriculture. The Soviet Union had some of the most productive agricultural land in the world. Yet Soviet agriculture was a disaster. Much of this of course can be laid on Stalin and collectivization. But the vast Soviet scientific establishment seems to have played no productive role in improving Soviet agriculture. What occurred was that a grossly distorted scintific establishment that was prone to well-spoken quacks that spouted politically correct speech rather than real science. Another major fsactor was the penchant toward secrecy and restricting the free flow of ideas.
The Soviet Union inherited from Tsarist Russia a competent if relatively small scientific establishment. One of its brightest lights was Nikolai Vavilov. He was a botanist who before World war I was one of the leading figures in the developing new science of genetics. He was recognized as a great mind by foreign scientidts. He traveled widely into many extreme enviroments to amass one of the lsrgest plant and seed collections in the wotld. He was obsessed with purse science, but had a very practical goal in mind. He saw that genetics could be used to breed hardy crops that wre both drought- and insect resistant. This could greatly expand agricultural producivity. This of course would seem to be just the sort of science that a Bolshevik regime which clsaimed to be based on a scientific systen could endirse to better mankind. And at first this seems to be what happened. Lenin himself took a personal interest in Vavilov's seed collection. Lenin ordered that an institute be established for a plant-breeding station where Vavilov could pursue his work (1921). The research station was never adwquately funded. But much worse was to come after Stalin seized control of the Sovuiet state. Science became heavily politicized, but Vavilov's personal tragedy was that Stalin took a personal dislike to genetics. Stalin and the Bolseviks were determined to create the new Soviet man through education and persuasion. Yet genetics was finding that inheritance was a powerful factor. That was not what Stlin wanted to hear. And he had an option. Stalin was drawn to a politically correct scientific charlatan--Trotim Lysenko. Lysenko rejected Darwin and because of his peasant origins was just the kind of person Stalin needed. And the fact that Lysenko had no foreign contacts or admirers made him even more accecptable to Stalin. The two men argued in scientific meetings, but as funding was wihdrawn from Vavilov and the NKVD began harrassing him, the Soviet scientific establishment knew that siding with Vavilov was dangerous. Finally the NKVD arrested Vavilov and he died from starvation in the Gulag. [Pringle] Soviet genetics never recovered.
The Soviet Union opened a brand new front of the Cold War with the launching of Sputnik (Otober 4, 1957). Often accounts of the Cold War focus on ideological differences between East and West. Technology played a critical role in the Cold War which is often overlooked. Marxists proclaimed Communism as a new, scientific approach to organizing human society. As a result, science assumed an important ideological status in the Cold war. Obviously if Marxism was the optimal organization of human society, the Soviet Union should be able to produce the best science. And Soviet propaganda trumpeted Sputnik as a symbol of the superiority of Soviet science. President Kennedy understood both the scientific and ideological importance of the space race and committed the Unitesd States to land on the moon. Both America and the Soviets mobilized their sciebtific and industrial resources for a race to the moon. In the long run, superior Western technology played an important role in the West's victory. The West's superiority was, however, not apparent in the 1950s.
Marxists proclaimed Communism as a new, scientific approach to organizing human society. As a result, science assumed an important ideological status in the Cold war. Obviously if Marxism was the optimal organization of human society, the Soviet Union should be able to produce the best science. And Soviet propaganda trumpeted Sputnik as a symbol of the superiority of Soviet science. In the long run, superior Western technology played an important role in the West's victory. The West's superiority was, however, not apparent in the 1950s. Communism was at the time an ideology embraced by millions around the world. The Russian Revolution and spread of Communism to Eastern Europe and then China seemed to show that Communism was the wave of the future. Soviet technological achieveements like Sputnik was further evidence that Communism, central planning, and atheism were the wave of the future.
No other country in history has place such a great emphasis on sciene than the Societ Union. The Soviet government made the promotion of science a major national priority. Important scirntists were sowered with homors and perks. Science and technology throughout the Soviet era were afforded considerable attention in state planning to a degree unrivaled in any other country. This began with Lenin and continued until the Soviet Union was disolved (1992). There were several resons for this. Perhaps the most important reson for this were the ibvious link with the military and industry. The Bolshevicks set out to create a major industrial and military power and for this an advanced scietific establishment was needed. There were also ideological requirements. Markism was presented as a sciebntific approach to human organization. Thus clearly Marxists society would be able to produce the best science. Tsarist Russia had produced noted scientists (Mendel). Many Tsarist era scientists (Konstantin Tsiolkovsky) played an important role in Soviet science. The Bolshevicks designed an educational system to produce even more scientists and technicians. Scientific institutes were estblished and received lavish state funding,
The primary scientific institution in the Soviet Union was Academy of Sciences. This was a Tsarist instution founded in St. Petersburg during the 18th century (1725). Stalin had in moved to Moscow (1934). It was moved again during World War II for security reasons Chernogolovka (1943). The Soviet Academy of Science was made up of 250 research institutes. It had a staff of 60,500 full-time researchers (1987). Most worked in the natural sciences. The different constituent republics, except the Russian Republic, had their only generally small academies. Much of the actual scientific research, however, was conducted outside of the Academy system. Researchers estimated that as much as 90 percent of Soviet research was conducted outside of the Academy sysstem, but this is difficult to assess with any precession. This was the work done in secret facilities that were involved for the Sovet military.
The Bolshevicks significantly expanded the Tsarist education system. This was surely one of their important achievements. Education became available to every Soviet child. And that Soviet education placed considerable emphasis on match and science. Soviet education emphasized science at all academic levels. Soviet schools produced very large numbers of scientists and engineers. These graduates received an excellent education and were technically highly competent.
The Soviet Union gave considerable attention to biology, chemistry, materials science, mathematics, and physics, Soviet science was especially fruitful in areas of pure and theoretical science. Actual applying scientific discoveries, however, proved difficult for Soviet science. This was especially true in the consumer economy, but there were also limitations in military areas.
A HBC reader tells us about his visit to the Moscow Polytechnic Museum. "An icy blast of air swept down the street as I entered the museum. This made the building feel lovely and warm. What a place it was. The museum is one of the best of its kind. On entering there were two exhibits on either side of the entrance. The first was a steam tractor that generated power to drive agricultural machinery. The second exhibit was a replica of Russia’s first atomic bomb of 1951. The description of the exhibit said it was Russia's first domestic atomic bomb 1951. I have included a general view of one of the galleries to give you an idea of how the gallery items are displayed. There is so much human endeavour on display that I have decided to focus on several discoveries made by Russian scientists. That’s not to claim they were the first in their field. My intention is to show that Russia made valuable contributions to the development of science in the 20th century and seems to be continuing this in the 21st century. The astponomical clock is an interesting clock. Like a modern mobile phone it tells you lots of things apart from the time. It was 20 years in the making. It was the brain child of a Russian engineer. He was called Franz Karas. He was a self taught engineer. It was in 1906 that he completed his clock. He was a self taught mathematician and engineer. J.Monkus helped him. The clock was a wondrous thing. It told the time. It showed months days and weeks. It showed the phases of the moon and the movement of the Earth around the Sun. It has recently been restored and the time piece works again. In the Recorded Sound Gallery I came across an unusual tape recorder. It was an invention by a sound engineer called Skvortsov. He was researching how to make a recording medium that lasted much longer than the 3 minutes of sound recoded on a record. He came up with the idea of printing an optical sound track onto paper and then playing it back so that a photo electric cell read it and reproduced the recoding on the paper tape. He made the initial experiments in 1931 but it was not until 1944 that the machines were made. By then great improvements had been made in both the gramophones and magnetic tape and the talking paper tape recorders were obsolete. We all know the story of how Thomas Edison invented the Light bulb in 1879. This story would have you believe that he was first passed the post but he was not. Joseph Swan of England beat him in 1878. He demonstrated an electric light bulb at a Scientific gathering in England. A Russian Scientist called Lodygin’s had a working light bulb in 1873. He demonstrated the electric bulb to Petersburg Technical Institute. He had street electric lighting working in a Black Sea town now called Odessa. The lamp in the photograph is believed to have been demonstrated in Paris in 1875. His filament was made from charred bamboo fibre. I believe this was the type of filament used by Edison and Swan. 1873 was not the first time an incandescent lamp lit up the darkness. This happened for possiblely the first time in 1843. Lodygin might have been the first to light up a street with electric light. The laser gun caught my eye. I thought to the time when I was a small boy and watched Flash Gordon films at the cinema. He had a laser gun. The Martian’s in the H.G. Well’s story, ‘War of the Worlds’ used deadly laser technology too. Here before my eyes was a real laser pistol, a device from the early 1970’s. It was the invention of Professor Victor Samsonovich Sulakvelidze. They made a weapon that used laser power of between 1 and 10 joule. I don’t think it was ever fired in anger.It had a cartridge of gas bullets that were needed to fire the weapon. It could be a defensive weapon or a medical instrument. The medical room on ‘Starship Enterprise.’ would have use for such a healing device. I did not see everything. Three hours had gone by and I still have too floors to explore."
Marxist ideology presented Soviet citizens a virtually religious ideology which claimed to represent truth. Thus individuals who questioned these relevations represented a challenge to the Soviet state and Communist Party. In more benign times they were simply not allowed to publish or present their ideas in public fora. Duting the Stalinist Terror they and people who associated with them were killed or confined to the Gulag in unbelievable numbers. Here the supression was most intense in areas such as art, literature, and social sciences. Scientists were, however, not imune. Going through the Soviet education system must have taught young people that freely expressing oneself if not dangerous was not apt to advance careers. The most obvious example of this was in the field of biology. Ukrainian agronomist Trofim Lysenko rejected the tenants of modern genetics and the chromosome theory. He backed his theories with Marxist ideology. This apealed to Stalin banned population genetics and other non-Marxist approaches (1948). This was not reversed until the 1960s, but Soviet biological sciences never fully recovered. The limitations on free speech in other areas is less obvious. But an essential element of scientific progress is communication among scientist. Limitations on expression and communication must have affected the progress of Soviet science in many areas. This is especially true when there was only one client--the Soviet state. In the West, there were many consumers, not only governments, but large number of corportations. This meant that innovative new ideas had a much greater opportunity to challenge established ideas. And Soviet scientists were especially reluctant to question their superiors or to innovate. Scientists and scientific administrators whose ideas proved wrong could face dire consequences. The result was to discourage innovation.
Contrary to what Soviet Marxist-based ideology proclaimed, it was capitalist-based free enterprise that has generated the great scientific discoveries. This is in large measure why China which was responsible for a hist of technological innovations was not where the industrial revolution occurred. It is why the Soviets despite the massive commitment to science and technology achieved very few ground breaking scientific achievements. It is certainly not that Soviet scientists were not competent. They were. What was lacking was the entrenprenurial spirit that is prevalent in a free enterprise system. This involves both innovative thought and risk taking. This is something that corporations and individuals are willing to do. It is something that governmrents are much less willing to do. And individuals in a police state still heavily influenced by Stalin would not be predeposed toward risk taking.
Soviet science was not without its achievements. Some were impressive indeed. Soviet scientists excelled in mathematics and in important physical science, most notably theoretical nuclear physics, chemistry, and astronomy. Soviet scientists won several Nobel pizes. Nobel prize awards are one indicator of the level of scientific achievement in various countries. The Soviet achievements in physics were particularly impressive. There were several physics prizes. Pavel Cherenkov, Ilya Frank and Igor Tamm won the Nobel prize for their work on the Cherenkov effect (1958). Lev Landau won the Nobel prize for his work on liquid helium superfluidity (1962). Nikolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov won the Nobel prize for their work in quantum electronics which was fundamental to the development of lasers (1964). Pyotr Kapitsa won the Nobel prize for his work in cryophysics (1978). Two other Soviet physicists won the Nobel prize after the disolution of the Soviet Union. Zhores Alferov won the Nobel prize for his work on semiconductor heterostructures (2001). Vitaly Ginzburg won the Nobel prize for his work with superconductors (2003). There was also a chemistry award. Nikolai Semenov received the Nobel prize for his work on the mechanism of chemical transformation (1956).
Soviet technological achievemnts were most notable in nuclear physics. Stalin made nuclears weapons the highest of all military priorities. NKVD chief Larenta Beris was even put in charge of the program. Stalin directed vast resources to the progrm. Igor Kurchatov led the scientific program. The Soviet Union thus became the second country to build an atomic bomb (1949). The Soviet scientific establishment was significantly aided by an espionage program in the United States. The Soviets only 4 years later developed a hydrogen bomb (1953). This was more fully a Soviet achievement, the result of a research program masterminded by Andrei Sakarov (1953). The fact the Soviets did so only 10 months after the United States suggested that in this important area the Soviet Union had reached parity with America.
Space at first seemed to be an area in which the Soviet Union was visibly surpassing the United States. All of the early firsts wre achieved by the Soviets. The Sviets launched the first artificial satellite--Sputnik 1 (1957) and launched the first man in space--Yuri Gagarin (1961). Many other space firsts followed. 1980s.
Soviet espionage assisted with many different projects. Penetration of the American Manhattan Project played a major role in the Soviet atom bomb project. This of course assisted with the specific weapons development projects. We are less sure about the overall impact on Soviet science. We note assessments that Stalin's obcession with having an exact copy of the Boeing B-29 Flying Fortress put back te Soviet aviatin industry. (A B-29 damaged on a raid over Japan, landed in the Soviet Union.) A Soviet reader reports that the decesion to copy American computers impeded the development of a domestic computer industry.
What is notable in Soviet science is despite the massive commitment to science is the lack of real accomplishments. This can be observed in many areas. One way of measuring scientific accomplishments are Nobel prize awards. Annotavly, oher than in physics, Soviert scientists won almost no Nobel prizes.
Given the huge commitment of the Soviet state to science, how could there be such limited accomplishments? One factor surely was that most Soviet science was done in secret for weapons development. Unlike weapons reserch in the West there seems to have been very limited spin off into the Soviet consumer economy. Thus there was no innovative development in the Soviet Union in the field of electonics and computers that led to such important consumer industries. Nor were there important developments in the field of medicine. The Soviets failed to make important contributions in pharmecuticals and vcaccines that have so improved human life in the 20th century. But even in areas that the Soviet state asigned high priorities, Soviet science filed. The Soviet space program filed to beat the Americns in the race to the moon. This was not as important as other failures of Soviet science, but it was a highly vissible one. More important than the moon race was the economic and commercial developmets that flowed from the American space race. Virtually nothing flowed from the Soviet space program into the Soviet economy. Also the Soviet weapons industry failed to produce weapons that could compete with comparable American weapons. While thankfully there was no direct military confrontation between America and the Soviet Union, Soviet and American weapons were used in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle West. And in those conflicts, the Western weapons systems (especially aircraft) generally proved superior to Soviet types.
Graham, Loren R. Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union (Knopf, 1972), 607 p.
Pringle, Peter. The Murder of Nikolsi Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Greatest Scientists of the Twentieth Century (Simon & Schuster, 2008), 370p.
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