Rewriting Life

Peering in at Soviet Science

What Have We Learned About Science and Technology From the Russian Experience?

MIT professor Loren Graham, the United States’ foremost historian of Russian and Soviet science, doesn’t publish fat tomes every decade or so as many of his peers do; he writes topical, digestible books that invite his audiences along on his scholarly travels. His last short book, The Ghost of the Executed Engineer, came out in 1993 and told the appalling story of Petr Pal’chinskii, a Russian engineer repressed and ultimately executed for his humanitarian scruples. Graham’s latest book is broader in scope but still manages to weigh in at less than 200 pages. To use his own phrase, it is another “small book about big questions.”

The first question Graham takes up is fascinating, but it may be “big” only to those familiar with the ongoing debate in academe over the epistemological nature of science. Does it refer to an objective reality, or is it a social construction, inextricable in style and content from the culture and the times that produce it? Graham, an exceptionally clear-headed thinker in a field rife with sophistry, uses the Soviet example to show that it is both. Lysenkoism, a disastrous agricultural policy built on the Lamarckian idea that acquired characteristics can be inherited, enjoyed a 30-year reign in the Soviet Union because it accorded so well with Marxist principles, Graham explains. But facts, not philosophy, proved Lysenkoism’s undoing in the 1960s, as Western farmers outperformed their Soviet counterparts and Western biologists gathered irrefutable evidence on the existence and nature of genes.

Graham addresses several other, more pressing questions equally astutely. Are science and technology Westernizing influences? How willing are scientists to reform their own institutions? Who should control technology? And which is more important for science’s survival: political freedom or financial support? To this last question, Graham has a disturbing answer. “The Soviet Union politically repressed science atrociously while simultaneously supporting it financially more fulsomely, relative to its resources, than any other country in history,” he writes. Sometimes, the investment paid off in the form of successes such as Sputnik. “The sobering conclusion that we must draw, in terms of scientific results, is that the support counted for more than the repression.”

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Graham’s premise throughout is that science and technology are transnational pursuits, and that if we hope to distinguish their essence from their variations, we had better ask how they performed so well in the Soviet Union, under social conditions so strikingly different from those in the West. “If we answer this question, we shall learn as much about ourselves as we shall about the Soviet Union,” he writes. And that would be no small achievement.

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