Russian & Soviet Science and Technology

by Loren R. Graham
History of Science Society Newsletter, Volume 18 No. 4 (Supplement 1989)
© 1989 by the History of Science Society, All rights reserved


This is the fourth guide in the series Teaching the History of Science: Resources and Strategies, published under the auspices of the Committee on Education by the History of Science Society. These guides, written by specialists, are intended for the use of historians of science as well as general historians and any other teachers who wish to begin to revise a history of science course or to incorporate new topics into an existing course. The guides published in the Newsletter will be published, with other essays, as a pamphlet in mid 1989. Earlier guides appeared in the July 1986, April 1987, and Supplement 1988 issues of the Newsletter. The editorial board for each guide is drawn from the Society’s Committee on Education. The committee welcomes comments on the value of these guides, as well as on suggested topics for future guides.


The history of science and technology in Russian and the Soviet Union is a field of study that is underdeveloped in the West, and good books on the subject in English or other West European languages are correspondingly rare. Nonetheless, a number sources exist, as the following bibliography illustrates. Because of the youth of the field and the difficulty in gaining access to archives, the quality of existing works is uneven and the coverage spotty. In recent years this situation has begun to improve. There is a small but perceptible growth of interest in the history of Russian and Soviet science and technology in research universities. At present a handful of American universities–MIT, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Northwestern, Georgetown, Columbia, Arizona, Oregon State–offer occasional courses on the subject, but as yet no more than three or four senior American historians are working full-time in the field.

The scarcity of good books in Western languages is not a result of the inherent unimportance of the subject. Today the Soviet Union has the world’s largest community of scientists and engineers, exceeding that of the United States by almost a third, and this community has deep historical roots. Scientists and engineers in the tsarist empire had earned world fame for their achievements. Among the best known were Nikolai Lobachevskii, the first person to develop non-Euclidean geometry; Dmitrii Mendeleev, creator of the periodic table of the chemical elements; and Ivan Pavlov, the noted physiologist and the first Russian to receive a Nobel Prize.

Most Americans are unaware that the development of science in Russia is approximately as long as it is in the United States. Mikhail Lomonosov and Benjamin Franklin, two of the most significant figures in the early history of science in the two countries, lived at the same time and even did research on some of the same topics, including electricity. Professional societies in the two countries, such as the American Chemical Society and the Russian Physico-Chemical Society, were founded in approximately the same period. Indeed, America and Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shared geographic and geopolitical characteristics that influenced science in the two countries in similar ways: both were outside the center of world science at that time, Western Europe, and both were busy exploring vast virgin lands, an activity that led to particular strengths in such fields as botany, geology, and soil science.

In some other important respects, however, the scientific traditions of the two countries differ. Many observers have noted that Russia and the Soviet Union have been strongest in fundamental science, particularly in mathematics and theoretical physics (what some people call “blackboard science”) and weakest in applied science and engineering. American strength, on the other hand, has, until recently, been in the applied sciences.

Another distinguishing characteristic is that scientists and government officials in Russia have always considered science to be closer to politics than have their counterparts in the United States. The tsarist government feared that Russian scientists who studied in Western Europe would bring home not only scientific knowledge but also Western political theories in conflict with those of the supporters of the Romanov autocracy. For their part, Russian scientists usually considered themselves part of the intelligentsia, with all the oppositional implications that this term conveys. Like the government censors, Russian scientists often made no clear distinction between science and politics. By the late nineteenth century many Russian scientists believed that rational scientific knowledge automatically led to criticism of state politics and the state-supported form of the Russian Orthodox faith. Out of this inter-mixing of science and politics arose many clashes, such as the refusal of tsarist censors to publish Ivan Sechenov’s work on physiological reflexes on the ground that it supported atheism.

After the Russian Revolution the new Soviet government adopted a very positive attitude toward science but retained the view that science and politics are interwoven. Almost every Soviet book on the history of science in the USSR contains some reference to the official view that science and Soviet socialism are mutually Supportive. The outside observer might note that the Soviet government has indeed strongly supported science, but that the history of Soviet science contains episodes such as the Lysenko affair, illustrating that the influence of politics on science can be harmful as well as beneficial.

Counterbalancing the scarcity of good books on the history of Russian and Soviet science in Western languages is a large body of literature on the subject published in the Soviet Union in recent decades. The center of this research is the Institute of the History of Science and Technology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, located in Moscow. In just one series of monographs entitled Scientific-Biographical Series (Nauchno-Biograficheskaia Seriia) this institute has sponsored several hundred biographies of Russian and Soviet scientists, almost all of them written in Russian. The Academy of Sciences has also put out an overview in English of work in Russian: The History of Science: Soviet Research, 2 vols. (Moscow, 1985). Although this literature can be used profitably by the Western scholar who knows the Russian language, much of it is flawed by being written from an internalistic and nationalistic point of view. Some of the best Soviet pieces in English on the history of Soviet science can be found in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, where significant deceased Russian and Soviet scientists are described. Users of this source should be sure to check the supplementary volumes for articles written after the editors decided to drop the rule that only Soviet authors could write about Soviet scientists.

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