Russian & Soviet Science and Technology


Astronomy is a field in which Russia achieved eminence long before the Revolution of 1917. The Pulkovo Observatory near St. Petersburg was a center of outstanding work throughout the nineteenth century. Its founder, the Baltic German F. G. W. Struve, became famous for his measurements of stellar parallax and his accurate observations of double stars. Struve established not only a tradition of outstanding astronomical work but also a family line of astronomers that lasted for four generations; his grandson Otto Struve, a well-known American astrophysicist, promoted international knowledge of Soviet astronomy. See, for example, Otto Struve, “The Pulkovo Observatory (1839- 1941),” Sky and Telescope, 1941, 1(4):3-14, 19.

Soviet astrophysics has been particularly strong in recent years. The groups of R. Z. Sagdeev, Ia.B. ZelÕdovich, and Iu.S. Shklovskii at the Institute of Space Research, V. L. Ginzburg at the Lebedev Institute, and I. M. Khalatnikov at the Landau Institute of Theoretical Physics have attracted international attention from physicists and astronomers, but this work is too recent to be featured in the works of historians.

The only American currently working on the history of Soviet astronomy is Robert McCutcheon, who is studying the effects of the purges of the 1930s on astronomy.

Space Exploration

A Russian pioneer in space research, somewhat similar to Robert Goddard in the United States, was Konstantin Tsiolkovskii (1857-1935), who is the subject of an uncritical Soviet biography in English: A.A. Kosmodemianskii, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: His Life and Work (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956). Tsiolkovskii’s collected works were translated into English by NASA: The Collected Works of K. E. Tsiolkovskiy, edited by B. N. Iur’ev and A.A. Blagonravov (Moscow, 1951-1959 NASA TT F-236, 237, 238, Washington, D.C., 1965). An interpretation of the image of Tsiolkovskii in Soviet literature is Rita DeDomenico’s “The Official Image of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in the Soviet Union, 1959-1970” (senior thesis, Harvard Univ., 1986).

Many histories of the Soviet space program suffer from being anecdotal and written for a popular audience. Two such works are James Oberg, Red Star in Orbit (New York: Random House, 1981); and Leonid Vladimirov, The Russian Space Bluff: The Inside Story of the Soviet Drive to the Moon (New York: Dial Press, 1973). An exception is a Pulitzer Prize-winning work by a qualified historian comparing the Soviet and American space programs: Walter McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth (New York: Basic Books, 1985). However, McDougall’s work is much stronger in its use of English sources than of Russian ones.

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