- The Birth, Withering, and Rebirth of Russian History of Science
Compared to many other humanities and social sciences in the Soviet Union, the history of science was a rather unusual field, one in which Soviet scholars were at one time pioneers. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to create an institute or a university department for the study of the history of science and technology.1 Furthermore, scholars in the early Soviet period, including Vladimir Vernadskii, Boris Hessen (Gessen), and Nikolai Bukharin, wrote essays in the history of science that still hold interest today.2 Indeed, the 1931 essay by Hessen entitled "The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's Principia," although now quite outdated, was nonetheless probably the single most influential (and notorious) essay ever written in the field anywhere in the world.3 Even today almost all, if not all, professional historians of science everywhere know about this essay. Hessen opened the path to the interpretation of the history of [End Page 329] the exact sciences within the context of social and political development, a trend that has become a major, if not the major, tendency in the field of the history of science worldwide. Hessen's opening salvo in the controversy over the social construction of science, despite its limitations, will always be credited for being a path-breaker in the field.
Despite this auspicious beginning, the field of the history of science in the Soviet Union soon fell into grave political difficulties, similar to those that afflicted other fields of scholarship under Stalin. In 1936 Stalin's chief prosecutor, Andrei Ianuarevich Vyshinskii, accused the Institute of the History of Science and Technology, directed by the famous political leader Bukharin, of being the center of an anti-Soviet conspiracy. Bukharin and a number of other scholars prominent in the field were arrested and executed, including the author of the famous 1931 essay on Newton, Boris Hessen. The Institute of the History of Science and Technology, which had pioneered the field worldwide, was abolished and not re-established until 1945. However, the field managed to survive, and the reborn institute today still traces its ancestry back to the 1920s and 1930s.4
In order to understand the changes that have occurred in the field of the history of science in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is necessary to notice some of the primary characteristics of the field in the USSR in the period from 1945 until perestroika in the late 1980s. Ironically, even though Soviet historians of science such as Hessen and Bukharin had been the leaders in the development of contextual studies of the history of science, in the post-World War II period Soviet historians of science concentrated on narrow, internalistic studies of the history of science and technology in which social influences were usually ignored. Especially after Lysenkoism blighted Soviet biology and similar political pressures affected other fields of science, it was simply too dangerous for Russian historians to connect scientific developments to the larger political and social culture. Therefore, most Soviet historians of science and technology concentrated on technical chronologies of mathematics, physics, or technology (such as histories of "the lathe"), or they wrote biographies. Most of these studies were boring in their tedious details, although some good work was done.5 Furthermore, [End Page 330] like many other Soviet scholars in the humanities and social sciences, Soviet historians of science and technology in the postwar period were largely isolated from trends in scholarship in their field in Western Europe and North America, and, as a result, they fell badly behind. As nationalism grew in strength in Soviet culture, Russian historians of science often emphasized questions of priority, claiming Russian and Soviet primacy in the development of important technologies such as the radio and the airplane, thereby discrediting themselves in the eyes of many historians of science and technology elsewhere in the world. Although there were some improvements in the field in the post-Stalin period, the field of the history of science in Russia was very much in need of renewal in the last years of the Soviet regime.