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Thomas Parke Hughes - Lessons From Soviet Science and Technology - Technology and Culture 41:2 Technology and Culture 41.2 (2000) 348-352

Essay Review

Lessons from Soviet Science and Technology

Loren Graham's What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from the Russian Experience?

Thomas P. Hughes


Loren Graham stands as a role model for academics who combine teaching, research, and writing. In 1967 he published The Soviet Academy of Sciences and the Communist Party, 1927-1932; five years later Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union appeared; in 1987 he published Science, Philosophy, and Human Behavior in the Soviet Union; and in 1993 two Graham books appeared: Science in Russia and the Soviet Union and The Ghost of the Executed Engineer. Besides publishing often and well, Graham has held a joint appointment as a professor of the history of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University and frequently consults with top policymakers on Russian science and technology. Justifiably he is called the world's leading historian of Soviet and Russian science.

In 1995 Stanford University invited Graham to give the Kendall Lectures; the book based on those lectures, What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from the Russian Experience? (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), is the subject of this review. The lectures provide an occasion for him to reflect upon a lifetime of study and to consider some large questions about history, science, and technology.

Readers of Technology and Culture may well find Graham's questions about engineering of greatest interest. Trained as an engineer before studying history in graduate school, Graham writes insightfully about technology as well as about natural and social science. Thus, in The Ghost of the Executed Engineer, he brings sophisticated moral insight to Soviet engineering history. He is obviously appalled--as is the protagonist Petr Pal'chinskii--by the indifference of Soviet system-builders to the human suffering and environmental disasters left in the wake of their megaprojects. [End Page 348] Pal'chinskii, the "executed engineer," paid with his life for his protests. In What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from the Russian Experience? Graham again condemns the builders of megaprojects. After a swipe at American engineers who fail to take into account social, environmental, and political realities, he turns to the Soviet Union, where the technocratic megaprojects took a particularly monstrous form before and after World War II. Motivated by Marxist moral arrogance and empowered by authoritarianism, Soviet engineers and managers (with an American-style affection for megaprojects) ran roughshod over workers and local communities as they rushed to build canals, railroads, hydroelectric projects, and industrial complexes. Construction workers often survived miserably in tents and mud huts surrounded by open sewers. Technocratic political functionaries insisted that their megaprojects prepared the way for a socialist utopia, so for them the ends justified the means--if they even cared about justification.

Graham singles out Hugh Cooper, an American engineer who served as a consultant to the Soviet Union during the construction of the great dam at Dneprostroi in the late 1920s. Along with a number of other American engineers, Cooper had no qualms about accepting substantial fees for assisting the Soviet system-builders. He professed ignorance of the haste, negligence, and rampant inhumanity that accompanied the project (Pal'chinskii claimed that ten thousand villagers were evacuated from their homes). And, strange to report, he found Stalin kindly minded and dedicated to improving the lot of the people through technology.

Graham sharply criticizes the spread of the Soviet-style megaproject to China. The Three Gorges Hydroelectric Project on the Yangtze River, now under construction, will displace, according to Graham, 1.4 million people and flood more than 100 towns, 800 villages, and almost 100,000 hectares of prime farm land. Chinese premier Li Ping, a Soviet-trained engineer, was the chief proponent of the project, and in the 1950s Soviet engineers took a leading role in its planning. Like the party leadership in the Soviet Union during its last years, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party in 1993 was dominated by engineers (eleven of the nineteen members). Such horrific examples lead Graham to ask two questions: "who should control technology?" and "to what extent should technology be under the control of ordinary citizens and to what extent should it follow the preferences of engineers and technical experts?" Not surprisingly, he concludes that megaprojects should not be left in the hands of engineering experts concerned solely with technical and economic factors. In contrast to the American progressivists of the 1920s who argued that politics should be kept out of technology, he argues in favor of design and construction informed by local public sentiments and public participation. He might have recommended that engineers be adequately prepared in college to respond to social and environmental factors in their project designs. [End Page 349]

Graham also addresses the question of socially constructed science, a matter of contentious and occasionally acrimonious debate important to historians and sociologists of technology and science alike. His response is sensible: sometimes science is socially constructed; sometimes it is not; and often it is both. Graham cites the rise and fall of Lysenkoism to make his point. In the 1930s Trofim Lysenko promised a revolution in agriculture, a realm in which, he insisted, acquired characteristics could be inherited. His peasant background and plain talk about greatly increased crop yields appealed not only to communist functionaries and the agricultural establishment but also to peasants working the fields. His theories were spread by the apparatchiks and the peasantry, people unable to judge knowledgeably the merits of his approach. Thus, Lysenkoism was socially constructed both in terms of Lysenko's ideological and personal biases and in terms of its supporting constituencies in the Soviet Union. Yet in the 1960s, after dissenters were able to show that the application of genetic theory led to greater productivity in the field, Lysenkoism faded rapidly. "The socially constructed doctrine of Lysenkoism was . . . undermined by contradictory scientific evidence, a powerful alternative cognitive scheme, and the convincing results of agricultural practices based on Western genetics" (p. 23).

On the other hand, Graham confounds those who argue dogmatically that science is an objective pursuit, free from influences associated with social construction. He believes that the commitment of some Russian scientists to Marxist methodology explains a few of the brighter pages in the history of Russian science. He cites as evidence Aleksandr Oparin's work on the origin of life, V. A. Fock's contributions to relativity theory, and A. N. Kolmogorov's writings on mathematics. These cases and others lead Graham to advocate a subtle and fruitful form of social constructivism. Social, political, and ideological factors do shape science and technology, but scientific evidence, theoretical coherence, and technological success demonstrated by testing play key roles as well. Having said this, Graham insists that science should not be considered identical to other cultural products, for, he contends, "science is the most reliable form of knowledge we possess" (pp. 26-27). Some readers will question this privileging of science as knowledge and method.

Graham also asks another question: "how willing are scientists to reform their own institutions?" His response carries a message for policymakers in Russia as well as those in the United States who wish today to nurture Russian science and technology. In short and in general, Graham does not find the influential members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the old Academy of Sciences of the USSR, to be supportive of reform. Along with engineers and scientists in the military-industrial complex, they still dominate research and development in Russia.

Reform is needed. Despite possessing the world's largest scientific and engineering establishment and spending a higher percentage of its gross [End Page 350] national product on science than does the United States, Russian scientific output is meager. According to one rough estimate, an average Russian scientist was four times less productive than an average American scientist. In a country burdened with extraordinary needs for consumer technology. Graham finds about 80 percent of Russian engineers serve in the military-industrial complex. Unlike the American academies of science and of engineering, the Russian Academy, like its Soviet predecessor, is not only honorific but also employs fundamental researchers and administers research laboratories and institutes. Thus, powerful senior scientists continue to dominate the hierarchical academy. Graham contends that those presiding over the system have "great authority, little accountability, few teaching responsibilities, and enormous personal privileges" (p. 84). At least when Graham completed his manuscript, the Russian Academy of Sciences was not responding to these problems, and would-be reformers had not been able to dislodge the scientists who prefer the old way. An alternative to the academy system would be to transfer more research responsibilities to the universities, which, unlike American universities, have only had a narrow pedagogical role.

Finally, Graham asks, "how robust is science under stress?" To answer, he compares two eras with different types of stress: the years from 1929 to 1953, when the Stalinist regime subjected engineers and scientists to harassment, imprisonment, and execution on a scale unprecedented in history, and the period from 1989 to the present, when Russian science and engineering have suffered under drastic financial constraints. Graham finds science and engineering to have been more robust under political oppression than under slashed budgets. He offers several explanations. Despite Stalinist oppression, many scientists and engineers retained a commitment to Soviet socialism, a belief that the Soviet experiment would ultimately improve conditions in the country. Scientists and engineers also found that their work, even when done in prison camps, providing an intellectual and spiritual escape from harsh reality. In contrast, the recent financial crisis has led to an outmigration of gifted professionals, to drastically reduced enrollment of science students in universities and technical institutes (it burgeoned during the Stalinist era), and to high unemployment among the ranks of engineers and scientists. "Russian science at the moment," Graham writes, "is barely hanging on, even though Russian scientists currently enjoy greater political freedoms than at any previous time" (p. 72). Money rather than freedom seems to be necessary to robust science under extreme conditions.

Throughout this book, Graham persuasively argues that the study of science and technology in the Soviet Union, with the largest community of scientists and engineers in the world, provides an unusual opportunity for western scholars to compare their own history with a history evolving in a sharply contrasting environment. This book should remind historians to [End Page 351] question the value of generalizations about modern science and technology that are not tested in a comparative context. It would be fascinating to have a Russian historian of science write a companion volume about what can be learned from the American experience.

Dr. Hughess is Mellon Professor Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania and visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Stanford University.

Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Launched on MUSE
2000-04-01
Open Access
No
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