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Technology and Culture 41.2 (2000) 348-352

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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...


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