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  • The Concept of Technology and the Russian Cultural Research Tradition
  • Natalia Nikiforova (bio)


The concept of “technology” embraces a wide range of significance in the humanities in Russia. Besides being used to designate material culture, technical artifacts, and equipment, it is used as a universal metaphorical category and frequently appears in such combinations as “humanitarian technology,” “political technology,” or “technology of education.” In contemporary humanistic parlance the concept has turned into a subtle multidimensional terminological instrument, which is fashionable enough to be used for that reason alone. The semantic plasticity of the term is taken for granted, yet it is worth exploring the history of the term in order to understand what stands behind the present-day connotations and semantic nuances. This essay investigates the history of the concept of “technology” in Russian scholarly schools and traditions, philosophical texts, political rhetoric, and public discourse, addressing the question: How are the meanings of technology interconnected with the problems of society and culture?

This methodological approach was inspired by the principles of historical semantics, mainly by Reinhart Koselleck’s conceptual history or Begriffsgeschichte, which recognizes the importance of language in understanding reality. Similar ideas were manifested in various methodological programs, including the history of discourses (Quentin Skinner) and the history of keywords (Raymond Williams). These scholarly traditions may not refer to one another, and they have evolved from different national research traditions and styles, but they all represent species of cultural history focusing on semantic change and the social and political context of ideas; they promise to identify active periods of semantic transformation and correlate them with the specificities of national history. These approaches [End Page 184] are attentive to the establishment of modernity, a critical period roughly estimated as the middle of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century. At this time of shaping the scientific and scholarly lexicon, concepts of enduring importance emerged or transformed and acquired new meanings. In Koselleck’s interpretation, the “new time” began when instead of describing the “domain of experience,” the newly emerging concepts became oriented toward a “horizon of expectations.”1 Similarly, Williams characterized this period as a general change in our characteristic ways of thinking about our common life and surrounding social and political institutions.2 Another important focus in the investigation of keywords is the national perspective. In this regard, we may refer to Polish-Australian cultural linguist Anna Wierzbicka. Her works call for a principle linking vocabulary with a particular national culture, represented as a conceptual universe.3 The development of the concept of “technology” in Russian is fascinating because it reveals both national attitudes and transference of foreign cultural meanings.

A Prehistory of “Technology”: Cultural Transfer to the Russian Language in the Eighteenth Century

The word “technology” was among many loan words introduced into Russian academic parlance during the time of Peter the Great. As in the case of other key cultural concepts, the second half of the eighteenth century marked a rupture between premodern and new meanings of “technology” in the Russian language. The question of Russian modernity is arguable, but the transformation of the semantics of “technology” correlates with the European model. In the Russian case the transformation of terms happened concurrently with the creation of academic and literary language and was incorporated into a deliberate campaign to introduce European terms.

The adaptation and usage of foreign linguistic borrowings has played a pivotal part in Russian culture since the eighteenth century. The history of the Russian academic lexicon is to a great extent the history of foreign borrowings and the work of their cultural appropriation. An extremely fruitful period in terms of foreign adoptions and borrowings was the era of Peter the Great, when the Russian linguistic situation was radically transformed. The domestication of words and ideas from other cultures was encouraged by both the administration and Peter I himself, and it was embedded in a major linguistic reform that involved a change of alphabet and typeface, the introduction of new literary styles, and a great many [End Page 185] translations of foreign texts. The orientation of the new language toward the European model embodied the aspiration to break with an obsolete regime and...


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