Shining achievements

Decades of state investment in planning and science propelled the Soviet Union to the forefront in a wide spectrum of fields, notably mathematics, physiology, geology, aerodynamics and space, and proved that science could be planned and its fruits made available to society at large.

Published : Dec 06, 2017 12:30 IST

A Russian peasant with the "Ilyich lamp", a symbol of the Soviet national electrification drive. This incandescent lamp, invented by Aleksandr Lodygin, got its name from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution.

A Russian peasant with the "Ilyich lamp", a symbol of the Soviet national electrification drive. This incandescent lamp, invented by Aleksandr Lodygin, got its name from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution.

CHARLES DICKENS' famous novel based on the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, opens with the following words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Nearly 130 years after the French Revolution (November 7, 1917, according to the Gregorian calendar), the Bolshevik Revolution took place in Russia. The economic crises that followed and counter-revolutionary attacks meant that “darkness” and “winter of despair” were soon looming large. When very few were sure that the revolution would survive, Lenin declared that “Russia [the Soviet Union was formed in 1922] cannot be saved by a good harvest in a peasant economy”, nor by light industry for consumer goods. Heavy industry was essential, to be subsidised by the state, and “unless we find them, we are lost as a civilised state, let alone as a socialist state”.

Electrification drive

This was a call to bring in the season of light. This reminds me of a photograph that I as a schoolgoing child saw in an exhibition 50 years ago when the Golden Jubilee of the October Revolution was celebrated. The picture showed a middle-aged peasant and his aged mother holding a glowing electric lamp, affectionately called Ilych lamp (after Lenin’’s name), and celebrating the beginning of the “season of light” in their lives. Lenin had famously declared in 1920 that “Communism is Soviet government plus electrification of the whole country”, which was essential in order to “raise the level of culture in the countryside and to overcome, even in the most remote corners of land, backwardness, ignorance, poverty, disease and barbarianism”. Whether these had succeeded can be judged from Rabindranath Tagore’’s writings (he had visited the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1930 and recorded his laudatory and also critical impressions) in “Letters from Russia”.

This massive electrification drive by the state acted as the prototype of the future Five-Year Plans that began in 1928, after Lenin’s death. This became a success story of the Stalin era. The period between 1917 and 1941 can be called the “germination stage” of Soviet science. Its depth and strength were put to test during the German invasion in the 1941-45 period. The Soviet state emerged victorious owing to the enormous sacrifices of its people and in no small measure to the scientific and technological advances in the USSR.

This germination stage too faced several challenges. To advance towards scientific socialism, the working-class state needed to invest in planning and science: planning needed science and science needed to be planned. Further, this was to be a “quite precisely calculated plan, calculated with the help of the work of the best specialist and men of learning, which gives us an exact notion how and with what resources, taking into account Russia’s peculiarities, we can, must and shall put the foundation of large-scale industry under our economy. Without this it is not possible to speak of a really socialist basis of economic life” (Lenin, May 1921).

Laying the foundation

For this, one of the first tasks was to bring scattered individual scientists that Soviet Russia had inherited from the tsarist times (there were several important contributions from Russian scientists in the 18th and 19th centuries; though they were outstanding, they came after long gaps) under a unified body, the Soviet Academy of Sciences, founded in 1925.

Many of these scientists had earlier worked in their private laboratories under severe financial stress. Special government grants were now raised to help them in their research. Being a scientist would thus become a profession rather than being a spare-time occupation. The problem, however, was that most of these scientists were trained in the tsarist era and were also hostile to the revolution. Thus, a nuanced process had to be followed in order to secure their support, that is, “to create an immense cadre of scientifically trained specialists” relying on “hostile elements” if needed. One gets a detailed account of such processes in the novel Cement (1925) by Fyodor Gladkov, where a communist worker named Gleb secures the help of an anti-communist German engineer to recommission an abandoned cement factory.

At the time of the October Revolution, Russia had one scientist who had earned a worldwide reputation and was a Nobel Prize winner: Ivan Pavlov. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1904 for his pioneering work on conditional reflex and physiology of digestion. For this he worked with dogs and noted their salivation to different signals, for example, ringing a bell that signified that food was to be served soon.

Pavlov was a committed anti-communist, but Lenin decided that Soviet Russia needed Pavlov and Pavlov’s leadership in science. With a special decree, signed by Lenin himself on January 24, 1921, Pavlov was given all freedom and facilities to conduct his research. His salary was raised so that he would not have to earn a living outside his research work. He would have enough grants to pay salaries to those who worked under him and also buy special rations for them, in the era of food shortage. Enough grants were given for the maintenance of the specimens, that is, dogs, and their food. All this was done in order that the working-class state could get its basic toehold in science and create the human resource base by learning from experts, regardless of whether they were communists or anti-communists.

Pavlov remained a stubborn anti-communist. But a Soviet school of physiology sprang up around him that got international recognition. The Fifteenth International Congress of Physiology was held in the Soviet Union, in 1935, shortly before Pavlov’s death (in 1936). It signified that Soviet science had come of age, although many weaknesses remained. In his last testament, Pavlov had extolled: “For youth, as for us, it is a matter of honour to justify the great trust that our fatherland puts in science.”

Similar experiments were tried in other scientific disciplines too. Often, the impediment was a lack of experts and equipment, and Soviet scientists had to begin from scratch. They were ordered to learn and let others learn. One such example is that of geophysical explorations relating to the magnetic anomaly in Kursk.

Discovering iron ore deposits

We know that the earth is a giant magnet but the strength of its magnetic field is weak; it varies from place to place, its average value being 0.25-0.65 gauss (gauss is the unit for magnetic field). Compared with this, the magnetic field in our refrigerator motor is about 300-400 times more. Kursk (52º N, 35º E) is in the south-western part of Russia, 400 kilometres south of Moscow. In 1773, a group of explorers found a large variation of magnetic field in this region. Further, these large variations could be seen even when one crossed a short distance of only two-three kilometres.

Very detailed work was carried out again about a hundred years later during the 1874-98 period. It was found that this high magnetic field with accompanying variation was spread over a very large area, and that the changes were higher by 0.2 gauss to 0.8 gauss than what was expected.

Lenin swiftly organised an exploration team under Ivan Gubkin in 1920 and ordered “establishing special supervision to have the necessary equipment received from abroad (diamond, drilling, etc.) with the maximum speed” since preliminary reports had shown that “we have there almost surely a stock of wealth unequalled anywhere in the world, and capable of revolutionising the whole of metallurgy”.

He warned of keeping some secrecy “because otherwise we may expect that the interventionist plans may very well be intensified”. He also feared that “this business will be carried out without sufficient energy”.

Thanks to Lenin’s drive and encouragement, Gubkin conducted the exploration between 1920 and 1925. By 1931, rich iron deposits were confirmed and the average iron content was found to be as high as 60 per cent. The deposits were found to be spread over an area of 120,000 sq. km.

Gubkin won several awards from the Soviet government and was the president of the International Geological Congress held in Moscow in 1937. The Kursk mines went into operation in 1952, and some of these mines are named after Gubkin. A university that specialises in oil and gas and a research vessel are also named after him. In Gubkin’s time these expeditions were conducted by land-based operations. Nowadays, air-borne and space-borne instruments can detect these anomalies.

Surge in formative years

The achievements of Soviet science in the 1917-41 period could be seen from the reviews that the Soviets did at the celebration of the 220th anniversary of the Russian Academy of Sciences (set up in 1725 by Catherine the Great by funding 15 academicians and their staff) held in 1945. An international delegation attended this conference, which included 17 scientists from the United States; the famous astrophysicist Meghnad Saha represented India.

In the review report, the Academy stated that in 1917 it had 40 academicians, employed 212 scientists and technicians in five laboratories, five museums, one research institute, two observatories and 15 commissions. In 1941 there were 76 research institutes, of which 47 were central and 29 were under the branches of the Academy. There were 11 independent laboratories, 42 seismological, biological and other stations, and six observatories, employing a total of 5,000 scientists and technicians.

The budget allocation for science and technology had gone up from half a million roubles in 1917 to 135 million roubles from central funds and an additional 31 million roubles from republican and local budgets. Apart from the Soviet Academy of Sciences, every republic (there were 15 republics in the Soviet Union) had its own academy. By the mid 1930s , according to an estimate by the British scientist J.D. Bernal, the Soviet Union was spending at least 1 per cent of its national income on science and technology—three times more than in the U.S. and 10 times more than in the United Kingdom. It is a demand that has not been met in India even now.

The base for the above progress was made through an expansion of education at all levels, and it suffices for us to note what was achieved in higher education. In 1917, Russia had only 91 universities and colleges and 289 research institutions, employing 4,340 scientists, but in 1941 the USSR had 700 universities and colleges and 908 research institutes staffed with 26,246 scientists. In addition, there were specialised societies for the popularisation of science, which were supported by state funding. For this purpose, the state explored all avenues, such as books, magazines, libraries, exhibitions, lectures, films and radio programmes.

International recognition

What were the special achievements of Soviet science in that era? Let us begin with the national electrification plan, with which it all began. Thirty regional power plants were set up over 20 years beginning in 1920. By the end of the first Five-Year Plan, in 1932, annual power production was 13.5 billion kilowatt-hour (kWh), upfrom 1.9 billion kWh in 1917, and this rose to 48 billion kWh by 1940, when the population was about 17 crore. Per capita annual consumption was thus 300 kWh; in 1991, at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, the annual per capita consumption had risen to 6,400 kWh. In India, the per capita consumption in 2014 was 805 kWh.

Soviet science until the mid 1930s was, according to Bernal’s assessment, very uneven in character. “In animal and plant breeding, in geology and soil science, in physical chemistry, crystal physics, aerodynamics and branches of mathematics, the Soviet scientists have already made their mark on world science. In others, notably in central science of chemistry, they are still behindhand.”

Although the Academy tried to maintain high standards, processes had to be learned as Soviet science was cut off from the rest of the world. As Lenin had tried with Pavlov, in order to break this isolation and to generate the process of self-training, the Soviet Union barred Pyotr Kapitsa from leaving the country, where he was on a visit on vacation from the Cavendish laboratory of England.

Kapitsa, an established scientist of Russian descent, was given the task to lead Soviet physics, combining both its theoretical aspects and its experimental research in fundamental science. In a short period, the Soviet school of physics made its mark internationally: reputed schools emerged, such as the ones led by Kapitsa, Zheldovich, Ioffe, Fock, Bogolyubov and Landau, to name a few.

Mathematicians like Krylov, Bogolyubov, Vinogradov and Kolmogorov established leading groups that dealt with fundamental problems of mathematics and mechanics, and they were recognised worldwide. Biochemistry under A.N. Bach (a tsarist era scientist but Bolshevik sympathiser); electrochemistry under A.N. Frumkin; analytical and synthetic chemistry under N.S. Kurnakov and A.Y. Favorsky; and astronomy and astrophysics under V.A. Ambartsumian made a mark in the international community in the 1930s and the 1940s.

Post-war consolidations

The Soviet Union’s advances were recognised worldwide after the Second World War when it came to be known that the Soviet Union withstood unanticipated German attacks by shifting its laboratories (including production units; for example, T34 tanks were built in the Stalingrad tractor factory) to the east of the Ural mountains and yet kept science and technology alive. By the 1930s the Soviets had overcome the handicap of being forced to publish their works in “foreign journals” since Soviet scientific journals did not exist in many areas of science and technology at the time. Now, Soviet science attracted world attention, and many Soviet science journals and textbooks (such as the Landau and Lifshitz series in theoretical physics) continued to be translated into different languages by foreign publishers. Altogether, 11 Soviet scientists have won the Nobel Prize in science, sharing seven Nobel Prizes. In the field of mathematics, three Soviet researchers have won the Fields Medal.

Nuclear programmes

Two events that took the world by surprise were the Soviet nuclear and space programmes. The outcomes are known to many, but the process of achieving these results is what we will focus on. Right from Lenin’s time, Soviet science had not neglected fundamental research. G. Landsberg and L. Mandelstam had discovered the Raman Effect (in crystals) simultaneously when it was discovered in liquids in India; superfluidity of liquid helium was discovered by Kapitsa in 1937, and by 1939 Soviet scientists had installed Europe’s first cyclotron (first invented by E.O. Lawrence in 1934 in the U.S.).

One of the young researchers in the cyclotron project was Igor Kurchatov. Under the guidance of A. Ioffe, he had specialised in crystal physics, particularly in the study of the electrical and magnetic properties of crystals. Kurchatov’s specialised knowledge was used by the Soviet government to devise techniques to demagnetise ships in order to escape German mines. In collaboration with another young physicist, Anatoly Alexandrov, this yielded success. While keeping themselves abreast with scientific literature, these young scientists observed that reputed nuclear scientists from Europe who were in exile in the U.S. had stopped publishing in international journals. They guessed that these scientists might be engaged in secret nuclear weapons programmes. They brought it to the notice of the highest scientific and political authorities.

The Soviet nuclear weapons programme began in 1943 with the setting up of a commission on uranium research. Its first fission bomb was tested in 1949, which shocked the U.S. military establishment. This was followed by thermonuclear tests in 1953, barely a year after the U.S. tested its first hydrogen bomb.

The Soviet nuclear programme was also backed by civilian use. The Soviet Union built Europe’s first nuclear reactor (1946), the world’s first nuclear power plant (1954), the first nuclear-powered icebreaker (Lenin, in 1954 ) and the world’s first nuclear-powered civilian vessel (1959). This steady progress received a rude shock in 1986 following a major disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. This accident and the one at Fukushima in Japan in 2011 have given rise to worldwide demands for a rethink on nuclear energy. Of course, public opinion against these weapons of mass destruction are as old as nuclear weapons themselves. Soviet scientists like Sakharov and Zheldovich had also lent their support to the cause of disarmament in their own way.

Space programmes

Soviet aerodynamics and rocketry were pioneered by N.I. Zhukovsky, S.A. Chaplygin, K.I. Tsyolovski (all trained in tsarist times) and S.P. Korolev. On August 21, 1957, the world was stunned when the USSR announced the successful launch of its unmanned spacecraft, Sputnik 1, becoming the first country to do so. This was followed by an even greater feat on April 12, 1961, when the Soviets put the first man, Yuri Gagarin, in space, in a spacecraft orbiting the earth. I recall that as a schoolboy we excitedly talked about Gagarin, his photographs were displayed in posters, calendars and badges, and Gagarin got a tremendous public reception during his visit to India in late 1961.

The U.S.’ space missions, manned and unmanned, followed soon after. Yet, Gagarin remained the hero until Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon (1969). The Soviets put the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, in June 1963. With these, the Cold War in the military sphere was accompanied by a “space war” between the two superpowers , with the U.S. sending its first manned spacecraft in February 1962.

Soviet excursions in space consisted of both manned and unmanned ones, although the manned enterprise had wider press coverage. In 1965, Alexei Leonov executed the first space walk, leaving his spacecraft for 12 minutes and moving about in space while being tethered to the spacecraft by a 16-foot-long cable. Since then many cosmonauts (and American astronauts) have spent several days in space stations. The first unmanned space station, Salyut 1, was set up by the Soviets in 1971; later, manned space stations were set up with code names such as Salyut, Soyuz and Mir.

In the initial experiments, the crew were stationed in a specific spacecraft. In 1986, crew were exchanged between the Mir and Salyut 7 space stations. Decades earlier, in 1969, the Soviets had achieved the successful docking of two spacecrafts and exchange of crew. The 1960s and the 1970s were the golden age of Soviet space science. By the 1980s it was admitted that the U.S. had surpassed the Soviet Union in space explorations. The last major achievement of Soviet space science was in maintaining the crew for extended periods in space stations, as was done by Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov aboard the Soyuz TM 4-Mir in 1987.

These manned flights were preceded by several experiments with unmanned flights. Soviet missions were the first to send data from space (Luna 1, January 1959), the first to land equipment on the moon and also to image the unseen surface of the moon (Luna 2, September 1959). They sent the first robots to the moon, which collected lunar samples and sent them to earth (1970). In addition, Soviet space science had a keen interest in planetary studies, for example, of Venus (studied by the series under Venera) and of Mars (series under Mars) from where samples were collected by robots in several unmanned missions.

Errors of dogma

Unfortunately, from the 1970s serious economic stress developed in Soviet society. Its industry was seen to be energy-intensive and mining caused environmental degradation as was recognised in the 26th Congress of the Communist Party of Soviet Union held in 1981. While Soviet scientists pioneered many a field of research (for example the first maser and first hologram were made simultaneously and independently by the Soviet Unionand the U.S.), with the advent of microelectronics, they could not continue to do so because of internal factors as well as the huge defence expenditure owing to the Cold War.

The Soviet Academy of Sciences, which had guided the nation’s progress decades ago, made costly mistakes and could not challenge the dogmatism that had set in within the political culture. The most glaring ones took place in the fields of biology, agriculture and information science. They need detailed studies but no overview of Soviet science can be complete without a mention of them. It was tragic that the country that made a breakthrough in biological concepts on the chemical origin of life (pioneered by Aleksandr Oparin in 1924, which later led to the Oparin-Haldane theory) and treated environmental issues at a very early stage by taking a unified approach, as in the case of the biosphere concept (led by V.I. Verdansky and E.A. Fersman, under Lenin’s encouragement, the first biosphere was set up in 1920 in the southern Urals), would discard Mendelian genetics as reactionary. This was a position that was propagated by Trofim Lysenko. Research in plant genetics and agriculture was led by the famous plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who was selected by Lenin to look into the prospects of enhancing food output. Vavilov conducted several expeditions worldwide to collect seeds, create a seeds pool and classify them in terms of agricultural viability under the different geo-climatic conditions of the Soviet Union.

As a geneticist, Vavilov argued that plant life attained these traits in accordance with the internal constitution of the gene, but it could undergo mutation over several generations owing to external conditions. Lysenko, who was from a peasant family, challenged these experimentally established facts. He claimed that he had produced seeds that had undergone mutation in a single generation on storage under controlled temperatures. Thus, summer wheat could be transformed into winter wheat. This became a sensation in a country that was beset with food shortages. With political patronage and Stalin’s support, Lysenko proceeded to denounce Vavilov and justify his own correctness on the basis of dialectical materialism.

Lysenko failed to reproduce his results, and it was soon understood that they were either fake or were due to a limited sample size. But Lysenko’s position was by then unassailable both in the Academy and in political circles. Using his political powers, Lysenko disbanded genetic research in the USSR and purged Vavilov and his followers. Vavilov was charged with treason and died in prison in 1943. All this happened at a time when the famous physicist S.I. Vavilov (co-discoverer of the Cerenkov radiation), who was Nikolai Vavilov’s brother, held an important position in the Academy of Sciences and would become the president of the Academy (1945) and a member of the Supreme Soviet (1946).

Lysenko’s scientific honesty could be questioned only after Stalin’s death, and Lysenko-ism was banished from Soviet science in the early 1960s after irreparable damage had been done to Soviet biology.

Such dogmatism had dogged Soviet science. The same happened with cybernetics (computer science or information science in modern parlance) in the late 1940s. It was denounced as bourgeois science. This dogmatic prescription would have been hard for the Soviet scientific community to accept because their work during the time of the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) in building the Soviet nuclear and space programmes must have convinced them of the importance of cybernetics. More so when the Soviets themselves had built Europe’s first mainframe computers, which continued under different BESM models. Yet, they accepted such dogmatic prescriptions. The conditions that forced them to do so need to be examined.

These mistakes notwithstanding, Soviet science has several lessons to offer students of science and history. Firstly, dialectical materialism is to be treated as a guide to understand science and its progress and should not be seen as a substitute to science or a royal road to science.

Secondly, the rapid progress that the Soviet Union achieved could not have been possible without inputs from institutions of science, which had to be built and nurtured by the socialist state.

Thirdly, it showed that science could be planned and its beneficial fruits could be made available to society at large for the advance of the material and cultural conditions of its citizens.

Fourthly, it should be noted that the Soviet experience of using science in planning became an inspiration for many societies, including India.

Fifthly, the Soviet Union’s help to developing nations in their industrialisation should be remembered with gratitude. This is particularly true of India, whose steel plants in Bhilai, Bokaro and Visakhapatnam came with Soviet help, as did the ONGC and IIT Bombay.

The Indian space programme’s many successes owe a lot to collaboration with the Soviet space agency. India’s first satellite, Aryabhata, was launched on April 19, 1975, with the Soviet launch vehicle Cosmos 3M. India’s first astronaut, Rakesh Sharma, also flew aboard the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz T-11 in April 1984.

To my friends and colleagues who were trained in the Soviet Union, I had asked: “What were the important characteristics in science education in the USSR?” Invariably, the answer was: “Their emphasis on mathematical formulation.” It is thus sad to recall that a few years ago when I asked a Russian friend for an important scientific paper that was published in the 1940s in Russian in the journal of the Technical University of Leningrad, the answer was: “Sorry, there is no fund in the university, they have sold off these volumes to raise money.” Thus, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, many a scientific legacy was lost. But many cannot be obliterated.

S. Chatterjee is president, All India People’s Science Network, and was formerly with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru.

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