By Loren Graham
Russia has been known for its great contributions to the fields of literature, music and mathematics but never in commercial technology. Many Russian inventors could have created a breakthrough in technology if not for the unevenness of support provided by the Russian society.
Russian creativity presents us with a fascinating riddle. Why does Russian creativity express itself so brilliantly in some areas but not in others? Just think of the contributions of Russians to fields such as literature, music, and mathematics: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Prokoviev, Lobachevsky, Kolmogorov. But it is a different story when one looks for successful Russian creativity in commercial technology. Just when have you gone into an electronics store and seen something you wanted, turned it over, and saw “Made in Russia” on the back? Probably never. It is difficult to think of a single Russian technical innovation that was successful on the world market. Russia is unique in the unevenness of the fruits of its creativity. This uniqueness calls for explanation.
Russian creativity in abstract thought and the arts (literature, music, poetry, mathematics, drama, theoretical physics) found public expression, recognition, and success much more often than creativity in technology. The more the Russian creative effort was expressed in ideas recorded on paper, blackboard, canvas, or the internet1 (manuscript texts, equations, scores, paintings, verses, scripts, formulae, drawings, computer programs) the more successful it was in finding expression and recognition, both nationally and internationally. The more the creative effort was in material objects, new manufacturing processes, or machines, the more difficult it was for that creativity to find success, especially in international markets. All this was true despite the fact that Russian governments (tsarist, Soviet, post-Soviet) are infamous for trying to control ideas through propaganda or censorship, not for restricting new inventions. What stopped Russian inventions from success was not overt prohibition but the characteristics of Russian society.
The fault here is not a failure in engineering or science. In fact, Russians were just as creative technologically as Russian novelists, poets, composers, and mathematicians were in ideas. In almost all the forms of modern technology so important to the world today (electric lights, radio, airplanes, television, transistors, computers, lasers, rockets, space vehicles) Russian pioneers either led the world in strict priority terms or were equal to or barely behind competitors elsewhere. However, unless that creativity was backed by a state or military program, which ignored the factors that make for commercial success, the creativity of these Russian engineers and inventors was overwhelmingly blocked by the obstacles in their environment. They almost universally failed to bring their potential innovations to international markets, and their names usually fell into oblivion. The clarity of this pattern can be seen in the difficulty of finding a Russian invention that became a success internationally. The exceptions are usually cases in which Russians emigrated abroad and succeeded in different environments (e.g, Zvorykin, Sikorsky, Durov).
If all that a creative person in Russia needed to do to fulfill his or her idea was simply to make it known (e.g., through publication, performance, or exhibition) that person had a chance for fame. If the fulfillment of that person’s idea was a complex matter in which publication or appearance was a first, inadequate, or even unnecessary step, the chances of success for that person were much smaller. For a brilliant inventor, publication of an idea is easy but grossly short of its fulfillment. Publication might, in fact, be an obstacle to ownership of the idea. For a brilliant literary author or mathematician, on the other hand, publication is very nearly the culmination of his or her efforts.
The difference between what happens after an inventor presents something to the public and a writer or composer does the same thing is crucial for understanding the unevenness of Russia’s successful creativity.
A new technology at the moment of first presentation is usually much more imperfect than a work of art. An anecdote about the British scientist Michael Faraday illustrates this feature of early technology: When he developed a primitive dynamo, he reputedly was asked “What is it good for?” We are told that he replied by asking “What is a newborn baby good for?” New technology developed by Russians, some of it brilliant, often died as a newborn baby without ever growing up. No one was interested in or took proper care of that baby. And the materials and means necessary for that care were often unavailable.
The fact that a new technology is usually first presented to the public in a much more unfinished form than is the case with a new piece of art has many implications. Since the new technology must be further invested in, researched, improved, legally protected, manufactured, successfully marketed, and integrated with existing technology, it is much more dependent on societal infrastructure than is a piece of art. Art demands appreciation by at least a small group of cognoscenti. Technology demands much more. Where are the people who will see its potential and invest in further research? Who will improve it after that research? Who will defend it legally against competitors or opponents, domestically and internationally, and what chance will these defenders have in a corrupt legal system? Who will pay for all these investigatory, engineering, legal, and economic steps? Who will manufacture it? Who will advertise it? Who will integrate it into existing technological systems? Art usually does not face such obstacles, but technology does. And in a country such as Russia, which is deficient in such infrastructures – especially those involving investment, legal, manufacturing, and economic issues – taking a new technology from its newborn status to adult readiness for the market is particularly difficult. In many cases such a transition did not occur in Russia, although it should have for the good of the country and the inventor.
A striking example of this kind of failure can be found in the development of television; the Russian originator of a basic idea in the field, Boris Rozing, was blocked in bringing that idea to fruition in Russia, but his student, Vladimir Zvorykin, succeeded magnificently with his teacher’s idea in the United States at the firm RCA. Other examples — Shilling and his telegraph, Lodygin and his light bulb, Borodin and his chemical method of aldol condensation pointing to industrial applications, Popov and his radio, Shukhov and his method of petroleum cracking, Losev and his primitive transistors and diodes — are also relevant, along with many other examples from the history of Russian technology. These technologies could not succeed in the country in which their originators worked. When the Russian Sergei Sikorsky did finally succeed with his aviation technology in the United States he wrote a book in which he cited as the cause of his success the new political, economic, and social environment in which he was working after emigration.2
There are many reasons why Russian writers, composers, poets and mathematicians had (and have) an easier time fulfilling their dreams than inventors and entrepreneurs. The inadequate infrastructure in Russia is important, but only one. An equally important reason is elusive but basic: attitudes prevalent in Russian society. Artistic intellectuals are valued more in Russia than are inventors and entrepreneurs, as reflected in Russian literature extending back several centuries.3 When artists or authors suffer in Russia many of their fellow citizens sympathize with them and convert them into heroes, even martyrs. Oppression and censorship often raise their prominence and increase the number of people trying to read, view, or listen to their works.
When inventors and entrepreneurs suffer, on the other hand, few sympathizers can be found. Individual practical achievements are rarely objects of public adoration in Russia; should a rare entrepreneur be successful and become wealthy, that feat is often a cause for suspicion or resentment. The celebration of beleaguered authors and the disregard of equally beleaguered inventors is a characteristic of Russian society.
After the disappearance of the Soviet Union the newly-rich oligarchs were suspected, in many cases correctly, of criminality. The “self-made man” was not a hero, but a person who illegally and maliciously manipulated the system to his advantage. There are few or no “Horatio Alger heroes” in Russian literature or traditions.
Sadly, many of the obstacles to the fulfillment of creativity – both in the arts and in technology – that were observable in tsarist and Soviet Russia are still present in Russia today, and there are even some new ones. Both the author and the inventor need to worry about government policy as they work. Both of them today are dependent on the permission of the government, or its leader, for support, and that government and leader have their own criteria about whom deserves their approval. Many entrepreneurs and business people have recently been arrested, including promising innovators. As a 2017 article in the New York Times proclaimed, “Russia Wants Innovation But is Arresvting Its Innovators.”4 Dmitrii Popov, a serial entrepreneur who came to the United states in 2014, commented, “And for the last year in Russia, I was just absorbing the total deterioration of the business environment. Everything was becoming so bad.”5
I am a historian trained as an engineer. As a historian most of my examples of Russian technical brilliance followed by commercial failure come from the past, but, as an engineer, let me conclude by giving an example that is very recent. In fact, it affects the technology that you are probably carrying in your pocket right now.
The story of the Russian scientist Zhores Alferov, who just died, is illustrative here.6 A Nobel Prize winner, he was a co-inventor of an important but, to the public, underappreciated technology called heterojunction transistors. They are used in a multitude of ultrafast electronic circuits. The normal consumer uses them in their smart phones, which require fast and efficient circuits operating at room temperatures. Heterotransistors can fulfill these requirements. They differ from the older transistors by incorporating a junction (a heterojunction) of two dissimilar crystalline semiconductors. Older transistors used only one type of semiconductor (a homojunction). Heterotransistors permit a wider spectrum of manipulation by electrical engineers to achieve very specific effects.
At what point in time would it have been correct to judge this invention a success? By 2000 it was a personal success for Alferov. Receiving a Nobel Prize is obviously an achievement of a lifetime. But it was not until 2007 that Steve Jobs of Apple introduced the iPhone, calling it “a revolutionary and magical product.” It used at first a hetero-epitaxial layer of silicon on sapphire, a heterostructure made by Infineon, a German company.
By this time heterotransistors were being successfully manufactured in several countries. The country of one of the inventors of this device – Zhores Alferov – is not significant on that list. In that sense, Alferov’s creativity was never fulfilled in his own country. Russia plays today a very small role in the manufacture of transistors. Of the ten largest semiconductor manufacturers today, five are based in the United States, and one each in Taiwan, the Netherlands, the U.K., Japan, and Germany. The United States dominates the industry, with over fifty percent of world-wide production. One U.S. company, Intel, has twice the annual sales of its nearest competitor, Taiwan Semiconductor. Of course, Russia has some semiconductor manufacturers – Angstrom, Istok, and Mikron, for example — but they are not significant in the world market.
So here we see a continuation of the pattern that we earlier have observed in Russian technological creativity: Russia excels at invention but stinks at commercially successful innovation.
About the Author
Loren Graham is professor of the history of science emeritus at MIT and Harvard University. One of his many books was a finalist for a National Book Award. He received the George Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society and a medal for “achievements” from the Russian Academy of Sciences.
1. The Russian mathematician Perel’man did not publish his recent epochal solution of the Poincare’ Conjecture, just posted it on the internet.
2. Igor Sikorsky, The Story of the Winged S, Dodd, Mead & Co., New York, 1941.
3. Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Ostrovsky, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Danilevsky, Gorky and other Russian authors described merchants or traders in negative terms, as vulgar and money-loving.
4. Andrew Higgins, “Russia Wants Innovation, but It’s Arresting Its Innovators,” The New York Times, August 9, 2017,https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/09/world/europe/vladimir-putin-russia-siberia.html, accessed 8/9/2017.
5. Puffer, et al., p. 146.
6. Paul Josephson, Lenin’s Laureate: Zhores Alferov’s Life in Communist Science, MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 2010.