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).
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.