Brian Pearce

Vavilov on Soviet Science

(Autumn 1952)

From Anglo-Soviet Journal, Vol. 13 No. 3, Autumn 1952.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Academician S.I. Vavilov
The Progress of Soviet Science
FLPH/Collet’s, 6d

In recent years it has been fashionable to mock at the Russians for commemorating the anniversaries of scientists of their nation whom they claim as the first inventors or discoverers in a number of fields. The names of the men in question being little known today in the West, the suggestion is sometimes made that the Russians are making false claims, inspired by some unhealthy spirit of national self-assertion. So firmly had this attitude become established that an article in the March issue of a publication so remote from Kremlin control as the United States Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created quite a stir. The writer, whose aim was to disturb what he considered a dangerously smug state of mind concerning contemporary Soviet science, warned his readers that they were deceiving themselves if they did not appreciate that ‘Russian science has a 200-year-old tradition of high achievement’, beginning with Lomonosov’s enunciation of the principle of the conservation of energy in 1747, a century earlier than Meyer and Helmholtz. ‘It is true that Popov used electric waves for the transmission of messages before Marconi, and that Yablochkov’s incandescent lamps preceded those of Edison by several years.’

The late President of the USSR Academy of Sciences, the eminent physicist S.I. Vavilov, in the pamphlet The Progress of Soviet Science, prefaces his account of science since the October Revolution with a review of the achievements and traditions of pre-revolutionary Russian science which helps to explain to the Western reader how it has come about that his awareness of Russia’s scientific contributions is frequently inadequate.

After a promising start in the Kiev period, Russian science suffered a severe setback as a result of the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century. In the field of science, as in so many others, Russia paid a heavy price for acting as Europe’s shield against barbarism. (The service has hardly yet been adequately acknowledged in the West, while Russia’s losses incurred in rendering it have been made a reproach to her.) Consequently, Russia lagged behind at first in the great forward movement of European science which began in the sixteenth century. When at last, with Lomonosov in the eighteenth century, the Russian people began to show what they could do, they revealed an amazing quantity and quality of talent.

In relation to science, however, as with everything else in the cultural sphere, there was not one Russia but two. On the one hand, many remarkable men, pioneers in many departments of research; but on the other, ‘official’ Russia, neglecting and despising them and striving to restrict their activities. All that the Tsarist government wanted from science was a mere mechanical reproduction of the minimum of technicians indispensable for military and administrative needs. Research was starved of funds and facilities. Official suspicion of genuine science culminated in the tragic disruption of Moscow University in 1910, when police interference led to the mass resignation of the professors.

Because this was the socio-political framework in which Russian science had to struggle before 1917, the homeland of Yablochkov and Ladygin was unable to produce a single incandescent electric bulb. The brilliant initiatives of Russian research workers could not be followed up in their own country; all too often, the foreigners who ‘borrowed’ their ideas – to the advantage of mankind – did so without acknowledgements to the pioneers.

Academician Vavilov describes the benefits to Russian science that resulted from the October Revolution, and traces the principal achievements of Soviet scientists. His account of the organisation of science and the role of science in the national economy is illuminating.

To Soviet scientists [he observes] the past decades have made the idea of planning a natural and accustomed concept, an essential attribute of their work. There is no possibility, of course, of planning out ‘unexpected’ scientific results and discoveries; but all true science must contain a very large proportion of well-founded anticipation and prevision ... The plan of scientific development in a socialist state must, of course, link up with the state economic plan. At the same time science must always work ahead, accumulating reserves for the future; only then will it fulfil its role of illuminating the path to be traversed in practice.

Last updated on 6 June 2015