Science and the Soviet Social Order
reviewed by James V. Wertsch - 1991
This is a wonderful volume whose time has certainly come. Glasnost and perestroika have opened up Soviet society to inquiry in ways we have not seen since the 1920s while simultaneously creating an ominous setting for change. In such a time, intelligent analyses of the underlying social and cultural forces shaping the USSR are both more possible and more needed than ever.
These forces are currently playing themselves out in ways that no one, including those who have unleashed them, seems to understand, let alone control. Western analyses have focused on how capitalism and democracy might displace centralized authority, but as the unanticipated continues to happen these analyses increasingly appear to be grounded more in misguided theory or ethnocentric wishes than in real understanding.
Science and the Soviet Social Order makes a major contribution to our analysis of these events by examining the interplay of Soviet science, technology, society, and culture from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Twelve chapters are grouped into five sections entitled Communication and Computers, Biology, Engineering and Big Technology, Philosophy of Science and Technology, and Literature and Art. In these chapters one finds informed and very accessible accounts of everything from the impact of the information revolution on Soviet society to the history of the nature-nurture debate to the role of science and technology in Soviet novels and other cultural media.
There are many fascinating themes that run throughout these chapters, but I shall limit my comments to two. Each involves a tension or struggle between opposing forces in Soviet society. The first is the tension between the need for a relatively free flow of information in modern technological societies and the Soviet tradition (with strong roots in pre-revolutionary Russia) of centralized monitoring and control of citizens and information. The second is the tension between a powerful faith in scientific and technological panaceas for social problems and an increasing call to return to an idealized pastoral past in which traditional values provide a guide for living.
In the view of many, the arrival of modern information technologies (IT) has created a fundamental moving force for social and political change in the Soviet Union. As Graham notes in his introduction, traditional censorship barriers are endangered by such ubiquitous new technologies as personal computers, communication networks, fax machines, and satellite broadcasts. As a result, leaders may be able to hold on for a while longer, but one thing is clear: if they impose heavy restrictions on such technologies as personal computers, they will retard the growth of computer literacy and technological innovation, thereby causing their nation to fall further behind other advanced industrial states (p. 13). It is this dilemma that provides the focus of chapters by Frederick Starr (New Communications Technologies and Civil Society) and Seymour Goodman (Information Technologies and the Citizen: Toward a Soviet-Style Information Society?). As these authors note, the tension between the need for IT and the traditional concern with order and control is only beginning and the outcome is far from certain. However, they suggest that this tension will not be resolved in terms of one of the alternatives often assumed: the reappearance of a Stalinist state or the emergence of a modern Western-style information society. According to Goodman, Even if the USSR undergoes social and economic reforms as radical as those in Hungarya scenario that is not inconceivableinformation technology will still be more tightly controlled and less pervasive than in the West (p. 61).
Statements such as Goodmans reflect a general assumption of this volume, the assumption that the impact of science and technology on all societies is heavily mediated by the culture, politics, and economy of each particular society (Graham, p. 15). This provides the framework for understanding the second theme I mentioned above as well, the tension between a faith in scientific and technological panaceas for social problems on the one hand and viewing science, technology, and technocratic thinking as threats to an idealized society grounded in a traditional past on the other.
Several authors in this volume touch on this tension in one way or another. For example, as Douglas Weiner notes in his chapter Prometheus Rechained: Ecology and Conservation, it plays a role in debates now occurring in the USSR over the use of wilderness areas. In this debate voices of protest writers from the Village School, especially authors from the Far North and Siberia, are challenging the values of the technology and technocratic thinking that have caused such devastation to many of the USSRs natural wonders.
In presenting The Changing Image of Science and Technology in Soviet Literature, Katerina Clark also addresses this tension, especially in her account of literature of the past few decades. The challenges found in the village prose of V. Rasputin are particularly telling in this regard. As Clark notes, His periodic disclaimers that he is not against technology notwithstanding, [Rasputin] implicitly calls for a reordering of official priorities away from the goal of technological advance at any cost, urging instead that more emphasis be placed on moral and spiritual values, on paying attention to preserving the environment and its aesthetic qualities, and on maintaining continuity with Russian traditions (p. 287).
This is not to say that this tension is about to be resolved in the direction proposed by figures such as Rasputin. As several of the contributors to this volume attest, the tendency to seek scientific and technological panaceas to all sorts of problems continues to be very powerful. Thus Paul Josephson argues in his chapter Rockets, Reactors, and Soviet Culture that faith in technology as the highest form of culture, the chief mode of modernization of the economy, the answer to standardization and mass productionthe panacea for all social and economic problemscontinues to hold sway (p. 191).
The two themes I have outlined provide only a glimpse of the rich contents of this volume. It is a work whose strength derives not only from the excellence of the contributors, but also from the editing efforts of Loren Graham. He is perhaps the only individual in the world who could have organized such a strong collection. In addition to selecting a distinguished set of authors, he has produced a book generally characterized by clear writing and a surprisingly uniform coverage of major topics. The outcome is a powerful, yet accessible and engaging text. Indeed, this is the best treatment of science and technology and the Soviet social order we have to date.