Russian Science & Democracy: Which Comes First?

I received an email from Anya Kucharev, who I met in 1983 on the first AHP-Soviet-North America Exchange Project trip to the U.S.S.R.  Kucharev was known as the “cross-cultural Sherpa” for her work as a guide and interpreter during the Soviet-American citizen diplomacy projects in the 1980s and 1990s.  She is the Citizen Diplomacy Archive Project Director at Stanford University, and has more recently been involved with Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in D.C. interviewing participants and collecting materials from the Soviet State Archives.

Anya’s email called attention to an interview with MIT science historian Loren Graham by Leon Neyfakh.  The interview was published in the Boston Globe’s Ideas section and can be read here.

One of the ideas that appears in the interview is the significance of Russia’s failure to commercialize science.  Graham suggests that not using scientists and engineers adequately may be one reason that Russia has not transitioned to democracy.  The interview is interesting, and the many comments are as interesting.

I spent 20 years  participating as Director of the AHP-Soviet Exchange Project, and the Global Thinking Project which brought together teachers, students and their parents from Russia and the U.S., and many other countries.  As a science educator, I was introduced to a number of Soviet and Russian scientists, engineers, and educators.  One of the most remarkable experiences that we had during this period was visiting the town of Pushchino, which is about 75 miles south of Moscow.

Pushchino is a small town about 100 miles south of Moscow on the bank of the Oka River. It was founded in 1962 as home to Pushchino Biological Research Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Up until about 1993, most the funding for the research centers came from the Russian Academy of Sciences. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the funding from the government radically diminished to about 10% – 15% of what it was. Thus began a program of reaching out to other funding sources not in Russia (Russia Foundation for Fundamental Research), but abroad, and the development of funding proposals to secure financial support. The various research facilities in Pushchino were able to collaborate with U.S. organizations including NATO, the European Environmental Research Organization, US State Department, as well a number of U.S. universities including the University of Tennessee and Washington State University.

We also interacted with many scientists through informal visits to Russian homes, and into the labs of science departments in some universities.

In 1989 I met Dr. Anatoly Zaklebyney, a professor of biology and ecology and a member of the Russian Academy of Education in Moscow. The GTP in Russia was organized by the Russian Academy of Education, and it was through that connection that Anatoly and I met and became close friends. He was one of the most respected ecology and environmental educators in Russia, and had been involved in the development of environmental education teaching materials, as well as in directing environmental science teacher education seminars in the summer in Siberia. It was Anatoly who introduced me to Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, whose ideas influenced the GTP, and our own understanding of the biosphere, geology, and life on the Earth.

One of the most profound books published in the last century, was written by Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky.  Vernadsky’s ideas didn’t make their way into the west for many years. His original book was in Russian, and a French translation was published in 1929. And it wasn’t until nearly at the end of the 20th Century that his ideas were translated into English.

Interestingly, Vernadsky’s ideas were slowly coming into vogue in Russia at the same time that Gorbachev’s use of the concept perestro?ka (restructuring) took hold in the Soviet Union. Our work in the Soviet Union was propelled by the emergence of perestro?ka, and it aided in our work in Russian schools and in the Russian research institutes that supported us. An atmosphere of change was clear in our meetings with our Russian colleagues.

Vernadsky’s book is entitled The Biosphere (public library, 1927), which is composed of two lectures by the author that describe his conception of the biosphere, and it is the view that is accepted today by science (Jacques Grinevald, from the Introduction of the Biosphere).

The interview with Dr. Graham is important in the context of the increasing turn back to an authoritarian leadership in Moscow, and the deteriorating relationships with the West.