Russia’s history of scientific achievement has very much been that of brilliant, capable individuals limited by the whims of the state and by prevailing, ever-shifting ideologies. Its homegrown philosophies – in particular the political philosophies of the 20th century – have also had a profound effect not only on the nation, but the world.
The Russian Academy of Sciences was established in 1726 and has since produced great results. Students the world over learn about the conditional reflex experiments on Pavlov’s puppies, and about Dmitry Mendeleyev’s 1869 discovery of the Periodic Table of Elements. (Russians often say, with a sigh, ‘ Russia’s lands have everything in Mendeleyev’s Table and yet we live so poorly!’) Yet visitors may be surprised to hear from locals about Russia’s invention of the telephone and radio (didn’t you know?).
In the USSR, science hampered by secrecy, bureaucracy and lack of technology was dependent on the ruling Party. Funding was sporadic, often coming in great bursts for projects that served propaganda or militaristic concerns. Thus the space race received lots of money, and even though little of scientific consequence was achieved during the first missions, the public relations was priceless. In other fields, however, the USSR lagged behind the West; genetics, cybernetics and the theory of relativity all at one point were deemed anathema to communism.
Physics – especially theoretical and nuclear – was supported and Russia has produced some of the world’s brightest scientists in the field. Andrei Sakharov (1921-89), ‘father of the H-bomb’, was exiled to Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod ) in 1980, five years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his vocal denunciations of the Soviet nuclear programme and the Afghan War. He was one of the most influential dissidents of his time.
Russian scientists have also been known to be distracted by the enthusiastic pursuit of less than realistic, even mystical goals. For example, after wrapping up the Periodic Table, Mendeleyev, a fan of science fiction, devoted much of his remaining 38 years of life to searching for the universal ethers and rarefied gases that allegedly rule interactions between all bodies.