New books this month offer a contrast between landmarks in Russian and American technology.
MIT Press/Allen Lane
Lonely Ideas: Can Russia Compete?/Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History
By Loren Graham, £19.95, ISBN 9780262019798/By Catherine Merridale, £30, ISBN 9781846140372
When I was growing up in the USSR, Soviet propaganda was characterised by both inferiority complex and megalomania. Starting from kindergarten, we were led to believe that our country was the greatest, the most free and the largest in the world (the latter was true, by the way). At school we were taught that Russia always conducted only ‘just’ wars; that everything - from the wheel to the electric bulb - had been invented by the Russians.
So the first powered aircraft was plagiarised by Wilbur and Orville Wright from the Russian scientist Zhukovsky; wireless telegraphy was invented not by Guglielmo Marconi, but by Alexander Popov; the first steam engine was a creation of Ivan Polzunov’s genius and James Watt simply nicked the idea. And so on. By the age of 12, a Soviet child could be forgiven for thinking that there was no real life west of Kaliningrad and east of Khabarovsk.
Isolationism, secrecy, corruption, paranoia - these qualities were never in short supply in the USSR. Paradoxically, not only did they survive the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they have become stronger than ever in the new ‘democratic’ Russia. And here - in the absence of basic democratic norms - lies the main reason behind the backwardness of modern Russian technology and science, which is still good at producing ideas yet hopeless at implementing them.
So asserts Loren Graham, professor emeritus of science at MIT, in his comprehensive and thoroughly researched monograph. Graham demonstrates profound understanding not just of the state of the Russian technological thinking, but of the complicated psychological processes behind it, and comes to the conclusion that today’s Russian economy suffers hugely from arrogance, narrow-mindedness and lack of openness in scientific research, just like it did in the former Soviet Union.
Having spent a large chunk of my life in the former USSR, I was shocked by Graham’s description of his visit to Kaspersky Lab, the world-famous Moscow-based IT security company whose HQ - for no plausible reason - appeared to be “located in a secure area, a nondescript, unlabelled, and guarded building”.
He was told by the guard that “one must have permission in advance to enter the premises”. “I found out, by looking at the small telephone directory on the guard’s desk, that Kaspersky Lab occupies four floors of the building. The telephone directory was the only place I saw the name of the company whose world headquarters I was trying to visit.”
With such needless secrecy bordering on paranoia, is there any wonder that even the most promising Russian ventures and ideas, such as the concept of Skolkovo, a new technology city outside Moscow, sometimes described as ‘Russia’s Silicon Valley’, or that of RUSNANO - a far-reaching government initiative in the field of nanotechnology, are destined to remain ‘spasms’ rather than ‘solutions’.
And here, to my mind, is a link to another new book, Catherine Merridale’s ‘Red Fortress’, which provides a truly awesome history-cum-portrait of one of the world’s most imposing, most well-known (or should I say notorious?) and most feared architectural ensembles - that of the Moscow Kremlin. Indeed, the book is both terrific - in its style, the scope of research and the little-known truths that it uncovers, and terrifying - in the extent of human suffering, cruelty and devilish scheming of the Kremlin rulers it carries on all of its 500-odd pages.
Merridale repeatedly quotes “isolation” as being among the main traits of the Kremlin’s omnipotent inhabitants of all times. From the days of Ivan the Terrible, whose priceless library of antique manuscripts (as the legend goes) is still hidden under one of the Kremlin towers, the seat of Russia’s ultimate power was intended to intimidate - by its size, by its architecture of aggressive beauty and by its isolationism: always out of bounds to mere mortals. “The Kremlin’s isolation increased in the final years of Stalin’s life,” she writes and carries on to quote a witness: “It was not so much an administrative complex as a vast and oppressive wasteland. It was forbidden to walk in its territory.”
“A vast and oppressive wasteland,” immersed in secrecy; the seat and the burial ground of the tyrants - that was the Kremlin throughout nearly 900 years of its blood-soaked history. And that is what it remains, despite the fact that tourists now have access to some of its historic buildings and courtyards. They cannot, however, take even a cursory peep into the “corridors of power” - the secret dark corners of the Kremlin which, like Russia itself, stays “as changeless as the icon painter’s gold”.
To sum up both these books, Russia continues to be caught in its age-long psychological trap, with openness and innovation, metaphorically speaking, still buried deep under the Kremlin walls.