Technopolitics and the Frontiers of History.
Following their example, the scholarship on the intersection of science, technology, and culture has blossomed, branching into the history of production technology, transportation systems, space exploration, computer systems, medicine, nuclear power, and much more. Mindful of the need to make a case for the broader relevance of their work, both within and beyond the Russian field, scholars have applied theoretical and methodological approaches from science and technology studies, all the while remaining mindful of the specificities of the Eurasian and Russian social and historical context. This special issue reflects both the sophistication of the literature on the history of science and technology and its growing importance in the broader political, cultural, and social history of Russia and the Soviet Union.
All these articles challenge disciplinary and chronological boundaries, forcing us to consider anew the actual subject of our study. As Fernand Braudel remarked in his famous history of the Mediterranean: "The question of boundaries is the first to be encountered; from it all others flow. To draw a boundary around anything is to define, analyze, and reconstruct it, in this case select, indeed adopt a philosophy of history." (2) Alexei Yurchak's study of the politics and science of Vladimir Lenin's body ranges broadly across political history and the history of biology, redrawing the boundaries of separate subfields by connecting them to each other and providing startling new insights. The application of Friedrich Engels's conception of dialectical materialism to the study of Lenin's body serendipitously led to scientific ideas that now are critical to exobiology and the discovery of the origins of life. Rather than perverting science, as the earlier literature on Lysenkoism had suggested, the method of dialectical materialism actually enriched the scientific enterprise, providing the critical insights and imaginative leaps that are now accepted among those who study life's origins. Preserving Lenin's body, moreover, was both a science and an art, referred to by his preservers as a "living sculpture" of a nonliving body. The body was to be preserved for viewing in a state of nondecay, which facilitated the well-known cult of Lenin and the many political and cultural functions that this cult served. (3)
Slava Gerovitch, meanwhile, examines the special math schools of the late Soviet period that emerged from a state policy to encourage computer literacy. Those schools attempted to encourage creativity and freethinking in math and science, while also producing obedient servants who would devote their learning to realizing the Soviet program of the scientific-technical revolution. If the government viewed math as a critical tool for enhancing its power and prestige, the schools for its most promising math students seemed to offer an escape from the state's ideological constraints. True, few of those students turned into dissidents, and most continued to serve the system in one way or another, though not necessarily in leading positions. They lived, not outside the official system but "aside" from it, as Gerovitch notes.
Reinforcing the boundary crossing of the other contributions to this issue, Gerovitch explores the connections between literature and science, framing the math schools in the context of technocratic visions of the scientific technological revolution--rather than class conflict--as a central driver of the Utopian Soviet future. That future was imagined in both the pages of science fiction and the practices of computer programming. The famous science fiction of the Strugatsky brothers reflected the special ethos of the math schools but also encouraged and shaped that ethos by making the math schools a subject of their science fiction and by engaging the students and teachers of the special schools in lectures and conversations. As a result, the students began to see themselves as real life "progressors," the characters of the Strugatsky brothers' fiction whose job it was bring the blessings of progress to extraterrestrial civilizations. Whether it was life that imitated fiction, or fiction that imitated life, was often impossible to tell.
Ksenia Tatarchenko teases out connections and tensions between the technical fields and liberal arts, which in Soviet culture were reflected in the famous debates of 1959 between the liriki and the fiziki--poets and physicists. (4) Like Gerovitch, Tatarchenko illustrates the porous divide separating technology, literature, and politics in which "the personal dreams of space adventure, public fascination with space travel, and the state education campaign for universal programming skills" (781) produced a distinctly socialist digital culture, presented through the medium of old fashioned analog technologies like the journal Tekhnika molodezhi, that was anything but stagnant. Soviet students reprogrammed knockoffs of Hewlett-Packard pocket calculators to compete with one another in the game of landing, with pinpoint accuracy, a lunar module on a precise spot of the moon's surface. The vibrancy and durability of that digital culture offer a corrective to the popular view that late Soviet society had supposedly missed the postindustrial, digital revolution and was therefore in a state of advanced decay and stagnation.
Exploring other boundaries between science and the esoteric realms of the occult, Joseph Kellner's article examines the late Soviet fascination with astrology and the various ways in which it helped connect more conventional scientific inquiry with what he terms "speculative science." Placing his topic in the context of both religion and science, Kellner shows how the technical imagination could produce a technical and scientific path to transcendence that embraced both science and reason as well as the more charismatic and irrational realms of the spirit. Kellner identifies the central role of the journal Nauka i religiia in challenging the previously hard and fixed boundaries between science and spirituality--a shift in its focus in 1989 that resulted in a dramatically higher readership and influence for the journal.
Perhaps the most intriguing boundary crossing of this special issue takes place in the area of chronology. Gerovitch traces the development of future post-Soviet elites from the special math schools of the late Soviet era. Those graduates, originally conceived by the state as intellectual servants of Soviet socialism, helped construct the digital and financial foundations of the post-Soviet economy. Tatarchenko's research crosses similar chronological boundaries, revealing the ethos of gaming and programming that set the stage for post-Soviet digital Russia and its well-known talents for hacking, gaming, and the colonization of virtual worlds and social media.
The articles of Kellner and Yurchak push the chronological boundaries of the Soviet period both forward and backward. Science and the pursuit of the esoteric and spiritual transcendence, in Kellner's story, were rooted in the imperial era, most obviously in the traditions of Cosmism articulated by the Russian Orthodox mystic Nikolai Fedorov and his disciple Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, the father of Soviet rocketry. The speculative science of Cosmism, which linked human immortality and spiritual transcendence to space exploration and the development of rocket technology, became a more explicit inspiration for the late Soviet space culture and for the speculative science of astrology that emerged under Mikhail Gorbachev and remains a fixture of post-Soviet Russian culture. Finally, Yurchak's contribution links the preservation of Lenin's body to traditions of Cosmism but also crosses a much deeper chronological boundary, showing how the science and art of preserving Lenin's body helped give rise to groundbreaking research. That research dialed back the timeline of study to the very origins of the primordial chemical soup that gave rise to life itself on this planet, and perhaps even others.
All these articles identify and explain the emergence of scientific and technopolitical regimes. In the literature of the history of technology, the term "technopolitics" refers to the simultaneous construction of technological and political systems in which boundaries between the technical and scientific worlds and social worlds are blurred and become difficult to discern and disentangle. (5) Those regimes, once established, create a dynamic of their own, which often has a transformative impact on ideology and belief systems and that frequently endures beyond the larger political and social structures that originally produced them. The preservation of Lenin's body is one such system, as are the digital cultures shaped by the late Soviet math schools and the popular Tekhnika molodezhi and both have an enduring impact up to the present. By paying attention to the boundaries and borderlands of disciplines, as well as the way in which scientific and technological systems and ideologies transcend conventional chronological boundaries, we thus gain a deeper and more complex historical perspective.
Finally, as we were putting this issue to bed, a major figure in Soviet science and technology, Aleksei Arkhipovich Leonov (1934-2019), passed away at the age of 85. Leonov embodied the boundary crossing that is so central to this special issue. Born in Siberia in the year of the so-called Victor's Congress, to a peasant family that had suffered during collectivization, Leonov joined the first group of cosmonauts and trained alongside his good friend and fellow provincial Iurii Gagarin, who conquered the center of global communism with his heroic space flight. The first human to walk in space in 1965, Leonov later led the investigation into the tragic death of Gagarin in 1968. He was commander of the Soviet crew for the landmark Apollo-Soyuz Test Project--a key moment in the transition of the history of space exploration as a race between the two superpowers into a collaborative venture.
Charismatic, optimistic, and possessing a cheerful character and sense of humor, Leonov was well liked both within the Soviet space program and among his colleagues at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Administration (ESA), with whom he had frequent contacts in the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods (when he became a vice president of Alfa Bank). Growing out of his experience of collaboration with US astronauts in Apollo-Soyuz, he later worked with Apollo astronaut Russell Schweickart to create the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) in the mid-1980s. ASE attempted to use collaborative space exploration as an essential antidote to the militarization of space by Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. (6)
Like the students of the math schools of Gerovitch's article, or the gamers in Tatarchenko's tale, Leonov was an avid reader of science fiction, including that of the Strugatsky brothers. Arthur C. Clarke's sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey named the ship in the novel the Leonov in honor of the space pioneer. (7) Returning the favor in 2007, Leonov presented a special award on behalf of the cosmonaut training center in Star City in honor of Clarke's contributions to space exploration, on the occasion of Clarke's 90th birthday. (8) In keeping with so many of his cosmonaut colleagues, Leonov was far more than just an officer and pilot. He was also a talented artist who painted images of lunar exploration and of his own views of the earth from space, which combined aesthetics and technology as well as his own historical experiences as a space traveler. As the ultimate boundary crosser, Leonov's story awaits its historian. The articles in this special issue suggest some of the innovative ways such a history might be approached.
(1) Kendall Bailes, Technology and Society under Lenin and Stalin: Origins of the Soviet Technical Intelligentsia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978); David Joravsky, The Lysenko Affair (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Loren Graham, Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union (New York: Knopf, 1972).
(2) Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2 vols., trans. Sian Reynolds (New York: Harper and Row, 1972-73), 1:18.
(3) Nina Tumarkin, The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
(4) Susan Costanzo, "The 1959 Liriki-Fiziki Debate: Going Public With the Private?," in Borders of Socialism, ed. Lewis H. Siegelbaum (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 251-68.
(5) Gabrielle Hecht, ed., Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).
(6) Leonov co-authored with his American colleague and friend David Scott a joint history of space exploration: Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004).
(7) Arthur C. Clarke, 2010: Odyssey Two (New York: Ballantine, 1982).
(8) Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, "Plate, Commemorative, Alexei Leonov to Arthur C. Clarke" (https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/ plate-commemorative-alexei-leonov-arthur-c-clarke).
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|Title Annotation:||From the Editors|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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