Problems of Modernization in Russia

Historian of science Loren R. Graham on the mistakes Russian leaders make, intellectual property and risky investments

videos | August 27, 2015

Who invented electric lights? Why is simply having talented scientists not enough? How does the political situation influence the production of innovations? These and other questions are answered by Professor Emeritus of the History of Science in the Program in Science, Technology and Society Loren R. Graham.

Why has Russia not been able to modernize itself completely after three hundred years of trying? From Peter the Great to Alexander the Second, to Lenin and Stalin, to Putin? There have been many attempts for Russia to modernize itself technologically, and each time it seems not to make it. There’s progress, of course, there’s progress, but each time Russia fails to make it. Why? Very often the leaders of Russia think that the problem is in technology itself. But what I’ve learned from my study of the history of technology is that Russia for three hundred years has had wonderful scientists and engineers, wonderful scientists and engineers, and, furthermore, they have made discoveries – they were leaders in fields like in the twentieth century: diodes, transistors, computers, airplanes, – they did wonderful things in all these areas and yet at the same time it was not sustainable, it didn’t continue.

And it turns out, in my opinion, that the problem is not in the technology itself, the problem is in the fact that the society, Russian society, does not contain those supporting factors – economic, political, social, legal, – those factors which are necessary for technology to continue to grow. I think that Russian leaders from Peter the Great to Putin and Medvedev, to put it simply, a little too simply, have made the same mistake: they keep thinking that if they can just get the latest technology then they can modernize. But the fact of the matter is the technology by itself will not do the trick – you have to reform the society. But let me give you one example. In the nineteenth century Russian inventors Ladygin and others (Yablochkov) invented the electric lights, before Thomas Edison. And they electrified the streets of Paris and London, and Yablochkov became wealthy in France. Then when he took his same lamps, his same technology and returned to Russia – he failed, he went bankrupt. What this shows is that it’s not the technology that’s the most important. What’s the most important is what is it in society necessary for technology to succeed. He had it in France he didn’t have it, Yablochkov, he didn’t have it in Russia.

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What my research is about is trying to find what those factors are that allow technology to continue to develop in a permanent way. There are many, many examples of this. In the field of diodes and lasers Russians were pioneers. Russians built the first digital computer – his name was Sergey Lebedev, who did it – the first digital computer in continental Europe. For a while Russians were leaders in computers.

What’s the situation today? You can’t find a single Russian company producing computers that is significant on the world market. It’s very sad. It’s sad because the potential is so great – Russians have shown again and again that they know how to make discoveries and create wonderful technologies. The failure is not among the scientists and engineers. They’re good. The failure is in the society itself that doesn’t know how to support these technologies.

What are those factors? Well just one example. Legal system. You’ve got to have laws that protect intellectual property. You need patent laws, and you need a court system. So that when disputes or conflicts arise among entrepreneurs that there’s a way of settling these conflicts in a fair way. I’ll just give you one example. In the United States right now the two companies – Google and Microsoft – are engaged in a big court battle, it’s very expensive very big court battle over patents. One saying that the other is stealing their patents and the other side saying “oh no, it’s you that stealing it”. That has to be settled some way. And there are disputes like that going on all the time. The people need to have trust in the legal system, in the court system, that that’s a fair system so that these conflicts can be solved. Sometimes an individual company wins, sometimes an individual company loses in these battles. But the most important thing is that the companies continue to have faith that the legal system is fair. There are always exceptions, of course, but in general that the legal system is fair.

That doesn’t exist in Russia today. The legal system, in my opinion, is not fair. It’s too much dependent on political power. What that means is that even if in Russia you develop wonderful high-tech companies they won’t know how to settle their conflicts, there won’t be a way of settling their conflicts. That kind of legal environment is just as important for the promotion of technology as it is having very good universities or research institutes – you gotta have those too. But if you want to have an economy that’s based on high technology you have to have a legal system that makes it possible to solve the conflicts which naturally and inevitably come up.

That’s just one example. The tax system has to be fair, there has to be the existence of investors. In Russia there are, of course, investors, but not as many as there should be.

The investors who are here by and large are more interested in safe investments: oil, gas – that sort of thing.

Then they aren’t in risky investments. But a certain kind of investor in Western countries – they’re risk takers, they’re willing to take big risks, because if they bet right, if they choose the right startup company they might get very wealthy. That kind of environment also does not exist in Russia.

Political factors. In Russia very often, not always, but very often successful entrepreneurs who become wealthy are seen by the political authorities as rivals, as competitors. And that’s unfortunate, because a country that wishes to promote high technology needs to support those people not oppose them. I’m sure you know the case of Khodorkovsky, that’s just one example. But on the whole the attitude of the top leaders of the Russian government has been – if a very successful entrepreneur emerges, either that person must be made a part of the system (you kind of buy them off someway, including in the government or something) or he is a rival. There’s no “in between”, and that’s unfortunate for the development of technology.

So my basic argument is that throughout Russian history you’ve had wonderful technology, but you have a very bad social system for the support of technology. And what that means is that progress occurs in fits and starts: you do something wonderful in technology, like launch Gagarin into orbit – a wonderful thing, first country in the world to do that; what’s happened since then with the space program? The space technology that you possess today is basically the same as what was developed in Soviet times. It hasn’t been pushed forward by other interests.

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In the United States we are now developing, we’re not sure how it will turn out, private companies active in space. You probably heard of Elon Musk and you’ve probably heard of SpaceX. These are private companies getting active in space. Unless Russia somehow manages to duplicate that, it’s going to fall behind. It can’t just rely on state, big state-financed and sponsored programs. In the United States NASA, which is the state program for space, is gradually being, well, pushed aside might be a little too strong, but gradually being supplemented by private space companies. Out of the variety that is developing there – you get competition, some are good, some are not so good, and the best survive. You need something like that here too in order for a field in which you are very, very good – space technology – in order for that to continue to be very, very good and for not to stagnate, not for it to grow old and be surpassed by other countries.

It should be mentioned that there are many great inventors in the past in Russian history whom are no longer remembered, but they should be. I mentioned two of them, Yablochkov and Ladygin, who invented electric lights before Thomas Edison. In fact, Thomas Edison got his first idea about electric lights from a Russian, Yablochkov. Oleg Losev in the 1920’s developed a transistor, he also developed a diode, or “dee-od” in Russian. And who remembers him now? Nobody. Then, Valentin Fabrikant in Leningrad. He developed the basic principles of laser generation before anybody else did. Who remembers him now?

And then there are some people who are remembered. For example, two Russians received the Nobel Prize for discovering the laser, inventing the laser, that’s Alexander Prokhorov and Nikolai Basov. They received the Nobel Prize for it. But if I ask the question what companies in the world today control the business of lasers, what are the big companies selling lasers today, and it’s a multi-billion-dollar business. I mean, we all use lasers in our computer printers, in our DVD’s, everywhere we use lasers. It’s a big business!

What share of that business in the world market does Russia have? About one percent.

It’s very sad because they were pioneers in the development of lasers.

Take computers. Sergei Lebedev in the 1940’s and early 1950’s developed wonderful computers, the BESM-6, for example. They were at the time as almost as good or as good as any computer anywhere in – the other competing countries were England and the United States, – but the Russians begin cooperating with the United States in the Apollo space program, very frequently the Russians could solve the problems of predicting orbits and so forth, mathematical problems, faster than the Americans could, because their computers were at least as good as the American.

And then what happened? Business moved in, computers stopped being just for the military and for academic purposes – they became “Business Machines”. American banks, American industries, – all started adopting computers, using computers in their businesses. Then computers became a commercial object, there was a lot of competition, commercial competition. In this Russia couldn’t keep up. And eventually the Russians abandoned their independent architecture and adopted the architecture of IBM. Again, they were pioneers in the development of computers, but they lost out in the race for commercialization and economic success.

That pattern gets repeated again and again. There’s no shortage of talent in Russian engineers and scientists. They have shown again and again that they are leaders. The problem is in the economic and social system in Russia that doesn’t provide further development opportunities for the inventions that the brilliant Russian engineers and scientists make.

Professor Emeritus, of the History of Science at MIT and Harvard
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  • Mukhtar

    Dear Prof. Graham – it’s a good observation but very superficial. In order to identify real reasons of poor commercialization in Russia, you need to study socio-political roots of that.

  • PapaRimsky

    Professor, I liked this article and i have read it in one breath, but sorry for being strict -This theory kind of explains everything, but it does not explain much. It seems the real root is in the Russian psyche. What always made me irritated me when I was visiting my Russian relatives was that they never wanted any project to be very good. For example: they tidy up their room and you tell them them it would be MORE beautiful if they pulled that curtain and they say THAT IS ENOUGH and that way it is all right. Or, they cook soup in the kitchen and you say that if they add that spice the taste would be better and they say THIS WAY IT IS ALREADY GOOD.
    They seem to be satisfied with things when they are not perfect. They even have that proverb: TOO GOOD is also NOT GOOD. The same thing is possibly with their other systems and institutions. They stop before something is really good. Why it is so I do not know.

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