Academy of Sciences

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Advised first by the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz and then by his student Cristian Wolff, Peter the Great founded the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences in 1725 on the model of the Paris and Berlin institutions of the same kind. All initial members of the new Academy were foreigners. The most outstanding member of the fledgling institution was Leonhard Euler, who in a short time was widely acclaimed as Europe's leading mathematician. He was credited as the founder of a strong mathematical tradition in Russia.

The new Academy was assigned two tasks: to initiate systematic work on the latest developments in science and to train the first Russian scientists. Small and fluid, the training component of the Academy became known as the first Russian secular institution of higher education. Mikhail Vasilievich Lomonosov was the first Russian scientist to become a member of the Academy and was living proof of Russia's readiness to enter the challenging world of advanced science.

Catherine II relied on the Academie Francaise as a model for the Imperial Russian Academy founded in 1783 with the primary task of improving the Russian literary language and preparing a Russian grammar and dictionary. Close relations between the two institutions were facilitated by the fact that a large number of the country's leading scholars belonged to both academies. At this time, the Academy of Sciences increased appreciably the volume of its publications presented in the Russian language.

In the eighteenth century, all presidents of the Academy of Sciences were aristocrats with close ties to the royal family but no interest in scholarship. In 1803, Alexander I granted the Academy a new charter that limited the choice of candidates for presidency to individuals with proven affinity with scientific scholarship. It also granted the Academy extended autonomy in administering its work and choosing individual and group research topics.

Despite the unceasing threats to academic autonomy during the reign of Nicholas I (18251855), the Academy recorded substantial progress in contributions to science. Among the most eminent academicians were Karl von Baer, the founder of modern embryology; Frederick G. W. Struve, who not only founded the Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory but made it one of the world's leading institutions of its kind; and Mikhail Vasilievich Ostrogradsky, who was credited by James Clerk Maxwell with contributing to the mathematical apparatus of electromagnetic theory.

For a long time, the foreign members of the Academy formed a community isolated from Russia's social and cultural dynamics. By the 1830s they manifested concrete and multiple signs of expanding and intensifying their Russian connections. Now they contributed articles on scientific themes to popular journals, gave lectures to organized groups, and took part in founding such naturalist societies as the Russian Geographical Society, fashioned on the model of similar organizations in the West. The publications of the Mineralogical Society and the Russian Geographical Society added to the list of scientific journals appealing to the growing public interest in science.

In 1841 the Academy underwent a drastic organizational change: It absorbed the Imperial Russian Academy and made it one of its three departments. This move not only broadened the scholarly concerns of the Academy of Sciences but also strengthened the Russian share of membership. The Natural Science Departments continued to be dominated by foreign members.

The era of Nicholas I ended on a sour note: Overreacting to the revolutionary waves in Western Europe in 1848, the government made it illegal for young Russians to attend Western universities in search of advanced scientific training. The Academy, which traditionally supervised the selection for foreign training, lost one of its prized functions. The government also abrogated Paragraph 33 of the 1836 charter, which stipulated that "scholarly books and journals, subscribed to by the Academy or full members of the Academy are not subject to censorship."

Russia's defeat in the Crimean War in 1855 and 1856 created an atmosphere favoring liberal reforms of a large magnitude in both the political system and social relations. The emancipation of the serfs topped the list of changes that earned the 1860s the title of "The Epoch of Great Reforms."

The restive intelligentsia viewed science and its critical spirit as the safest path to lifting Russia on the scale of social, political, and economic progress.

Among the new members of the Academy were several Russians whose scholarly reputations were firmly established in and outside Russia. The mathematician Pafnuty Lvovich Chebyshev's contributions to number and probability theories made a strong impression on the Paris Academy of Sciences, which elected him an associé étranger. In addition to his many other contributions to chemistry, Nikolai Nikolayevich Zinin reduced aniline from nitrobenzene; this introduced the industrial production of paints. The historian Sergei Mikhailovich Soloviev, elected a member of the Academy in 1871, was deeply involved in writing his multivolume History of Russia since Ancient Times, a grand synthesis of the nation's political, social, and cultural developments.

The Academy established closer contact with university professors by allowing more space in its journals for their contributions. It also improved its public image through intensive involvement in the national festivities commemorating the centennial of Lomonosov's death. On this occasion it published a number of books covering the multiple sides of Lomonosov's scientific and literary activities. After the celebrations, Peter Pekarsky, a member of the Academy, wrote a two-volume history of his institution, based exclusively on the archival material and casting penetrating light on the early history of Russian science. For the first time, a Russian was appointed permanent secretary of the Academy, and annual reports were presented in the Russian language. The use of the Russian language in the Academy's publications increased by the establishment of the journal Zapiski (Memoirs ).

In the early 1880s, the Academy became a target of public attacks provoked by its refusal to elect Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev, the discoverer of the periodic law of elements, to its membership. The Academy was now referred to as a "German institution" and the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky went so far as to suggest the establishment of a Free Russian Academy supported by private endowments. The Mendeleyev incident helped bring an end to inviting foreign scholars to fill the vacant positions in the Academy.

All distinguished university professors, the new members of the Academy provided a significant index of rapidly advancing Russian scholarship. At the end of the nineteenth century, the growing fields of science were represented by the neurophysiologist and expert on conditioned reflexes Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, the first Russian recipient of the Nobel Prize; the mathematicians Andrei Andreyevich Markov and Alexander Mikhailovich Lyapunov, who raised the theory of probability to new heights; Alexei Nikolayevich Krylov, an expert in naval architecture and the translator of Newton's Principia; and Nikolai Yegorovich Zhukovsky, a pioneer in aerodynamics.

The Academy welcomed the February Revolution in 1917, which brought an end to the autocratic system. The academician Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky was the moving spirit behind the law abolishing the multi-ramified system of censorship in all phases of written expression. The Academy acquired a new namethe Russian Academy of Sciencesand the geologist Alexander Petrovich Karpinsky became the first elected president. The organization of the first research institutes heralded the appearance of research focused on the burning questions of modern science. They quickly became the primary units of the Academy. The first institute concentrated on the use of physical methods in chemical analysis.

At the end of Imperial Russia, the Academy had fourty-one full members. It had one of the country's richest libraries, several museums, and a small number of underequipped laboratories. A solid majority of academicians worked in the humanities and the social sciences. This distribution was reversed under the Soviet system. The academicians were supported by a staff of specialists in individual fields and laboratory technicians.

The Bolshevik victory in October 1917 brought two instant changes affecting the Academy. The new government reintroduced censorship that in some respects was more comprehensive and rigid than that of the tsarist era. It took some time, however, for the new system of censorship to become an effective system of ideological control, in part because of persisting ambiguity in the definition of its tasks.

The new government acted quickly and resolutely in founding the Socialist Academy (in 1923 renamed the Communist Academy) with the primary task of preparing dialectical materialismthe Marxist philosophy of scienceto serve as an ideological clearinghouse for scientific ideas. Its task was also to create the theoretical base of the social sciences and the humanities. The efficiency of the Socialist Academy, intended to be a competitor to the "conservative" Academy of Sciences, was drastically reduced by deep disagreements among Marxist theorists in interpreting the revolutionary waves in modem science. At this time, the Bolshevik government was not ready to engineer drastic changes in the Academy of Sciences.

In 1925 the government gave financial support to the Academy of Sciences to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of its founding, an event attended by a large contingent of Western scientists. Now renamed the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, the institution received the first government recognition as the country's supreme scientific body. The next year, the Academy was given a new charterthe first since 1836which made it an institution open to activities by such "public organizations" as the trade unions and proliferating Communist associations. The new charter abolished the traditional privilege of academicians to be the sole authority in selecting candidates for new members of the Academy.

The process of making the Academy a typical Soviet institution was generally completed in 1929, with Stalin now at the helm of the government and the Communist Party. The first large-scale election of new members included a group of Marxists. Dialectical materialism was proclaimed the only philosophy admitted in the Academyand in the countryand loyalty to the Communist Party (the so-called partynost, or "partyness") prescribed behavior. A group of leading historians and an eminent mathematician were exiled to provincial towns.

At the same time, the government approved the Academy's proposal to admit students to work for higher degrees and to acquire research experience. Upon completion of their studies, most of these students were absorbed by the Academy's research staff. Some advanced to the rank of full members of the Academy.

The history of the Academy in the Stalin era (19291953) has two dominant characteristics. On the one hand, the Soviet government made vast financial investments in building the Academy into a gigantic network of institutes and laboratories, concentrating on both scientific research and training new cadres of scientists. On the other hand, Stalin encouraged and patronized Marxist philosophers in their mounting attacks on the leaders of the scientific community accused of violating the norms of Marxist theory. In the years of Stalin's reign of terror in the late 1930s, a long line of Academy personnel landed in political prisons, from which many did not return.

In 1936 the government abolished the Communist Academy and transferred its members to the Academy of Sciences, where they became part of the newly founded Department of Philosophy, the center of an intensified crusade against "idealism" in both Western and Soviet science. For a long time, "physical idealism," as manifested in quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, was the main target of Marxist attacks.

Even in the peak years of Stalinist oppression, the Academy's physicistsled by Abram Fyodorovich Ioffe, Vladimir Alexandrovich Fock, and Igor Yevgenievich Tammmade bold efforts to resist philosophical interference with their science. Their basic arguments were that Marxist philosophers were not familiar with modern physics and were guilty of misinterpreting Marxist theory. At a later date, Nikolai Nikolayevich Semenov, a Nobel laureate, stated publicly that only by ignoring Marxist philosophers were the physicists able to add fresh ideas to their science. More general criticism of Marxist interference with science came from the academicians Ivan Petrovich Pavlov and Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky: They opposed the monopolistic position of Marxist philosophy.

Physics and biology were the main scientific arena of Stalinist efforts to establish full ideological control over scientific thought. The two sciences, however, did not undergo the same treatment. In physics, Stalin encouraged Marxist philosophers to engage in relentless attacks on the residues of "idealism" in quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, but refrained from interfering with the ongoing work in physics laboratories.

The situation in biology was radically different. Here, Stalin not only encouraged a sustained ideological attack on genetics and its underlying "bourgeois" philosophy but played a decisive role in outlawing this science and abolishing its laboratories. Academicians Peter Leonidovich Kapitsa and Igor E. Tamm, experienced warriors against Stalinist adverse interference with the professional work of scientists, were among the leading scholars whose sustained criticism swayed the government ten years after Stalin's death to abandon its stand against modern genetics.

The process of the de-Stalinization of the Academy began soon after Stalin's death in 1953. By the mid-1960s, there was no science in the outside world that was not recognized and closely followed in the Soviet Union. The Academy played the leading role in reestablishing sociology and the rich national tradition in social psychology dominated by the internationally recognized legacy of Lev Semenovich Vygotsky. At the same time, Marxist philosophers were encouraged to explore paths to a reconciliation with leading Western philosophies of science and to search for "the kernels of truth" in "bourgeois" thought.

In the meantime, the Academy continued to grow at a rapid pace. In 1957 it established a string of research institutes in Novosibirskknown as the Siberian Department or Akademgorodok (Academic Campus)concentrating, among other activities, on the branches of mathematics related to the ongoing computer revolution, the latest developments in molecular biology, and the new methodological requirements of the social sciences, particularly economics. In 1971 the Department had fourty-four research institutes, fifty laboratories, and a research staff of 5,600. It also supported a new university known for its high academic standards. A new complex of research institutes in nuclear physics was established in Dubna, and another group of institutes engaged in physico-chemical approaches to biological studies was built in Pushkino. A scientific center engaged in geophysical studies was established in 1964 in Krasnaya Pakhta. The scientific center in Noginsk concentrated on physical chemistry. The Academy also helped in guiding and coordinating the work of the Union-Republican academies.

In 1974 the Academy had 237 full members and 439 corresponding members. In the same year the professional staff of the Academy numbered 39,354, including 29,726 with higher academic degrees. The Academy published 132 journals, a few intended to reach the general reading public. It continued the tradition of publishing collections of essays celebrating important events in national history or commemorating major contributors to science. One of the last and most memorable collections, published in 1979, marked the centennial of Einstein's birth.

The Academy produced voluminous literature on its own history. The Soviet period of the Academy was presented in a glowing light with no place for a critical analysis of the underlying philosophy and internal organization of this gigantic institution. In 1991, with the dismemberment of the Soviet union, the name of the Russian Academy of Sciences was again made official. The new Academy brought an end to the monopoly of a single philosophy of science.

See also: censorship; communist academy; science and technology policy; universities


Graham, Loren R. (1967). The Soviet Academy of Sciences and the Communist Party. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Vucinich, Alexander. (1984). Empire of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Vucinich, Alexander. (19631970). Science in Russian Culture. 2 vols. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Alexander Vucinich

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