Russian Perspectives

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Russian perspectives on science, technology, and ethics come from two sources: those outside and those inside Russia. Because of the historical impact of the Communist Revolution of 1917, the absorption of Russia into the Soviet Union (1922–1991) for much of the twentieth century, the role of Marxism as the official Soviet ideology, and a strong expatriate intellectual community, scholars outside Russia have created a substantial body of literature analyzing Russian-Soviet-Marxist-Communist perspectives on science and technology, including much related to ethics. While referencing some of this literature, the present entry nevertheless emphasizes discussions as they have developed within Russia itself.

Russian discussions of ethics in relation to science and technology have exhibited both strong positivist commitments to scientific and technological progress and equally vigorous criticisms of science and technology as destructive of traditional Russian values. A brief introduction to these discussions, emphasizing technology, may be divided into three periods: pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet. The post-Soviet period has revived and extended some perspectives prominent during the pre-Soviet period.

Originating Discussions

Pre-Soviet Russian history may be divided from the point of view of the scientific and technological progress into three major periods. The first runs from the invasion of the legendary Scandinavian warrior Rurik in the 800s through Mongol (or Tartar) invasions in the 1200s to the rise of Ivan the Terrible in the 1500s and then to the beginning of the Romanov reign in the 1600s. The second takes place during the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725). In his lifetime, two special schools for training engineers were established, the Engineering School in 1700, and the Mathematical-Navigation School in 1701. Peter the Great introduced engineering training into the Naval Academy, regimental schools, and even religious colleges. He founded the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1724. As the great modernizer of Russia, it was Peter who brought modern science and technology into the motherland, and thus it was during this second period that discussions relevant to science, technology, and ethics increasingly came to the fore.

The third period begins from the foundation of the first high engineering schools and runs to the Communist Revolution (1917). In 1809, the Institute of the Corps of Engineers of Rail Transport was set up in Russia for theoretical training for engineers and higher technological education. At that time, many vocational and secondary technical schools had already been transformed into higher technical schools and institutes. The Technological Institute in St. Petersburg, for example, had been created in 1862 as a school for foremen from the lower social strata, such as peasants and artisans. In Moscow, a Higher Technical School was established in 1868 following the reorganization of a vocational school (dating from 1830). These new higher educational establishments concentrated on the theoretical side of their curricula (Gorokhov 1998).

One of the most important contributors to such discussions was the Russian engineer Peter K. Engelmeyer (1855–1942). Engelmeyer's positivism is evident in the following words: "Our nineteenth, technological century is ... the century of unprecedented conquest of the forces of nature. Technology has conquered for us space and time, matter and power, being the power itself that irrepressibly turns the wheel of progress" (Engelmeyer 1898, p. 6). For Engelmeyer the technological world-view dominated the nineteenth century because of an inward tendency of European culture to address real problems with real power. The genius of humanity over the previous two centuries had constructed a human-made microcosm within the larger natural one, making it possible for human beings to satisfy their physical needs to an extent previously unknown. Because of this Engelmeyer saw engineers as the leaders or technological elite in society, and argued for a new system of engineering education to promote the realization of this ideal. The emergence of technocracy in the twentieth century revealed how "efficient" such societal management can be. But it was difficult to anticipate the unintended consequences of this boundless scientific and technological progress, especially in the military sphere.

During this same period Russia was also home to an opposed school of religious and cultural criticism of technology. Sergei N. Bulgakov (1871–1944), in an article titled "The Main Problems of the Theory of Progress," published in 1902, emphasized that in the twentieth century technological change was becoming a kind of theology. By means of modern technology all people of the future were supposed to be happy, proud, and free. To bring happiness to as many people as possible was taking the form of a super modern religion in which society equipped with technological knowledge played the role of God. But according to Bulgakov such technological optimism, which tries to create a material heaven on Earth and even obtain cosmic power, inevitably leads to immoral practices. Technology begins to dominate human beings rather than serve them, making them not happy but miserable. The state, having become the patron of science and technology, inevitably begins to demand that science and technology serve economic and military ends.

During the Soviet Period

In the seven decades from the Communist Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union, science and technology were treated in two different ways. On the one hand, they were given unquestioned ideological support; socialism itself was said to be scientific and to provide the strongest support for technology. On the other, political interference in both science and technology compromised their autonomy and efficiency.

The common view in the West that this was simply a corruption of science and technology has been challenged by, for instance, Nikolai Krementsov (1997). Krementsov distinguishes the period of the initial Stalinization of science (1929–1939), its achievements during World War II and up to Joseph Stalin's death (1940–1953), and the post-Stalin consolidation. For Krementsov, Soviet science was "big science" that, as in the United States, it involved a convergence of party-state agencies and the scientific community. Its dramatic achievements—from the atomic and hydrogen bombs (1949 and 1953) to Sputnik I (1957)—should not be overlooked. Even in areas of health and medicine Soviet science realized important human benefits. As Vadim J. Birstein (2001) and others have documented, however, science was also used to experiment on human beings; like scientific experimentation that amounts to torture anywhere, this presents a major challenge to the ethics of the scientific community.

Yet from the beginning of the 1930s, the general ideological atmosphere in the Soviet Union radically changed; from now on the only way to create the new human being was to be sought not in biological, but in social changes. ... Meanwhile a lot of medical research done in the Soviet Union sometimes posed ethical and legal problems. The first attempt on the part of the authorities to regulate medical research took place in 1936. Narkomzdrav [the name of the Ministry of Health at that time] of the Russian Federation issued regulations determining the conditions of testing new medical devices and methods, which could be dangerous to the health and life of patients. ... These rather progressive regulations, however, were issued at the same time, when in the depths of the KGB, the secret "Laboratory X" worked on the creation and testing of toxic substances. ... There are some indications that the laboratory tried to create toxins which could be impossible to detect after victim's death; these substances were tested on prisoners." (Yudin 2004)

During the post-Stalin era impressive attempts were made to adopt cybernetics in order to deal with the emerging problems of a command model of science and technology policy. Additionally, the theory of a new Scientific Technology Revolution (STR) that integrated science and technology anticipated by decades Western European notions of technoscience—and sought to maintain a close link between technoscience and social values.

Among the most insightful non-Russian scholars of Russian science and technology in relation to questions of ethics and politics is Loren R. Graham. In What Have We Learned about Science and Technology from the Russian Experience? (1998), he summarizes a life of research on this topic. Although he admits that this short book is more about science and technology than Russia, it nevertheless draws useful conclusions about science and technology in Russia. According to Graham,

The enormous Soviet scientific establishment, the world's largest, performed rather well in many areas, provided for the nation's military strength, and supplied most of the needs of heavy industry. But it did not do so well in terms of intellectual breakthroughs or outstanding achievements. ... Political freedom may not be as necessary for the development of natural science as many of its advocates have claimed, but a combination of political freedom and generous financial support are necessary for the most creative achievements. One of the tragedies of Russian history is that science there has never enjoyed both financial support and political freedom, either under the Soviet system or today, although, in chronological sequence, it had first the one and then the other. (pp. 132–133)

Another tragedy, however, is the degree to which despite all the rhetoric about their socialist-humanist character under Communism, from the 1930s through the 1980s Soviet science and technology was also deeply antihuman and destructive of the environment.

Post-Soviet Discussions

One major reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union was its failures in regard to the development of an ethics of science and technology that was anything more than their simple promotion for political purposes. The ideology that science and technology might perfect the future of humanity makes no difference to the happiness of the present generation. Indeed, the contemporary squandering of natural resources and contamination of the environment are sacrifices of the future as well as the present, and call for the response of a new ethics (Danilov-Danilian 1999). It is just such a felt need to rethink the uses of science and technology that has led to a reconsideration of the ideas of some of those who were driven out of Russia by the Soviet regime.

One of these thinkers whose ideas have been resurrected is Nikolai Berdyaev (1874–1948). From the 1930s Berdyaev argued that the domination of technology would destroy the person and lead inevitably to dehumanization. To struggle against the hegemony of technology was thus necessary to save humanity. Once everything can be transformed or constructed then this power will be applied even to the human psyche. This precisely was embodied in the unprecedented program for the remolding of the people from the capitalist past in the forge of socialist reconstruction (Gorokhov 1992).

For Berdyaev technology is dehumanizing because it opposes the humanistic ideals of Renaissance culture. But Renaissance ideals also place human beings in an antagonistic relationship with the environment. The main contradiction of contemporary technological civilization is that modern technology creates unprecedented opportunities for human beings to invent needs and wants, which are then satisfied by destroying the natural world. Berdyaev sees the basic problem as a split between indifferent and apocalyptic attitudes toward technology. The former interprets technology as a personal matter of inventors and engineers, and assumes no responsibility for the results of human activity. The latter interprets technology as anathema, the triumph of the Antichrist. But neither response is satisfactory. One contemporary alternative has been the Russian "cosmicism" (Stepin 2002), which "opposes physicalist thinking in order to develop ideas of unity between human beings and the cosmos," both in religious and natural scientific terms.

Along with the work of Berdyaev, the thought of Bulgakov has also once again become important in Russia. Although he was educated initially as an economist with Marxist sympathies, Bulgakov's studies of agrarian life led him to criticize Marxist proposals for the centralization of agriculture. Then in the early 1900s, after a religious crisis, he rejected Marxism completely in favor of a "sophiological" interpretation of Russian orthodoxy and undertook studies for the priesthood. After teaching political economy and theology at a university in the Crimea, in 1922 he was exiled from Russia and eventually took part in establishing the Institute of Orthodox Theology (St. Sergius Theological Institute) in Paris, where he remained until his death.

For Bulgakov human beings must accept their own nature as well as the natural environment as given. To reject either nature is to invite disaster, personal or environmental. To live with the impression of their ever-increasing power may open boundless vistas for "cultural creativity," but it also places humans in increasing danger. The way out of the antagonism between economic activity based on scientific research into the mechanisms of nature and nature itself is the gradual "digestion" of the human-made back into the natural. Bulgakov's philosophy stimulates discussions of low-waste and environmentally friendly technology, as has indeed been the case in Russia during the early 2000s—although against the background of the triumphant march of technological civilization, such an appeal remains the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Yet contemporary efforts to develop a theory of sustainable development correlates to a great extent with the ideas of Bulgakov.

In post-Soviet Russia it is thus common to argue that there are limits to scientific and technological progress. It is not possible to realize, implement, or produce only what is planned, designed, and projected in scientific forecasts; not all the negative effects of the technological activity can be accurately projected. It is only possible to foresee certain risks with new scientific technologies. But this requires the development of moral responsibility in science and professional ethics in engineering. Yet the invention of nuclear weapons and other large-scale technologies has also revealed the limits of individual ethical responsibility for those operating in sociotechnical systems (Inshenernaja etika 1998). In biotechnology and genetic engineering there is also a need to develop a scientific and engineering ethics that would guide natural scientific and engineering research (Frolov and Yudin 1989).

An increasing interest in environmental ethics has thus become a significant part of Russian discussions. No longer can humans trust in the power of nature to take care of itself.

The natural mechanisms are not sufficient at present to preserve the biosphere. New methods for regulations, based on the understanding of natural processes and to some degree also the management of such processes, are required. Anthropogenic regulation can forestall natural cataclysms and decrease the speed of dangerous processes. We must choose between immediate profit and long-term revenues in the usage of natural resources. (Marfenin 2000, p. 8)

In Russia there is concern that when human beings are too eager to dominate nature with science and technology, they may destroy nature and, at the same time, their ongoing economic growth. When humans threaten the biosphere as a whole they also threaten human society. The alternative is a new paradigm in science and technology based on an equal partnership between humans and the environment (Danilov-Danilian and Losev 2000).

Such critical reflections point toward the need for ethical assessments of science and technology. In the words of Stepin again:

Scientific cognition and technological activity ... involve a wide range of possible development trajectories ... and are always faced with the problem of choosing a certain scenario out of the variety of possible scenarios of development. And the landmarks for this choice are not only knowledge but also the moral principles that ban the methods of experiment and transformation that are dangerous for people. More and more often contemporary complex research programs and technological projects require the social expertise that includes some ethical components. ... Human society must find the way-out of the global crises, but to do this we shall have to come through an epoch of spiritual transformation and elaboration of a new system of values. (Stepin 1988, pp. 19–20)

Concern for the practical elaboration of a new paradigm of scientific and technological development, one that does not separate theory and practice nor ethical responsibilities and scientific-technological power, that respects both society and nature, thus animates current Russian perspectives on science, technology, and ethics.


SEE ALSO Berdyaev, Nikolai; Communism; Lysenko Affair; Marxism; Sakharov, Andrei; Tolstoy, Leo.


Bailes, Kendall E. (1978). Technology and Society under Lenin and Stalin: Origins of the Soviet Technical Intelligentsia, 1917–1941. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. One of the most comprehensive and insightful externalist studies.

Berdyaev, Nikolai. (1949). Der Mensch und der Technik. Berlin: Cornelsen. English version of one essay in this book, "Man and Machine," included in Philosophy and Technology, ed. Carl Mitcham and Robert Mackey (New York: Free Press, 1972).

Birstein, Vadim J. (2001). The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Bulgakov, Sergei N. (1990 [1912]). Filosofija Khoziaistva. Moscow: Nauka. Translation by Catherine Evtuhov as Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).

Danilov-Danilian, Viktor I. (1999). "Novaja etika i ekologicheskij vysov" [New ethics and environmental challenge]. In his Ustoichivoie razvitie i problemy ekologicheskoj politiki [Sustainable development and problems of environmental policy]. ECOS: Federalnyj vestnik ekologicheskogo prava [Federal journal of environmental law], no. 5: 75–91.

Danilov-Danilian, Viktor I., and Kim S. Losev. (2000). Ekologicheskij vyzov i ustojchivoje razvitije [Ecological challenge and sustainable development]. Moscow: Progress-Traditzija.

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Frolov, Ivan T., and Boris G. Yudin. (1989). The Ethics of Science: Issues and Controversies, trans. Lilia Nakhapetyan and Valentin Parnakh. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

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Gorokhov, Vitaly G. (1997). Peter Klimentievich Engelmeyer: Ingener mekhanik i filosopf tekhniki (1855–1941) [P. K. Engelmeyer: Mechanical engineer and philosopher of technology (1855–1941)]. Moscow: Nauka.

Gorokhov, Vitaly G. (1998). "Technological Enlightenment in Russia in the 19th and Early 20th Century and the Problems of Advancement in the Philosophy of Technology." In Techne 3(2).

Gorokhov, Vitaly G. (2001). Technikphilosophie und Technikfolgenforschung in Russland. Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany: Europäische Akademie zur Erforschung von Folgen wissenschaftlich-technischer Entwicklungen.

Gorokhov, Vitaly G. (2003). "Philosophie der Technik von P. K. Engelmeyer als technischer Optimismus." In Jahrbuch des Deutsch-Russisches Kollegs 2001–2002, ed. Vitaly G. Gorokhov. Aachen: Shaker Verlag.

Graham, Loren R. (1972). Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union. New York: Knopf. Sees dialectical materialism as a major intellectual achievement that serves as a unifying theme across Soviet physics, cosmology, genetics, biology, chemistry, cybernetics, physiology, and psychology. See also Graham's Science, Philosophy, and Human Behavior in the Soviet Union (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987) and Science in Russia and the Soviet Union (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Graham, Loren R. (1993). The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Graham, Loren R. (1998). What Have We Learned about Science and Technology from the Russian Experience? Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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Inshenernaja etika v siseme obrayovanija [Designing engineering ethics education in Russia. Abstracts. American-Russian Workshop]. (1998). Moscow: Akademija menegementa innovatyij.

Krementsov, Nikolai. (1997). Stalinist Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Balanced account by a Russian historian of science, with some emphasis on the case of T. D. Lysenko.

Marfenin, Nikolai N. (2000). "Ecology and Humanism." In State of Russia in the Surrounding World, 2000: The Analytical Series, abstracts, ed. Nikolai N. Marfenin. Moscow: IIUEPS Press, 8–9.

Medvedev, Zhores A. (1978). Soviet Science. New York: Norton. A short historical overview by an insider arguing the moral of a need to protect science from possible misuse.

Stepin, Viatcheslav S. (1998). "Ustojchivoje razvitije i problema tzennostej" [Sustainable development and the problem of values]. In Tekhnika, obshestvo, okrushajushjaja Sreda: Materialy meshdunarodnoj nauchnoj konferentyii (18–19.06.1998, Moskva) [Technology, society, and environment: Proceedings of an International Conference, 18–19 June 1998, Moscow], ed. Vitaly G. Gorokhov. Moscow: RAN, MNEPU.

Stepin, Viatcheslav S. (2002). Civilization, Science, Culture. Karlsruhe: German Russian College, University of Karlsruhe; Moscow: State University of Humanities, Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Stepin, Viatcheslav S. (2005). Theoretical Knowledge. Synthese Library, Vol. 326. Heidelberg: Springer.

Yudin, Boris. (2004). "Medical Ethics in Russia, History, Contemporary Period." In Encyclopedia of Bioethics, 3rd edition. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

Yudin, Boris. (2004). "Human Experimentation in Russia/the Soviet Union." In Twentieth Century Ethics of Human Subjects Research, eds. V. Roelcke and G. Maio. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

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