Communism and Technology and Fall of USSR

Jim Tent says: One of the reasons for the downfall of the USSR and the death of communism was its paraoid reliance on secrecy. The Soviet system required (in addition to rigid control of all forms of mass media) an elaborate and universal control of copying machines. Thus, the various generations of copiers, photocopiers, etc. were all tightly controlled in an effort to maintain "need-to-know." Writers, thinkers, and the intelligentsia in general had to work hard to find ways to circumvent such controls in order to distribute their literature even to a limited circle of friends and acquaintances.

What the Soviet apparatchiks did not take into account were the negative effects from restricting the flow of general and scientific information to informed, intelligent readers. It stifled creativity all across the board. It was finally Gorbachev when he came to power five minutes before midnight, figuratively speaking, who attempted to catch up with the West by "clearing the arteries" with Glasnost and Perestroika. Those mild (by Western standards) reforms came far too late and were too negligible to have any meaningful effect. The ever more successful "cross-fertilization" of the sciences in the West in an age of ever greater telecommunication had reached the stage by the late 1980s that a vast gulf had developed.

Computer technology is simply one example. Starting in the 1950s, the West developed under the aegis of NATO a Coordinating Committee (CoCom) that met biennially in Paris to ensure that the most advanced computer technology of the West would not be transferred to the East. Thus, Seymour Cray's supercomputers were kept away. By contrast obsolete technology was actually dumped onto the East in order to stifle R&D by Comecon researchers. Initially, the computer gap between East and West was not large. By the mid-1980s it was enormous. The East never really solved the problems of developing a successful silicon-chip industry - the East Germans tried and failed miserably. Why was this? Because people were not talking to each other. The East German computer company, Roboton, was riddled with Stasi security people. Genuine researchers were few and were restricted. It was a bloated, artery-hardened enterprise despite the hype the GDR put behind it in the late '80s. Despite East German hopes that Roboton would survive the reunification experience, it failed almost immediately.

There are lessons in this to be learned from Putin and his associates. If they should succeed in stifling democracy and the free flow of information in the Russian Federation, there is an excellent chance that in the fast-paced world of scientific research, their nation will experience the same intellectual "hardening of arteries" and subsequent economic stagnation that led to the death of the Soviet Union and Communism. To paraphrase Karl Marx, the first time such a monumental event happens, it's tragedy. The second time it happens, it's farce!

RH: Has the stifling affect of communist bureaucracy prevented the development of technology in China?

Randy Black writes: I echo the comments by JIm Tent about Soviet secrecy and pass along this well known anecdote. In the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, there are dozens, if not hundreds of original documents from the early years of the Soviet space program – 1950-1965 for instance. Original directions, mathematical formulas and calculations of all sorts regarding the development of the USSR’s space program are on display, having been purchased by H. Ross Perot and donated to the museum about a decade ago.
All are written in pencil, by hand. I asked “why pencil, why not typed?” What if these originals were lost, got rained on, burned up? Simple, I was told by the Russian scientists I interviewed on the matter. “This was so secret, we could not share it even with a secretary to type.” See them for yourself the next time you go to Washington.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: April 16, 2005