May 5, 2015
Dr. Chester Dunning
Russia and Their Struggle with Innovation and Change
Russia, over the past centuries, has made a habit of economically developing the country and enhancing the quality of life, only to ultimately be set back by 50-100 years. This is a vicious cycle that causes inconceivable damage to the nation. Glossing over the history of Russia, one would see great sacrifice for a modern outcome, only for a new leader to take power and set the country back to the point it was at nearly a century before. This has happened during the Stalin era, the Cold War, and even as recent as 2000, when Vladimir Putin came to power as the President of Russia. As a result, Russia has suffered and fallen behind modernity in the West.
Russia has searched endlessly for a governmental system that would potentially work, going from a tsarist Russia to a Stalinist Russia to an attempt at democratization turned into a kleptocratic state in the past century alone. The leader at that time (Stalin, Putin, Yel’tsin) begins his term with wonderful intentions for their country, or at least he convinces the people of such, and then becomes a power hungry and feared man. This results in corruption, misplacement of funds, and a reprehensible effect on Russia’s economy.
During the Stalin era and up until the dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s, both science and technology were intimately linked to the Soviet state. Russia explored the fields of physics, chemistry, space and mathematics in similar and contrasting ways other developed countries were at the time. During this time science was emphasized at all school levels and a great number of people were graduating with degrees in science and engineering. All areas of science were fields in which Soviet citizens during this time and to date excelled.
The Soviet government enjoyed having a field in which they were on par with other great nations, and showed off their esteemed scientists and rewarded them dearly. The development and advancement of science was made a national priority by the Soviets to ensure they were excelling in the field.
Soviet technology was most highly developed in the fields of nuclear physics, where the arms race with the West was enough to convince the leaders to set aside sufficient funding for the project. In 1949 the Soviet Union became the second nation to develop an atomic bomb, four years after the United States. The Soviet Union detonated a hydrogen bomb in 1953, a mere ten months after the U.S. Russia was also highly developed in space exploration and technology: in October 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit; in April 1961 a Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first man in space. This strong hold on the space program was maintained until the 1980’s and while it slacked during this time, Russia still remains a leading nation in in this field, following the U.S.
“A brilliant school of biologists and geneticists developed in early Soviet Russia. These scientists first presented the concept of a “gene pool” (a Russian term) and made a significant contribution to the “modern synthesis” bringing Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution together, a necessary step for the further development of modern biology. A Russian botanist in these years was the first scientist to actually create a new species. These Russians worked closely with the leading biologists and geneticists of other countries. One of these foreign biologists, the American future Nobel Prize– winning H. J. Muller, was so impressed with the Russian work that he learned the Russian language and traveled to the Soviet Union to work with his Russian colleagues.”
(Graham, Kindle Locations 1309-1314). Although this was an incredible moment for Russia, the government ultimately suppressed modern genetics in the Soviet Union. Biological teaching did recover in post-soviet years, however the results of this catastrophe are still observable. At present, Russia does not have a single biotechnology company in the top one hundred in the world in terms of revenue.
The Cuban missile crisis led the world to see Russia as a weak power and after this shame Russia vowed to never publicly back down again. At this point more money began to go into military defense and weapons. At the time this occurred soviet health was better than the US and their outlook on medical development looked outstanding. However, with more funding going to military defense and weapons, the health sector began to decline greatly. It became clear that Russia was willing to risk very fundamental elements in order to have a military as strong as that of the United States.
In 1965 Koygin, a soviet-russian statesman, began an industrial reform that would allow enterprise directors to give their workers bonus’ or buy new equipment. This new system was to be based on sales, rather than output. This would have been extremely beneficial, had they been given the ability to name their own price, but they were denied this right. “As a result, technical innovation remained sluggish. Introducing new equipment meant disrupting production lines, and within the rigid framework of the planned economy this was difficult to do, since it would have meant accepting temporary lowering of output indices and in effect reducing workers pay. Only military and space technology on the whole kept up with international standards, since they guaranteed the prestige of the country. To maintain those standards the authorities were prepared to override both the social contract and routine planning procedures.” (Hosking, 543) Russia has a sense of stubbornness in transitioning to new technology because the “old way” is simply easier for them to do. This seems to be the same attitude they as a people have about their government as well.
There was a brief stint in the 1980’s where Mikhael Gorbachev, then the leader of the soviet party, realized that in order to have innovation and be capable of competing with the West, Russia would have to allow it’s citizens the freedom to criticize their government and to pitch ideas that they had without penalty. The goal for his major reforms was to transform and modernize the system while preserving as much of the system as he could. Gorbachev removed the command style economy. He also promoted local autonomy and local decision-making, encouraging the lower class people to put pressure on the middle level of government, realizing government works from the bottom to the top, whereas Russia and Soviet Union had been solely operating on the top level with no regard to the opinions of the working class peoples.
Since Putin has taken over the Presidency of Russia, he has not made any efforts to further technological development. There have been scores of businessman arrested on fraudulent charges that were primarily a result of judicial bribery by their rivals. This is the corrupt Russian Putin has developed. “Russia scores high in overall education, but its economy is profoundly hamstrung by the relative lack of technological innovation…The inability of well-trained young graduates to succeed as entrepreneurs and innovators in Russia has stimulated emigration and plans to emigrate. …Perhaps the most surprising of the trends is the increase in the number of entrepreneurs arrested and imprisoned on tax evasion and other charges as part of a large-scale increase in the use of the corrupt criminal justice system as a vehicle for corporate raiding by regime insiders. In the ten years from 2002 to 2012, 112,000 businessmen were imprisoned.” (Dawisha 315, 318)
“By 2014 , as he marched into Crimea, Putin had clearly decided that he could maintain his power by ignoring the independent middle class, entrepreneurial interests, and the cultural elite. Instead he could rely on oil and gas extraction economically and on increased use of propaganda domestically to rally state workers and provincial populations.” (Dawisha 318) Putin is trying, like Stalin, to go back to the ways of old Russia. Putin and Stalin both were fans of the tsars and their tyranny and complete control of Russia. The World has watched for centuries as Russian leaders repeat this pattern. While oil and gas are notable sources of income for the economy, Russia will never be able to thrive the way they are capable of without developments in the biological, engineering and technical fields.
In order for Russia to ever be a technologically advanced and business savvy country, reforms will have to be made to link any and all innovation ideas to the science system. Russia is packed full of brilliant young scientists and entrepreneurs who see no future for themselves in their field in their country, and so they are journeying to others to help there. Another factor that will have to develop is venture capital and angel investors. If Russia ever wants to produce a strong team of startups, angel investors have to be in the equation. While yes, investors can come from all over the world, many would opt to pull them to America or further economically developed regions of Europe to work and develop their prototype. There is an unfathomable amount of money in Putin’s circle alone that could easily be the answer to this minor issue.
At this point, for Russia to be successful in innovation, they will have to rely on export markets. Another element Russia needs is a strong Intellectual Property Rights law and protection of this law by the courts at all costs. Without this guaranteed protection there is no incentive to the inventors/innovators. Without a law against infringement, investors have no reason to fund the idea, when they could simply steal it and profit from it one hundred percent.
I agree with Laura Graham’s cautious optimism about Russia’s future. While there is an extreme amount of work to be done on reconstructing their government and economy, there is no doubt in my mind that the Russian peoples are capable of achieving such a feat. It was nearly done before Putin came to power, closer than it had ever been before, and now it is just a matter of time for Russia to rise to its potential.
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