Russia’s century of scientific autarky

  • Themes: Russia

The Tsarist administration, the Bolshevik NKVD and its successor agencies under Putin have all constrained and distorted the scientific project in Russia. Their legacy is one of thwarted potential and technological underachievement.

Propaganda poster celebrating the Soviet Union's nuclear technologies.
Propaganda poster celebrating the Soviet Union's nuclear technologies. Credit: C. and M. History Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

In late May 2024 the Russian government, in a closed session, sentenced 77-year-old physicist Anatoly Maslov to 14 years of hard labour for treason. Allegedly, he had given secrets concerning hypersonic missile technology to enemies of the state. The successor of the notorious Stalinist NKVD and KGB, Putin’s FSB, was responsible for bringing charges against Maslov. Despite being browbeaten, he steadfastly declared his innocence: he had not transferred state secrets to anyone, but engaged in normal scientific activities, lecturing and publishing his ideas. Maslov, chief researcher at the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in Novosibirsk’s Akademgodorok, had been under arrest in pre-trial detention since June 2022. Since 2018, at least 12 scientists linked to hypersonic research have been arrested for treason, several of whom died in custody. For Maslov, who suffered a heart attack earlier this year, this is a death sentence. For Russian science, it is a death sentence, too.

Despite their importance to the country’s status as a scientific superpower, Russia has long attacked its specialists, perhaps fearing their intellectual independence and potential technocratic power. Scientists and engineers built crucial industry and military strength in Russia. They prepared the country for the Second World War. They built the atomic bomb. They put Yuri Gagarin into space. The methods of silencing scientists – ostensibly to prevent industrial espionage and prevent ‘wrecking’ of projects at home – have been self-defeating. The secret police controlled scientific publication, but this had the result of slowing dissemination of results at home and putting Soviet specialists further behind the capitalist powers. They closed borders, establishing autarky in science. But isolation also hindered scientific performance by denying benchmarks to assess domestic progress. And arrest? It destroyed lives and careers.

However you consider it – scientific citations, Nobel prizes, other indices – Russian science has long lagged behind its rivals, especially in light of the great expenditures on Research and Development (R&D) and the status which science attained in Russia as a former superpower. Russia, with 30 prizes over the entire Nobel period, is essentially on the same level as much smaller Canada, Switzerland, Japan and Austria. Universities in Massachusetts alone have won well over twice as many as Russian institutions, and the US in total 15 times as many. Isolating researchers and arresting devoted scientists in the dark of the morning by armed and masked FSB agents can hardly improve performance.

This story has deep roots. The Tsarist government mistrusted intellectuals generally, denied charters to professional societies and interfered in the research of members of its prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences. The Bolsheviks supported the research of scientists and engineers who were needed to build Soviet industry, but kept them under strict administrative control. In the last 15 years the FSB has, like its predecessors, surveilled, arrested and imprisoned leading specialists, most recently those whose work might contribute to producing cutting edge technologies.

How did secret police interference in Russian science evolve? Under Stalin, the Communist Party asserted control over all facets of research. It harassed scientists, forced them to toe the line to an ideology of class struggle, and isolated them from the west. The first show trials in the Soviet Union, the Shakhty and Industrial Party Affairs in the late 1920s, were directed not at suspected enemies in the party or foreign agents, but at engineers for alleged ‘wrecking’ of industrial facilities. In preparation for the Shakhty trial, the secret police took away 53 individuals, so-called ‘bourgeois specialists’, and accused them of ‘counterrevolution’. The riveting, choreographed show trial ended when 20 broken engineers admitted their guilt, 11 were sentenced to death, and five were shot. During the 1930s, physicists, biologists, geologists and chemists were arrested in large numbers, interrogated, shot or sentenced to gulag labour camps. Today’s arrests and trials for treason resemble Stalin’s efforts to cow scientists into silence.

The secret police actively established autarky in Soviet science that lasted into the Cold War. A small number of physicists – future Nobel laureates Peter Kapitsa and Lev Landau, and cosmologist and originator of the Big Bang Theory George Gamow, among others – travelled abroad on fellowships or for work. Gamov was mistakenly given an exit visa for a conference and never returned, but the door was closed firmly to others by the 1930s. In summer 1934, during his annual summer trip home to Russia from his position at the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge University where he worked with Ernest Rutherford, the authorities refused to permit Kapitsa to return to England. On Stalin’s orders the secret police put Kapitsa under house arrest, forcing him to remain in Moscow. Eventually the Soviet and British authorities, with some assistance from the international physics community, agreed to transfer Kapitsa’s Mond Laboratory from Cambridge to Moscow, where it laid the foundation for Kapitsa’s newly-opened Institute of Physical Problems. (In letters to officials Kapitsa characterised the efforts of Soviet officials to force the pace of science as the equivalent of playing a violin with a hammer.)

The NKVD next determined to seize control over publications, closing many venues and slowing the progress of others to a snail’s pace. Because of NKVD interference, Soviet physicists, who had published one sixth of the articles in the world’s leading physics journal, Zeitschrift fur Physik, in 1926, published none by 1937. Scientists who had been abroad or published in western journals often faced the charge of anti-Soviet activity. Indeed, during the late 1930s entire communities of scientists were decimated by the purges directed at suspected counterrevolutionaries, wreckers and foreign sympathisers: physicists in Kharkiv, Ukraine, currently under bombardment by Russian attackers, biologists, geologists and astronomers. The secret police orchestrated virulent press campaigns against specialists who transgressed unspoken rules. This stultified research and encouraged pseudoscience in entire fields, such as Lysenkoism in genetics. Putin’s FSB, similarly paranoid of seeing ‘state secrets’ get beyond Russian borders, has effectively closing avenues of publication abroad and destroyed the vitality of such fields as hypersonic and gas dynamics, quantum optics and several others. 

Being a leading specialist hardly discouraged KGB vigilance. It made hard work of Andrei Sakharov, father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, for his active involvement in the human rights movement. By the late 1950s Sakharov recognised the mistake of entrusting military planners with weapons of mass destruction. He turned to arms control, human rights and other activities considered anti-Soviet. He protested the illegal arrest of authors Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for treason in 1966 on the basis of their contributions to literature. Sakharov spoke out against the election of a Lysenkoist quack, Nikolai Nuzhdin, one of Trofim Lysenko’s protégés, to membership in the Academy. He attacked the Soviet invasion of  Czechoslovakia in August 1968 that resulted in scores of deaths. For his efforts, leading figures of the scientific establishment joined a slanderous public letter writing campaign against him that Iurii Andropov, head of the KGB and future leader of the Soviet Union, orchestrated, essentially calling Sakharov an ungrateful traitor. Sakharov received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his efforts. He was arrested and banished to Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod) for calling the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 ‘a tragic mistake’, kept under total surveillance, and was permitted to return to Moscow after seven years at the direct invitation of Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1986.

Nobel laureates were denied the ability to travel abroad. Physicist Vitaly Ginzburg documented the bureaucratic barriers to the conduct of science in There Is No Other Way (Inogo ne Dano, 1988), a paean to perestroika. Ginzburg sharply attacked the incompetence of the KGB and other officials who interfered with the smooth operation of R&D. He singled out a ‘paper bureaucracy’ as a ‘malicious vile creature, a source of heart attacks, sorrow and tears, not to mention loss of time, ineffectiveness in work and so on’. Ginzburg calculated that a minimum of nine signatures in his institute were required to forward an article for consideration for publication, and even then the state censorship administration, Glavlit, could reject it. Even worse were the 53 documents that one had to present every time to travel abroad, plus several months to process the entire folder. Ginzburg usually got travel permission – well after an event had passed.

For a brief decade Russian science was freed from secret police control. This enabled western support when Russian science was nearly destroyed after the collapse of the USSR. From 1990 to 1992 the amount of funding for Russian science fell roughly twofold; the percentage of the GDP spent on science fell to one sixth of that of the other leading scientific powers (the US, Japan, and Germany). Specialists left science in droves, essentially halving by 1996. Universities were even harder hit. Brain drain shook a number of fields

Western governments and foundations stepped in to support specialists. Some of that support involved international programmes to keep former weapons specialists from leaving Russian soil to go to so-called rogue nations that were pursuing nuclear and biological weapons. Other support came in the purchase of the fruits of Soviet science – rocket engines, nuclear knowledge and fuel, for example. And western philanthropists, notably George Soros, stepped in. Soros’s International Science Foundation (ISF), rescued a great many scientists and their institutes with tens of millions of dollars in grants. The Russian Ministry of Science and Technology publicly endorsed the ISF. Yet already in the 1990s, the FSB tried to shut down the Soros support, alleged that espionage in the purchase of Soviet-era science and that ‘brain theft’ had occurred.

No sooner had Putin assumed the presidency than efforts to root out suspected treason, not to mention free thinking, commenced in earnest. In May 2001 the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN), ordered laboratories and scientists to report all their foreign contacts, including any grants, international cooperation agreements, or visits to facilities by foreigners. Government and RAN bureaucrats indignantly claimed there was no ulterior motive, only what amounted to ‘a routine, trivial report on activities’. Others rightly observed that Russia was ‘becoming a police state, [a] country where the KGB has taken power’. A February 2019 order again tightened restrictions so that scientists were allowed to meet with foreign colleagues only if accompanied, one assumes, by an FSB agent, and had been formally authorised to do so.

Attacks on scientific freedoms were facilitated by a 2012 law that enabled the government to declare an NGO a ‘foreign agent’ if it received any support from outside of Russia. This was intended to suppress civil society and limit press freedoms, and has closed down scientific discourse concerning the environment, technological assessment, and other important areas of public concern. In November 2015 the Russian government closed all Soros organisations in Russia, the ones that had supported Russian science in the 1990s. Soros activities were recognised as ‘carrying a threat to the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation and the security of the state’. Within a few years dozens of NGOs had been silenced.

The Putin government removed the last vestiges of autonomy from the RAN in September in 2013. It had avoided full subjugation to Stalinist control, but a law ‘On the Russian Academy of Sciences’ to reorganise the 300-year organisation into a bureaucracy that reported directly to President Putin and into a tool of short-term state economic interest and state control. The takeover had much to do with RAN refusing to promote Putin’s friend, Mikhail Kovalchuk, the brother of Yuri Kovalchuk, known as ‘Putin’s banker’, to full membership.

By the late 2010s most Russian universities and institutes had an FSB office on campus to approve – or reject – international cooperative projects and foreign travel. Because of the invasion of Ukraine that led most scientific partners to break with Russia and the scrutiny of the FSB at home, who of Russia’s scientists can now attend conferences abroad?

The FSB had rapidly reassembled all of the tools the KGB needed to interfere with normal scientific activities or, as its agents no doubt believed, to fight the growing threat of western industrial espionage. In 2004, Krasnoyarsk physicist Valentin Danilov was sentenced to 14 years for passing secret information to China. His sentence was later reduced to 13 years. In 2007, three researchers and the director of the Central Research Institute for Machine Building, Igor Reshetin, were sentenced to prison terms from five to 11 1⁄2 years on charges of illegally selling weapons technologies to China. In 2010 the FSB arrested two specialists on gas dynamics at the Baltic State Technical University in St Petersburg on charges of spying for China. They were held for months, tried, and sentenced to over a decade each on charges of having given information on the ‘Bulava’ submarine strategic missile to China. In fact, they were participating in an-FSB monitored exchange between their university and the Harbin Institute of Technology. (The Bulava has had a high failure rate in tests.) One of them died in prison three years later, and the fate of the other is unclear.

By May 2024 what might be called the Maslov Dozen now sit in prison. Alexander Kuranov, a 76-year-old scientist who contributed to a hypersonic plane project, received a seven-year prison sentence on 18 April 2024, after a quick, closed trial. He had been arrested over 30 months earlier. He provided the state’s evidence against Maslov and the others. In this affair, the FSB arrested Dmitry Vladimirovich Kolker, a quantum optics specialist from Novosibirsk, in the summer of 2022. He died in FSB custody. This created outrage in the scientific community. They spirited him from a private clinic in Novosibirsk, where he was receiving chemotherapy for stage four pancreatic cancer, to pre-trial detention in Lefortovo Prison in Moscow on charges of high treason. He died the next day. Kolker’s lectures had been certified by the FSB.

Other victims of the FSB included Vladislav Galkin of Tomsk, the co-author of works on hypersonic topics with colleagues in Akademgorodok. He and the three other arrested physicists had participated in projects of the European Union’s seventh framework programme ‘TransHyBerian’ (coordinated by Belgium’s Von-Karman Institute of Fluid Dynamics).

Another Tomsk scientist, Alexander Lukanin, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on charges that he attempted to illegally transfer Russian high voltage technologies to China and Korea. Recalling Stalinist legal processes in which NKVD panels of three judges worked rapidly in closed session to carry out sentences, often death sentences, a troika of judges sentenced Lukanin to hard labour.

FSB concerns with Akademgorodok and Tomsk may be connected with their reputations for greater openness in intellectual life than in Moscow. Tomsk has been a centre of higher education for over a century with the establishment of its university in the 1880s, largely on the insistence of the local intelligentsia, many of them exiles of the Tsar, and with the high-level Siberian Physical Technical Institute (SFTI), founded in the late 1920s with a focus on solid state physics, radio- and optical-electronics, and radiophysics. Nearby Tomsk is Seversk (Tomsk-7), a site of production for weapons-grade material. I was an affiliated faculty member of Tomsk State University until 2022, when I resigned over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The courts usually follow the FSB lead by extending the terms of house arrest. Normally, the FSB makes its arrests in the darkness of morning, and moves prisoners to Moscow to begin interrogation (‘pre-detention’ holding) in Lefortovo Prison. Lefortovo, opened in 1881 under Tsar Alexander III, was used during Stalin’s Great Terror for interrogation, torture and mass executions. The arrests are reminders of Stalin’s nightly terror, when agents drove up in a ‘black crow’ (secret police limousine) and spirited innocent men and women away. A relative of Galkin recalled: ‘Men in black masks, holding guns, came to search the house at four am. They dug through everything they could, and said that they would have lifted the floorboards, too, if they were looking for drugs. Any papers with scientific formulas written on them were confiscated, along with a mountain of files.’ FSB agents assaulted the home of another scientist, Vladimir Kudryavtsev, and arrested him. He died before trial. His widow said: ‘They arrived at five or six in the morning… They took the computer, but there was nothing else. I had letters, which we had written to each other when we were young, and an FSB officer spent along time carefully studying them. I came up behind him and asked “So, have you found anything of interest?” He blushed all over immediately.’

In an open letter to the FSB the scientists of the academic council of the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics demanded that the authorities release Maslov et al and desist from attacks on open research to avoid inevitable scientific collapse. They condemned the arrests of Maslov, Alexander Nikolaevich Shiplyuk and Valery Ivanovich Zvegintsev on charges of high treason for engaging in regular scientific activities: the presentation of scientific papers and publication in journals including foreign ones. They noted their service to Russian science and their devotion to the homeland. Rather than taking well-paying jobs abroad during the dark days of the 1990s, they had stayed on to preserve the institute, conduct research and train the next generation of young people.

Putin touted the ‘Kinzhal’ hypersonic missile, based on the work of Maslov and others, in 2018 with the claim it could breach any defence system. The only hype in ‘hypersonic’ is in the word ‘hyper’. The Kinzhal travels at a speed of Mach Five, which the German V-2 achieved in 1944. Ukraine shot down many of the missiles from May 2023, and more advanced models have shown mixed success in testing and deployment. Surely, arresting scientists connected with their development will not accelerate the missiles. ‘Hypersonic is a topic you are now obliged to put people in jail for,’ says Yevgeny Smirnov from the ‘First Division’ human rights organisation’. ‘The physicists arrested in Novosibirsk never had anything to do with “Kinzhal”,’ says Vladimir Lapygin, a former employee of one of those Moscow institutes who was convicted of treason and released in early 2020. As far as can be determined, all of the accused scientists had their work approved by their universities and the FSB itself. It is an agent of contemporary terror that does not understand science.

The Putin administration wants silence, not open science, and autarky, not originality. Ten days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rectors of all leading universities signed a letter expressing their support for the ‘de-Nazification’ in Ukraine, contemptuously ignoring the fact that precisely Stalin (and Russia and the USSR) signed a treaty with Hitler in 1939 to divide Eastern Europe between them. The rectors’ letter came just two weeks after the Ministry of Higher Education announced a ruling that it would require approval on all contacts with foreign scholars to ‘avoid foreign interference in the educational process’, returning Russia to the Stalin era of prohibitions against joint projects, symposiums, conferences and publications with dangerous westerners.

Contact with foreigners is prima facie evidence of anti-Russian activity. NGOs are now foreign agents. Faculty members and research scientists must receive prior permission to host foreign specialists; an FSB unit (‘the third section’) has been reconstituted in many universities to supervise travel and contacts; and scientists are now being arrested for espionage. Travel abroad is essentially prohibited for all but the privileged scientists – but primarily available only to India and China. The Putin administration is essentially the only source of support for R&D in contemporary Russia with foreign sources having dried up after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

In 2022, over 9,000 leading Russian-speaking scientists worldwide condemned Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in an open letter that included a large number of RAN members (28 academicians and 55 corresponding members, or 4.4 per cent of total members).  The FSB immediately ‘summoned the signatories of the appeal directly for interviews’, working through the leadership of universities and institutes. Russian scientists have been threatened with criminal charges, denied grant funding, and fired from their jobs on orders from ‘above’. The FSB has reinstituted the practice of punitive psychology that was used in the Brezhnev era – diagnosing opponents of the regime as mentally ill to force psychotropic drugs on them.

Adopting the practices of its Soviet forebears, the Putin administration has worked to remove any vestiges of independence among the nation’s leading scientists. If history is a guide, there will be no technological innovation, military or other, and no significant breakthroughs. And the FSB will round up still more scientists to blame them for its own failures.


Paul Josephson