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Reforms in the Academy of Sciences of the USSR

Gurii Marchuk was President of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR through the period leading up to the breakup of the USSR, and during that breakup. This was a remarkably difficult period which is explained in the paper Big Science in the Last Years of the Big Soviet Union by Loren R Graham which was published in Osiris 7 (Science after '40) (1992), 49-71. We present below (1) a short extract from this paper concerning the "Reforms in the Academy of Sciences."

The USSR Academy of Sciences was renamed the Russian Academy of Sciences by a Presidential Decree of 21 November 1991. Marchuk was, therefore, the last President of the USSR Academy of Sciences. (2) is part of a response from Gurii Marchuk on 17 December 1991 following the Presidential Decree.

1. Reforms in the Academy of Sciences

Under Gurii Marchuk, who was elected president of the Academy of Sciences in October 1986, the Academy's presidium enacted several reforms, sometimes under heavy pressure from the government or from younger researchers. The changes were designed to focus the Academy more tightly on the most important problems of research (especially with practical applications), to reequip the Academy with more modern instruments and computers, to revitalise the subsidiary academies in the Soviet republics, to democratise the system of choosing leading administrators, to loosen controls on travel and access to foreign publications, and to enforce retirement of older administrators.

An unprecedented protest against the senior administration of the Academy broke out in the spring of 1989. The demonstration was provoked by the Academy presidium's refusal to accept the voting results among its workers and to nominate several reformers to the new Soviet legislature, including Andrei Sakharov and Roald Sagdeev, the long time head of the Academy's institute of space research. Several thousand Academy workers gathered in the driveway before the presidium building just off Lenin Prospect in Moscow and jeered the decision, waving signs called for President Marchuk and the members of the presidium to resign, and urging democratic reforms within the Academy structure. In reply, the presidium relented under the pressure and nominated Sagdeev and Sakharov to the legislature. The presidium also supported greater decentralisation of the Academy's administration and the election of institute directors.

Despite these reforms, many intellectuals in Gorbachev's Soviet Union increasingly saw the Academy as a rather conservative bureaucracy. A direct product of the 1989 protest was the formation of a "Union of Creative Scientists," an informal group that called for thoroughgoing reform throughout Soviet science and education and that also defended professional rights. These reformers established their own newspaper and they often criticised the central Academy.

Some of the critics, such as Maksim Frank-Kamenetskii, saw the very idea of a central Academy controlling so much of the country's best scientific talent as a vestige of Stalinism and Stalin's command-administrative economy. Would it not be better, these critics asked, if the Academy were merely an honorific society, like the Royal Society in England and the National Academy of Sciences in the United States? Under such a system scientists, even those who are members of the Academy, would work elsewhere, in a dispersed system of universities, governmental laboratories, and industries.

The future of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR also got caught up in the debates over nationalism. Many scientists, both in Russia and the other republics, called for the breakup of the entire "big" Academy of Sciences of the USSR into its constituent parts, with each republic having its own academy of sciences. The significance of this proposal was greatest for the Russian republic; only it among the fifteen republics of the old USSR did not already have its own academy, although most of the big Academy's institutes were within the Russian republic. Creating a Russian Academy of Sciences (as distinct from the existing big Soviet one) was a threat to the Soviet academy, since the new Russian academy would want most of the institutes and other assets of the old Academy. Some scientists suggested just renaming the big Academy the Russian one. Others proposed making the Siberian department of the big Academy, located in Novosibirsk, the core of a new Russian Academy, perhaps with the addition of some of the best institutes in Moscow.

The demise of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR was determined first by its reaction to the attempted military coup of August 1991, and second by the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of that year. During the several days when it appeared that the coup might be successful, the leaders of the big Academy silent, creating the opinion that they could easily live with the new right-wing leaders. This behaviour confirmed the suspicions of the critics of the old Academy, who had long associated it with conservative Communist Party rule. Even more important, of course, was the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself at the end of 1991. Now there was no central government that could support the big Academy.

Even before the end of the Soviet Union, ethnically Russian scientists formed their own academy, which challenged the old central Academy for authority. Many of the members of the new Russian Academy of Sciences were from the provinces and considered the old Academy a closed elite of the capital cities. At the end of 1991 a way out of the dilemma of having two rival academies fighting for the loyalties of Russian scientists was found; a hybrid of the two disputing academies was created by combining the approximately 250 full members of the old academy with the 39 full members of the new Russian academy. The resulting synthesis was named the "Russian Academy of Sciences," and it became the heir to almost all of the institutes and property of the old Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Its new president was the applied mathematician Iurii Osipov, a science advisor to the president of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin.

As time goes on, the new Russian Academy of Sciences seems to look more and more like the old "big" Academy. The new academy has a slightly more democratic system of governance than the old one, including representatives of the re- search institutes in its General Assembly, but in most other regards the new and the old academies are highly similar. The reformers and radicals who called for a major reorganisation of Russian science that would shift the locus of fundamental research from the academy system to the universities were unsuccessful. It is, of course, still too early to know just what lasting organisational changes in science will be caused by the demise of the Soviet Union, but at the moment the system looks much like the old one, with the term Russian substituted for Soviet.

2. Response from Gurii Marchuk on 17 December 1991

Soviet science showed high efficiency and amazing vitality in a very difficult domestic political and international situation because it was a holistic system. Despite weaknesses and structural defects, we had a united front of scientific research. Now the science of all sovereign states of the former USSR, including Russia, is spasmodically becoming structurally flawed. God grant that we can compensate for such a flaw by integrating into the world scientific community, building up the missing links, but this may not work out soon, even under the most favourable circumstances, which we are very far from at present. Hopes that it is possible to finance and save at least one part of it (for example, only basic science) are illusory. Science is a single living organism, not a conglomerate of autonomous mechanisms. Unfortunately, neither the politicians nor the scientific community have the concept of saving domestic science, its survival and rebirth. Real dramatic processes are obscured by new ideological myths, utopian projects and abstract judgments.

Last Updated April 2020