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Scientific Communication Across the Iron Curtain

Christopher D. Hollings
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Springer Briefs in History of Science and Technology
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
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The term “Iron Curtain” is well known, and is commonly used to refer to the partitioning of Europe into the Western and Soviet blocks after World War II. In this book, the term is used much more loosely, referring to communication between scientists all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century. There are references to attempts to keep the lines of scientific communication open that were encouraged by Lenin after the Soviet government was firmly established.

With this as a temporal starting point, the passing of scientific information between the Soviet Union and the West is described through the interwar period, the limited contact during the war years and then after World War II when the Cold War was the most intense.

Students of history know that there were periods of hysteria, nasty recriminations, accusations (some wild and others justified) and a lack of trust between the two superpowers. While all of that did limit cross-curtain contacts, Hollings argues that the real reason for the limited contact had little to do with any of the previous causes.

Hollings concludes that the primary reason had nothing to do with politics in the international sense. Rather, most of it was politics in the more personal sense, along with a lot of chauvinism. There were many different languages in the Soviet Union and the scientists were encouraged to publish in their native language or in the lingua franca of the Soviet Union, Russian. But very few western scientists had any knowledge of Russian while, as any scientific visitor to the Soviet Union can attest, many Russians can speak at least one western language. Some western scientists tried to learn enough Russian to read papers in Russian, but few really reached that level.

As anyone that has studied the late fifties knows, before the Soviets launched Sputnik there was a widespread belief in the west that Russian science and technology was far behind that of the west and therefore not worth following.

Hollings concludes that the primary barriers to scientific communication across the Iron Curtain were language weaknesses among western scientists, along with the chauvinistic belief, again among western scientists, that Soviet science was backwards and not worth examining. Even during the severely repressive Stalinist years, there was a desire among the Soviet scientists to collaborate with their western colleagues that Stalin tolerated.

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, and teaching college classes. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

See the table of contents in the publisher's webpage.