“To penetrate humbly…”

Reading Beyond by Stephen Walker for the Telegraph, 18 April 2021

On 30 May 2020 US astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley flew to the International Space Station. It was the first time a crew had left the planet from US soil since 2011.

In the interim, something — not wrong, exactly, but certainly strange — had happened to space travel. Behnken and Hurley’s SpaceX-branded space suits looked like something I would throw together as a child, even down to my dad’s biking helmet and — were those Wellington boots? The stark interior of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule was even more disconcerting. Poor Behnken and Hurley! they looked as if they were riding in the back of an Uber.

Well, what goes around comes around, I suppose. The capsule that carried Yuri Gagarin into space on 12 April 1961 boasted an almost ludicrously bare central panel of just four dials. Naysayers sniped that Gagarin had been a mere passenger — a human guinea pig.

By contrast, the design of the Mercury cockpit, that carried America’s first astronaut into space, was magnificently, and possibly redundantly fussy says Stephen Walker, in his long and always thrilling blow-by-blow account of the United States’ and the Soviet Union’s race into orbit: “Almost every inch of it was littered with dials, knobs, indicators, lights and levers just like a ‘real’ aeroplane cockpit.”

America’s “Gemini Seven” (two-seater Gemini capsules quickly succeeded the Mercuries) were celebrities, almost absurdly over-qualified for their task of being rattled around in the nose of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Their space programme was public — and so were its indignities, like the fact that virtually everything they were being asked to do, a chimpanzee had done before them.

It drove Alan Shepard — the man fated to be the first American in space — into a rage. On one training session somebody joked, “Maybe we should get somebody who works for bananas”. The ash tray Shepard threw only just missed his head.

The Soviet Union’s space programme was secret. Not even their wives knew what the “Vanguard Seven” were up to. They won no privileges. Sometimes they’d polish other people’s floors to make ends meet.

Those looking for evidence of the gimcrack quality of the Soviet space effort will find ammunition in Beyond. Contrast, for example, NASA’s capsule escape plans (involving a cherry-picker platform and an armoured vehicle) with the Soviet equivalent (involving a net and a bath tub).

But Walker’s research for this book stretches back a decade and his acknowledgements salute significant historians (Asif Siddiqi in particular), generous interviewees and a small army of researchers. He’ll not fall for such clichés. instead, he shows how the efforts of each side in the race to space were shaped by the technology they had to hand.

Soviet hydrogen bombs were huge and heavy, and needed big, powerful rockets to carry them. Soviet space launches were correspondingly epic. The Baikonur cosmodrome in Soviet Kazakhstan — a desolate, scorpion-infested region described in Soviet encyclopaedias as “the Home of the Black Death” — was around a hundred times the size of Cape Canaveral. Its launch bunkers were buried beneath several metres of reinforced concrete and earth because, says Walker, “a rocket the size and power of the R-7 would probably have flattened the sort of surface blockhouse near the little Redstone in Cape Canaveral.”

Because the US had better (lighter, smaller) nuclear bombs, its available rocket technology was — in space-piercing terms — seriously underpowered. When Alan Shepard finally launched from Cape Canaveral on 5 May 1961, twenty-three days after Yuri Gagarin circled the earth, his flight lasted just over fifteen minutes. He splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean 302 miles from the Cape. Gagarin travelled some 26,000 miles around the planet.

The space race was the Soviets’ to lose. Once Khrushchev discovered the political power of space “firsts” he couldn’t get enough of them. “Each successive space ‘spectacular’ was exactly that,” Walker writes, “not so much part of a carefully structured progressive space programme but yet another glittering showpiece, preferably tied to an important political anniversary”. Attempts to build a co-ordinated strategy were rejected or simply ignored. This is a book as much about disappointment as triumph.

Beyond began life as a film documentary, but the newly discovered footage Walker was offered proved too damaged for use. Thank goodness he kept his notes and his nerve. This is not a field that’s starved of insight: Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony wrote a cracking biography of Gagarin called Starman in 1998; the autobiography of Soviet systems designer Boris Chertok runs to four volumes. Still, Walker brings a huge amount that is new and fresh to our understanding of the space race.

Over the desk of the Soviet’s chief designer Sergei Korolev hung a portrait of the nineneenth-century Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and with it his words: “Mankind will not stay on Earth for ever but in its quest for light and space it will first penetrate humbly beyond the atmosphere and then conquer the whole solar system.”

Beyond shows how that dream — what US aviation pioneer James Smith McDonnell called “the creative conquest of space” — was exploited by blocs committed to their substitute for war — and how, for all that, it survived.

Russian enlightenment

Attending Russia’s top non-fiction awards for the TLS, 11 December 2019

Founded in 2008, the Enlightener awards are modest by Western standards. The Russian prize is awarded to writers of non-fiction, and each winner receives seven million rubles – just over £8,500. This year’s ceremony took place last month at Moscow’s School Of Modern Drama, and its winners included Pyotr Talantov for his book exploring the distinction between modern medicine and its magical antecedents, and Elena Osokina for a work about the state stores that sold food and goods at inflated prices in exchange for foreign currency, gold, silver and diamonds. But the organizer’s efforts also extend to domestic and foreign lecture programmes, festivals and competitions. And at this year’s ceremony a crew from TV Rain (or Dozhd, an independent channel) was present, as journalists and critics mingled with researchers in medicine and physics, who had come to show support for the Zimin Foundation which is behind the prizes.

The Zimin Foundation is one of those young–old organizations whose complex origin story reflects the Russian state’s relationship with its intelligentsia. It sprang up to replace the celebrated and influential Dynasty Foundation, whose work was stymied by legal controversy in 2015. Dynasty had been paying stipends to young biologists, physicists and mathematicians: sums just enough that jobbing scientists could afford Moscow rents. The scale of the effort grabbed headlines. Its plan for 2015 – the year it fell foul of the Russian government – was going to cost it 435 million rubles: around £5.5 million.

The Foundation’s money came from Dimitry Zimin’s sale, in 2001, of his controlling stake in VimpelCom, Russia’s second-largest telecoms company.  Raised on non-fiction and popular science, Zimin (pictured) decided to use the money to support young researchers. (“It would be misleading to claim that I’m driven by some noble desire to educate humankind”, he remarked in a 2013 interview. “It’s just that I find it exciting.”)

As a child, Zimin had sought escape in the Utopian promises of science. And no wonder: when he was two, his father was killed in a prison camp near Novosibirsk. A paternal uncle was shot three years later, in 1938. He remembers his mother arguing for days with neighbours in their communal apartment about who was going to wash the floors, or where to store luggage. It was so crowded that when his mother remarried, Dmitry barely noticed. In 1947, Eric Ashby, the Australian Scientific Attaché to the USSR, claimed “it can be said without fear of contradiction that nowhere else in the world, not even in America, is there such a widespread interest in science among the common people”. “Science is kept before the people through newspapers, books, lectures, films, exhibitions in parks and museums, and through frequent public festivals in honour of scientists and their discoveries. There is even an annual ‘olympiad’ of physics for Moscow schoolchildren.” Dimitry Zimin was firmly of this generation.

Then there were books, the “Scientific Imaginative Literature” whose authors had a section all of their own at the Praesidium of the Union of Soviet Writers. Romances about radio. Thrillers about industrial espionage. Stirring adventure stories about hydrographic survey missions to the arctic. The best of these science writers won lasting reputations in the West. In 1921 Alexander Oparin had the bold new idea that life resulted from non-living processes; The Origin of Life came out in English translation in New York in 1938. Alexander Luria’s classic neuropsychological case study The Mind of a Mnemonist described the strange world of a client of his, Solomon Shereshevsky, a man with a memory so prodigious it ruined his life. An English translation first appeared in 1960 and is still in print.

By 2013 Zimin, at the age of eighty, was established as one of the world’s foremost philanthropists, a Carnegie Trust medalist like Rockefeller and the Gateses, George Soros and Michael Bloomberg. But that is a problem in a country where the leaders fear successful businesspeople. In May 2015, just two months after Russia’s minister of education and science, Dmitry Livanov, presented Zimin with a state award for services to science, the Dynasty Foundation was declared a “foreign agent”. “So-called foreign funds work in schools, networks move about schools in Russia for many years under the cover of supporting talented youth”, complained Vladimir Putin, in a speech in June 2015. “Actually they are just sucking them up like a vacuum cleaner.” Never mind that Dynasty’s whole point was to encourage homegrown talent to return. (According to the Association of Russian-Speaking Scientists, around 100,000 Russian-speaking researchers work outside the country.)

Dynasty was required to put a label on their publications and other materials to the effect that they received foreign funding. To lie, in other words. “Certainly, I will not spend my own money acting under the trademark of some unknown foreign state”, Zimin told the news agency Interfax on May 26. “I will stop funding Dynasty.” But instead of stopping his funding altogether, Zimin founded a new foundation, which took over Dynasty’s programmes, including the Enlighteners. Constituted to operate internationally, it is a different sort of beast. It does not limit itself to Russia. And on the Monday following this year’s Enlightener awards it announced a plan to establish new university laboratories around the world. The foundation already has scientific projects up and running in New York, Tel Aviv and Cyprus, and cultural projects at Tartu University in Estonia and in London, where it supports Polity Press’s Russian translation programme.

In Russia, meanwhile, history continues to repeat itself.  In July 2019 the Science and Education Ministry sent a list of what it later called “recommendations” to the institutions it controls. The ministry should be notified in detail of any planned meetings with foreigners and provide the names. At least two Russian researchers must be present at any meeting with foreigners. Contact with foreigners outside work hours is only allowed with a supervisor’s permission. Details of any after-hours contact must be summarized, along with copies of the participants’ passports. This doesn’t just echo the Soviet limits on international communication. It copies them, point by point.

In Soviet times, of course, many scientists and engineers lived in golden cages, enjoying unprecedented social status. But with the Soviet collapse in 1991 came a readjustment in political values that handed the industrial sector to speculators, while leaving experts and technicians without tenure, without prospects; above all, without salaries.

The wheel will keep turning, of course. In 2018 Putin promised that science and innovation were now his top priorities. And things are improving: research and development now receives 1 per cent of the country’s GDP. But Russia has a long way to go to recover its scientific standing, and science does poorly in a politically isolated country. The Enlighteners – Russia’s only major award for non-fiction – are as much an attempt to create a civic space for science as they are a celebration of a genre that has powered Russian dreaming for over a hundred years.

Vodolazkin’s The Aviator: A time-traveller’s life

Reviewing The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin for The Guardian, 7 June 2018

Innokenty Petrovich Platonov, who lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917, has awoken, a hale and hearty thirtysomething, in a present-day hospital bed. Innokenty’s struggle – a long and compelling one, delivered with apparent leisureliness by the Ukrainian-born novelist Eugene Vodolazkin in a translation by Lisa Hayden – is to overcome his confusion, and connect his tragic past life to his uncertain present one over the gulf of years.

We’ve been here before. Think Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror: a man’s life assembled out of jigsaw fragments that more or less resist narrative until the final minutes. Or think Proust. In The Aviator, an old translation of Defoe’sRobinson Crusoe replaces Marcel’s madeleine dipped in tea: “With each line,” Innokenty explains, “everything that accompanied the book in my time gone by was resurrected: my grandmother’s cough, the clank of a knife that fell in the kitchen … the scent of something fried, and the smoke of my father’s cigarette.”

So far, so orthodox. But Vodolazkin’s grip on this narrative is iron-tight, and what we take at first to be Innokenty’s pathology – or the working out of a literary method – turns out to be something much more important: a moral stand, of sorts. Innokenty knows, in a bitter and visceral fashion, that history is merely a theory abstracted from the experiences of individuals. So he chooses to care about the little things, the overlooked things, “sounds, smells, and manners of expression, gesticulation, and motion”. These are the things that actually make up a life; these are the true universals.

A journalist interviews the celebrity time-traveller: “I keep trying to draw you out on historical topics and you keep talking about sounds and about smells.” He’s right: “A historical view makes everyone into hostages of great societal events,” Innokenty observes. “I see things differently, though: exactly the opposite.”

Innokenty has skin in this game: shortly before he was transported to the future, the Bolsheviks, history’s true believers, threw him into the first and worst of the labour camps. “Those who created the Solovetsky hell had deprived people of what was human,” Innokenty says, “but Robinson [Crusoe], after all, did the opposite: he humanised all the nature surrounding him, making it a continuation of himself. They destroyed every memory of civilisation but he created civilisation from nothing. From memory.” Inspired by his favourite book from childhood, Innokenty attempts a similar feat.

He discovers his old, unconsummated love still lives, hopelessly aged and now with dementia. He visits her, looks after her. He washes her, touching her for the first time; her granddaughter Nastya assists. He falls in love with Nastya, and navigates the taboos around their relationship with admirable delicacy and self-awareness. But Nastya is as much a child of her time as he is of his. They will love each other, but can never really bond, not because Nastya is a trivial person, but because she belongs to a trivial time, “a generation of lawyers and economists”. Modern faces are “nervous in some way”, Innokenty observes, “mean, an expression of ‘don’t touch me!’”

Innokenty is the ultimate internal exile: Turgenev’s ineffectual intellectual, played at an odd, more sympathetic speed. He is no more equipped to resist the blandishments of Zheltkov (the novel’s stand-in for Vladimir Putin), or the PR department of a frozen food company, than he was to resist the Soviet secret police. Innokenty’s attitude drives Geiger – his doctor, champion and friend – to distraction: how can this former prisoner of an Arctic labour camp possibly claim that “punishment for unknown reasons does not exist”?

Innokenty’s self-sacrificial piety provides his broken-backed life with a distinctly unmodern kind of meaning, and it’s one that leaves him hideously exposed. But we’re never in any doubt that his is a richer, kinder worldview than any available to Nastya. Innokenty’s bourgeois, liberal, pre-Bolshevik anguish over what constitutes right action is a surprisingly successful fulcrum on which to balance a book. And we should expect nothing less from an author whose previous novel, Laurus, was a barnstorming thriller about medieval virtue.

All that remains, I suppose, is to explain how this bourgeois “former person” comes to be alive in our own time, puzzling over the cult of celebrity, post-industrial consumerism and the internet. But why spoil the MacGuffin? Let’s just say, for now, that Innokenty has been preserved. “I did not even begin to question Geiger about the reasons, since that was not especially interesting,” he writes in his sprawling, revelatory journal. “Knowing the peculiarities of our country, it is simpler to be surprised that anything is preserved at all.”

Stand me a vodka at this year’s Scifiweekender and I will sing to you of the steppe…

I’m off to north Wales on St David’s Day to take part in this year’s Scifiweekender. It’s being held at the Hafan y Mor Holiday Park near Pwllheli and will probably look something like this

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though given the weather it could end up looking like this

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and will add a chilly authenticity to Simon’s exploration of Soviet cinema, space exploration, and all things Klushantsev.

Saturday’s RAILWAY TO THE STARS is, a celebration of Russia’s spirit of exploration through Russian film. I’ll also bring along some off-prints of Arc to give people a flavour of what we’re up to.

The 2013 Scifiweekender runs from 1 to 3 March. Call the ticket hotline on 08700 110034.

Healthify yourself!

Come along on Wednesday 16 May at 7pm to the last of my talks at Pushkin House; I’m exploring Russia’s unsung sciences of the mind.

 

 

The way we teach and care for our children owes much to a handful of largely forgotten Russian pioneers. Years after their deaths, the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, the psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the pioneering neuroscientist Alexander Luria have an unseen influence over our everyday thinking. In our factories and offices, too, Soviet psychology plays a role, fitting us to our tasks, ensuring our safety and our health. Our assumptions about health care and the role of the state all owe a huge debt to the Soviet example.

Tickets: £7, conc. £5 (Friends of Pushkin House, students and OAPs)

More details here

Red Harvest

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Come join me on Wednesday 14 March at 7.30pm, and discover what Russia’s famines have revealed about the living world.

This is the third in a series of lectures I’m giving at Pushkin House, the Russian cultural centre in London. It is part of a large work in progress: a history of science under Stalin’s rule. The book is due out in 2014 from Faber and Faber. 

After the civil war, the Bolsheviks turned to the revolutionary science of genetics for help in securing the Soviet food supply. The young Soviet Union became a world leader in genetics and shared its knowledge with Germany. Then Stalin’s impatience and suspicion destroyed the field and virtually wiped out Russian agriculture. Stalin was right to be suspicious: genetics had promised the world a future of health and longevity, but by the 1940s it was delivering death camps and human vivisection. Genetic advances have made possible our world of plenty – but why did the human cost have to be so high?

Pushkin House, 5a Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2TA. Tickets  are £7, conc. £5 (Friends of Pushkin House, students and OAPs). The box office is on 44 (0)20 7269 9770, but you can always take a chance and pay on the night.

Why Russia Sits on Plenty and Never Gets Rich

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On Monday 23 January 2012 at 7.30pm I’m giving the second of four talks on Russia’s scientific legacy. I’ve just sold the book of this series to Faber, so there may be a certain amount of drinking afterwards….

The old boast ran that Russia governed an empire with more surface area than the visible moon. Still, 40 per cent of it lay under permafrost, and no Romanov before Alexander II so much as set foot in Siberia.

Defying nature, the Bolsheviks forcibly industrialized the region, built factories and cities, and operated industries in some of the most forbidding places on the planet. Beginning with the construction of the Transsiberian railway, and ending with the planting of the Russian flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, this is a story of visionaries and idealists, traitors, despots, and the occasional fool.

Pushkin House, 5a Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2TA

Tickets: £7, conc. £5 (Friends of Pushkin House, students and OAPs)
Box Office +44 (0)20 7269 9770

What Soviet science did for us

Untitled

I’m preparing a series of talks for Pushkin House in London, to tie in with a long project on science under Joseph Stalin. While we’re finalising the programme, these notes will give you an idea what to expect.

Russia’s Other Culture: science and technology in 20th century.

 

Early in the twentieth century, a few marginal scientists bound themselves to a bankrupt government to create a world superpower. Russia’s political elites embraced science, patronised it, fetishized it, and even tried to impersonate it. Many Soviet scientists led a charmed life. Others were ruined by their closeness to power. Four illustrated talks reveal how this stormy marriage between science and state has shaped the modern world.

 

1. The Men Who Fell to Earth: How Russia’s pilots, parachutists and pioneers won the space race.
November 2011.

 

In the 1950s and 1960s Sergei Korolev and the Soviet space programme laid a path to the stars. Now Russia is our only lifeline to the technologies and machines we have put in orbit. Simon Ings is joined by Doug Millard, Senior Curator of ICT & Space Technology at London’s Science Museum, to trace Russia’s centuries-old obsession with flight. This was the nation that erected skydiving towers in its playgrounds, built planes so large and so strange, the rest of the world thought they were fakes, and outdid Germany and the US in its cinematic portrayal of space. The nation’s soaring imagination continues to astonish the world.

 

The talk coincides with 50th anniversary of pioneering space travel by Yuri Gagarin

 

2. Prospectors: Why Russia sits on plenty and never gets rich
January 2012

 

The old boast ran that Russia governed an empire with more surface area than the visible moon. Still, 40 per cent of it lay under permafrost, and no Romanov before Alexander II so much as set foot in Siberia. Defying nature, the Bolsheviks forcibly industrialized the region, built factories and cities, and operated industries in some of the most forbidding places on the planet. Beginning with the construction of the Transsiberian railway, and ending with the planting of the Russian flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, this is a story of visionaries and idealists, traitors, despots, and the occasional fool.

 

The talk will form part of a week of activity marking the fifth anniversary of Pushkin House’s establishment in Bloomsbury.

 

3. Red Harvest: What Russia’s famines taught us about the living world.    
March 2012

 

After the civil war, the Bolsheviks turned to the revolutionary science of genetics for help in securing the Soviet food supply. The young Soviet Union became a world leader in genetics and shared its knowledge with Germany. Then Stalin’s impatience and suspicion destroyed the field and virtually wiped out Russian agriculture. Stalin was right to be suspicious: genetics had promised the world a future of health and longevity, but by the 1940s it was delivering death camps and human vivisection. Genetic advances have made possible our world of plenty – but why did the human cost have to be so high?

 

4. “General Healthification”: Russia’s unsung sciences of the mind.
May 2012

 

The way we teach and care for our children owes much to a handful of largely forgotten Russian pioneers. Years after their deaths, the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, the psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the pioneering neuroscientist Alexander Luria have an unseen influence over our everyday thinking. In our factories and offices, too, Soviet psychology plays a role, fitting us to our tasks, ensuring our safety and our health. Our assumptions about health care and the role of the state all owe a huge debt to the Soviet example. But these ideas have a deeper history. Many of them originated in America. The last lecture in this series celebrates the fertile yet largely forgotten intellectual love affair between America and the young Soviet Union.