skip to main content

Professor Examines Human Cost of Soviet Prison Science System


Asif Siddiqi, Ph.D., associate professor of history, chats with Michael Latham, Ph.D., dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill, before delivering his keynote speech. Photo by Janet Sassi

Can science operate under great stress?

If the results of Soviet prison camps are any indication, it sure can—and with great success to boot. But that doesn’t mean this science under duress came without a cost, one of Fordham’s top historians said on Feb. 4.

Asif Siddiqi, Ph.D., associate professor of history, discussed the Soviet prison science system in his keynote speech at the 19th annual Arts and Sciences Faculty Day. The talk took place on the Lincoln Center campus before an audience of his peers who later honored the school’s faculty members of the year.

In “Science and Freedom: In the Shadow of the Gulag,” Siddiqi pondered whether freedom was necessary for productive scientific and engineering activity to occur.

“The unfortunate answer from the Soviet case would seem to be, no,” Siddiqi said of the prison science system in the Gulag, whose existence spanned from the late 1920s to Stalin’s death in 1953. The system, which put roughly 1,000 scientists and engineers to work, resulted in the development of more than 20 major weapons systems or processes, including the Pe-2 bomber, one of the most successful Soviet weapons of World War II.

“But such science also leaves an undeniably horrific human cost,” Siddiqi added. “The thousands of lives lost, the institutions disbanded, the disciplines suspended. All, as one, comprise an extraordinarily depressing record of possibilities interrupted. Science may indeed operate without freedom but it is a costly path to take.”

Because the Gulag prison science system added members when prisoners gave up the names of friends from their “civilian” lives, Siddiqi said the system as a whole produced a host of Soviet scientists and engineers who “shared an enormous trauma that deeply affected their later lives.”

An entire generation of these elite engineers who were arrested during the second wave in the late 1930s went on to head their own design and engineering firms and dominate research and development, especially with in the Soviet military-industrial complex, in the post-Stalin era.

“Their adoption and occasional enthusiasm for certain traits of the organizational culture of the Soviet scientific and engineering—extreme secrecy, strict hierarchies, coercive practices, rigid reporting protocols—owed much to their shared experiences with similar peculiarities characteristic of the prison system,” Siddiqi said as he highlighted the story of one of these former prisoners, Sergey Pavlovich Korolev, a bright aeronautical scientist.

“Korolev’s life perfectly embodied and eerily mirrored all the contradictions of Soviet science,” Siddiqi said.

Arrested on June 27, 1938, he ended up in a prison science complex just outside of Moscow. After his release, Korolev joined a rocket research team and rose rapidly through the ranks.
And just 13 years after he was released from the prison, in the fall of 1957, Korolev stood in Central Asia as his brainchild, a giant rocket name the R-7, launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit.

“Korolev made his mark on the history of science and technology, but he paid a steep price for it. Even after the launching of Sputnik, his identity was kept hidden from the public,” Siddiqi said. “Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev refused to share credit for the spectacular achievements of the Soviet space program with the scientists and engineers in his pay; he kept them in the shadows.”

For these former “prisoners,” like Korolev, the experience in the Gulag represented not only a shared rite of passage—almost pride—but also a deep process of enculturation about the values of coercion, incentive and especially secrecy in institutional culture.

“If the vicissitudes of Soviet polity and society explained the obvious failings of Soviet science, then they must also explain its successes,” Siddiqi said. “The prison science system, like its parent, the Gulag, created walls within Soviet civil society that remained standing long after the Gulag itself was consigned to the scrapheap of history.

“Historians and philosophers of science have been grappling with this disturbing correlation, that some of the greatest advances in science and technology occurred simultaneously with some of the most egregious crimes against humanity. Sometimes, the two went hand-in-hand and, as we saw in the Soviet case, one enabled the other,” Siddiqi said.

Four of the six Arts & Sciences Faculty Day awardees: From left, Chris Maginn, Ph.D., Christine Firer Hinze, Ph.D., Michael Baur, Ph.D., and Jason Z. Morris, Ph.D. Moshe Gold, Ph.D., and Jennifer Gossetti-Ferencei, Ph.D, were unable to attend. Photo by Ken Levinson

Six members of Fordham’s arts and sciences faculty were feted at the Arts and Sciences Faculty Day event, which honors the work of professors in teaching, research and service, and recognizes individual professors for outstanding performance in those areas.

The 2011 winners in undergraduate teaching were:

Jason Z. Morris, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, Department of Natural Science, for distinguished teaching in the sciences.

Jennifer Gosetti-Ferencei, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy, for distinguished teaching in the humanities.

Christopher Maginn, Ph.D., associate professor of history, for distinguished teaching in the social sciences.

Three professors received the 2011 award for Distinguished Contribution to Graduate Education:

Michael Baur, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy and adjunct professor of law; Moshe Gold, Ph.D., associate professor of English and director of the Writing Program at Rose Hill and Christine Firer Hinze, Ph.D., professor of Christian Ethics, Department of Theology, who received the award for their contribution to the Jesuit Pedagogy Seminar.


Comments are closed.