Yury Medvedkov on VINIKI
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
In the picture is the Moscow Trust Group in the early 1980s. Yury is front row, first from the left; his wife Olga is front row, first from the right.
In 1992 Medvedkov was a professor of geography at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where he still teaches in 2010. He and his wife had been founding members of the Trust Group.
They may change the name because it meant All-Union Institute of Scientific Information. That was formed in 1952 when Stalin was still alive, initially a classified institution, but after his death it was attached to the academy. We — my generation — built it from scratch. There were 3000 associates working there full time. Huge. It continues. It is similar to the Chemical abstracts, doing abstracts, very substantial, not by abstracters but by professional scientists. Everybody in a particular field of research got photocopies of everything in his or her profession. It is a beautiful service. You are aware of what is happening in the world. When I started traveling I was more informed than others about what was happening elsewhere in my field. Its initial impact was enormous because the idea was to get rid of the backwardness of scientific technology that resulted from Stalin’s isolation. When he died, we innovated something that was not in the initial agenda, which had been to publish expensive volumes for libraries only. But it was my initiative, and some of my colleagues who supported me, we split it into small offprints, so that it’s not all geography, but geography of Northern America, or methodology, or population geography, etc., so that students started subscribing to it. That gave access to the information to tens of thousands. We insisted that students use it in their research.
Only exact sciences were there. Geography profited because we were in the earth sciences. Until now they are not considered in the social sciences, though we always had economic geography. Now the official name of the discipline is social and economic geography, we did that in the seventies.
MS: There were advantages to be being a hard science?
Medvedkov: Definitely. We were exempt, essentially, from the watchdogs and censorship. Later we got it as individuals, but the profession was considered one of glaciers and soils. That’s why we were old-timers there, in the initial bunch of disciplines. Lately they have added there the economy of industry. So a branch of economics came there.
The organizer of that branch of economics there was Lisichkin. The younger Lisichkin is a schoolmate of Zhukovskaya. That’s why she is well-connected. But the important thing, that was the only social discipline that was included. Until lately the social sciences in SU was pitiful. There was no sociology until the seventies, demography was not recognized at all. It is only in the Gorbachev period that they started paying attention to it. We did on a volunteer basis sociological studies of enterprises in Moscow — why their productivity is low, why they don’t adopt innovations in technology, etc. That was done by amateurs.
In the sixties they started dreaming of making a sociological institute. It was formed, but not in VINIKI. It doesn’t include law or sociology in abstracting. They created that in the seventies — it’s called INION. I remember that I been suggested to go there as deputy director. I declined because I preferred to pick up a contract in the World Health Organization. However, INION did a different type of abstracting. Ours was exhaustive, comprehensive. Their was selective, made lots of exclusion. But until recently, until the end of the eighties there was censorship and some subjects were taboo. The exact sciences looked down on the social sciences, because they were uneducated, just approaching the level of knowledge of what is going on in the world. Probably that became incorrect by the end of the eighties, but they had lots of watchdogs.
One of the insitutes that was staffed by KGB and so on was the Institute of International Labor Studies. Its director was Timor Timofeev, academician. I don’t know what they are doing now. What they did was essentially compete with Arbatov’s institute, which was doing the same thing but with a better staff. And Arbatov had a higher status in the power structure than Timofeev.
MS: A friend of mine who used to work there tells me that INION is dying.
Medvedkov: That’s interesting. Before, they had unique access to taboo literature in the social sciences from abroad. Right now they must do more on business, marketing.
MS: Tell me about this woman who was married to a military man who wrote plays.
Medvedkov. That’s a different person. Her name Yelena Vintzel. She is a well-known specialist in the theory of probability, her volume is published in Germany. One of the best volumes in the field. She was chair of the theory of probability in the Air Force Academy. Her husband was a general in ballistics. He died. There are good scientists in ther research institutes of the military industrial complex of the SU but she was unique because she started as a writer. She published her novels in the monthly, Novy Mir. Always like a bombshell because she was demonstrating what wasteful, inhuman research they were doing. There were attempts to put her on trial. She was also running for reelection as chair. The faculty stood for her. In the Air Force academy. The Soviets had two Air Force Academies, one was for combat. That was the technical side of it. So they were military engineers. They supported her. I had a friend whose husband was in that academy and he told me how they stood for her. She was reelected but then she resigned because she didn’t want to jeopardize her colleagues and she didn’t want to be in constant trouble. Essentially it was a war of the party organization against her. It was at the end of the seventies or the beginning of the eighties. I know about that story as a reader, but a friend of mine who worked, still works, in the VINIKI, he is also a mathematician who also published criticial material in Novy Mir on problems of ethics and truth without any reference to Marxism.
The Marxist ideology was incompetent in the discussion of those things. His initial was also related to the military — applied research in programming or something. He went out of that very early and went to the Institute for Scientific Information. The whole story about Vintzel and Schreider show that substantial clusters of opposition to the Soviet mentality, pockets of free thought, were in unusual places. In military establishments. They used a certain umbrella because the KGB couldn’t operate there very easily. You may try to find Schreider and Vintzel. I never met her. She must be in her seventies. I haven’t seen any of her writings lately. Her pen name was Yelena Grekova, but you can find her through Yuli Anatolyvich Schreider, Institute of Scientific Information in Moscow.
MS: I am interested in finding out about the group who were in Prague at the World Marxist Review.
Medvedkov: The society was divided. I wouldn’t contact them. I would escape even to talk to them. To me they would be servants of the devil. I trusted mathematicians, I knew that mathematicians needed special training, and the percentage of KGB was low because it takes intellect to be a good mathematician, whereas in Marxist Leninism, any mind will fit. We avoided them. For 5 years I was chair of the committee that made examinations for geography, and as chair I was supposed to be in all examinations, including Marxism Leninism. I remember being disgusted. Right now they are turning into chairs of ethics! Can you imagine! Half educated persons. They only had to memorize and quote.
MS: Tell me about Lisichkin.
Medvedkov: I met the young Lisichkin a couple of times but I knew his father because we worked together. He was a bureaucrat. But the guy who was educated and willingly participated in the Khrushchev reforms. He must be dead now. Under his influence, Lisichkin, after he graduated from the university he went as a volunteer to Kazakhstan to the Virgin Lands and was there chairman of the Kolkhoz or Sovkhoz, got his state decoration, and with his experience of practical work made fast academic career after that. He had enough connections through his family to go into academic life. I think that was decent career-building.
MS: He proposed a theory of market socialism, right? In Boris Kagarlitsky’s book, the Thinking Reed, he talks about Lisichkin’s economic theory.
Medvedkov: He certainly was constrained by all that stuff as a manager. Usually people who are in economics in academia, they have little experience, but in his case it was a combination of the two. He left a decent impression. Usually I look at the sons of my bosses with caution but in his case not.