The Unlikely Revolutionaries: Soviet OR and Systems Analysis

In this chapter I examine the development of Soviet decision sciences as an intellectual and institutional field where a new governmental epistemology emerged in the 1960s-1980s. This chapter is based on a study of archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, and interviews with ex-Soviet scholars who were involved in the development of systems analysis in the Soviet Union. Outlining the history of OR and systems analysis as a framework for decision making in the Soviet planning process, I trace their impact on a) conceptualization of governance, b) institutional design, and c) governmental practices, mainly economic planning. OR and systems analysis were part of the de-Stalinization process, distributing decision-making power among new, heterogeneous actors, such as decision scientists and professionally trained managers; this phenomenon is described as a rise of Soviet technocracy, a process which was shaped by East-West transfer where the elite Soviet scientists and highly positioned policy-makers learned from Western, predominantly US experience. Soviet decision sciences were initially adopted in military-industrial sector as an advanced but strictly technical instrument to improve decision making in industry and policy. However, in the 1960s, Soviet decision sciences developed an ambitious agenda, in effect becoming an alternative social science, formulating non-ideologically constricted explanations of social order and change. Decision-making was conceptualised as a de-personalised, adaptive process, one which at least conceptually permitted zones of autonomy and what was described as ‘degrees of freedom’. I propose that the history of early Soviet decision-science, therefore, is a story of a relative liberalisation of an authoritarian political regime, a process that addressed the same concerns as in the West (irrationality and mass participation in government) and also foregrounded later spread of neoliberal economic models.

To be published in The Decisionist Imagination, edited by Nicolas Guilhot and Daniel Bessner (Oxford: Berghnan Press, 2018).


modern_intellectual history

Soviet Policy Sciences and the Earth System Governmentality

This article introduces non-Western policy sciences into the burgeoning field of the
intellectual history of Earth system governmentality, a field that studies the ideas,
institutions and material systems that enable action at the global scale. It outlines the
rise of debates on the idea of the governability of the global biosphere in late Soviet
Russia (1970s–1980s), focusing particularly on the extension of Vladimir Vernadskii’s
famous theory of the biosphere and its governance (the stage of the noosphere) into
computer modeling and systems analysis. As a result, a new notion of governance as
guidance throughmilieu arose to conceptualize global governance of the biosphere. This
conceptual innovation was part of Soviet scientists’ attempt to liberalize the centrally
commanded Soviet governmental system.

Forthcoming in Modern Intellectual History


From a High Risk Technology to National Heritage:

Authorised Nuclear Story-Telling in the Russian Museums

This paper maps the key shifts in the narrative and material presentation of nuclear power in Soviet and post-Soviet Russian museums from the 1950s to the present. While the links between the nuclear energy industry and authoritarian government have been widely discussed (Hecht 2009; Schmid 2008; Brown 2013), there is a lack of research into how museums, the central sites of modern sense-making (Bennett 1995), were used to legitimize the nuclear industry. This paper asks: What was the role of museums in shaping the legitimacy of the nuclear complex in the Soviet Russia? What are the continuities and shifts between the communist propaganda of nuclear energy and corporate narratives of the Russian nuclear authority, Rosatom? Are there any new, critical narratives of nuclear legacies emerging? This study draws on archival and ethnographic research, with a focus on the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow and the Rosatom museum in St Petersburg.


Cybernetic Prediction: Orchestrating the Future


This chapter reviews an influential conceptualization of prediction that was created by the ‘father’ of cybernetics, the US mathematician Norbert Wiener in the 1940s-60s. Although the interest in the cultural and political histories of cybernetics is growing, the notion of scientific prediction, which is central to cybernetic control, is insufficiently examined. However, this chapter proposes prediction is not a mere technical cog in the epistemology of the future, but a complex concept. It discusses Norbert Wiener’s epistemology of cybernetic prediction, arguing that the cybernetic culture of prediction emphasizes the role of uncertainty and does not replace materiality with information. Wiener’s writings on cybernetic prediction, the chapter concludes, contain useful lessons for the future oriented practices in the broad fields of contemporary science, governance and politics.

To be published in a handbook Futures, edited by Jenny Andersson and Sara Kemp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)