Soviet Union Table of Contents
Soviet leaders have tried to overcome technological backwardness by acquiring technology from the more advanced Western and Asian countries. Since 1917 Soviet officials have worked to obtain not only foreign equipment but also technological processes, know-how, and information. Acquisitions have helped the Soviet Union, in some cases, to compensate for a poorly developed indigenous technology and, in other cases, to bolster or provide a missing component in an otherwise fairly well-established industry.
The transfer of foreign technology began not long after the Bolshevik Revolution and continued through the 1980s, although the official emphasis, as well as the kind and quantity of technology transferred, varied greatly over time. Lenin initially wanted to avoid any dependence on Western technological imports, but the lack of funds for indigenous development forced him to seek limited foreign investments. Stalin emphasized technological autarchy. He poured huge resources into developing indigenous science and technology, and he severely restricted contacts with Western businessmen and scientists. Nonetheless, severe backwardness in some key industries forced Stalin to engage in short-term borrowing from the West. During World War II, the Soviet regime used captured German equipment and technological experts to help develop lagging Soviet industries.
The post-Stalin era brought renewed interest in dealing with the West. Khrushchev eased restrictions on Soviet access to Western technology but found that Western governments sought political concessions in return for trade agreements. Under Brezhnev, Soviet technology acquisitions increased markedly. Many long-term agreements, as well as accords providing for foreign construction of industrial plants in the Soviet Union, were signed during the Brezhnev era. By the late 1970s, however, both Western and Soviet leaders began to question the political and economic wisdom of technology transfers. By the early 1980s, technology transfers from the United States to the Soviet Union were curtailed severely in response to political, economic, and military concerns. At the same time, however, the Soviet Union began trying to obtain Japanese technology--particularly electronics, computer science, and metallurgy--because the Japanese were much less restrictive in their exports.
In 1986 Gary K. Bertsch, a United States specialist in Soviet technology, described five means by which technology has been transferred to the Soviet Union. The most direct, and probably the most common, was the commercial sale of equipment to the Soviet Union. When the West provided opportunities, Soviet leaders increased purchases of Western equipment.
The second type of transfer included the extensive and complicated modes of industrial cooperation between Western firms and their Soviet counterparts. According to Bertsch, this cooperation has had many forms, among them: sales of equipment (sometimes for complete production systems or turnkey plants), including technical assistance; licenses of patents, copyrights, and production know-how; franchises of trademarks and production know-how; purchases and sales between partners, involving exchanges of industrial raw materials and intermediate products; subcontracts involving the provision of production services; sales of plant, equipment, and technology with payment in resulting or related products; production contracting, involving agreement for transferred production capabilities in the form of capital equipment and technology; coproduction agreements allowing partners to produce and market the same products resulting from a shared technology; and joint research and development.
Another type of transfer involved foreign travel by Soviet scientists, participation by them in academic and scholarly conferences, and screening of literature. In the early 1980s, as part of a general tightening of policies on technology export, the United States government began restricting Soviet scientists from traveling in and attending meetings in the United States to prevent their access to American science and technology. Screening of literature has been a valuable source of information for the Soviet Union. Soviet scientists have had easy access to Western and Japanese publications, and for years they have relied heavily on this literature as a primary source of foreign technology.
The fourth type of transfer was covert acquisition. This kind of transfer was the most feared because of its potential impact on Soviet and United States military development. The ways in which the Soviet Union acquired technology varied and involved more than their intelligence services. For example, some acquisitions were carried out by Soviet diplomats stationed worldwide. Other acquisitions were made by diverting controlled technology products from legitimate trade destinations to the Soviet Union. Finally, some acquisitions occurred through legitimate firms established by the Soviet Union or East European countries in Western nations.
The fifth type of transfer was intergovernmental agreements on scientific and technological cooperation. In the early 1970s, for example, the United States and the Soviet Union concluded eleven separate agreements pledging cooperation in such fields as science and technology, environmental protection, atomic energy, medicine, and energy. In some cases, these agreements led to frequent exchanges between American and Soviet scientists cooperating in specific areas. This type of arrangement, however, decreased markedly in the late 1970s as the United States responded to Soviet emigration policies and to Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and in Poland. Under Gorbachev, cooperative agreements resumed.
Using these forms of transfer, the Soviet Union obtained a range of technologies, some of which probably had significant military applications. The chemical and automotive industries relied heavily on Western imports. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union bought equipment badly needed for the gas pipeline it was building from Urengoy to Uzhgorod. It acquired technologies applicable to the military, including complete computer systems designs, concepts, and software, plus a variety of Western generalpurpose computers, minicomputers, and other hardware. It acquired low-power, low-noise, high-sensitivity receivers; optical, pulsed power source and other laser-related components; and titanium alloys, welding equipment, and furnaces for producing titanium plates applicable to submarine construction.
These acquisitions raised concerns in the West that the Soviet Union was deriving too many military and economic benefits inimical to Western interests. Some critics argued that technology transfers allowed the Soviet Union to save millions of rubles (for value of the ruble--see Glossary) in research and development costs and years of development time. They also argued that Soviet acquisitions allowed the regime to modernize critical sectors of industry without absorbing rising military production costs, to achieve greater weapons performance, and to incorporate countermeasures to Western weapons. They further argued that the West should impose stricter controls on such transfers. This position was adopted by the United States government in the early 1980s, when it began imposing strict controls and urging West European governments to follow suit.
Not everyone agreed with this position, however. Western analysts in the late 1980s pointed out that both the econometric and the case-study approaches used to assess the impact of technology transfers produced tentative results. One conclusion was that the Soviet experience in using and assimilating Western technology was a mixed success. In some cases, particularly in military-related industries, the Soviet Union was successful in incorporating Western equipment or processes. In other areas, the equipment was used inefficiently or not at all.
Many Soviet scientists and policy makers shared this negative assessment. During the 1980s, the Soviet press published many articles in which Soviet officials complained that they were wasting valuable hard currency to purchase equipment that lay idle because of industry's inability or unwillingness to install it. Other officials, including former Academy of Sciences president Aleksandrov, argued that the Soviet Union did not need to import Western technology because it had the capability to develop it domestically. In fact, too much reliance on Western imports had harmed the Soviet Union because indigenous institutions had been denied the opportunity to develop the technology and, hence, to grow technologically.
Despite these arguments, the policy under Gorbachev appeared to Western observers to increase technological trade. Soviet authorities instituted some organizational changes to facilitate and to encourage more contact with Western firms. Yet Gorbachev also expressed concern over the balance of payments issue and cautioned against too many purchases from the West.
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents