February 28th, 2014

Maciej Ceglowski's Webstock presentation on Our Comrade The Electron draws lessons for modern technologists from the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the inventor of – among other things – the theremin:

Termen was just what Lenin needed: a Soviet inventor with an electrical gizmo that would dazzle and amaze the masses, and help sell the suspicious countryside on electrification. He gave Termen a permanent rail pass, encouraging him to take his show on the road all over the Soviet Union.

When Lenin died a few years later, Termen sent urgent word that Lenin's body be immediately frozen. He had an idea for how to bring him back to life, but it required putting the body on ice. He was devastated to learn that Lenin's brain had already been taken out and pickled in alcohol, and his body embalmed for public viewing.

Given Termen's track record of technical achievement, it's probably a good thing he didn't get a chance at making zombie Lenin.


A Spy in the Archives

November 26th, 2010

As a young historian, Sheila Fitzpatrick spent quite a bit of the late 1960s deep in the Soviet archives:

[…] On another occasion, I found prewar telephone directories, listed by title, in the catalogue of the Lenin Library. They used to publish such things every couple of years before the war (though not after), and it occurred to me that one way of estimating numbers of Great Purge victims – a topic of great speculation and few hard data at the time – might be to compare the lists of Moscow telephone subscribers for 1937 and 1939. I did not, of course, order only these years ('1937' on a library slip always rang alarm bells), but finally the volumes I really wanted arrived, and I set about painstakingly copying out every tenth name for a random sample. I think they saw what I was doing: for the next decade, whenever I tried to order telephone directories, I was told they were unavailable, lost or had never existed. But by this time, I had learned patience and the wisdom of Soviet citizens that nothing is for ever. When perestroika came, I got my telephone books back.

All this affected my formation as a historian: I became addicted to the thrill of the chase, the excitement of the game of matching your wits and will against that of Soviet officialdom. How boring it must be, I thought, to work on British history, where you just went to the PRO, and polite, helpful people gave you catalogues and then brought you the documents you wanted. What would be the fun of it? Knowledge, I decided, had to be fought for, achieved by ingenuity and persistence, even – like pleasure, in Marvell's words – snatched 'through the iron gates of life'. I thought of myself as different from the general run of British and American scholars, with their Cold War agenda (as I saw it) of discrediting the Soviet Union rather than understanding it. But that didn't stop me getting my own kicks as a scholar from finding out what the Soviets didn't want me to know. Best of all was to find out something the Soviets didn't want me to know and Western Cold Warriors didn't want to hear because it complicated the simple anti-Soviet story.

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LK and LOK

October 7th, 2010

I knew the Soviet Union had abandoned their plans for a manned lunar landing after Apollo 11, but I didn't know there was still a surviving Lunar Craft in a Russian museum:

All the activities done by two astronauts is done by one. To make the craft lighter, the LK1 only fits the one cosmonaut, who was supposed to peer through a tiny window on the side of the craft to land it. After landing the vehicle the pod separates from the landing gear, as with the Apollo Lunar Module, but uses the same engine for landing as it does for take off as another weight savings.

The L2 Lunar Orbit Module designed to transport the LK into orbit around the Moon was similarly stripped down. There's no internal connection between the two craft so the cosmonaut had to space walk outside to get into the LK and head towards the surface. When the LK rejoined the L2 for the return trip home, the now likely exhausted would then climb back out into the abyss of space. The LK would then be thrown away.

I do like the more rounded look of the Russian vehicle by comparison with the Apollo LEM; fittingly, the LK bears a family resemblance to the Soyuz spacecraft.2

[Via SciencePunk]

  1. That's the 'Lunar Craft', i.e. the Lander.
  2. A little googling revealed these images of the Lunar Orbital Module that was to have dropped off the LK from lunar orbit. A distinct family resemblance, I'd say.

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October 12th, 2009

Courtesy of a post at The Edge of the American West, a lovely passage from Garry Wills describing the dilemma Reagan's advisors were confronted with when he contemplated agreeing to Gorbachev's proposal to scrap the superpowers' nuclear arsenals:

Sophisticated workers for the president had to search their souls. They resembled a crew of absentminded mini-Frankensteins who had fiddled at separate parts of a monster for benevolent but widely varying purposes, only to see him break the clasps and rear himself up off the table in a weird compulsion to do some monstrous Good Thing that none of them had ever believed possible.

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Mapping Manchester

August 26th, 2009

To anyone who lived through the Cold War, it's not really a surprise that the Soviet Union had prepared meticulous plans for conducting an invasion of the UK.

It's the little details that pique your interest:

1974 was a terrible year for Manchester, with United relegated to the second division for the first time in four decades and power cuts forced by the three-day week declared by Edward Heath's collapsing Tory government.

But the city would have been even more jittery had it known that in Moscow Soviet generals were eyeing the A56 between Deansgate and Stretford and checking that T-72 battle tanks could use the Mancunian Way.


The maps were analysed to get a sense of Soviet spies' efficiency, which fell down on the intricacies of the then-developing industrial estate at Trafford Park. Like many local visitors, the mapmakers got lost in the maze of new factories, and decided to steer their tanks past on the A57 and the Chester Road.

It's enough to make you wonder whether the occasional wacky set of travel directions from Google Maps or the AA Route Planner is part of a campaign of misinformation rather than a consequence of an inadequate algorithm or shortcomings in their mapping data.

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