Despite the high bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, some design bureaus still achieved spectacular feats in science and engineering (mostly in defense and aerospace) e.g. Mir space station, Soyuz rockets, Mil V-12, Caspian Sea Monster, Antonov 225 Mriya etc.

Free flow of ideas and criticism are important for innovative ideas to be realized. How did the scientists in these bureaus manage to innovate despite Soviet censorship and bureaucracy?

Take for example a scientist disagreeing with the head of a design bureau on a certain design prototype. How was such criticism handled? Or was the best design prototype chosen from a scientist who had more political connections?

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    Science was not free from political interference, with terrible examples like Lysenkoism. More examples here. Also it is important between science and engineering...
    – SJuan76
    Apr 6, 2019 at 19:19
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    @Richard There were plenty of German rocket engineers in the US space program too. Most notably Werner von Braun. Apr 7, 2019 at 7:34
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    Note also that NASA has never been a bureaucracy-free zone. Apr 7, 2019 at 7:36
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    I think you're confusing bureaucracy with totalitarianism or authoritarianism. Those that could help the state achieve goals (like defense, or at least show or force/superiority) were given carte blanche. Apr 7, 2019 at 18:00
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    If assumptions lead to contradictions, try changing the assumptions. I don't mean to vindicate the USSR, but most of what's attributed to it is propaganda itself.
    – Zdenek
    Apr 7, 2019 at 19:52

7 Answers 7


The USSR didn't tend to go in for economic competition, but it made good use of intellectual competition and competition for prestige. It was also relatively good at creating organisations that did a specific thing, and kept on doing that.

The competition between the MiG and Sukhoi fighter design offices, for example, was quite significant, driven by rivalry and prestige. They designed pretty good aircraft for far less money than the Western aircraft companies, and kept on doing it until the fall of the USSR meant that the money supply dried up.

In the same way, the OKB-1, OKB-52 and OKB-586 design offices competed fiercely, with different ideas of how the space and missile programmes should be organised. Political influence was important in these rivalries, but it wasn't measured on a single scale, and the virtues of designs were also significant.

The heads of design bureaus were engineers themselves - that was how you achieved distinction as an engineer in the Soviet system, by getting to start your own design bureau - and the politics inside a bureau seems to have been more restrained.

The system had some definite flaws. One of them came when one ministry's organisation needed something that fell within the responsibilities of another ministry, but that ministry did not produce.

For example, one of the problems with the unsuccessful N-1 moon rocket was the excessive weight of the first stage. That was because the USSR did not make aircraft-grade aluminium in thicknesses greater than 13mm. That was a responsibility of an aviation or metallurgical ministry, not the ministry responsible for rocketry.

The 13mm aluminium wasn't thick enough to make a first stage whose outer skin was also the wall of the propellant tanks. So the tanks had to be spherical to make them stronger, and the rocket needed a separate outer skin for streamlining. That weight disadvantage meant that all kinds of other things had to be pared to the bone, the rocket needed extra stages, and things got harder and harder from there.

Another flaw was that the system was pretty top-down. If the government wanted a better version of something that already existed, or knew it wanted something new and had a reasonable idea of what it wanted, that need could be met. Discoveries and entirely new inventions coming up from the bottom had a harder time than in less controlling systems, and political acceptability mattered a lot there. Lysenkoism was an extreme example. It was entirely wrong, but so politically acceptable that it became official doctrine for over thirty years.

The USSR did do some science for its own sake, but this worked best in mathematics and mathematical physics, which are fairly cheap to run. Talented people in those fields also tend to be quite dedicated.

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    This is a great answer, though it's probably worth noting that command innovation tends to do the predictable well, but is pretty bad at the genuinely new. The one scientific area where the USSR really excelled and genuinely innovated was in mathematics and mathematical physics -- otherwise, their greatest strength (and it was great) was in engineering.
    – Mark Olson
    Apr 6, 2019 at 19:36
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    Thanks for the additional info on the N1 rocket. I already knew certain technical difficulties prevented them from building large cylindrical tanks but I did not know what it was specifically. But overall, a trip to the moon in the 1960s required so many technological developments that they would literally have to start from scratch just like the US. In the US, the Moon project received a lot of political support and funding but in the USSR it didn't receive enough of either. Apr 6, 2019 at 20:32
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    How do you compare the costs of design projects in the USSR and USA? I can't think of any approach that wouldn't be essentially arbitrary, given the vast disparity in standards of life, incontrovertible currencies, etc. Just comparing rubles to dollars doesn't give much of a picture. Amount of skilled workers employed, raw materials used, time taken?
    – Luaan
    Apr 8, 2019 at 11:52
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    and of course ideological competition. Different chief engineers having different party bigwigs as godfathers who'd push funding their way. Risky, as it could lead to falling out of favour and a one way trip to the Gulag, but it works for the likes of Chelomei.
    – jwenting
    Apr 9, 2019 at 4:07
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    As for Lysenkoism, it may be useful to note that the 1930s Soviet Union was different from the 1970 Soviet Union.
    – gerrit
    Apr 9, 2019 at 9:29

Genuinely like John Dallman's answer, but I'll add some to it:

  • Outside of Party political games, one way to live a better life in the USSR was to hold a position prized by the Party. And something that was very much rewarded was anything that allowed the Communist system to get ahead of their enemies in fields that could lead to military advances. So it tended to attract bright people.

  • WW2 probably did an excellent job of weeding out excessive political criteria in judging which design bureaus were worthy of backing. Pretty much any tank that was not T34-based at the start of the war wasn't getting made much later on, so there was some ruthless pruning. If anything, they were much more disciplined at cutting off flakey systems than the Nazis. Later on, new tank families got added, but they never went back to the menagerie of weird tanks that they had in 41. The AK-47 was designed by a "random tank guy", for example, so they had mechanisms to recognize good work.

  • Russian scientists and engineers could be brilliant. Given resources they could get pretty good results. And remember that they could access Western publications too - https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol1no4/html/v01i4a05p_0001.htm , which also mentions some things about internal Soviet science publications.

  • At the end of the day, whatever the USSR managed to have as spare resources (after essentials and corruption) tended to be assigned to technical fields allowing scientific, industrial and military competition against the West. So they could throw lots of capacity at these type of problems. Including nurturing an education system that pushed clever people into these fields instead of say, becoming lawyers or doctors.

It wasn't always rosy. I seem to remember that Stalin didn't believe in those new-fangled electric computers but recognized the potential of machine-based calculator engines. So he pushed pneumatic logic gates (this is similar to his rejection of Mendel's work). They never quite recovered from that.

Edit In my opinion, this answer, and the question itself, is rather bounded in time. Say from 45 to 80. Past that, I believe the USSR was encountering gradually increasing headwinds in maintaining its technological and scientific competitiveness, for a number of systemic reasons and would have been unable to keep up:

  • Traditionally, R&D was top-driven, by the government and military-industrial complex. But by 1980 or so, an increasing proportion of technology innovation flowed from civilian and consumer work to the military. Cell phones, to give an example, can be used to build microsats and have reached a level of sensor and CPU miniaturization that is wholly novel.

  • Information Technology became more and more important and the military and government isn't all that good at either innovation or implementation in that field, despite occasional breakthroughs.

  • Leading edge semiconductor chips require huge investments in "fab" plants that would be hard to sustain without a vibrant consumer and civilian demand. It's not just a question of knowledge, which can be stolen, it's a question of having the supplier industrial ecosystem to actually build stuff.

  • Ditto the automotive industry that "bleeds into" better manufacturing capacity being available for state-driven endeavours. Or take a look at SpaceX nowadays.

You can "force" technology, as the USSR did for a while. But, in many fields, you will find it harder and harder to keep up with states that expand similar efforts but can also piggyback on civilian innovation and demand (that also strengthens the economy).

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    When I was in university in the 1960s some of our physics and math textbooks were translated from Russian. We were encouraged to take a "scientific Russian" language course. The CCCP would name ships after scientists. Apr 7, 2019 at 4:15
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    @tigerswithguitars - "telecoms and computing, made there way into consumer products from military funded research". In USA, but not in USSR. In USSR, military research was quite strictly siloed, and consumer products often had to reinvent the same technology. There were even books translated from English to Russian only available for defense-related research. Printed in limited editions, each copy numbered. "DSP - (Dlya Sluzhebnogo Polzovania) - For limited use" Apr 8, 2019 at 14:41
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    My understanding is that USSR and allied nations were extremely dependent on technological espionage. So much so that when the US started planting flaws in designs for Soviet consumption that it lead to the fall of the USSR: "after securing President Reagan's approval in January 1982, the CIA tricked the Soviet Union into acquiring software with built-in flaws." leading to the "the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space".
    – JimmyJames
    Apr 8, 2019 at 17:34
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    This article talks about how East German industrial espionage paid off initially but lead to a decline in the nation's technical capabilities: "In a cryptic comment to his case officer, he once asked: 'I’m giving you the best technology available, why can’t you use it?'"
    – JimmyJames
    Apr 8, 2019 at 18:06
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    @ItalianPhilosopher Challenge accepted: HTML was originally a form of SGML. SGML descended from a number of document markup languages, including CALS. CALS was a document markup specification developed by the DoD so that it had a single format to handle all of the huge volume of technical documentation that it required for its projects. The HTML table is directly from CALS, and after SGML came out, the DoD switched to it (MIL-STD-2361). So basically 3 steps from DoD to HTML.
    – user71659
    Apr 9, 2019 at 3:43

USSR innovation seems to have been rather field-specific. To contrast with the efforts and results in space engineering would be, for example, much less effective innovation in the fields of pharmaceuticals and other medical sciences. They had legal provision for titles such as "Honoured inventor of the Soviet Union" but perhaps these were rather weak incentives in the absence of a strong push from top leadership.

  • I was just about to point out exactly this example. Not a single notable drug came out of the USSR. Apr 8, 2019 at 21:10
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    @RomanOdaisky You seem to forget about Polonium tea and Novichok. Apr 9, 2019 at 6:34
  • Phenibut is one notable drug from the USSR
    – ed.hank
    Apr 9, 2019 at 17:37
  • @ed.hank I'd challenge your definition of "notable". Was this drug ever used outside of USSR? Dec 4, 2020 at 10:55

One of the aspects you shouldn't underestimate is the effect of cheap labor, which can compensate the lack of concurrence and freedom of expression, even in engineering and science. A typical Soviet engineer earned around 150p * 12 months = 1800p, or $1152 per year with 1980 exchange rate. This is almost two orders of magnitude less than NASA paid their engineers. As a result, Soviet projects whose main expenses are in research and development (like those feats you mention) were done on an apparently small budget, while actually being a huge expense.

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    Converting roubles into dollars speaks nothing. Soviet engineer spent roubles and paid rouble-based prices, not dollars. Jun 1, 2020 at 18:04
  • It means a lot actually. If you earn $1000 per year then anything produced abroad is too expensive for you, and any good stuff produced in the country will be in short supply because it's more profitable to sell it abroad for a higher price Dec 5, 2020 at 12:13

I haven't seen "industrial espionage" yet. Soviet Union may have made aircraft, but that's about it; most of the technology was built locally with stolen components. They were stolen both through espionage in the west, ant through extortion from their satellite states, some of which had been much more advanced before the USSR occupied them (Czechoslovakia being the prime example).

Example: Soviet computer scientists took MS-DOS and changed the commands to Russian, but didn't touch the copyright string. Cars built right after WW2 were build on plans stolen from Opel in Germany, and so on.

  • The Russian B-29 clone is another example and a great story: Tupolev Tu-4 There are some examples in that story of how Stalin and the bureaucracy operated. I've read elsewhere that the people cloning the B-29 even copied repair patches on the fuselage of the captured US plane they were using as a template to avoid having to answer for a variance on the clone.
    – John Mo
    Apr 9, 2019 at 18:14
  • Weren't most of those post-WWII designs taken as war reparations, often with entire corresponding production lines? Dec 4, 2020 at 11:05

There was quite a bit of innovation in Chess as well, and to many of the chess players, the politics was secondary to the chess, so they played the political game and then got to play the board game at the top levels. And this happened in an environment where the best had to travel outside the USSR where they could escape and still remain famous (Victor Korchnoi, as an example), so there was plenty of political pressure to be a party member and be trustworthy (perhaps more so than in the areas under discussion).

I wonder if the same attitude, that the science or engineering is more important than the politics, allowed the innovators to play the political game well enough to make it no more of a factor than it is in the western world, thus putting both sides on equal footing?

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    I'm not sure this answers the question; provides commentary and context, but doesn't really fulfill the objective of a Q&A site.
    – MCW
    Apr 8, 2019 at 18:14

There was no interference into actual creative process of solving the problem.

USSR heads just gave a target for the companies to beat and how they solved that issue was up to them. Only when it came to government tests - that is where the bureaucracy started. Many projects were rejected for this or that bureaucratic reason.

There was interference on the level of state heads / military. Whichever OKB had the ear of the state representative or the military general, they had a preferential treatment.

USSR heads had no idea of the research or the knowledge required for the issue at hand. They just cared if it was done on time and if the solution solved the problem and if it was better than the solution in the west.

PS: many of the inventors who "hey i found a solution to this problem" were rejected because development of science and military were planned by the party. Unplanned "projects" were seen as sapping the power away from planned projects. That is why many of the unplanned projects were only presented in the final stage - at government testing(if that was possible), rather than in the planning stages.

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    Answers are more likely to get upvotes if they provide supporting evidence. This is introduced as an opinion ("I don't think..."). Any way to support that opinion with citations?
    – MCW
    Apr 8, 2019 at 18:14

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