If a little background to my curiosity were to help: when I was studying logic as a philosophy student, we covered the topic of defining probability, where we looked at Kolmogorov's axioms of probability. Of historical interest, Kolmogorov was a Soviet logician/mathematician; despite this, he managed to influence people in like fields on the other side of the iron curtain.

Effectively, I imagine that there must have been at least some academia passing between the two sides. (In some instances due to academics defecting to the other side, like Leontief - although I ask that we put these cases to the side for now.) On the other hand, it does seem somewhat improbable to me that there would be a complete freeflow of academic work. Off the top of my head, I imagine that Russians might not want Americans seeing their nuclear equations, and vice versa. Furthermore, there may even be a restriction on certain economic academia in communist countries (and some restriction on communist literature at least in the US during the period of McCarthyism), but these are clearly restrictions imposed by the country itself, i.e. the country has access to the literature, but it blocks its citizens from viewing it; which makes this, to some extent, secondary to the issue at hand.

Primarily, I would be tempted to claim that there are at least some harmless fields, such as some forms of literature research, philosophical inquiry, etc. that there is no reason for preventing the flow of information for. Curiously, I would have thought that there would be some restriction on mathematics due to its potentially destructive use, or at least its ability for one nation to get a scientific advantage over the other. (From this, I would also guess that a lot of scientific research was restricted to its side of the iron curtain.)

So my question is the following: what was the policy on academic research being published beyond the iron curtain?

Secondary to this, though not of prime importance, there are other similar questions that come to my mind: were there different policies adopted by each side? Were there academic conventions facilitating discussion between academics on both sides? And, perhaps least importantly, who did the translation?

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    There are entire journals devoted to translating Russian and similar mathematics papers into English, e.g., the Journal of Mathematical Sciences, which is by now on Volume 254, each volume with six issues. The first volume was published in 1973. Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 21:24
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    You think things like literature and philosophy are harmless to totalitarian dictatorships? Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 12:00
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    @user253751 I agree that a fair amount of literature would be problematic for a totalitarian dictatorship. Nonetheless, (and of course I am merely specualting,) I imagine that there might be some harmless literary critiques that do not directly espouse the liberal capitalist message. Also, it might be that certain types of philosophy, like analytic philosophy, would be accepted due to their strictly logical method. But yes, I would be surprised if thinkers like Sartre and Foucault would get through. Equally, the Frankfurt school's critiques of the nature of capitalism, might have been fine too Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 13:27
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    I assure you, mathematics is much, much more harmless than literature and philosophy. Additionaly, I know no math topic that would be ever classified.
    – Anixx
    Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 10:44
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    @Anixx plenty of counterexamples in the cryptography space.
    – Dan M.
    Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 12:48

4 Answers 4

  1. The policies very much varied with time.

  2. Even more they differed between scientific institutions in USSR.

First of all, there was always scientific exchange through publications. Until the middle of 1930s Soviets could publish papers in Soviet journals in foreign languages. Later this was prohibited and publication abroad strongly discouraged. But since 1960s many Soviet journals in exact sciences were translated into English.

Kolmogorov wrote his main book on probability in German. His later works were translated.

In 1920s some Soviet mathematics could travel abroad. This was later very much restricted but foreign travel never stopped completely. Kolmogorov was able to travel most of the time, except some especially dark period since the late 1930-s to 1960s.

Foreign scientists could travel to Soviet Union. Again, the ease and frequency of these travels very much changed with time over the period of Soviet rule.

Finally your conjecture that there was more international contacts in "harmless areas" such as humanities, is completely wrong. It was just the opposite: there was more contacts in physics and mathematics, less in chemistry and biology, and almost NONE in humanities. Because the Soviet rulers considered humanities the most dangerous area through which "ideological influence" could penetrate. On the other hand Soviet work in humanities was valued much less in the West, they did not care to translate journals etc. The reason is that Communist authorities controlled humanities in a much stricter way than sciences. Of sciences they interfered most to biology and less of all in mathematics. "Marxist philosophy" was the justification of the power of the regime, and "ideological purity" was guarded more vigilantly then the atom bomb "secrets" (which were stolen from the West anyway).

Finally on point 2. 99% of those who traveled or could meet foreign visitors lived and worked in the few institutions in Moscow with special status. The rest of Soviet Union was practically isolated from all foreign contacts, except that some scientific literature was available to us and some of our publications were translated abroad.

For example, I worked in Ukraine in 1976-90. Until 1987, I was NEVER permitted to travel abroad, though I had many invitations. And I have never seen a single live foreign mathematician, except one person from GDR who studied in Soviet Union! But some people based in Moscow at this time traveled and invited foreign visitors frequently.

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    In the last paragraph, I would add "some people based in Moscow." Also, members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences had special status and privileges regarding international travel and inviting visitors from abroad. Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 4:39
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    I believe that scientists (at least mathematicians) of the Eastern European satellite countries such as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia had much easier contacts with western scientists than Soviet scientists did. Am I right/
    – bof
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 8:46
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    As a physicist, I often end up looking up old references to across references to Журнал Экспериментальной и Теоретической Физики (Zh.E.T.F.), which was (thankfully for me) translated into English by the American Institute of Physics starting in 1955. But the papers I look up are in elementary particle physics and field theory, which wouldn't have been a security concern. Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 22:47
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    @Azor, consider it "hard" science, mostly mathematics and physics. The Russian word for "science" doesn't even distinguish science from humanities, so additional adjectives like that are commonly used.
    – Zeus
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 8:20
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    @Azor: In Russian language mathematics, physics, chemistry etc. are called "exact sciences", while philosophy, history, sociology etc. are called "humanitarian sciences".
    – Alex
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 12:59

It depends a lot on timing, but I can make some general comments. (I got my PhD in theoretical chemistry in 1976, so I've been following this to some extent since the late 60s.)

First, there is a huge, sharp, big distinction between military research and everything else. Most military stuff is classified and both sides tried their best to keep that from getting loose. They still do. (This is mostly on the engineering side of things rather than basic research.) In fact, even nominally allied states mostly try to keep their secrets secret.

For American scientists for non-military research for most of the time from the 40s to the 70s, language and logistics was more of a barrier than policy. Academic journals from both sides were acquired -- usually by subscription -- and were sort-of available. I say "sort of" because in those long-gone days a copy of a Russian journal in a library in Boston, say, was not at all available to an academic in Minnesota or even New York City. There was no Internet and hard copy was hard copy and you pretty much had to visit a library which carried the journal to read the papers. (You could request interlibrary loan if you knew a paper existed, but mostly you didn't bother. Library research is hard enough when the journal right down the hall.)

And the Russians were so uncouth as to write their papers in Russian! Which few academics in the US knew.

Starting in the 50s the military funded a program of translating key Russian journals and publishing an English edition, and those were reasonably available, but it only covered a select set of the top journals. I looked at some occasionally, but they were never very helpful, in part because the two scientific cultures had developed is partial isolation and even if the words were English, a Russian journal would be enough different to be markedly harder to use.)

The bottom line is that as far as journals went, most American scientists did not have access because they didn't know Russian and didn't have convenient access to copies of the journal.

Academic travel existed, but was fraught, though it started to loosen in the 70s. American scientists who had a security clearance or thought they might want one mostly didn't travel to Eastern Europe except on official business. Others might have, but it was moderately expensive and fairly inconvenient. (My own PhD advisor was of 100% Russian descent (3rd generation and could at least swear in Russian) but never went further east than Sweden.)

Military-related research aside, contact was sclerotic, but this was not so much a direct policy of the government as a side-effect of other policies and things like language differences.

(I can't say much useful about the period before WW II.)

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    @Armel François: More subtle than that, though certainly some technical terms would be different. Any technical discipline has its own internal language -- shorthand, in effect. So for instance, any physicist would instantly know that 'EPR' referred to a very important 1938 (I think) paper by Einstein Pogue and Polansky. It's just the way it is said. Similarly in mathematical notation, seeing a lower case i, j, k, m or n is a strong hint we're talking integers and using , say, n as a real variable would be correct but confusing.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 19:16
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    @MarkOlson guessing you mean Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen there?
    – llama
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 20:45
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    @ArmelFrançois - well, for one thing, they probably have a different name for the Four Russians algorithm than we do ... and just like when I lived in France you could only get a "Western omelet", never a "Denver omelet" (hint: they're the same thing).
    – davidbak
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 21:35
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    Well, EPR is pretty famous and is undoubtedly understood world-wide. It's more an example of how various jargon develops. Some of the jargon didn't make it across the divide that then existed.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 0:44
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    I generally found the translated journals I read to be well translated, or at least very consistent in terminology. Likely they just found some really good translators. As another example, Landau & Lifshitz was well translated.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 18:56

To publish any material in a foreign journal or present a report on international conference, Soviet authors would have to get an approval from a special clearance department that existed in every educational and scientific institution (universities, research institutes, etc.) You would bring your paper to this department and their goal was to see if you are disclosing any top secrets, patented technologies, know-hows or trying to portray the Soviet government in a bad way. If anything was not to their liking, you would be asked to re-write it. The same process would be implemented with foreign correspondence. Imagine you are working in a modern company that manages high volumes of extremely sensitive data. Any incoming or outcoming traffic would be scanned and filtered. Now imagine something similar but on grander scale and in an analog world - that's what it looked like from the inside of USSR. Plus add the fact that most Soviet schools taught German and French as foreign languages while English became dominant only in the 1980s.

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    OT: I like a lot your comparison between Soviet Union and a modern company. You probably wrote it in a rush, but It tells much about our modern world and its dystopian set-up...
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 10:24
  • You are quite mistaken about English vs. German and French: Before the 2nd World War, the dominant 2nd language taught in Soviet middle schools was German, after the war it became English (as the language of the "main adversary"). As most things in USSR, the decision came from the very top, постановлениe Совета Министров СССР № 3488 от 4 октября 1947 г.: According to this decree, the ratio was 45% English, 20% French, 25% German, 10% Spanish. Over time, the percentage of English kept increasing. Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 16:53
  • @MoisheKohan The decree was quite far from real life situation. For many years after the WW2 German was the dominant language with 70% of students in the 1950s-1960s learning it at school. (up to 85% in rural areas and 55% in cities). Even in 1989 only 55% of students studied English (60% in cities, 44% in rural areas), but these children would become workforce only in the 1990s.
    – Mila
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 20:22

To partially complement some of the other answers, let me mention the existence of Mir Publishers. Lots of titles mentioned here.

When I was a math undergrad in Argentina, in the 1980s, we would all buy the Soviet textbooks because they were the cheapest. Also, they were in Spanish, which was preferable for many students who lacked enough command of English. Many examples here; I seem to recall others that are not in this list.

Finally, here is an example of a textbook by Kolmogorov himself, translated and published in the US in the 1970s.

  • I find it fascinating that Soviets would translate their works into Spanish to cater to the Soviet-sympathetic nations of Latin America, and is certainly something I hadn't considered before! Though excuse me if I'm incorrect, but wasn't Argentina firmly against the USSR in the 80s? Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 20:21
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    It was never extreme. From 1976 to 1983 there was a military dictatorship, so not much sympathy for left-leaning governments; still, there were normal diplomatic relations, and it wouldn't surprise me that Soviet books were already available. . Starting in 1984 there was a marginally leftist democractic government, but I would say that the Soviet Union was mostly not a presence in the area. Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 20:50
  • Pogorelov was the author of my school textbook as well.
    – Anixx
    Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 8:42
  • Same experience with Soviet undergrad maths books in Barcelona in the early 1990s.
    – Pere
    Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 20:05

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