Slava Gerovitch. From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2002. Pp. xiv, 369. $37.95.

The standard account of Soviet cybernetics is that Joseph Stalin proclaimed it a "pseudo-science," setting back research and computing by decades, much in the way Trofim Lysenko retarded genetics. The prevailing view of Soviet scientists is that they were obliged to conform to Communist Party dictates. Slava Gerovitch demonstrates that Soviet cybernetics was far less constrained than earlier studies suggest. More important, he shows the ways Soviet scientists were able to use the language of the Cold War and dialectical materialism to fashion a vocabulary for serious debate of important issues. Discussions that appeared impenetrable to outsiders were intense disputes with important consequences.

Gerovitch has produced an excellent first book, drawing on an intimate knowledge of the language of Marxism and science, archival material, extensive Russian and Western literature, and recent social theory. It is a fascinating study that richly rewards the effort it takes to follow all of the historical and theoretical balls that Gerovitch successfully juggles. And the reward is not only a much greater understanding of Soviet cybernetics but a better comprehension of the history of scientific ideas and institutions in both Russia and the United States.

Gerovitch is able to explain complex scientific ideas and issues in a language accessible to nonspecialists, while rendering the politics of science in a manner that should make this book required reading for scientists. He casts cybernetics as a social movement with its own language, aspiring to radical reform. This language, "cyberspeak," represented an alternative to Soviet "newspeak" that would free scientists, and eventually everyone, from the ideological tutelage of political controllers. Yet, perhaps inevitably, as Soviet proponents of cybernetics overcame the Stalin-era condemnation ("reactionary pseudo-science") and began to jockey for support, funding, and institutional recognition, the result was the loss of their reformist ethos. A science of control/administration embraced by the party could not simultaneously be a carnivalistic counter culture.

Gerovitch begins with an analysis of "newspeak," the discourse of Soviet scientific life. Deconstructing disputes in the fields of mathematics, linguistics, and physiology, he shows how the competing goals for scientists to "overtake and surpass" capitalist competitors while simultaneously "criticizing and destroying" Western scholarship created a discursive matrix manipulable by those who mastered its intricate nuances. Chapter two is an excellent account of the early history of cybernetics, including a highly illuminating parallel treatment of the early work by Norbert Wiener and Andrei Kolmogorov. Where Wiener became identified with an important new discipline, Kolmogorov backed away from controversy, an episode demonstrating how the Soviet environment influenced scientists' research agendas, dissuading them from pursuing interdisciplinary topics. Yet Kolmogorov survived to write the "missing" article on cybernetics for the Great Soviet Encyclopedia supplement in the late 1950s.

The layers of irony in Gerovitch's story are rich and richly detailed. Chapter three shows that the Soviet "campaign" against cybernetics, far from being a centrally directed product of Stalinist totalitarianism, was essentially a "bottom-up" response to prevailing Cold War ideological campaigns fostered by minor players whose contradictory criticisms of cybernetics were based on ignorance of its seminal texts. Yet these attacks resulted in cybernetics texts being removed from library shelves at the very time Soviet military specialists were striving to overcome their lag behind American control and communication systems. When one of the poorly informed Soviet critics of cybernetics, Mikhail Iaroshevskii, praised Soviet accomplishments, he was summoned by the KGB to explain the sources of his knowledge. Lest Western readers gloat over these escapades, Gerovitch uses Western archives to document Joseph McCarthy's persecution of Roman Jakobson, the eminent emigré linguist and Harvard colleague who influenced Wiener's linguistic theories.

Chapter four, "Cybernetics in Rebellion," may be the reason Gerovitch chose this topic for his doctoral thesis. He carefully chronicles the ways Soviet cyberneticians sought to promote a rational and scientific approach to all fields of knowledge during Nikita Khrushchev's thaw. They hoped that rational scientific cyberspeak might displace Soviet newspeak, providing an "objective" language for all communication.

The final two chapters describe the pyrrhic triumph of cybernetics in Soviet science. When it came to be a dominant discipline, it also became a tool of communist ideology in the service of the regime's time-serving supporters. Gerovitch's account of the cybernetics community's influence in economics and public administration has particular resonance today as a cybernetic economist, Sergei Glazev, seeks to replace Gennady Zyuganov as leader of the left wing in Russian politics.

Gerovitch's approach is consistently subtle. He convincingly demonstrates that Soviet scientists, far from being pawns moved by totalitarian masters, were active participants in political as well as scientific life in the USSR. At the same time, he shows how the Cold War made the discourse of newspeak and cyberspeak a trap, and that Soviet scientists were hardly its only victims.

Harley Balzer 
Georgetown University 

The American Historical Review, vol. 108, no. 5 (December 2003): 1561-1562.