Some of our leading proponents of technological collaboration with the Soviets, who have considered it a unique force for ideologically cooling that country, are reluctantly concluding that the brutes are on top in Moscow, and that the lure of advanced Western science has been revealed as a minor cipher in Soviet calculations.
The most publicized cause for this shift is the recent crackdown on Andrei Sakharov. But though overshadowed by Sakharov's internal exile, a similarly potent cause was the immediately ensuing announcement -- without explanation -- of the resignation of a central figure in Soviet-American scientific and technological cooperation, Vladimir A. Kirillin, who occupied the highly elevated post of chairman of the State Committee for Science and Technology.
A member of the Party Central Committee and former deputy chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers, Kirillin had no close organizational counterpart in the American scheme of things, which is far more pluralistic than the Soviets'. Established 15 years ago with Kirillin as its head, the state committee is the central planning authority for great segments of the Soviet Union's enormous expenditures on research and development and their industrial application.
Always noted with extreme interest -- though the significance is unclear -- is that Kirillin's deputy was Dzhermen Gvishiani, a Western-tailored, jet-setting technocrat who is the son-in-law of Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin. Both the stolid Kirillin and his flashy subordinate developed cogenial working relationships with American scientific and technical leaders -- to the point that, when hitches developed in the many exchange programs between the two countries, a word to those two could produce wondrous results.
That they could move events in the Soviet bureaucracy was demonstrated a decade ago when Gvishiani, responding to a suggestion from Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy, got the Soviet Union to join with the United States in setting up in Austria a computer-oriented policy research center, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. It's a one-of-a-kind organization, staffed by researchers from a score of countries and concerned with the scholarly frontiers of computer applications, a field in which the Soviets have acknowledged a serious lag.
Meanwhile, since the Brezhnev-Nixon embrace of 1972, Kirillin has chaired the Soviet side of the Joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. Commission for Science and Technology, which supervises a dozen collaborative programs. His counterpart has always been the White House science adviser.
Perhaps naively, it's generally been assumed by our science mandarins that these Russian technocrats were the vanguard of a politically ascending caste more interested in technology than in ideology. Seen as a sure sign of this was the fact that in 1973, when it seemed certain that the Soviets were about to arrest Sakharov, a stern communication to the Soviet Academy from Phillip Handler, president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, apparently caused the Soviets to reconsider. They continued to badger Sakharov, but Handler's scientist-to-scientist warning of dire effects on Soviet-American research collaboration did seem to lead to a restraint on the cops.
What's so mind-changing now in regard to the U.S. expectations that have encouraged collaboration is that the Russians surely realized that Sakharov's banishment might cost them this window on Western research. Nonetheless, the Soviets were willing to risk that price.
A prevalent view among American scientific leaders is that the Sakharov case and the apprently related Kirillin resignation signal that the xenophobic old guard has won out over the new class of Western-oriented technocrats, as is evident from a passage in a protest that Handler sent last week to the Soviet Academy:
"Deplorable as is the exile of Academician Sakharov," he stated, "even more ominous is the signal that the forces of moderation and reason within the Soviet community of science are being stilled in a time of international tension."
Handler concluded with, "I find it difficult to imagine scientific exchanges continuing in the spirit we had created heretofore." And even as he wrote that, chills and some cancellations were taking place on the once-thriving collaborative scene.
There was an admirable kind of innocence in the notion that Soviet society -- seeking the benefits of modern science and technology -- would inevitably be softened by contacts with Western-style scholarship. Against the background of Afghanistan, Sakharov and Kirillin, that congenial expectation now looks quite silly.