Congratulations to postdoctoral researcher Daniela Russ who recently received the IEEE Fellowship in the History of Electrical and Computing Technology for her project “Computers, Optimal Planning, and the Science of Energetics in the Soviet Union (1951-1982)“. In this part of her post-doctoral project, Russ asks how cybernetic methods and computing technology enabled engineers to find a compromise between a system optimized with regard to material or cost efficiency. Russ will use the fellowship to fund a several months long research stay in Russia, where she will interview former energy engineers and economists, and consult archives in Moscow, Samara, and Irkutsk.
Daniela Russ is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto where she is working under the supervision of Professor Zaheer Baber. This research is part of Russ’s larger postdoctoral research program, “Nature’s Efficiency: Energetika as a Political Ecology of the Soviet Union (1917-1992)” that examines how Soviet energy engineers and economists shaped planning decisions about which resources to exploit, where to produce, and which technologies to use. She is particularly interested in how the engineers resolved the conflict between material and monetary efficiency. Her goal is to understand both the historical specificities of the Soviet energetic school and relate it to the making of productivist economies in other capitalist and socialist countries.
Hoping to find a more material basis of planning, the Soviet Union was among the first countries to institutionalize energy planning and research. In the view of its early energy engineers, the Soviet Union could avoid the squandering and surpass the productivity of capitalist societies by orienting its economic planning towards the most efficient use of energy. However, monetary needs again and again thwarted material planning and forced the exploitation of secluded gas and oil fields. It is ironic that the energy sector––thought to ensure economic freedom and independence––would swallow the Soviet economy almost entirely over the second half of the twentieth century. Today, some estimate that as much as 70% of the Russian GDP depends directly or indirectly on revenues from oil and gas.