“Soviet Innovation as a Cash Machine”: Studying the case of the scientific industrial association “Torch” (1965-1970)

If cash was scarce in the Soviet Union, make-do solutions were many. This paper combines the approaches from history of science and innovation studies with economic history to study the brief existence of the scientific industrial association “Torch.” This organization was created in the Novosibirsk Science City to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and the professional integration of young scientists. This firm, organized under the auspices of the local Komsomol organization during the late 1960s, effectively generated millions of benefice, redistributed in cash as salary payments and not accounted for by the state planning structures. At the same time, the flow of money also transformed the social fabric of the Siberian science-city by financing its many unique cultural and social initiatives. “Torch’s” dramatic success was predicate on several conditions beyond the city's concentration of human resources: a creative interpretation of the Soviet labor regime; the special legal status of the Komsomol accounts, namely the possibility to turn credits into cash; and the support of local authorities. Effectively a cash machine operating on a large scale, the eventual downfall of the firm was unavoidable, and its accounts were frozen in 1972. The paper argues that reconstructing the brief history of “Torch” is not simply an exercise in rescuing a strange illustration, a curious exception to the Soviet experience. Rather, the transgressive arrangements of the firm provide crucial insights into the normal. The case of “Torch” helps both to better understand the everyday operation of the Soviet moral economy of scientific expertise and to elucidate the difficult question of knowledge transfer under the plan. This case study challenges received narratives about the very notion of innovation in Socialist economy and opens new avenues for considering present-day capitalist knowledge economies.

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