The Reconfiguration of International Information Infrastructure Assistance Since 1991

by Pamela Spence Richards

Before l99l the Soviet Union had an international information assistance program that dwarfed that of the United States government in many specific areas, such as conference support, book donations and support for advanced graduate study. This Soviet system, which reached its apogee in the mid- l980s, might be seen as a 20th century descendant of Czarist cultural imperialism, which had Russified Eurasia from St. Petersburg to the Northern Pacific by l9l7.

But Soviet cultural expansion differed from its predecessor in important ways. First, Czarist efforts had limited themselves to territories contiguous to and eventually annexed by Russia (even far-flung Alaska actually bordered Russia), while the Soviets launched major cultural offensives in places as geographically removed from Russia as Cuba, Ethiopia and Vietnam. Second, Soviet technical and educational assistance stressed not Russian culture and Orthodox Christianity but rather the relevance to the developing world of the Soviet experience as the world's first socialist (and officially atheist) country - one which the Soviets believed could serve as an example for other nations, especially those hoping to free their populations from the yoke of superstition, racism and imperialism in order to establish productive societies whose fruits could be shared by all citizens. Their own successful example of manipulating information media to establish and maintain a centralized and industrialized modern socialist society convinced the Soviets of the importance of information infrastructure assistance to socialist countries abroad.

Within a few years of the founding by the Soviets of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) in l949, Comecon began to organize conferences where librarians and technical information center heads from member Eastern European socialist countries (Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Rumania and, after l964, Yugoslavia) could meet with Soviet colleagues to discuss the centralization of information resources so beloved by the Soviets and so attractive to countries with inadequate hard currency.

The Soviet socialist approach to information gathering, organization and dissemination had enormous appeal abroad, for a variety of reasons beyond its low monetary cost. As the great colonial empires were dismantled in the decades following World War II, scores of impoverished new nations were inspired by Russia's 20th century transition from feudal absolutism to an apparent industrial powerhouse. The success of the Soviets in wiping out the Czarist legacy of mass illiteracy (75%) was legendary, and the Sputnik launching in l957 seemed to emphasize the correlation between Soviet socialism and scientific innovation, stimulated by the efficient and centralized dissemination of information.

Another factor in the appeal of Soviet socialist information policies was their use in encouraging acceptance of the Marxist doctrine of the international brotherhood of the proletariat, regardless of race. It is hard to overestimate the damage to the overseas image of America's material success that was done by our nation's continued racial segregation into the l960s. Marxism, aided by the information systems that produced its apparent efficiency, seemed to offer the possibility to all peoples, regardless of color, of access to a dignified existence and material sufficiency.

Beginnings in the l960s
The Soviets had already begun encouraging socialist European countries to adopt Soviet-style centralized information systems through Comecon conferences organized in the l950s, but their major international efforts were launched after the establishment in l963 of Comecon's Permanent Commission for the Coordination of Scientific and Technical Research. One of the commission's working groups had the responsibility of raising the professional qualifications of information workers in the socialist member countries (after l962 joined by Mongolia, while Albania ceased participating in Comecon after l96l). Before l970, 11 conferences were organized by the working group, including one in September l965 on "the training and continuing education of personnel of scientific and technical information centers of the Comecon." The conference proceedings were usually published in the various national East European bibliographic journals .

During this time the working group also organized exhibits on information technology and published a dictionary of information terminology. More advanced training in information science was offered after l963 in months-long continuing education courses set up at Moscow's All-Soviet Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (VINITI), part of the Soviet Academy of Sciences since l952. Here more than 300 students from Comecon countries were trained between l963 and l972. VINITI also sent syllabi, curriculum plans, and information science and pedagogy textbooks to the central scientific and technical organs of the Comecon countries so that they could run mini-VINITIs of their own.

The Soviet's International System for Scientific and Technical Information
Moscow's support for international information training was stepped up after the founding in l969 of the International Center for Scientific and Technical Information in Moscow, a Comecon organ whose mandate was to develop and maintain an international system for scientific and technical information to standardize and centralize the information systems of all the Comecon countries. A formal Institute for the Raising of the Qualifications of Information Workers (IPKIR) was founded in 1971 and located at VINITI. On the basis of bilateral agreements with different socialist countries (but largely paid for by Moscow), IPKIR educated - just between l972 and l976 alone - 853 students from Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany, Mongolia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. IPKIR, in collaboration with the International Center, was to serve for the remaining years of the Soviet Union as a central point for

A special word is necessary here to explain the importance attached by the Soviets to the standardization and centralization of socialist scientific and technical information systems. Before World War II the Soviets had combined enforced standardization and centralization with a command economy to compensate for lack of resources and trained manpower. Whatever the inefficiencies of such a system, they were more than counterbalanced - in Soviet eyes - by the enhanced control it offered. It is these two qualities - compensation for inadequate resources and enhanced possibilities for political control - that underlie the (continued) fascination of centralized information systems for totalitarian regimes in less developed countries.

A principal task of Moscow's International Center for Scientific and Technical Information was the establishment and maintenance of a socialist international scientific and technical information network, called MSNTI. The MSNTI was consistent with the United Nations National Technical Information System (NATIS), developed by UNESCO in the early l970s. NATIS proposed the development of coordinated national scientific and technical information systems which would ultimately become the basis of a global standardized information network, UNISIST, specifically supporting the creation of national bibliographies for countries without them. NATIS was based on the principle that the best information on printed materials could be supplied by the countries in which they were produced. The Soviets intended their international system to demonstrate superior Soviet experience in information centralization, as well as international Soviet-led socialist collaboration in information science. Furthermore, the system would compensate for the inability of socialist countries short on hard currency to pay for multiple copies of expensive Western journals. Ideologically, the international system was justified as a means of supporting the struggle of the masses for peace and disarmament - an argument that reappears like a mantra throughout the Soviet information professional literature on the system.

In practice, the system did ultimately create an obligatory set of standards for information formats and numerization for all Comecon information centers. These centers, usually located in the capitals of their countries, worked as massive photocopying centers of journals held by the centers. As early as l97l the International Center for Scientific and Technical Information in Moscow published its first list of registered members of the international system. The l973 edition of registered members contains elaborate descriptions of the history and activities of the different member countries' participating technical centers (Bulgaria having the most, besides the USSR, with 68; Mongolia the least, with 2).

In support of the activities of the international system, numerous conferences were organized in the l970s and l980s in all parts of the socialist world, many with the support of UNESCO, others under the aegis of International Federation for Documentation (FID) and of the project of the International Federation of Library Association (IFLA) for universal bibliographic control. Comecon paid for five separate international conferences on standardization and centralization between l975 and l979 (and in l978 actually organized a separate academic department and course of study on the International Scientific and Technical Information System at IPKIR in Moscow). Increasing international access to burgeoning new Western information systems was a factor in the priority given by the Soviets to their own international system. One Soviet scholar in l98l pointed to the necessity of fusing a common "proper orientation" to the new Western material which would "arm the socialist brother countries for the struggle with bourgeois, reformist and revisionist ideologies. A major challenge for the immediate future was seen for information professionals in the socialist countries who would "have to evaluate this new material with class consciousness and a partisan approach."

A recurring theme of the l970s conferences was the need to counter the overseas influence of the U.S. Library of Congress' MARC (MAchine Readable Catalog) system, which was expanding its original purpose of making LC cataloging machine readable and becoming an international system for the exchange of bibliographic information in machine-readable form. The Soviets claimed that this enabled the United States to exercise influence on the information activities of participating countries.

Publication Distribution Programs
Besides organizing conferences, the Soviets supported a massive international book publishing and distribution program which aided its international information system. In 1982 alone the USSR produced 74.5 million books in 56 non-Soviet languages, a large proportion of these being in scientific and technical fields. By l986 one out of every four books produced in the world was published in the Soviet Union. The overseas distribution of publications included extremely low-cost or free issues of the review journals published by VINITI in Moscow, which by the mid-l970s was annually reviewing and abstracting one million scientific and technical articles from 25,000 journals in 65 languages.

Assistance in Education of Information Professionals
Perhaps the most important method of assistance - and certainly the one whose influence was the greatest - was in the area of the education of information professionals. Ultimately thousands of young people from all the socialist and non-aligned nations of the world were brought to the Soviet Union, taught Russian and given free higher and continuing education in library and information science at IPKIR, at VINITI and at the faculties of library and information science at Leningrad's Krupskaia Institute, the State Institute of Culture in Kiev and in other locations. The Leningrad faculty alone graduated (with 5-year diplomas) about l00 fully Soviet-subsidized foreign students each year between l975 and l99l, in addition to granting Ph.D.s to students from Vietnam, Cuba, Syria, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Laos, Guinea, Congo and Kenya. In total, there may be close to 20,000 Soviet-trained information professionals working in the developing world today.

All of this Soviet international assistance in building information infrastructure has now stopped. In l998 the Leningrad Institute (now the St. Petersburg Academy of Culture) will graduate its last Russian-subsidized foreign students. Together with the possibilities of higher and continuing education, the subsidized flow of scientific and technical information from Moscow to its former client countries has also stopped as Russia's publishers struggle to enter the market economy. At this date, the only former members of the Soviet bloc that have substantial access to current scientific and technical information are those like Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland which have the hard currency to pay for it.

At the same time, the non-Soviet agencies that in the l970s and l980s subsidized information to hard currency-poor countries have radically diminished their assistance. UNESCO has been downsizing since the l984 withdrawal of the United States, and the United States Information Agency's (USIA) once-lavish book distribution programs have shrunk dramatically. The United States, no longer competing with the USSR for the affections of the non-aligned developing world, has shifted its focus to influencing Russia itself. Since l994, under the aegis of the Freedom Support Act, the USIA has been subsidizing the American library and information science education of scores of students from the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile the developing world is littered with centralized, government-operated information centers operating in a virtual vacuum since the Soviet information supply has vanished. Unless another substitute for the market system is found (and the USSR acted for 30 years as such a substitute), this vacuum will continue far into the 21st century.

Pamela Spence Richards is professor, School of Communication, Information and Library Studies, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. She is immediate past chair of SIG/III and was three-term chair of the ASIS International Relations Committee.