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Thursday, May 7, 1998 Published at 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK

World: Europe

Russia: mother of invention?

May 7 is Radio Day in Russia - known officially as Communication Workers' day. The BBC's Moscow correspondent Rob Parsons marks the occasion by taking a sideways look at the history of Russian technology and the unshakeable belief that the Soviets invented everything from rockets to radios.

Switch on the TV in Soviet Russia during the 1960s and you were sure to see propaganda films crowing the triumphs of Russian achievements in space.
Rob Parsons reports on the invented "triumphs" of Soviet science (3'40")

And there was indeed much to crow about. In 1961, the Soviet Union became the first country to put a man into space.

It was a crowning achievement in a century studded with Russian scientific discovery - and some memorable inventions, like the lightbulb, the radio and the television.

But hang on a minute - weren't they invented in the West? Didn't Marconi have something to do with radio and wasn't it a Scotsman who gave us the television?

Not if you're Russian they didn't.

On air before Auntie

One thing is indisputable. The Russian Communist Party occupied the airwaves long before the BBC.

Mikhail Kalinin, one of the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution, addressed the Russian people in 1919 by wireless. The Russians claim Alexander Popov invented the radio two years before the upstart Marconi.

The children shown around the Moscow Polytechnical Museum, home to an impressive collection of technological exhibits, are visibly impressed. When asked, they can name a mind-boggling list of Russian inventions - rockets, cars, parachutes, steam engines and aeroplanes, to name just a few.

But television presenter Alexander Gurnov doesn't stop there. We may not know it in the West, but Russian inventions have become an insidious part of our daily lives.

"You're English and you say 'Buy British' because you know that by buying British you stimulate British industry," says Gurnov. "By buying foreign we still buy things invented by Russians.

[ image: BMW - founded by a Russian?]
BMW - founded by a Russian?
"They're just produced abroad. Neck ties from Italy, jeans from USA - they're all Russian inventions. So there's no such thing as being unpatriotic by buying a BMW, because a BMW was founded by a Russian engineer."

The truth hurts

For journalist Masha Gessen who was brought up on Soviet post-war patriotic songs claiming Soviet science led the way to the skies, it was a shock to learn that fiction had often been blended with fact.

"What you learn as a child really stays with you," she says. "And sometimes it's a revelation to me now when I find out - now, in my 30s - that something has its origins elsewhere in the world when I was convinced the whole time that it had its origins in Russia."

Yet the Russians also say hundreds of their inventions never won the world fame they deserved because the Soviet Union was such a closed society - among them the "Termenvox", the world's first synthesiser.

Listen to its warbling tones and you may be tempted to concede to that particular claim.

"Soviet scientists are working to bring happiness to people on Earth!" proclaimed one Soviet announcer.

Which just goes to show that whether it was Popov or Marconi who invented the radio - we are all the beneficiaries in the end.

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