How Soviets in 1960 Imagined 2017, and the Biggest Changes They Missed

A 1960 Soviet filmstrip surfaced earlier this year depicting a vision of life in 2017. As Russia prepares for the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, it is interesting to reflect on the filmstrip to see what Soviet propagandists got right and what they got wrong.

The 45-frame filmstrip, found in a family collection of St. Petersburg resident Sergei Pozdnyakov, depicts a day in the life of Igor, a boy living in 2017 Moscow. Titled “In the Year 2017,” it was created by V. Strukova and V. Shevchenko and produced at the Diafilm Studio in Moscow. The creators got a few things right.

Igor chats live with his mother, who is onboard a ship on the Black Sea, using a videophone, which foresees the emergence of today’s mobile connectivity via Skype or FaceTime. Another frame depicts scanning technology that reads handwriting on a note to know what a person wants to eat and then automatically cooks the meal. And another frame depicts what appears to be a self-driving car.

But overall, the creators imagined a future that does not resemble 2017 because they chose to project a false and exaggerated view of Soviet science. Among the incorrect predictions:

  • Interstellar travel would be commonplace using space ships moving almost at the speed of light
  • The Earth’s core would be mined for “eternal sources of energy” using “heat resistant” drilling machines powered by newly discovered “meson energy,” a theoretical form of atomic energy
  • High-speed atomic-powered trains would traverse the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska
  • Engineers would reverse the flow of the major Siberian rivers
  • Underground cities would have “eternal spring” weather
  • Children would attend schools that float on the Black Sea
  • Flying stations would control the Earth’s weather (Igor’s dad works at the “Central Weather Control Institute”)
  • A dam across the Bering Strait would halt currents from the Arctic Ocean, dramatically improving the climate in the Far East
  • Printed maps and newspapers would still be ubiquitous, completely missing the emergence of Google maps, tablet computers, and the internet.

The filmstrip ends with the Soviet Union thriving and Soviet scientists saving the planet. The last surviving Western capitalist “imperialists” are hiding on a remote island in the south Pacific, where they test a prohibited meson weapon, accidentally destroying themselves and the island. The explosion disrupts weather around the world, creating massive tornadoes and hurricanes. Soviet scientists, including Igor’s dad, dispatch the flying weather-control stations to stop the storms, save the planet, and preserve the socialist paradise of 2017!

Of course, the biggest miscalculation of all was the filmstrip’s implicit assumption that the Soviet Union would still exist in 2017. In reality, of course, the USSR dissolved in 1991, more than 25 years ago.

The filmstrip, and the Soviet Union itself, created a façade of success to hide its lack of scientific progress and economic prosperity. The bigger lesson of the filmstrip is that the most significant changes are likely to be unanticipated shocks, like the collapse of the USSR.

Hopefully, the next unanticipated shock will be the replacement of many, if not all, government activities with private, contractual, voluntary arrangements, made increasingly possible with advances in smart technology.

Lawrence J. McQuillan is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation at the Independent Institute. He is the author of the Independent book California Dreaming.
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