The successes have often been achieved only because of superhuman efforts on the part of visionary individuals who overcame obstacles imposed by a repressive state.
Sergei Korolev, the father of the Soviet space program, was largely responsible for the launching of Sputnik, the world's first satellite that produced panic in the United States. But he almost died during Stalin's terror. Arrested in 1938, he spent six years in prison, partly in a Siberian labor camp where he lost all his teeth.
So pity Vladimir Moksunov, the head of an industrial association that wants Russia to regain its former global leadership in another area: toilets.
It's a tall order. Many of Moscow's sleek new restaurants may boast lavatories of marble and chrome. But elsewhere, especially in the provinces -- where broad swaths of territory lack basic indoor plumbing -- facilities consist of little more than stinking holes in the ground. Nevertheless, Moksunov, head of the Russian association of lavatory manufacturers, says Russia must regain its pre-revolutionary status as the country with the world's best toilets.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow this week, he said Peter the Great lay the groundwork for the past achievement by issuing a decree in 1699 forbidding the disposal of sewage on the streets.
"But now we don't even have official regulations for the quality of public toilets," he said in comments reported by AFP, "except a document from 1972 that discusses cesspits."
Whether Moksunov has Korolev's will to succeed remains to be seen. Russian solutions in the past for catching up to the West have often produced only greater isolation, based on pronouncements that Russia is not only different from other countries but better. (This week, scholars called for Russia to institute its own national ranking system for universities after no Russian institute of higher learning made it onto a British list of the world's top 200 schools.)
Last century, Harvard economist Alexander Gerschenkron theorized that European countries tend to be more backward the farther east they lie. Very late industrializers such as Russia, he said, often depend on state-driven, top-down modernization. So perhaps Moskunov's best chance would be to include toilets on the agenda of the latest incarnation of the Soviet five-year plans, President Dmitry Medvedev's modernization drive.
In the meantime, Moskunov is calling for a national toilet day to draw attention to the problem.
He cited as an example World Toilet Day, which happens to be today, and calls attention to a very serious problem indeed. The average person may spend three years of his life sitting on a toilet, but only if he's lucky. Up to 2.6 billion people lack proper toilet facilities, and some 5,000 children die every day from diarrhea caused by unsanitary conditions.
Moscow is playing its part. The World Toilet Organization, the group behind World Toilet Day, once convened a toilet summit in the Russian capital, where a highlight was a visit to lavatory in a model of the international space station. Now if the same kind of resolve that drove the space industry is just applied to putting a decent toilet in the rest of the country's bathrooms, perhaps Russia will again rule the world in at least that sector.
-- Gregory Feifer