Mir but name any prior station. Go on, name one. Ok, that's easy, but how many space stations did the Russians have before Mir? I'll get back to you on that.
So what was the point of all these stations? We all know the reason why the US has the ISS, and anyone who watched the Augustine committee proceedings last year heard about why the "international community" is demanding it be extended until 2020 and beyond. Scientific research or something right? The 2005 NASA Authorization Act designated the ISS as a national laboratory. Oh sorry, the American segment of the ISS, because obviously the US can't designate the Russian segment as a national laboratory of the US, but that's what it is right? Well, no.
The Russians do very little scientific research on the ISS. They have only "mini-racks" on the Poisk module, and finding out what exactly they do is harder than finding out all the "world class research" that the US apparently does on their side of the station - and that's saying something. So what, maybe the Russians just don't care about scientific research. Ahh, no. (I should stop finishing paragraphs like that).
Starting before their first station the Russians flew a series of Bion satellites which contained a whole heck of a lot of biomedical experiments - most of them a lot more ambitious than what is apparently done on the ISS these days. In fact, people groan at me when I say they didn't go far enough with their rat life-cycle experiments because no-one has ever done anything like it since 1979. However I hear the upcoming Nauka module to the ISS will have rat experiments, maybe they'll continue that research.. and that has me worried. Although mammalian reproduction experiments in space are important - stop giggling children, we're never going to colonize space if we can't have babies out there - that's not what the Russian human space program is about.
Their first station was Salyut 1, and by all accounts it was an unmitigated failure. The crew actually died on the way back to Earth and no-one ever returned to the station, it was deorbited after just 6 months. This immediately set the tone for the Russian space program, if people had to die to do work in space then it better be important work. So the next station, although called Salyut 2 was actually a military station under the secret Almaz program. Many consider this a distinction without a difference, after all, everything was secret in the Soviet Union. To those people I say: the Almaz stations were armed with freakin' cannons! They actually shot down test satellites with it.
Of course, Almaz was also an unmitigated failure. No-one made it to the first one. Salyut 3 had only one crew, and although Salyut 5 had three crews, one of those crews couldn't actually get into the station and had to turn around and go home. But hey, space cannons!
Whereas, the "civilian" Salyut program was significantly more impressive, it had to be, the world was watching. The last, Salyut 7, was visited by 10 crews including French and Indian cosmonauts, and did 13 spacewalks. The experienced gained from in-space operations was considered the primary payoff of the program. They demonstrated the multi-module principle that led to the seven module Mir, with the goal of a permanently human occupied station.
Then the international cooperation started. Of course, the 30 years of experience the Russians had paid for, with both Rubles and human blood, wasn't worth squat to the Americans. Even now, 12 years into the ISS program, I'm regularly told that the US shoulda gone it alone with Space Station Freedom. Oh, and then there's the complaints that Russia hasn't spent as much building the station, because dollars are such a great metric of productivity. In my opinion, the ISS would be scattered over the Australian outback (or Canada) by now if it wasn't for the Russians.
Let's take a modern example. Recently, two Russian cosmonauts did a spacewalk to install a new homing beacon and throw away an old camera - the standard boring maintenance that you do on a space station. Watching the spacewalk on NASA tv was enthralling - yes, I just said that, NASA tv was enthralling. The cosmonauts were crackin' jokes, and making fun of the bad comms with mission control, oh, and making decisions. They were sent out the airlock with nothing more than the broad goals and a rough schedule, the rest was up to them. (oh, and they didn't "create space junk" by throwing away that camera, cosmonauts actually know how to throw stuff in space to put it into a degrading orbit which will burn up.)
Just three days later an ammonia coolant pump broke on the American side of the ISS. My first reaction was to wonder if they were going to scramble the Shuttle to fix it, or downplay the problem until the Shuttle gets there in November. But no, they're going to send two of the expedition crew out to replace the broken pump. What a unique opportunity to compare the two programs.
Whereas cosmonauts are both involved in the planning and have operational decision making responsibility of spacewalks, astronauts are not. Two days after the failure, ground control decided to cancel already planned spacewalks to focus on planning the "repairs". Five days after the failure, the spacewalk to replace the pump was delayed, "to give planners more time to fine-tune the required procedures." Yesterday, eight days after the failure, the plan for the spacewalk was released, tune in to NASA tv to watch the spacewalk, oh sorry, spacewalks and see how many jokes and decisions the astronauts make on their own.
Space is boring because there are no humans in space, they're just robots in human form. Humans make jokes and decisions, they get frustrated, they argue their opinions and have ambitions. Human space programs do too. Saying you want to go to Mars some day is visionary, but actually doing it involves cutting humans off from ground support. It involves trusting them to make the right decisions. It means actually fixing broken coolant pumps, not just swapping them out and sending the order in to BoeLockMart for a new one.
To the Russian people I say: keep demanding humans in space doing important work to prepare humanity to go out into the solar system, leave the "science" and "spinoffs" and all the other justifications to the US.