Russia’s Dream City

The Soviet Union’s standing order to its scientists echoed that of Karl Marx to philosophers. Their job was not so much to understand the world as to change it. Those who sank too deep in theory were liable to face charges of “idealism” or “formalism” brought by jealous colleagues. When Khrushchev approved the building of a new Soviet “science city” in 1957, the project was itself conceived as a way of stamping Soviet reality on the face of nature. It would form part of the regime’s efforts to tame and exploit the sprawling wastes of Russia east of the Urals. A city of 200,000 people would be built in unspoiled Siberian forest near Novosibirsk, fifteen hundred miles east of Moscow. A score of research institutes would be created, each of them a leader in world science. And all this would be done within five years, promised Mikhail Lavrentev, the mathematician in charge of the project.

Lavrentev and those who joined him were hoping that distance from Moscow would be a source of independence. With Stalin, the great centralizer, dead, they hoped their work would be less susceptible to political and administrative interference. They would be able to set their own research goals, emancipating themselves from this or that ministerial view of national priorities. They would be able to work informally and across disciplines, with mathematics as a common language. Minds and doors would always be kept open. There was a utopian quality about the enterprise, obviously. But that was no reason not to attempt it. In 1958, the construction of “Akademgorodok” began.

And, as so often in the Soviet Union, theory and practice failed to coincide. As Paul Josephson writes in his excellent history of the new city, most of the early construction work was done by unskilled young laborers incapable even of laying simple concrete slabs in the right places. No single project manager was in overall charge of design and construction. And, almost incredibly in view of the nature of the undertaking, the planners failed to take the Siberian climate into account when allocating materials. Concrete set badly. Machinery broke down, or would not start. Workers were left to hack at the frozen earth with shovels. The first scientists arriving in Akademgorodok in the winter of 1958-1959 were put up in barracks where the temperature fell to -50 degrees centigrade.

Khrushchev himself disfigured his creature in 1959 by ordering that Akademgorodok’s builders abandon brick in favor of prefabricated concrete forms—partly for reasons of cost, but also because Khrushchev professed to find prefabricated concrete more “modern,” and thus more socialist, than bourgeois brick. A new factory, the Novosibirsk Factory of Large Panel Apartment Construction, was built to supply the concrete forms. But the new factory met barely a fifth of its output target, obliging the builders to bring in slabs from other cities hundreds of miles away.

Putting slabs together in standard shapes for apartment blocks and public buildings was enough to test the …

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