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Russia’s Dream City

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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 skills of the work force to their limits. The discovery that nonstandard features were needed in the scientific buildings added months and even years to the construction process. By 1961 it was clear enough that Lavrentev’s five-year deadline was not going to be met. During 1962 the local weekly newspaper, For Science in Siberia, dropped from its front page the box in which it published the number of days remaining before Akademgorodok would be completed.

To the extent that Akademgorodok was planned at all, it was with the Soviet planner’s habitual contempt for social needs. There were not enough schools, clinics, hospital beds, or telephone lines. Few apartments had regular piped hot water until the mid-1960s. The debris of construction was dumped in the streets. There was, however, one bright spot from a town-planning point of view: Lavrentev, revealingly if disingenuously for a Soviet scientist, vetoed the installation of a nuclear reactor.

And this, remember, was a project on which national prestige and national prosperity turned. It was ordered personally by the head of government and watched over by at least a dozen of the country’s finest minds. Anything of a more mundane nature would risk being done far, far worse—as were any number of projects born in the Soviet system of “grandiose ambitions backed up by haste, willfulness and slovenly workmanship,” as Professor Geoffrey Hosking of London University later put it. Save for a very few, very small exceptions—the interior decoration of Brezhnev’s dacha, perhaps—a sense of quality was lacking in Soviet construction. Valerii Legasov, first deputy chairman of the Kurchatov Institute of nuclear physics in Moscow, worried when he found a worker on a nuclear power station failing to finish the seams on a water cooling pipe; he had, the man said, too many seams in his daily output target. A station director told Legasov to calm down, saying:

What are you worried about? A nuclear reactor is only a samovar. It’s much simpler than a thermal plant…. Nothing will happen.

Legasov committed suicide on the second anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe.

Indeed, by comparison with the far greater hideousness and decrepitude of other Soviet towns, the new Aka-demgorodok for all its faults ranked as a smart and comfortable place to live.1 Along with the great names that had yielded to Lavrentev’s persuasion and signed up as pioneers, there were plenty of bright young scientists lured to Akademgorodok by the prospect of a better life—meaning, in the main, a bigger apartment (though Aleksandr Nariniani, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, was drawn to Akademgorodok by his friends’ tales of “the freedom, the nightlife, the nude bathing at Ob Reservoir ‘seminars”’). By 1964 Akademgorodok boasted 2,654 “scientific workers.” These included 49 full and corresponding academicians, the grandees of the Soviet system; 69 doctors of science; and 649 candidates of science, equivalent to Ph.Ds. If nothing else, this was an impressive demographic achievement. It more than tripled the number of scientists in the whole of Siberia and the Russian far east. Learning had been so thinly spread east of the Soviet Urals that, before Akademgorodok, the entire region boasted only one full professor of mathematics, in Tomsk.

The history of Akademgorodok provides Mr. Josephson with the basis for a study of Soviet science that is marvelously well judged in its scope. He is able to capture in persuasive detail not only the qualities of Soviet science at some of its greatest moments, involving some of its greatest practitioners, but also the material, social, political, and financial conditions in which an evolving group of Soviet scientists lived and worked. His travels through these hinterlands tell much about the Soviet way of doing more things than science alone.

Lavrentev may have been the founding father of Akademgorodok. But the hero of Mr. Josephson’s account is Gersh Budker, a physicist who agreed in 1958 to head the new town’s Institute of Nuclear Physics. Budker was bearded, brilliant, and boisterously informal. As a young student being interviewed for admission to Moscow University in 1935 he had been asked why the Soviet Union was suffering from “food problems.” “Sabotage” would have been a diplomatic answer. But Budker said “collectivization”—an act of honesty which earned him a year’s delay in his being admitted. He might as easily have been arrested.

Budker’s robust personality proved useful when it came to getting his laboratories and equipment built more or less on time. Struggling to get a colliding-beam particle accelerator to work before American physicists did so at Stanford, he was handicapped by the usual Shakespearean low comedy among his construction engineers. In the first nine months of 1963 alone there were thirty injuries among workers on the project, half of them arising from drunkenness. He won the race, nonetheless.

The use of colliding streams of charged particles in accelerators, as opposed to bombarding a stationary target with a single stream, created faster impact speeds and made possible new levels of observation. It was one of Budker’s two best ideas. His other was related to nuclear fusion, a technology that promised almost unlimited and almost free energy if only the way could be found to contain the tremendous energies it unleashed. Budker suggested achieving this containment with a technique called “magnetic mirrors.” To this day the search for commercially useful fusion energy has continued amid much skepticism. But Budker’s advance was enough, in 1958, for Soviet science to declare a significant tactical victory over its American competitor.

From the narrow perspective of Akademgorodok alone, Budker’s entrepreneurial legacy was almost as important as his scientific one. His occupation, high-energy physics, was expensive. His Institute of Nuclear Physics was, and always would be, in need of bigger and faster accelerators. When Budker could not count on the sums he wanted from his regular paymasters, which were mainly the Soviet defense and atomic energy establishments, he began mobilizing his institute to produce scientific equipment for sale to industry. By 1966 it was offering a range of small accelerators to industrial, medical, and agricultural customers, who might use them to irradiate grain against insects, or to increase the heat resistance of polyethylene insulation. This sale of equipment enabled Budker’s institute to expand its laboratories, build two new apartment buildings, pay bonuses to its staff, and build a new particle accelerator as well.

The example of the Institute for Nuclear Physics was echoed briefly in the Akademgorodok computer center, which in July 1966 spun off a commercial agency called “Fakel,” where some eight hundred scientists worked overtime for extra money. In theory Fakel answered to the local branch of the Communist youth league, the Komsomol. In practice Fakel was a very rare example of overt, successful, near-private enterprise. It offered, moreover, an equally rare example of the sort of mutually beneficial crossover between Soviet science and Soviet civilian industry that both sides were supposed to foster, but that was usually too bothersome for either side to attempt. Nonetheless, Fakel caused envy. It was held by the authorities to be setting a bad, “capitalist” example. Its independent means made it a source of potential insubordination. It subsidized cafés and arts festivals that gave Akademgorodok something of a bohemian social life. When the political wind changed in 1968 its bank accounts were closed by the central government.

For Mr. Josephson, 1968 was the year when Akademgorodok started going downhill. The Brezhnev era was underway, with all its ossification and intolerance. In March that year forty-six Akademgorodok scientists attracted the wrong sort of national attention by signing a letter of protest calling on the Soviet courts to reexamine the case of a dissident, Aleksandr Ginzburg. In May the town organized a festival of folk singers that proved to be more a festival of protest singers, leaving provincial party officials predictably outraged. In August came the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and with it the heightened sensitivity of the Soviet Communist Party to anything that might even hint at dissent. The Central Committee invited regional officials in Novosibirsk to knock some orthodoxy into Akademgorodok’s scientific, social, and cultural life. The regional officials, previously kept at bay by Akademgorodok’s national prestige, cracked down, with ten years’ accumulated envy. The social clubs were closed down. A golden age of sorts was over, however illusory it might have been in the first place. It was no longer safe to claim that Akademgorodok stood for science practiced in a more independent, more creative, more informal—in short, a less Soviet—way.

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    It still does. In recent years the Siberian new rich have been buying flats there and displacing scientists to the harsher suburbs of Novosibirsk.

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