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.
The scientific work of Akademgorodok continued, of course, and much of it was well done. Genetics, notably, emerged from the shadow of Lysenko. The more approximate discipline of economics thrived under the tutelage of Abel Aganbegian, who had come to Akademgorodok in 1961, and who left it to become an adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev. Aganbegian encouraged the work of Tatiana Zaslavskaia, a sociologist who was bravely undertaking some objective studies of Soviet rural life. For official purposes her work was classified under the standard rubric “theoretical problems of the creation of the material-technological basis of communism, the perfection of production relations of developed socialism, and the strengthening of the Soviet way of life,” which was known in academic shorthand as “theme 184.108.40.206.” In fact, Zaslavskaia was chronicling a Soviet way of life that was falling apart, and taking the country with it. In 1983 she wrote a devastating critique of Soviet economic management for presentation to a closed seminar at Akademgorodok. It circulated widely beyond in mimeographed copies and eventually reached the foreign press. In its argument it was not so much a precursor of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika as an analysis of the forces by which perestroika would be opposed.
Mr. Josephson’s main narrative ends with the end of the Gorbachev era, and of the Soviet Union, in 1991. What of Akademgorodok, and what of Russian science, since then?
Recent visitors have reported that, on balance, the town has held up better than many other examples of Soviet-era social and economic engineering. It is still recognizably intact as a science city, diminished to some degree in size and wealth from its best days, but less so than Russian science as a whole. It has survived relatively well because of its entrepreneurial as much as its scientific achievements. It has lost the revenues from the military and other government sources on which it used to depend almost entirely. But it has substituted revenues from commercial contracts with foreign firms. 2 Gersh Budker died in 1977, but the methods of his Institute of Nuclear Physics have lived on. Last year the INP earned roughly half its income from commercial sales, which included low-dose X-ray scanners for hospitals. It has fewer problems than does its peer in Moscow, the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics, which was forced to shut down its particle accelerator for much of 1996 because it lacked the money to pay the electricity bill.
The Budker model has traveled well locally. The “Vector” institute was once Akademgorodok’s center for research into biological weapons, with the Soviet military as its client. In the new Russia it has turned its coat adroitly, and does research on disease control. Last year it earned four fifths of its income from contracts with drug companies and government agencies, foreign and Russian. It provides jobs for 2,500 people, down from 4,500 in its Soviet heyday. The Boreskov Institute of Catalysis also has some impressive foreign clients: it has been helping Monsanto, for example, to find ways to reduce pollution from automobile exhausts. Its staff members are paid a basic wage fairly typical for Russian industry—$170 a month in 1996—but with the most skilled earning twice as much again from grants or foreign contracts.
Overall, the academic population of Akademgorodok has shrunk from 56,000 in the mid-1980s to about 33,000. That was in some ways a necessary development, and even a healthy one from the viewpoint of those who stayed. A more worrying trend for the future has been one of rising age. The average founding generation at Akademgorodok was 34. By 1991 the average age had risen to 47. It has since shot up to 57—a fairly advanced age for scientific discovery. It is, moreover, outright “old age” for Russian men. Pollution, stress, alcoholism, fatty diet, and poor medical care have reduced the adult male life expectancy in Russia to just 58; female life expectancy is 72.
The graying of Akademgorodok has mirrored that of Russian science in general. The average age of a doctor of science in Russia is now 55. 3 The profession lacks the money, and the prestige, to attract or hold onto young people. The average wage of a Russian scientist is about $150 a month—when and if it is paid. Scientists, like most other Russian workers, are obliged to wait months for their salaries, mainly because the government itself, perennially short of tax revenues, avoids settling any debt that it can possibly defer. At the start of this year it owed scientific institutions about $330 million. (Vector, for example, reported last year that the Russian government was six months in arrears in payments for its HIV and hepatitis diagnostic-testing products.)
Some scientists have left Russia to continue their work abroad. By the start of this year 15,200 had accepted foreign citizenship and at least 5,000 more were working in foreign countries on a long-term basis. The most painful losses came in 1991-1992, when state funding collapsed and foreign universities and companies could have their choice of famous names. Sergei Kapitsa, a distinguished physicist (and son of the Nobel Prize winner Petr Kapitsa), lamented that “key members of the academic community are leaving, scientific books are not being published, and the continuity of research and teaching is being lost.”4 Some of those who stayed were encouraged to do so by grants from Western foundations, notably that of George Soros.
Perhaps a third of Russia’s emigrant scientists—7,000 or 8,000 since 1991—have gone to America. Others have gone to Europe. And some have gone to Iran or Iraq, China or Pakistan, taking their knowledge of ballistics and nuclear weapons with them. The Russian government is reluctant even to acknowledge that flow, for fear of being accused of complicity in it.
But much more voluminous than the brain drain of Russian scientists overseas has been the “internal emigration” of scientists to other sorts of work within Russia. The true loss to science is much less than the crude figures suggest, since the Soviet Union, in order to claim that it had the most scientists in the world, used to define every employee down to the rank of laboratory floor sweeper as a “scientist,” and to include disciplines from politics to parapsychology in the count. In 1990 Russia was recorded as having about 1.5 million of them.
The official ranks of scientists have shrunk since by at least half. Of those left on the nominal rolls of scientific institutes, another half are probably doing their real work elsewhere or doing other work within the institute. (Russian scientific and academic pre-mises are honeycombed with the offices of trading firms, travel agencies, restaurants, and other products of their employees’ extracurricular activity.) And many of those nominally and actually engaged in science are trying to spend as much time as they can abroad. At one physics institute in Moscow, for example, “at any time,…half the staff is absent on trips to the West. Around 50% of the theoreticians at the institute are continually applying for permanent positions in the West,” according to Boris Kerbikov, a researcher there.5 Mr. Kerbikov, forty-nine, a doctor of science with three postgraduate researchers working under him on the theoretical physics of elementary particles, told an industry journal that he himself received a basic wage of about $200 a month, which he supplemented by occasional work as an unlicensed taxi driver. “Not one of a group of fifteen final-year physics students I taught this year stayed in science after graduating,” said Mr. Kerbikov.
As a caste, Soviet scientists were highly educated, exposed to the West, and often had managerial and entrepreneurial experience. Small wonder that many have gone into business in the new Russia and done well—outstripped as a group, perhaps, only by alumni of the KGB. Kakha Bendukhidze, an entrepreneur who bought control of Russia’s biggest heavy-engineering firm, Uralmash, in 1992- 1993, and has since made a paper profit of hundreds of millions of dollars, was once a researcher in biochemistry. Menatep, one of Russia’s half-dozen biggest banking and industrial groups, began life as the offshoot of a chemical engineering institution. Boris Berezovsky, a financier and media tycoon reckoned by Forbes magazine to be the richest man in Russia, was a mathematician in Soviet times. When capitalism beckoned he helped Avtovaz, Russia’s biggest car maker, to develop financial controls for its dealership network. A year or two later Mr. Berezovsky was a big-time car dealer himself, and was using the cash flow from that business to buy his way into the television and oil industries.
A good many former scientists have entered politics. Mr. Berezovsky is something of a kingmaker in Mr. Yeltsin’s Kremlin. Boris Nemtsov, whom some see as Mr. Yeltsin’s successor, was a well-regarded physicist when he changed careers at thirty-one to become Russia’s youngest provincial governor. He was first drawn into politics as an anti-nuclear activist. Now thirty-eight, he is a first-deputy prime minister of Russia. Among his recent triumphs, ironically in the circumstances, has been the sale of a Russian nuclear power station to China. Stani-slav Sushkevich, the first president of independent Belarus, was a professor of physics. So too was Askar Askaev, the current president of Kirgizstan.
But the presence of scientists in government has not translated into much government money for science. Russia’s budget for science last year was barely a fifth of what the Soviet Union spent on it in 1991. All but between 5 and 10 percent of the money was allocated to wages and basic utilities such as heating and electricity. Institutes and scientists had to find for themselves the money they needed to replace and modernize equipment, or for publications and travel. Plenty did so, Akademgorodok-style, by contracting themselves out to foreign firms. “We can do everything the University of Wisconsin can, only cheaper,” said the secretary-general of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Nikolai Plate, in November. Perhaps 17,000 Russian scientists are under contract to American corporations. They have grown shrewder at negotiating over the years, holding out for the patent rights and licensing fees that mean they are working for themselves as well as for their customers.
Such opportunities are not open to everyone. For the past two years the onset of winter has been marked by a prominent suicide in some far-flung institute where money and patience has finally dried up. In November 1996 Vladimir Nechai, head of a nuclear weapons research center in the Urals city of Snezhinsk (previously a “closed city” called Chelyabinsk-70), killed himself, saying in a letter to the government that living and working conditions were “catastrophic.” There was no money for wages, the bread was running out, and for the four preceding months, the intercity telephone lines had been cut. On December 18, 1997, Yurii Matov, director of the Yaroslavl Institute for Computer Technology, shot himself in a fit of depression after having been obliged to sell furniture and laboratory equipment to pay his staff.
There is plenty more sadness to come. Millions of Russians who once prided themselves on the social and economic value of their work are still adjusting to—or refusing to adjust to—the idea that their work is unable to command the price of its survival. Much of the industrial work force is in that position. So is much of the army. And much of the scientific establishment as well. Fundamental research in particular has become a luxury that Russia can no longer afford—though scientists and politicians generally dare not admit as much, because they believe that great science is essential to a great power, and it is the national orthodoxy to insist, in defiance of the evidence, that Russia is still a great power. They refuse to acknowledge that expensive grappling with the abstract and the unknown is a task more appropriate for rich countries which need new discoveries and big projects to inspire themselves with a sense of direction. Russia, by contrast, is desperately playing catch-up in the most elementary industries and social services.
In that respect, much as Akademgorodok was in the vanguard of Russian basic science when it was built as a haven for basic research in the 1950s, so it is in the vanguard again, as a sort of research-and-development center for contract customers in the 1990s. The “science” Russia needs at the moment is precisely the kind usually carried out within large corporations for their own benefit—the improvement of products and services using bought or adapted technology. Humbling as it might be to admit as much, what Russia needs now is to master the technology of the nonstick frying pan—and not the whole space program.
April 23, 1998
It still does. In recent years the Siberian new rich have been buying flats there and displacing scientists to the harsher suburbs of Novosibirsk. ↩
For recent accounts of visits to Akademgorodok, on which this section draws, see “Science City Reborn” in the Moscow Times, January 6, 1996; “Once-Pampered Intellectuals Get a Hard Lesson” in the Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1997; and “The Diamonds in the Rubble” in The Economist, November 8, 1997. ↩
Some of the statistics in these paragraphs come from “The Russian Government Adopts a Concept of Science Reform,” an article by Vladimir Alex-androv, in Rossiskaya Gazeta, January 10, 1998. ↩
In The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May-June 1994. ↩
Chemical and Engineering News, December 22, 1997. ↩