Friday, February 26, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Soviet-Era ‘Science Cities’ Need Not Be Saved, Moscow Commentator Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 26 – Discussions in Moscow about the problems of company towns and calls by senior Moscow officials for the creation of a Russian “Silicon Valley” have led more people to focus on that country’s “science cities” and the possibility that they could be used as part of President Dmitry Medvedev’s modernization program.
But a Moscow analyst argues that “the science cities are an organic part of the Soviet planned economy” and that as a result, any talk about their future use in the Russian economy represents a dangerous kind of “populism” which is getting in the way of real progress (
In an article on the portal, Kirill Martynov argues that “the sooner we understand this, the sooner we will be able to begin to act,” not “saving that which is impossible to save but finding new paths for the resolution of problems” involving the possibility of “technological innovations in Russia.”
If one studies the history of the Soviet science cities, one sees, Martynov continues, that they arose “not as a result of an abstract desire of the powers that be to offer scholars the opportunity to engage in science but rather for the resolution of a single concrete historical task” the development of the atomic bomb.
(As another Moscow analyst points out in an article published today, Moscow had little choice but to adopt a forced march approach in this area. The Soviet government conducted a census of physicists in 1945 and found that of the 4212 in the USSR at that time, none were specializing on the military use of the atom (
The few with training in that area were at the front, and although the Kurchatov Laboratory, out of which the Soviet atomic bomb was to emerge, was created in 1943, it initially lacked even cement and metal for the construction of buildings, let alone equipment and personnel on which to proceed.)
As Martynov points out, the science cities were a response to these shortcomings. The first and very secret Soviet “science city” was the settlement of Sarov in Mordvinia, which was known as Arzamas-16, in which physicists were placed in a factory that had been producing components for the Katyusha rockets.
In 1955, a second closed science city was created in Snezhinsk and christened Chelyabin-70. There was the headquarters of the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics. And in the succeeding decades, Moscow created several dozen such cities, which over time involved people working in “practically all sectors of science.”
“From the moment of their appearance,” the Moscow commentator continues, “the science cities were completely supported by the government,” which paid not only for the research work but also for the social infrastructure of the scientists and support personnel living in them.
These places did not simply disappear with the end of the Soviet Union, and in April 1999, the Duma adopted a law “On the status of Science Cities in the Russian Federation.” The first place to be officially recognized as one, as a result of a May 6, 2000, presidential decree was Obninsk. Since then Korolev and Dubna have been given this status as well.
Many other places – Martynov estimates there may be “about 70” -- seek that status as a way of getting additional funding from the center. These locations have approximately three million residents, and include some 20 sites in Moscow oblast, 10 in the Urals and 13 in various parts of Siberia. Many but not all remain “closed administrative-territorial formations.”
While these institutions did make a major contribution to the development of the Soviet Union’s nuclear capacity, their narrow focus and especially their closed status and hence isolation from the broader scholarly community make them anything but a cost-effective means of promoting the kind of broad-gage modernization Medvedev seeks.
Consequently, trying to save the science cities may prove just as difficult and just as counterproductive as ongoing efforts to save another survival of the Soviet past, the company towns like Pikalevo, however many appeals are made because of the inevitable human costs involved in their demise.

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