But the result has been like a great deal else in this country: expensive, flashy and largely hollow. Shot through with back-scratching and favoritism, the government’s science program has tripled its spending in the past 10 years — and achieved very little. The number of papers published in scientific journals is the same as it was in 2000 and as it was in 1990, even while the rest of the world’s output has exploded.
The impact could extend even to the United States, which depends on Russian rockets, troubled by engineering failures, to carry astronauts to the international space station.
Twenty years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, a generation of scientists has been lost, young scientists say, and another is on the way out. Many are lining up to escape abroad, just as in the dark, poverty-stricken 1990s.
Science had prestige and plenty of support in the U.S.S.R. The Soviets wielded a formidable nuclear arsenal, put the first satellite into space, then the first man into space. Dedicated biologists nurtured what may have been the world’s foremost seed bank, ensuring its survival even through the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad. Nine Nobel Prizes for physics and one for chemistry acknowledged Soviet achievements.
Pushchino, founded in 1966 in a woodsy spot along the Oka River, about 75 miles south of Moscow, was one of several dozen special science cities built across the Soviet Union, owned and governed by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. With more than a million workers nationwide in its heyday, the self-governing academy — rather than the universities — ran the institutes that conducted research, many in special-purpose cities like this one. The academy dispensed apartments, ran hospitals, paid for nurseries — all to coddle its star scientists.
Today its Russian successor, exhausted and bedraggled as it is, still runs these cities. The academy remains a giant and sprawling organization, and employs the majority of Russian researchers even now. To visit Pushchino today is to visit a tattered remnant of the Soviet way of life.
‘Why am I doing all this?’
Twenty years after the Soviet breakup, the academy is described by its legions of critics as an ossified, geriatric organization, hidebound and hierarchical. Labs are ill-equipped, and pay is skeletal. At the Institute of Biochemistry and Physiology of Microorganisms here, 70 percent of the researchers are older than 50. The director is 73. He makes about $800 a month.
“In 20 years,” says Natalia Desherevskaya, a biologist at the institute, “all the positive things that existed in Soviet times have been destroyed, and replaced by nothing.”