In the Midst of Global Turmoil, Russia’s Science Community Reboots
I took a five-day tour of Russia’s leading scientific research centers. This is what I saw.
Putin and winners of a prize for young scientists. Image: Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant via Getty Images
They call them the "golden brains." Perched 22 storeys high, they engulf the top floors of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) headquarters in southwest Moscow. Somehow both geometric and wildly rampageous, the copper and aluminum sculptures look like the kind of long-lost technologies that protagonists stumble across on deserted alien worlds in Mass Effect.
On a crisp evening in late February, we stepped out of a van and walked across a plaza, lined by ornate statues and a giant metal clock. Shepherded by Asya Shepunova, a lively public relations representative for the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), a university based in the northern suburb of Dolgoprudny, we made our way past a security checkpoint to a welcome dinner at a restaurant enclosed within the golden brains.
In tandem with the press team at ITMO University in Saint Petersburg, Shepunova and her colleagues organized this five-day tour of Russia's two largest and most scientifically active cities. A handful of science journalists from around the world, including me—hi, I'm Becky—RSVP'd yes. A little over a month after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, we arrived in Moscow.
The goal of the trip, for our hosts, was to establish stronger links between the Russian science community and foreign media outlets. Despite the significant historic impact of many Russian scientific contributions—the laser, the solar cell, the satellite, human spaceflight, graphene, and the periodic table of elements, to name a few—the nation lacks a robust infrastructure for circulating its advances outside its cloistered institutions.
In this uncertain time of global restructuring, as longstanding alliances deteriorate and strange bedfellows find common cause, the bonds of cross-border scientific collaboration are more crucial than ever. Russian science advocates seek inclusion and transparency in the face of a rising tide of nativism and disinformation.
From this friction, a new kind of scientific landscape is emerging within the borders of Earth's largest nation. Its future will impact us all.
The disconnect between Russian science and the global commons runs deep, and has challenged science enthusiasts for centuries. "Do we always have to get from foreigners what originated in our boundless homeland and died in loneliness and neglect?" lamented biologist Alexander Chizhevsky in his foreword to spaceflight visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's 1924 treatise The Rocket into Cosmic Space.
For the organizers of the press trip, the answer is a resounding nyet. But this communication gap is not just a problem for Russians. Collective brainpower is, of course, the engine of discovery, and any fracture in the global scientific network has cascading implications.
On a geopolitical level, science is also a crucial agent of soft power between nations. Going back decades, scientific collaborations have tempered tensions between Russia and its rival nations, and allowed cooler heads to prevail. In 1975, astronaut Thomas Stafford and cosmonaut Alexey Leonov shook hands in space as part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which reflected the policy of détente, or easing of strained relations, between the US and the USSR. The International Space Station (ISS), the crown jewel of science partnerships, is directly descended from this symbolic gesture.
Scientific soft power will be an important diplomatic tool as the world reels from current geopolitical turmoil. The elephant in our timeline is that members of Trump's inner circle are currently under FBI investigation for potentially coordinating with Russian operatives to help swing the 2016 election. A series of cyberattacks against the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, along with hacks aimed at other world leaders, are widely presumed to have been masterminded by the Russian government's intelligence arm. The scandal has engulfed former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, both of whom are reported to have lied about their past interactions with Russian officials.
There are shades of Sputnik here, as Russia startles the world by breaching uncharted territory on a shoestring budget, leaving its rivals scrambling to adjust to a new reality shaped by this nation's geopolitical ambitions.
At the time I visited Moscow and Saint Petersburg, "this Russia thing," in Trump's own words, had not yet snowballed into the epic presidential flameout it is today. Trump's election—and its implications for the world—did come up in conversation frequently during the trip. But at the restaurant inside the golden brains, the discussion centered around recent investments from the Russian government designed to revitalize the science sector.
President Vladimir Putin has been promoting entrepreneurism and internationalization in Russian science in attempt to burnish the nation's prestige while also diversifying its stultifying, oil-dependent economy.
"I'm confident that Russia is capable [...] of becoming a supplier of ideas and technology for the whole world, " Putin said in his 2014 annual presidential address (according to a Russian-to-English translation). "Russian companies will embody national success and pride, just as our nuclear and space projects once did."
Putin has sent mixed messages to the science community about these goals. At the same time that Russia is ostensibly reaching out to attract the world's brightest minds, for instance, state propaganda has sowed isolationist ideologies into alt-right movements in the West with alarming effectiveness.
The recent Russian economic recession, sparked in part by international sanctions imposed to admonish Putin for the Crimean crisis, is yet another variable thrown into this maelstrom of conflicting indigenous and foreign pressures.
It's difficult to predict what kind of Russian science culture will emerge from this kaleidoscopic clash of ideas. But one constant that binds the vast majority of scientists and science advocates, regardless of nationality, is an aversion to political interference with their work. As the Russian science world reboots under the direction of Putin, and the American science world defends itself from the onslaught of Trump, scientists in every sphere are likely to become essential vessels of soft power between nations, whether they like it or not.
About a two-hour drive north of Moscow, on the banks of the Volga River, lies the small town of Dubna. Though it looks like a sleepy community, Dubna is home to the Joint Institute of Nuclear Research (JINR), a major nuclear science hub comprised of nearly 6,000 researchers. About a dozen specialized laboratories and research facilities have sprouted up around town since JINR was founded in 1956, and two major next-generation projects are in development.
It was the last day in February, and snow still blanketed the ground as our van pulled into the town, past a Bioshock-worthy sign celebrating the element dubnium (atomic number 105), named for the town in which it was discovered.
As we swooped from one location to the next, trying to fit as many stops as possible, we took in the hulking facilities that distinguish JINR as Russia's hotspot for nuclear experimentation. (VR tours of select instruments are on the JINR website, if you'd like to see for yourself.)
Some facilities, like the IBR-2, a fast periodic pulsed reactor housed in the Laboratory of Neutron Physics, have remained steady over decades of operation.
Others, like the hulking 36,000-ton synchrophasotron magnet housed at the Veksler and Baldin Laboratory of High Energy Physics, are no longer in active use. Decorative lights now illuminate the massive structure's contours, as if it's a secret location for some extra-nerdy rave.
New infrastructures crop up around the older ones like mushrooms on a fallen tree. Looping around the basement underneath the synchrophasotron is the Nuclotron, completed in 1992, which will be incorporated into a new "megaproject" called the Nuclotron-based Ion Collider fAсility (NICA) complex which is currently in development. Slated for commissioning in 2020, NICA is designed to create quark-gluon plasma, a state of matter believed to have characterized the first milliseconds after the Big Bang, and will join CERN and Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider as a major particle physics center.
NICA project promo. Video: NICA Project/YouTube
After an afternoon talk from nuclear physicist Yuri Oganessian, the leading expert in super-heavy elements (SHEs), we toured the SHE factory complex, which was under heavy construction, smelling like spackle, wood, and paint. Here, scientists hope to consolidate the JINR's lead in synthesizing the unknown SHEs that occupy the nosebleed section of the periodic table. Within the past year, the element Oganesson (118) was named after Oganessian, and Moscovium (115) was named for Moscow.
Dubna's landscape of old workhorse machines overlaid with newer ambitious projects casts JINR as essentially transitional; a butterfly in chrysalis. In addition to its technological makeover, the institute is also in the midst of a cultural metamorphosis. In 2005, Dubna was designated as a special economic zone, meaning that business and trade laws there have been tweaked to encourage commercial investments in new technologies.
JINR's management has also made greater strides to extend its sphere beyond its 18 member nations, most of which are former Soviet satellite countries. The institute's slogan—"science bringing nations together"—reflects a shift toward openness.
This combination of increased funding, international collaboration, and economic diversification turned out to be a theme at every location we visited. The day after the Dubna trip, March 1, we headed to the Space Research Institute (IKI) in southeast Moscow, which has been steadily regaining its exploratory footing after decades of financial strain. In addition to purely Russian space exploration projects, IKI has partnered with the European Space Agency on the ExoMars missions, and with NASA on a potential Venus mission called Venera-D.
In the afternoon, we drove north to the MIPT main campus in Dolgoprudny, which is also in a phase of active reinvention. The university has set ambitious goals for attracting foreign students and professorial talent, offering English-language courses to help sweeten the pot. We toured newly-minted laboratories devoted to nanooptics, plasmonics, and quantum circuits, and met with Artem Oganov, a world-renowned crystallographer and materials scientist, and his internationally diverse team of students.
After an overnight train to Saint Petersburg, we hit up the vibrant ITMO University campus. Ekaterina Boglaeva, head of the ITMO press office, escorted us through some of the university's laboratories, including a robotics room filled with a menagerie of mobile artificial objects. A 15-year-old student named Daniel, mentored by the lab staff, showed off his concept model of a robotic system for oil transport in the Arctic (a timely idea, given Russia's recent moves to dominate northern oil reserves).
Later, over dinner, we talked to the leads of ITMO's Innovation Department, which is actively working to spur startup culture in Saint Petersburg.
Everywhere we went, there was a sense that Russian science is on the upswing, thanks to substantial investments from the government. These efforts include the National Technological Initiative, an ambitious 20-year science roadmap outlined by Putin in 2014, as well as academic competitions like Project 5-100, which is designed to lift at least five Russian universities into the top 100 world rankings by 2020. The state has begun to offer "megagrants," valued at up to 150 million rubles ($5 million) each, to entice leading researchers—especially expatriates—to establish laboratories in Russia.
Perhaps no institution reflects this new direction better than the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), a small university founded in Moscow in 2011, in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Branded as "Russia's Silicon Valley," a nickname that was previously reserved for Moscow's Zelenograd technological hub, the Skolkovo complex is designed to bridge gaps between Russian science and the rest of the world by encouraging small businesses, investment in foreign talent, and open-source science.
"Ideally, these international cultural norms should be disseminated wider within the country," Irina Dezhina, head of Skoltech's science and industrial policy group, told me over email.
This explosion of activity follows a long and painful scientific hiatus. In the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, science in Russia essentially flatlined for 20 years due to severe economic strain. The result was a devastating brain drain, in which droves of Russian scientists emigrated to greener scientific pastures.
"At that time, Russian science was dying from underfunding," Oganov, who left his native Moscow in 1999, told me. "We did not have state of the art equipment. We were cut off largely from modern scientific literature. It seemed that the country was going to die, and that science would die as well."
"It is clear that science should be free of any politics"
But Russia has a way of rebounding. The scientific community is beginning to reclaim its far-flung researchers back within its borders. Oganov, after 16 years abroad, accepted a megagrant in 2013 and set up his laboratory at MIPT. Two years later, he became a professor at Skoltech, and now splits his time between Stony Brook University in New York, and his Russian professorships. Oganov is one of many scientists we met who returned to the nation after a prolonged absence, and calls himself "a new guy in Russia" who is "still getting to know the ropes."
I asked Oganov if revived antagonism between Russia and the West might throw a wrench in this shift toward a more open science community, perhaps even discouraging foreign students from matriculating in Russian institutions. He said he doubts it will have a noticeable impact.
"If people really only went to countries which do not invade other countries and respect human rights, then they would stick to countries like Andorra or Bhutan," he told me. "Maybe it sounds a bit cynical, but in my observation, most people in science are driven by opportunities. Regardless of whether such an attitude is moral or not, it is clear that science should be free of any politics."
But holding that line is a challenge when politics infringes on science, as American scientists have learned. Many have been galvanized into activism by Trump's election, and the slew of anti-science legislation he has proposed since assuming office. The recent March for Science, on April 22, was attended by hundreds of thousands of protesters in over 600 cities.
During his 17 years in power, Putin has never inspired anywhere near the same public backlash from Russian scientists as Trump has received from Americans. There are numerous reasons for this, including Putin's outwardly pro-science attitude and the dangers of protest in his country. But Putin's administration has inevitably politicized the landscape of Russian science in ways that often interfere with his stated objectives.
One particularly troubling example is Putin's decision, in 2012, to introduce a law that allows his administration to label non-profit organizations as "foreign agents" if they receive funding from outside the country. In 2015, Putin doubled down with another law allowing the government to deem certain NGOs "undesirable" if they are perceived to pose a threat to Russian hegemony.
In the international community, these laws are widely regarded as slapdash legal cover for government intimidation, a charge that the Kremlin denies. Many organizations have been forced out of Russia after being branded "foreign" or "undesirable," including US-based science and education promoters like the MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Foundation, as well as Russian science promoters like the Dynasty charitable foundation.
Scientists in Russia are disincentivized from accepting grants from any remaining organizations on the blacklist, Dezhina said, because they are required to highlight the fact that their work was "prepared with the support of a foreign agent."
"Just imagine this situation in the United States," she told me, in which a university produces a report labeled "prepared with Russian money."
These laws have an anti-foreigner bent that runs counter to the government's stated goals of opening Russia to the world. The new rules have enabled state harassment of immigrant scientists—like the 2015 firing and expulsion of investor Kendrick White—which some see as payback for Western sanctions. Those sanctions, too, have affected the science community in adverse ways, though many Russians I spoke with are proud that the nation is learning to manufacture and replace sanctioned items. A popular motto and social media hashtag—"импортозамещение"—celebrates the country's efforts at "import substitution."
Combined with Putin's steady consolidation of power over major institutions including the RAS and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, scientists in Russia, like their counterparts in the United States, have plenty to worry about in terms of state politicization of their work.
In fact, some experts have explicitly linked Russia's autocratic political tendencies to long-standing direct and indirect suppression of its scientific capital. Speaking to the Boston Globe in 2015, MIT science historian Loren Graham said that "Russian leaders keep thinking that the way to solve the problem is by government edict—you know, create Skolkovo, and so forth."
"I would say that the failure of Russia to adequately use the talents of its scientists and engineers is one of the important reasons why Russia has not been able to make the transition to democracy," he added.
"In such politically difficult times, science becomes a real soft power, because through scientific collaboration, countries continue to keep relationships"
Still, most scientists I spoke with shared Oganov's disinclination toward getting entangled in political activism, prioritizing their scientific partnerships over sabre-rattling between nations. According to David Senske, the American Venera-D team lead based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, waxing tensions between Russia and the United States have not interfered with IKI and NASA's joint dream of exploring Venus.
"We, as scientists, keep our eye on the prize," Senske told me over the phone. "We let the higher-ups deal with politics. As a science definition team, we operate as one."
This mindset was reinforced by a recent, as-yet unpublished survey of Russian and French scientists, conducted by Dezhina, in which most respondents claimed that political strains would not affect their work. In fact, many of them saw increased collaboration as a crucial bulwark against the dangerous whims of world leaders.
"[Scientists] continue to cooperate as before, and moreover, in such politically difficult times, science becomes a real soft power, because through scientific collaboration, countries continue to keep relationships," Dezhina told me. "I was amazed at how unified the answers were on this question."
On Wednesday morning at Cafe Pushkin, a historic restaurant in Moscow, we met representatives of scientific institutions in five-minute increments, "speed-dating" style. I took in the skinny version of what's going on at the Russian Quantum Center, the Higher School of Economics, Skoltech, the Russian search engine giant Yandex, and others. Shepunova rang a bell when the time was up, and reps moved on to the next reporter.
This musical-chairs breakfast was a microcosm of the trip. The MIPT and ITMO press teams ran a tight schedule, but they also punctuated the tour with games, jokes, and local flavor. On the bus between locations, for instance, Shepunova handed out some novelty meme postcards MIPT had created to advertise the university's specialty fields with trademark Russian gallows humor.
Only within the past few years have Russian institutions caught on to the value of marketing and PR skills, and our hosts seemed eager to make up for lost time. They were charged up with ideas, including science slams, science festivals, and media events starring scientists—and of course, press trips.
"I'm sure that in the United States and in Europe, talking to the public is a habit for scientists," said Elena Brandt, who spearheaded this tour as the head of the MIPT press office.
"Here, it's not a norm," added Brandt, who has since joined the Yandex PR team. "The people who do it are the early adopters, the innovators."
Progress is being made: The Russian Science Citation Index, a database of top-tier scholarly publications in Russia, was integrated into the global Web of Science in 2015, finally enabling Russian scientists to share and compare their work with the world on a much broader scale. Russian citations in influential global journals, like Nature and Science, have also increased by 25 percent since 2012.
Still, the Russian government's panoptical approach to curating the media has implications for every sphere. Science journalism in the West is meant to be driven by public interest, which ideally shapes the science policies and agendas of government. In Russia, that vector is reversed. "There is a joke among the PR people that our main audience is one person, and it's our president," Brandt told me.
Independent publications have begun to flourish in spite of this entrenched, top-down media foodchain, and the state's regressive attitudes toward journalists and free speech. When Kremlin officials orchestrated the 2014 dismissal of Galina Timchenko, editor-in-chief of the popular Russian news hub Lenta.ru, most of the staff resigned in solidarity, issuing a public statement decrying the downward spiral of independent journalism in Russia.
Much of the former staff of Lenta.ru have become innovators in the digital media environment. Timchenko went on to found the Meduza Project news startup in Latvia to provide a professional home for exiled Russian reporters frustrated at the suffocating media culture under Putin.
Meanwhile, Andrei Konyaev, who ran Lenta.ru's science and technology section until he quit over Timchenko's firing, created his own science news site, N+1, funded by private investors. It has since blossomed into one of Russia's most popular independent science websites.
Now that he has developed his own science readership, Konyaev's editorial instinct is to explore the journalistic autonomy that Lenta.ru was denied. With about a dozen people on staff, N+1 covers a range of scientific topics from around the world. When I ask him, over Skype, about reporting on issues that are controversial in Russia, such as commercial science figures like Elon Musk, he said he is "twice as cautious" to make sure all the facts are airtight.
"You give [readers] a good weapon so that they will shoot each other and not you," he said. "Don't get killed by your own product."
It's a topical metaphor, in light of the recent wave of weaponized information, much of it originating from Russia. In contrast to the kind of media weapon Konyaev is talking about—truth bombs, if you will—this disinformation campaign has been characterized by the terms "fake news," "alternative facts," and other Orwellian neologisms.
The reach of Russian state propaganda has been amplified by President Trump's eagerness to push Kremlin-friendly narratives, sometimes literally from the Oval Office.
Many of Trump's supporters now identify more with Putin's autocratic vision for Russia than with the Republican or Democratic platforms for America. As a result, Americans alarmed by Putin's apparent power over Trump have been backsliding into vestigial Cold War paranoia. When former US director of national intelligence James Clapper testified about Russian electoral interference on May 8, he said: "Going back to 2015, there was evidence of Soviet—excuse me, Freudian slip— Russian activity."
Could this revived "red scare" impact the efforts of the burgeoning science communication movement in Russia? Shepunova told me that since Trump was elected, a few of her contacts have expressed concern about reporting on Russian-sourced news of any kind, fearing that it might be propaganda.
Likewise, Brandt told me that when she initially started reaching out to foreign journalists in the midst of the Crimean crisis, she expected political blowback, saying that her team thought "everybody hates Russia, nobody will take news from us."
But most journalists, it turns out, still respect the authenticity of MIPT, and when combined with the rising tide of entrepreneurialism, Russian science popularization is poised to be propelled to new heights. Konyaev has helped pave this road within the media sphere with N+1, and Russian tech companies continue to sprout up, shaking off Soviet-era distaste for capitalist structures like startups.
Oganov, who is full of interesting factoids about Russian culture and history, told me that Russia essentially kickstarted its empire over 1,000 years ago by borrowing piracy from the Vikings. Entrepreneurialism, he said, may follow the same pattern.
"Russia is a funny country," he told me. "There are many things that Russia learned from foreigners over history. [Entrepreneurship] is something that is not innate to Russian culture, but piracy wasn't either—yet when Vikings came to Russia, they taught Russians to be first-class pirates very quickly. And when Peter the Great created the Russian Academy of Sciences in the 1700s, entirely from foreigners, because there was no science in Russia, it wasn't long until Russia mass-produced some of world's best scientists."
"Mark my words, in 30 or 50 years, the top entrepreneurs in the world will come from this country," he continued. "With pirates, it took very little."
On our last night in Russia, we walked back to the hotel after a late dinner at a cozy restaurant named the Idiot, after the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It was snowing as we strolled along the Moyka River, and through Ostrovsky Square, where a statue of Catherine the Great stood tall in the chilly night.
Long regarded as one of Russia's most effective monarchs—in part because she promoted Western science—Catherine was a foreigner, born a German princess named Sophie. This outsider status enabled her to grasp Russia's untapped potential as a world player. She was one of many immigrants who helped define Russia's strong sense of national identity.
Now, centuries later, Russian leadership is once again flexing its brawn and systematically testing the defences of its rivals. Putin may have a reputation for slyness, but his vision of a dictatorial Russia as the dominant world power is writ large over the entire planet.
Scientists and science communicators will play a crucial role in shaping these new global dynamics. At the heart of science is the pursuit of empirical, objective truth, and ideas that transcend borders. This endeavor is more important than ever in our modern landscape of stealthy maneuvering, anti-science legislation, and rampant disinformation.
In the words of Dostoevsky, "it is not the brains that matter most, but that which guides them—the character, the heart, generous qualities, progressive ideas." Russia's science community is now reawakening after a long, excruciating thaw. What happens next depends not only on the Russians themselves, but science advocates everywhere.
Update: This story has been updated to include additional comment from Oganov regarding what Russia has learned, historically, from foreigners.
Correction: An earlier version of this article included an image of the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo instead of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology. The photo has been removed.
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- Vladimir Putin
- Donald Trump
- Jared Kushner
- iron curtain
- trump presidency
- Michael Flynn
- Russian Academy of Sciences
- March for Science
- ITMO university