Los Angeles Times
September 2, 2001
RUSSIA'S BANK OF KNOWLEDGE
Scientist Gets Down to Business
Siberia: Mathematician who chose not to emigrate from an academic town
after the Soviet collapse went West in other ways.
By JOHN DANISZEWSKI, TIMES STAFF WRITER
AKADEMGORODOK, Russia -- Alexei Alexeyev gets a little wistful when he describes his youth, growing up in a town where a researcher was king and scientific achievement was the Soviet Union's proudest boast.
"The atmosphere was unbelievable--there was no other place in the world that had such enthusiasm for scientific ideas," recalled Alexeyev, a 42-year-old mathematician-turned-entrepreneur.
His Akademgorodok, or "Academic Town," is a relic of a lost world that still claims its main avenue is "the most scientific street in the world." The town was built in 1957 by the Soviet Academy of Sciences to pamper the country's brightest scientific minds so that they would add to the glory of the world's first Marxist-Leninist state. And that is what they did until the collapse of the Soviet Union 10 years ago. Today, after a decade of upheaval during which many scientists abandoned their specialties or emigrated to survive, Akademgorodok is finding its footing again.
Many extremely smart people still work in Akademgorodok's University of Novosibirsk and about 40 academic institutes. But instead of leading closeted lives, the town's scientists have had to become more like their Western counterparts--chasing grants, founding commercial companies and tailoring their research to areas that are of interest to industry and the market.
Today, when Alexeyev goes to work, it is not to his father's commercially clueless Institute of Computational Mathematics and Mathematical Geophysics but to his own private software-writing firm, Siberian Information Technologies.
"Welcome to my gigdom," he tells visitors.
In many ways, Alexeyev's life mirrors what has happened to science in Russia.
Ensconced among birches and firs in southwestern Siberia and cradled in the hypocrisy of Soviet egalitarianism, Akademgorodok's scientists had privileges others could scarcely imagine: good salaries, their own apartments and single-family homes, special food stores, cars at their disposal, the right to vacation at the best Black Sea resorts and passports for travel to the West. Foreign academics came for conferences. Institutes had funds to buy equipment and stock laboratories.
In contrast to the dogmatic straitjacket of Soviet society, here an atmosphere of intellectual freedom was permitted.
The town was designed in large part to foster interdisciplinary relations. It was a place where mathematicians, geologists, physicists, chemists and biologists could easily mingle with one another.
Although the Communist Party remained the ultimate power, censorship was a little looser here, allowing films and plays to be shown that were banned elsewhere.
Alexeyev remembers his years growing up in the 1960s and '70s as a golden time. The Soviet Union was in a race with the United States for conquest of space, nuclear weaponry and national prestige. In a society that was only nominally class-free, top scientists were among the royalty.
Alexeyev's father, Anatoly, was a famous academician living in a 12-room villa. Also a mathematician, he once had an idea for research to locate natural gas on sea floors. A few words about his project reached party officials, and soon money was found to commission a research vessel for his institute.
It was the same life that Alexeyev expected as a grown-up. But at about the time he got his doctorate, the Soviet system started failing. Subsidies for the institutes in Akademgorodok got smaller. Inflation rendered the once generous salaries laughable. When the Soviet Union finally ended, Alexeyev had a decision to make.
"I realized in 1991 that I had to choose between only two options. The first was to go to America and work in a university, and I could expect to start at around $45,000 a year," he said. "At the time, I was earning about $15 a month. . .
"The second was to give up science and start to do business but stay in Russia."
For many people, it would have been an easy choice. But Alexeyev had already lived in America, carrying out research in earthquake forecasting at USC. And though life in America had its attractions, he was convinced that he would never really fit in.
"People who emigrate for a better life, we call them 'sausage emigrants.' And being a sausage emigrant was not for me," he said. "So I had to choose business."
At the time, Alexeyev's father was not particularly upset that his son was leaving the family profession. It seemed like the way of the future. And the family was struggling economically.
One of Anatoly Alexeyev's close colleagues, Mikhail Lavrentiev, the director of the Sobolev Institute of Mathematics, remembers the travails of those years after the Soviet collapse.
"Salaries were not paid; the people did not have the means to relocate. You could even say we went hungry--to buy bread was problematic for us. . . . But little by little, we adapted," he said.
These days, Anatoly Alexeyev, 71, sitting in a vast wood-paneled office at his now threadbare institute, is concerned about all the men and women who--like his son--are abandoning Russian science.
The elder Alexeyev pointed out some figures: In the Russian Academy of Sciences, the average age of academicians is over 70, for doctors of science--the equivalent of full professors in the West--the average age is 61, and for candidates of science, the equivalent of PhDs, the average age has been rising because young people are not going into academia.
The problem is not that young people are no longer studying sciences in Russia; indeed, large numbers are. The problem is that when they graduate, they either go into business or they emigrate, often to the United States.
"Do you know the definition of the American system of higher education?" Alexei Alexeyev asks. "It's Russian professors teaching Chinese students."
Alexeyev estimates that at least 90 of the 180 students in his graduating class of 1983 are working abroad.
His family reflects the trend. His older brother stayed in academia like his father and is now a mathematics professor.
Alexeyev--the second son--started as a mathematician but after a few years changed to his current business. And his younger brother, also trained in mathematics, went straight into a food-processing business.
Alexeyev started in business by assembling a team of software writers. They designed Russia's first searchable photo database and sold the software to Interior Ministry departments around the country. Russia's police are using it today to identify criminal suspects, and, according to Alexeyev, the program stands up well compared with those developed in the West.
Now, Alexeyev is immersed in his new business, SibIT. He has assembled a collection of software writers and designers, and he is marketing their work to U.S. companies that need qualified technicians to write custom software.
His is only one of many such "offshore" programming companies in the town; the software companies have dubbed their industry in Akademgorodok the "Silicon Taiga."
Though not rolling in money, Alexeyev has earned enough to buy his own apartment and car. And he plows much of his earnings back into his business.
He and his father sometimes talk about the old days, Alexeyev said. "I'm optimistic," he said. "I think the biggest problems were for my generation.
"My father still thinks it was all very beautiful before. But as a [Soviet] academician, he never had to stand line in a shop, never saw the empty supermarket shelves.
"I told my father that if communism came back here, I would be the first to take an automatic rifle and go into the forest [and fight]."
Daniszewski was recently on assignment in Akademgorodok.
Johnson's Russia List
3 September 2001
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