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New Atlantis

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02 April 2013


Ob Sea, a man-made reservoir by Akademgorodok,  Novosibirsk Scientific Centre. Picture: The Siberian Times 

Dmitry Avrorin, a Siberian-born documentary director, now lives between Moscow and Los Angeles.

His parents are both scientists, they lived in Akademgorodok for 35 years where he was born and raised, witnessing its happiest days as well as the hardships that came when the Soviet Union ended and the world turned on its head.

This is Dmitry's remarkable personal account of what Novosibirsk Scientific Centre meant - and means - to him.

I would say that Akademgorodok is one of the most interesting and important monuments in the world.

You can compare it with the Mayan pyramids, or Pompey. The difference is that Akademgorodok is definitely alive and is not protected by museum caretakers. However, if I was a producer or a broadcaster, it would be very hard to convince me to make a film about this town. 


We begin. First explosion since the end of II World War at the start of Akademgorodok grandiose building site. Picture:

The very landscape of Akademgorodok is a complete contradiction to what one needs for an entertaining documentary. A few wide streets (a little wider than usual - a specific requirement of the military, which were thought to mitigate the consequences of a nuclear attack), a series of model homes, only a few of which can claim to belong to good architecture.

Advertisements and shop signs are awkwardly taped to the walls. There are cottages in the forest, later remade by the owners in the taste of a provincial American town - inevitable siding, white windows frames.

We interviewed about 40 residents of Akademgorodok, mostly scholars, or writers and journalists.

Although those were people who usually do not experience problems expressing their thoughts, with the rare exception, they stubbornly repeated a number of clichés, which were consistently used for 50 years: 'a unique research centre'... 'reveal the potential of Siberia'... 'squirrels in the streets'... 'the merger of academic and applied research...'
Siberia, Lavrentyev
Mikhail Lavrentyev, left, the great founder of Akademgorodok, choosing the best location for the scientific town. Picture: 

As if they were members of some secret society, the residents did not want to share their intimate knowledge with outsiders.

Once I managed to make the Kremlin inhabitants to talk like human beings. But this time it was a wall far stronger than the Kremlin’s. Interviews didn’t work at all.

Part of the explanation is that the Soviet and now Russian popular culture hasn’t come up with the appropriate dictum that renders the meaning of Akademgorodok. For the West, it didn’t seem to be a problem: the most complete study of Akademgorodok written in English simply describes it as a 'New Atlantis'. ('New Atlantis Revisited', Paul R. Josephson)

Suddenly we got lucky. Local amateur cameraman took a box with 16mm films out of his garage. It was a private footage, made by a man who lived in Akademgorodok since its first days and who died long time ago. Since then, no one watched those tapes.

Some of Akademgorodok’ residents were quite wealthy by Soviet standards. Many owned good movie cameras, and made a lot of good footage. This was very good footage.

Apparently, those 16mm shots were taken in the mid 60s. Spring. May Day demonstration. Flags. Many people are dressed in military uniforms. The Soviet Union was obviously in a good shape at this time. Portraits of members of Politburo swaying above the rows of marching people. Amateur cameraman takes camera down and captures beautiful women's legs.

Soviet officials, too, loved to watch newsreels from Akademgorodok. Always featuring skiers and athletes, those films remind of the documentaries of Leni Riefenstahl.

The Soviet mythology often portrays scientists as freaks, but at the same time it doesn’t stop those freaks from being supermen. This is why so many athletes in the chronicle wear glasses. A typical sequence: scientists are drinking coffee in a glass building amidst Siberian winter. Outside the window, inevitably – a pair of running skiers. A silver jetliner flies over the trees.

It was a utopia built in reality, almost an independent state, rationally designed and created by scientists who embodied their dream of an ideal city.

Siberia, Mikhail Lavrentyev

Mikhail Lavrentyev, 1900-1980, The Founder and the First Chairman of the Siberian Academy of Science. Picture: 

Those were the same guys who created the Soviet hydrogen bomb and the first computers. So you can imagine how perfectly planned this project was.

Akademgorodok gathered the brightest, fastest minds across the country. But not all of them were equal. The living conditions of the inhabitants were determined by their value to science: in the forest, closer to the artificial Ob Sea, cottages were built for the greatest scientists, members of the Academy of Sciences.

Lower ranks - Academy candidates lived in duplexes. PhDs and other valuable employees settled on the adjoining street of Morskoy Prospekt, built with four-storied houses. A little further, in simple Khrushchevkas lived engineers and researchers. A step further, beyond the Upper Zone - barracks were reserved for ordinary workers.

Soviet science has calculated it all: how much square feet a person needs for housing, depending on the strength of his/her intellectual labour, how many chairs have to be in the apartment, what is a scientist’s need for hot and cold water (a PhD obviously needs more hot water than just an ordinary researcher!).

Institutes buildings meet another important criterion - a thing that works is a beautiful thing.

Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics, images from Dmitry Avrorin's documentary

It explains the fact that the majority of institute facades look so simplistic and even boring.

Indeed, the laboratories had to be equipped with best-in-time instruments. Some buildings, however, looked rather impressive, underscoring their place in the hierarchy of sciences.

I remember as a child I came to the Computing Centre. The pressurised atmosphere of computer rooms immediately affected my ears. Everyone in the room was dressed in white robes. This time the Computer Centre hosted an experiment that was supposed to bring the idea of planning of life to its highest point. 


Ventilation shafts of bomb shelters, images from Dmitry Avrorin's documentary

It was assumed that it is possible to create algorithms sophisticated enough to allow computers automatically operate the entire economy of the Soviet Union. Straight from the building of this Computing Centre.

So the military advisers might not be that wrong when they insisted on making the streets of Akademgorodok wider.

And the streets' intersections featured inconspicuous little 'mushrooms'. Those were the ventilation shafts of the atomic bomb shelters.

Dmitry Avrorin

Dmitry Avrorin, Russian documentary maker, born and raised in Akademgorodok

In the most literal sense, the Soviet bomb has saved thousands of lives. Those who were already condemned to death in GULAGs.

The creators of the bomb made countless 'Schindler's Lists', which included all of those under the pretext of being needed in the hydrogen project. Both the creators of the bomb and the rescued then found themselves in Akademgorodok.

When we asked to show us some advanced research, we were brought into a small hut in the woods. It was the Laboratory of Explosion Physics. A pile of firewood and a big lazy cat at the entrance. Machines inside the hut were inherited directly from the hydrogen bomb tests. They still working after 60 years of service and just began to warm their vacuum tubes when we started shooting.

It turned out that the very Russian idea to use the hut was also very efficient - if an uncontrollable explosion happened in the room, the blast wave would smash laboratory's flimsy walls, instead of crushing everything inside.


Laboratory of Explosion Physics, images from Dmitry Avrorin's documentary

Institute of Nuclear Physics was a mandatory item on the shooting list. Interiors of the institute were filled with massive and impressive machinery.

The first director of the Institute Gersh Budker, reportedly a polygamist, an organiser of scientific seminars on a nudist beach, was also an outstanding scientist and a lucky entrepreneur. 

Even under the circumstances of the Soviet system, the institute legally earned quite decent money by selling its advanced technology directly to its customers for cash. At some point, the Soviet government decided it was too much. The institute was banned from commercial activities. The money was confiscated. 

An urban legend says that some of this money eventually went to the construction of a huge statue of Lenin in the centre of Novosibirsk.

Budker left Akademgorodok and soon died of a stroke. But his institute turned out to be very tenacious.

In the 90s, when Russian science was cut from financing and the rural areas around the town were filled with PhDs involved in subsistence farming, Budker's institute conducted market research.

It was found that elementary particle accelerators might be quite useful in the commercial world – they can effectively kill insects in the wood and grain, while the tunnel for the new accelerator appeared to be well suited for preserving potatoes. With this kind of trick the institute survived. It now proudly bears the name of Gersh Budker.

The streets of Akademgorodok can be very eloquent if you know a little about Soviet history. The very first houses are well-built and keep a good sense of style and proportions. Soon enough, the state – a co-founder of the project - decided to show who was really in charge.

Thus, next to the first buildings, we see simplistic barrack-style Khruschevkas. The General Secretary of the Communist Party ordered in person to cut by half the height of the tower of the city Hotel. 

r-l: Mikhail Lavrentyev, the founder of Akademgorodok; centre of the picture, Soviet Leader Nikita Khruschev. Picture: 

The Post office and Shopping Center were built as planned. They remind of the style of the époque, when it seemed obvious that by the year 2000 humans will establish settlements on other planets, and capitalism will certainly disappear, as it will not withstand competition with the society where a person works not for profit, but for common good and prosperity.

Later a number of attempts was taken to reproduce Akademgorodok in other places.

In the city of Navoi, Uzbekistan, you can see an exact replica of one of its streets, but this time with camels and minarets all around.



Akademgorodok streets, nestled among the pine woods, and some typical Soviet-style blocks of flats. Pictures: The Siberian Times 

Compared to other utopias, new Atlantis lasted long enough. Most of our interviewees agreed that the whole 60s were the Golden era of Akademgorodok, however its relationship with the regime eventually deteriorated. 

In 1968, when Soviet troops crushed the uprising in Czechoslovakia, a number of residents openly protested. The Party officials used it as a reason to finally push scientists out of controlling of the city.

Scientific life continued after that but, in general, the experiment was over. Eventually, the special rations for academics and PhDs were reduced to minimum.

One sunny day, just before the end of the Soviet Union we went with friends to the mall. Only one product was in display: seaweed. A huge empty hall was crammed with thousands of identical cans. As if trying to make it look like conceptual art, vendors turned every single can at the same angle.

The coming of capitalism was horrible. Soon the streets were filled with kiosks, covered with thick sheets of riveted iron. Next to them stood smoking skeletons of other kiosks whose owners saved money on armour coating. 

We, graduates of the Novosibirsk State University gathered in a large room next to the University President's office. The President, as many Akademgorodok scientists, was discouraged by sudden and irreversible changes. 

He made a short speech, which I can’t forget: 'My friends, the country in which we were born and studied, ceased to exist. I don’t know where you’re going to work and if there is any job available for you anymore. I can’t advise you what to do in this situation. Only one thing - try to stay honest people no matter what happens - and good luck'. 

Those institutes of Akademgorodok have survived, that had enough wisdom and composure not to cancel their research projects even during the darkest years. Trying to survive, scientists began to choose exotic careers, like an adept of esoteric breath techniques to improve health (and save the world), a leader of ultra-nationalist party, a professional comedian (lots of scientists chose this one), a specialist in transferring thoughts over long distances.

The first signs of revival appeared already in the late 90s. Now one can easily spot new buildings – they are much taller and mostly don’t care much about their modest ancestors. If you look at the windows of apartments, you can see that many interiors maintain the classic 'gorodkovsky' style - walls should be all covered with bookshelves. 

It should be plenty of books. The former Soviets know exactly the titles of most of these books. Sometimes you can see a minimalist chandelier in the form of a trapezoid – in the 50s all the chandeliers and bookshelves were the same. 

Movie posters at the local cinema are still painted by hand. Functional Soviet buildings got adapted to a different life. The store once crowned with laconic inscription 'Bread' is now an Irish pub. The place of eternal dirt once called 'Vegetables' turned into a bank, where all the cashiers look like models.

Modern-day Akademgorodok, students relax on the Ob sea beach. Picture: The Siberian Times 

On the streets, you can recognise those who remember the happiest days of the New Atlantis. The habit of wearing a beard has turned many of them into living impersonators of Socrates and Karl Marx.

They are often found in the Post office, where they stay in the line for pension. They try not to miss the May Day Victory parades and attend lectures in the House of Scientists. In their homes one can find radios and turntables made around the middle of the last century. As usual, everything works and still in use.

It gave me an idea how to make a good interview with locals. We asked one of the leading scientists, expert in the field of physics of the explosion, to guide us through his musical collection.

The scientist came to Akademgorodok at its very first days. Fond of jazz, he was a conductor of the orchestra, and in the late 50s bought one of the first Soviet tape-recorders. It was a huge box, surely a side product made by some military plant. Of course, the tape-recorder was found in perfect condition. During the third song, the scientist was already there, in Akademgorodok of 60s, in the ideal city. No words needed.


Scientists, listening to the old jazz recording, and the older generation of Akademgorodok residents. Pictures: Dmitry Avrorin 

16mm footage shot by amateur cameraman shows us a group of men and women who celebrate New Year's Eve.

Most likely they work in the same laboratory and it’s the year 1964 or 1965. The furnishing in the apartment is very modest. A simplistic steel sink in the kitchen, inevitable bookshelves. Everyone already had a few drinks and was about to start dancing. On the faces of these people one can easily recognise an expression of happiness.

It’s not a tropical idleness, neither a happiness of joyful consumption. It’s a present and meaningful happiness that did not start yesterday and will not end tomorrow.

It was necessary to keep the mind clear, which is not so easy when you’re shooting a film about the city were you have spent your childhood and much of your life. The producer expected me make a documentary, which at least pays the costs. That thing I tried to keep in mind while shooting the windows of the apartment where my family used to live. 

I could recognise the old wallpaper and furniture that my dad made for the kitchen. It worked well as a view of a typical street of Akademgorodok. An atomic shelter shaft, buildings on the left are painted in pink with yellow stripes, buildings on the right in yellow and red stripes. Trees aligned the pavements. Birch trees on the right side, pine trees on the left. An elderly woman trudges with a shopping bag. 

This was the landscape of Atlantis. 

After all, not so many of us have seen the Atlantis... right? 

More on Akademgorodok in the trailer to Dmitry Avrorin's documentary:

Comments (2)

A great read! I would love to know more about the jazz club scene in the early 60's
James Mc Geever, Kaunas Lithuania
03/12/2020 15:17
you are a genious Dmitry. I've never been to Siberia and I'm not into science or anything but your piece just 'caught' me and didn't let me go till the last line.
Katarina, Warsaw
03/04/2013 01:02

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