Around the time that Apple Computer was making it big in California, Andrey Shtorkh was getting a first-hand look at the Soviet approach to high tech: He guarded the fence keeping scientists inside Sverdlovsk-45, one of the country’s secret scientific cities, deep in the Ural Mountains.
Ostensibly, the cities were closed to guard against spies. Its walls also kept scientists inside, and everybody else in the Soviet Union out. While many people in the country went hungry, the scientific centres were islands of well-being, where store shelves groaned with imported food and other goodies.
Security in these scientific islands was so tight, though, that even children wore badges. Relatives had to apply months in advance for permission to visit. “It was a prison, a closed city in every sense,” recalls Shtorkh, then a young soldier.
Today, he is the publicist for an improbable new venture. The Russian government, hoping to diversify its economy away from oil, is building the first new scientific city since the collapse of the USSR. Even more improbably, it is modelled, officials say, on Silicon Valley.
The site, still nameless and near a village outside Moscow, is conceived not as a secretive, numbered city in Siberia but as an attempt to duplicate the vibrancy and entrepreneurial spirit of the US’s technology hotbed.
Russia’s rich scientific traditions and poor record of converting ideas into marketable products are both undisputed, cited as causes for the Soviet collapse and crippling dependence on mining and petroleum. Not surprisingly, then, its leaders look longingly at Silicon Valley.