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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Brainchild of academicians Mikhail Lavrentiev, Sergei Sobolev, Andrei Trofimuk and others, Akademgorodok (the town of science in Russian), was a model scientific community placed in the forests of Siberia. Approved in 1957, ground broken in 1958, the town was designed to foster theoretical and applied research in the natural sciences, technology and economics. The Siberian site on the Ob Sea, a reservoir near the city of Novosibirsk, was chosen far from the interference of Moscow by practical idealists supported by Nikita Khrushchev. Soviet science, they believed, freed from red tape to pursue its rational ends, could surpass western science and burnish the image of Soviet for the entire world. Although it never completely lived up to dreams, Akademgorodok is still a leading scientific center with twenty different research institutes producing world-class research in physics, mathematics and other sciences.

Scientists flocked to Akademgorodok from throughout the Soviet Union. Living conditions were ideal by Soviet standards, beyond even the Moscow norm. Buildings were of standard design, but the shops were well-supplied, the apartments comfortable, and cultural opportunities were abundant. For all their deification of science, planners preserved the natural beauty of the site in the middle of a forest, with its pinewood and birch coppices, a profusion of squirrels and birds, the golden beach and mountain slopes for winter skiing.

The utopian vision of no bureaucratic interference proved impossible in the Soviet Union. Tremendous successes in seemingly non-ideological fields such as physics were coupled with failures in fields such as genetics and cybernetics that touched deep philosophic and social questions. Still, Akademgorodok encouraged an openness of exchange that embodied the best of the thaw years, and was a harbinger of the era of glasnost. Topics taboo in Moscow were discussed freely in Siberia, and not confined to the pure science intended by state planners. Akademgorodok put scientists at the center of social reform, yet it also represented the isolation and elitism that would forever hinder intellectuals in their attempts to improve the Soviet way.

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