From Nuclear War to the War of the Markets

Madrid EL PAIS, 7 Nov 95 p 8
by Pilar Bonet

Moscow -- Torn between their nostalgia for atomic bombs and the dream of joining the civil high technology market, the former "secret cities" of Russia that were created at the end of the 1940's and the start of the 1950's to produce and maintain the superpower's weapons are currently struggling to find a new identity and to find jobs for the elite scientists that used to be the pride of the USSR. These people who go starry- eyed when they remember the nuclear explosions that they prepared, now constitute a swarm of dissatisfied and badly- paid professionals who bear a lot of illwill against the country's current leadership.

These "secret cities" of Russia, a total of 35 municipalities that formed part of a single industrial military complex under the auspices of the Soviet Union, are now trying to find their own way out, like boats cast adrift at sea. At the end of last month, from 24-28 October, Moscow was the scene of an unprecedented event when the first congress of the closed cities was held. The 10 ultrasecret municipalities dependent on the Atomic Energy Ministry met to discuss their problems and exhibit the merchandise that they are now producing as a result of the reconversion of the military industry, ranging from carved wooden figures to alarm systems, to children's leotards and paste diamond jewelry. A total of around two million people live in the closed cities of Russia, one million of whom live in dependencies of the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry. The Moscow meeting did not exhibit any weaponry and excluded the 25 municipalities dependent on the Defense Ministry and the Military Industry Committee.

The closed cities are not yet shown on the maps but this is simply a result of inertia, since their location was detailed precisely in the advertising material that was heaped on potential customers.

What they offer is highly diverse: control systems for nuclear power stations, car batteries, wallets, biostimulators for vegetable growth, bottled mineral water, enriched uranium isotopes, highly radioactive waste, kitchen furniture, CD-ROMs, equipment for gas pipelines, mini oil refineries, plutonium 238 and polonium 210 neutron sources, dinner pails, containers for radioactive material, equipment for egg selection, and sheep skin tanners.

In their eagerness to open up to the outside world, the secret cities have been given more hospitable-sounding names than they received when they were founded, and for their representation in Moscow they have designed visiting cards in the form of pastoral videos and multicolored brochures.

Nevertheless, despite the great effort they are making to espouse normality, these towns, still surrounded by barbed wire are nevertheless both exotic bodies and centers of urban life and bear the imprint of the military enterprise they were based on. Seversk (Tomsk 7), a town of 110,000 inhabitants, was built around the Siberian Chemical Complex, an installation destined for the enrichment of uranium and the manufacture of plutonium. Nouvouralsk (Sverdlovsk 44), with a population of 95,000, was built around the electrochemical plant where nuclear weapons components were mass produced. Sarov (Arzamas 16) was the center for the design of nuclear warheads and is home to 83,000 people and the Russian Nuclear Center which leads Russian research in the design and modernization of atomic weapons and lasers.

In the wake of the international disarmament treaties that former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated in the 1980's, the military enterprises that were thus deprived of most of their business dedicated part of their freed-up capacity to disassembling their devices and ventured into new product areas.

The Russian Government currently does not have enough money for war or peace. Stepan Sulakshin, Vice Chairman of the Duma's Industry Committee that is responsible for the closed cities in the lower house, says that while in 1992 the federal budget funded 60 percent of the planned expenditure for military reconversion, in 1993 this fell to 40 percent, in 1994 to 20 percent, and this downward trend continues this year. Sulakshin points out that any significant technological progress realized in this sector has come from below thanks, in particular, to the small businesses that grew out of the ruins of the key industrial complexes.

In the giant military industrial firms the directors, accustomed to stable state subsidies, are learning the hard way how to draw up business plans and deal with financial instruments. Yuri Zavalishin, the director of the Avangard plant at Arzamas 16, the first factory to mass produce nuclear weapons, was once interested by one of the credits that the Spanish Government awarded to Russia, but claims he was forced to abandon his plans out of fear of the intermediaries.

Avangard produced the alarm system for Lenin's tomb in Moscow's Red Square and the one on Mikhail Gorbachev's dacha in Foros, Crimea. Today it manufactures security systems for nuclear plants and banks. The company is struggling to profitably produce milk production machinery that have come up against the crisis in the milk industry, and an artificial kidney that is having difficulty convincing a Health Ministry which Zavalishin claims is more interested in buying foreign-built dialysis machines than Russian-made ones. The Start company of Penza 16 used to produce security system to control the USSR's borders, but now manufactures communication modems for the new banks.

The closed cities are now suffering from their privileged supply positions in the past, even though the town officials boast that crime rates are lower there than in the rest of Russia thanks to the checks carried out to avoid terrorism and the theft of their nuclear and biological equipment. The cities even have choirs and dance groups. Among the singers in the folk choir at Trejgorni (Zlataust 36) are factory bosses who have gone unpaid for months.

While official unemployment rates in the closed cities vary from 2 to 9 percent, experts estimate that the actual figures are much greater given the empty factories and the plants that run only intermittently. The community of atomic power scientists is getting old now and there are no young people coming along to take their place, the youngsters preferring business to research.

Just like the rest of their countrymen, residents of the closed cities can now buy their own homes, but they only have a limited capability of turning this to their advantage by selling them or renting them out because of the restricted access to the cities. While there are some examples of successful international cooperation, such as the production of magnetic tape in association with BASF in Zelinogorsk, restrictions make it hard to establish relations with foreign partners.

Moreover, people are distrustful and afraid to deal with the West lest they lose the technological capacity they inherited from the Soviet military industry. Professionals in the Russian military industry commonly believe that continued military research is essential to maintain technological development in Russia and prevent the country from becoming a "colony" of the United States.

One of the delegates at the Moscow congress mentioned the International Center for Science and Technology founded by the EU, the United States, and Japan to support the reconversion process in the former USSR, and said that "behind the scenes a war is being waged on the areas" in which this organization will fund projects. He pointed out that the West is trying "to exclude the Russians from military areas and to break up the scientific communities by selective support for projects." The center has so far funded more than 100 reconversion projects, including one for the peaceful use of plutonium, and the reconversion of the bacteriological weapons industry to vaccine research.

Reserves of "Patriotism"

The inhabitants of the "closed cities" regret the destruction of the Soviet Union because their lives and well-being were dependent on the state. Nuclear physicist and Duma member Stepan Sulakshin claims that because of their view of patriotism they are disinclined to vote for the reformist parties and will more often than not vote either for the Communists, the Congress of Russian Communities, or the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia led by the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovskiy.

There is currently an open debate in the Russian scientific community as to the role the post-Soviet state has to play in defining a development strategy for the country.

The debate has cast light on the different views of the future of the closed cities which feel they have come to a crossroads between continuing to lead the way in the nation's scientific research -- as they were when they were in the forefront of military projects -- or of resigning themselves to languishing as real provincial towns.