Nakhodchivost ("a talent for finding things") is term used to describe the Russian ability to improvise and come up with low-tech solutions for difficult problems. The cosmonauts on the Russian space station Mir were experts at this.

The Academy of Sciences (Akademiya nauk) is Russia's most prestigious scholarly institute. Established in 1725 by Peter the Great, it has historically carried out long-range research and developed new technology. The Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union conducted basic research in the physical, natural, mathematical, and social sciences. In 1991 Russia established its own academy for the first time in the Soviet era.

Some methods used by the Soviets were somewhat dodgy. The Sklifosovskly Scientific Research Institute of Emergency Medical Assistance in Moscow routinely used the blood from recently dead cadavers in transfusions to living patients. Between 1930 and 1960 the institute drained the blood from 600 cadavers. Their research found the best blood came from victims that died suddenly, from such causes as heart attack, stroke, accidents, stranglings, alcohol poisoning and electrocution.

Progress in science was variable in the Soviet era. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviets clearly had the edge over the Americans in the space race. Within a 43 month period, they launched the first satellites, the first dog in space, the first spacecraft to reach the moon and the first man in space. In the late 1960s and through the 70s and 80s the Soviets lost their edge. In the most visible test of its advancement--the race with the United States to put a man on the moon--the Soviet Union failed, but through persistence the Soviet space program continued to make headway in other areas. In general, despite leads in such fields as metallurgy and thermonuclear fusion, Soviet science lagged behind that of the West, hampered in part by the slow development of computer technology. [Sources: Bill Keller, New York Times Magazine, Library of Congress, 1996*]

Biological Weapons Laboratory

A lot of government money and many of the best and brightest scientists were funneled into the military and weapons industry. A top-secret facility on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea was the world’s largest biological weapons testing ground and was one of the primary testing grounds for Russia's biological weapons using anthrax and other diseases. The island contains pens that held thousand of animals—rabbits, guinea pigs, monkeys, sheep, donkeys, mice, hamsters, horses and baboons—that were used in testing. Around 1,500 people lived there at its height. [Source: Christopher Pala, New York Times Magazine, January 12, 2002]

Gennadi Lepyoshkin, a scientist who worked at Vozrozhdeniye told the New York Times, “About one-third of our work was on weapons, like anthrax, plague and others bacteria, and two thirds on matters like testing vaccines or clothing or how long microorganisms would survive in the soil....The atmosphere was friendly, people were earning good money and we were provided with everything.” The workers used to sunbathe, dance and hunt ducks in their free time.

Much the testing involved giving disease-causing agents to animals. Lepyoshkin told the New York Times, “We used monkeys, about 200 to 300 each year. Our staff would take them out to the range”—25 kilometers from the town—“and they would put them in cages next to devises that the measured the concentration of germs in the air. Then after they were exposed, they would be taken to the labs, where we would test the labs, where we would test their blood and monitor the development of a disease in them. They would die within weeks, and we would perform autopsies..” The testing was usually only done in the summer when temperatures sore to 120°F to prevent the spread of the pathogens.

Lepyoshkin said, “There was always danger, but we never had an accidents. He recalled on incident in which a woman dropped a petri dish containing anthrax. She tried to hide her mistake but her accident was discovered. Here punishment: she was docked some money on her paycheck. “No one got sick,” Lepyoshkin said.

Closed Cities

In Russia there were ten major closed cities, where nuclear bombs were designed and made. They were not pictured on any maps; they were heavily guarded and access to them was strictly limited. People who lived in them were often not allowed to leave. Closed Cities were a unique Soviet creation. Residents were trained to be secretive about their activities and notify the KGB if they noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-70, the homes of Russian equivalents of Los Alamos Laboratory, were closed cities. Their names were changed often. Arzamas-16 was once known as "The Volga Office." According to Western estimates almost all of the 3,000 or scientists knowledgeable of "critical nuclear-weapons design information" worked at Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-70.

Arzamas-16 (250 miles east of Moscow) was the main nuclear design center and the home of the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov for 20 years. The first Soviet bomb, "Joe 1," the largest H-bomb ever detonated, ICBMs, the first MIRVs was designed here.

Technological Feats and Grandiose Schemes

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the deepest exploratory drilling took place near Zapolarny in the Kola peninsula of Arctic Russia. The drilling began on May 24 1970 and had surpassed a depth of 40,230 feet as of September 1992. In 1984, a 7½ mile deep hole was drilled on Siberia, reaching the earths lower crust.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the heaviest magnet in the world is at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at Dubna, near Moscow. It is 196 feet in diameter and weighs 42,000 tons.

Russia plans to build floating nuclear power plants that conceivably can be pulled across the world by tugboats and parked anywhere. One of these plants, about the size of a submarine reactor, was built at a cost of $260 million for an Arctic mining region. The reactor produced enough electricity for a town of 50,000 and periodically is pulled to its home port near St. Petersburg for refueling, repairs and the removal of radioactive waste.

Russia was scheduled to begin construction of a larger floating nuclear power plant in 2006 and have such plants ready by 2015 but the program has been delayed. There is currently one under construction that is supposed to be ready by 2018. The ship-based plant is being built in Severodvinsk in Russia’s far north and will produce 70 megawatts of power, enough to provide energy for a city of 200,000 people. The reactors are similar to those on nuclear submarines and icebreakers. These are constructed in St. Petersburg.

Other grandiose schemes suggested by the Russians ave included building a tunnel be the Far East and Alaska under the Bering Strait; using submarines to transport nickel ore under the Arctic ice cap; and building floating nuclear power plants.

Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Bombs

In 1956, a nuclear bomb was detonated underground to create a reservoir 65 miles southwest of Semey, a city in Kazakhstan. Large amounts of radiation was released into the atmosphere at the time of the blast was blown into populated areas. The reservoir is now called Atomic Lake.

In the Volga Basin nuclear explosions were set off to create vast reservoirs for natural gas. The gas emitted from the plant which processed the natural gas was said to be so toxic that doctors warned the health of children in villages 50 miles away was affected. [National Geographic, On Television, June 1993].

The Soviet Union detonated 116 nuclear bombs for "peaceful purposes" such as building mines and canals. Fifteen devise were set underground only a few miles from villages to create underground gas reservoirs. All but two of them caved in, making them useless, and one leaked low-level radiation. It is hard to imagine what the Soviets had in mind. Even if the cavities didn't collapse, what were people supposed to do heat their homes with gas made radioactive after being stored. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, August 1994]

Convinced that more water could help the Caspian Sea rebound, Soviet engineers in the early 1970s considered using nuclear explosions to open a new canal between the Pechora River and Kama River (a tributary of the Volga). Three 15-kiloton nuclear devices were detonated as part of an experiment and the radiation levels were figured to be within allowable limited. Even though the Soviet Union possessed the weapons to do the job (250 devices between 100 and 200 kilotons) the programs was eventually dropped because it was worried that it would divert to much warm water away from the Arctic Ocean and affect navigation there.

Scientists on the Arctic Ice Stations

Outfit in fur and housed in canvas tents insulated with down from Arctic ducks, the four-men drift station teams were made up of a hydrologist, radio operator, magnetician and leader. After being dropped off by an icebreaker the first thing the scientists did after they arrived was use bulldozers and dynamite to make a runway for supply planes. Next they built their ski-mounted living quarters. [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, February, 1997]

The scientists worked in the winter when temperatures dropped below -50 degrees F and winds gusted at 60 mph. Other dangers included storms, polar bears, frostbite, pools of standing water, holes and cracks in the ice ,and "meat grinder" pressure systems in which relatively thin platforms of ice were pressured on all sides by thicker ice. Scientists were occasionally forced to move buildings to keep them from falling into crevasses. If a situation became too dangerous, the scientist were rescued with helicopters and ski-equipped supply planes.

The scientist had dogs to warn them of approaching polar bears and kept their spirits up in the winter of total darkness with light therapy. They relaxed in makeshift saunas after which they rolled around in the snow and ice. A typical diary entry read: "The snowstorm raged unabated...we felt our ice floe quake again..hearts begin to palpitate. Our rundown condition is telling on us."

One group of scientist became national heros after they were rescued from a meting ice floe after spending nine months drifting across the Arctic Sea . A plane that was sent to reduce them couldn't land because there were too many crevasses. The scientist continued collect data in ankle-deep seawater right up until the time they were rescued in April, 1991 by a Soviet icebreaker.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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