Kulibins are quixotic inventors named after Ivan Kulibin, an 18th century mechanical engineer who designed dozens of crazy but practical machines that were never manufactured. Among the most famous kulibins were 1) Mikhail Puchkov, who invented a pedal- and engine-powered plastic submarine that could submerge to 9 meters below the water surface and travel 100 miles a day; 2) Nikolai Kizhayen, who built a battery-powered front door, and sophisticated control room that controls all of his household appliances; and Victor Frolov who built a motorcycle-engine powered flying machine only has four years of primary school education and aviation manual published in the 1930s.

One guy worked for more than a decade building a subway station in his village. Another built a replica of one of Peter the Great’s warship. Another recreated rooms from the Hermitage in his small wooden house. During the Soviet era many kulibins built their own flying machines. Authorities arrested ,any of them but ultimately let them indulge their dream figuring the only people they harm would be themselves.

Scientists in the Soviet Era

In the Communist era, artists, writers, scientists and intellectuals were endorsed and supported by the government. To gain membership to special unions and organizations they had to study at certain approved schools and perform duties which fit into parameters set by the government. Without government endorsement they were nobodies.

In the Soviet era, scientists lived a privileged life. They had the best housing, food and schools. They and often their children too went to the best universities and enjoyed free vacations on the Black Sea. Many lived in secret cities where they did work related to the defense industry and had little contact with outsiders.

According to Communist theory, the duty of the Communist party was to maintain that there was the correct number of scientists for society's needs and follow the party line. Scientists writers recognized by the government received a salary, supplies, comfortable private homes or apartments, spacious offices or working space, other perks and markets for their works. Unofficial artist had to support themselves by other means. Boiler room supervisory jobs were sought after because they worked 24 hours straight and then had three days off.

Scientists in the Post-Soviet Era

The collapse of the Soviet Union deprived many scientists of their funding for research and their salaries. In the 1990s, there was little money for formally well-funded of projects. Brilliant, well trained scientists had little to do and no money. Salaries were $100 a month. To supplement their meager incomes, university professors worked as taxi drivers and geologists cleaned people's homes for $40 a day. Some scientists earned money by tutoring American high school students in the summer. In one often told joke Yeltsin comments to his economics mister that it was amazing that scientists kept coming to work even they received no salaries and there was no electricity for their experiments. His minister said: "Maybe we can charge them admission."

In 1998, a plan was adopted to cut the number of defense workers in all the closed cities from 75,000 to 40,000 by the year 2005. The population of Akademgorodok research city shrunk from 56,000 in the 1980s to 33,000 in 1997.

In the 2000s funding for science increased. In 2003 it increased by a third to $1.27 billion. Some research institutes launched profit-making enterprises such making crystals for industry. But many scientists were still unemployed or engaged in pursuits that didn’t take advantage of their talents. Those with knowledge applicable to weapons were regarded as security risks who might offer their expertise abroad.

Many Closed Cities were still closed in the early 2000s. Describing the security at a "military factory," the Moscow-based writer Tatyana Tolstaya wrote in the New York Times, people "knew who to get onto the factory grounds—not through the official entrance, where passes were meticulously checked and where a sharpshooter sat with a gun, but through a hole in the fence a mere 100 yards from the automatic gates. People climbed through the hole not to take out secret documents, but simply to buy food in the store or cafeteria, for secret institutions were always well stocked."

Today scientist Arzamas-16 and Los Alamos are working together on peaceful ways to use nuclear energy such as "pulsed power," a method of creating enough energy with conventional high-explosives to start a sustained nuclear-fusion reaction. They have conducted several experiments together. One Los Alamos scientist at Arzamas-16 told Newsweek, "Some of the work they do here is five to 10 years ahead of anything in the West."

Brain Drain from Russia

A particular demographic concern of the Russian government, as well as governments of the other states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), is the loss of highly skilled personnel. This problem had existed in the last decade of the Soviet Union; in 1989 some 2,653 employees of the Soviet Union's Academy of Sciences left the country, five times more than in 1988. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the decade that followers in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia lost half of its scientists to other countries or professions. In that time the average age of scientists left behind rose 10 years to 57. A 1990 sociological forecast predicted that 1.5 million specialists would leave the country in the 1990s if conditions did not improve.

The easing of emigration restrictions in the early 1990s resulted in a significant increase in Russia's "brain drain." In the early 1990s, China, North Korea, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Iran, Iraq, and several Latin American countries offered jobs to scientists in Russia, especially those with nuclear backgrounds. (Russia also loses scientific know-how when its scientists move into the growing financial and commercial fields; in 1994 the newspaper Moskovskiye novosti reported than one in three leaders of commercial structures was a former scientist or technical specialist.) An ongoing economic crisis and political uncertainty encourage individuals with marketable skills to leave Russia. A high percentage of immigrants from other CIS republics possess the same type of skills as those being lost, but in the mid-1990s Russia lacked a program for settling and apportioning the newcomers so that their presence would compensate for emigration losses. *

Russian Nuclear Scientists and Loose Nukes

U.S. Officials were worried about thefts of nuclear material by insiders and Russian nuclear and missile scientists revealing their secrets to China, North Korea, Iran and other potentially dangerous countries. Material control and accounting procedures were often deficient. In some places where nuclear material was unaccounted for it was impossible to determine whether it had been stolen, used or simply lost track of. Black marketers reportedly had easy access to Chelyabinsk-70, a closed city for nuclear scientists.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear scientists in charge of developing weapons and safeguarding them were suddenly either unemployed or not being paid. Scientist at Arzamas-16, the Russian equivalent of Los Alamos laboratory, and Chelyabinsk-70 demonstrated for back pay and loss of benefits such as health care and housing.

About 150,000 Russian scientist worked in the Russian nuclear weapons industry in 1995. According to Western estimates 3,000 of them were knowledgeable of "critical nuclear-weapons design information." Most of these worked at Arzamas-16 or Chelyabinsk-70.

China, North Korea, Iran and Iraq all reportedly tried to recruit Russian nuclear and missile scientists in what pundits called the "Human Proliferation" Threat from Russia. One Russian scientist was given a $3,000 Compaq laptop computer by the Iranian Academy of Science and was paid between $300 and $500 each to solve math problems related the nuclear research. Russian scientists have also been commissioned by Pakistan and North Korea to work in their nuclear weapon and missile programs.

Russian Scientists Accused of Being Spies

In April 2004, Igor Sutyagin, a Russian scientist working at the U.S.A.-Canada Institute in Moscow was sentenced to 15 years in prison for treason for selling information to a British company that was described by prosecutors as a CIA front. The Russian Supreme Court upheld the conviction. Sutyagin insists that he did nothing wrong; that he was simply doing legitimate research and the information he turned over was not classified.

In November 2004, a senior scientists at Krasnoyarsk State Technical University in Siberia was convicted of selling aerospace technology to a Chinese company. He said the information he sold was not top secret and the had government approval. He was denied the right to explain to a jury what exactly the information was that he sold.

In March 2005, a highly-respected scientist at the Institute of Metals Superplasticty Problems was arrested for selling “dual use technology” to South Korea. The arrest was considered part of what one human rights group called “spy mania.” In February 2003, Anatoly Babkon, a university professor, was convicted of treason for providing torpedo technology to an American company. He was given a suspended eight-year sentence.

Famous Russian and Soviet Scientists

Artificial insemination was developed by the Russian biologist Ilya Ivanov in the early 1900s for use with livestock. Russian Vladamir K. Zworykin played an instrumental role in the invention of television in 1920. In 1945, Tass reported that a Russian scientist named Stephan Tumanov had invented a paint made with crushed emeralds and rubies kept it original fresh color for "thousands of years."

In 2003, Dr. Vitaly L. Ginzburg of the P.N. Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow and Russian-born American Dr. Alexei A. Abrikososv shared the Nobel Prize in physics with British-born American Dr. Anthony J. Legget for their early theoretical work on superconductivity.

Russian and Soviet nobel laureates in the sciences: 1) Andre Geim, Physics, 2010; Konstantin Novoselov, Physics, 2010; 2) Leonid Hurwicz, Economics, 2007; 3) Alexei A. Abrikosov, Physics, 2003; 4) Vitaly Ginzburg, Physics, 2003; 5) Zhores Ivanovich Alferov, born in then Soviet Union, now Belarus, Physics, 2000; 6) Pyotr Leonidovich Kapitsa, Physics, 1978; 7) Ilya Prigogine, Chemistry, 1977; 8) Leonid Vitalyevich Kantorovich, Economics, 1975; 9) Nicolay G. Basov, Physics, 1964; 10) Aleksandr M. Prokhorov, born in Australia, Physics, 1964; 11) Lev Davidovich Landau, born in then Russian Empire, now Azerbaijan, laureate when citizen of the Soviet Union, Physics, 1962; 12) Pavel Alekseyevich Cherenkov, Physics, 1958; 13) Igor Yevgenyevich Tamm, Physics, 1958; 14) Ilya Mikhailovich Frank, Physics, 1958; 15) Nikolay Nikolayevich Semyonov, Chemistry, 1956; 16) Wilhelm Ostwald, born in now Latvia, Chemistry, 1909; 17) Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, born in now Ukraine, Physiology or Medicine, 1908; 18) Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Physiology or Medicine, 1904. [Source: Wikipedia]

Pavlov and His Dog Experiments

One of the most well-known Russian scientists is Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936). The winner of the Nobel prize in 1904, the forth year the prizes were given out, he discovered in his famous dog experiments that through "conditioned reflexes" dogs could be taught to salivate to stimuli other than the sight and smell of food. The son of a Greek Catholic priest, Pavlov was born in Ryazan, Russia and studied medicine at the University of St. Petersburg and a medical facility in Germany. He worked briefly as a pharmacology professor in Siberia before taking up a job at the Russian Military Medical Academy, where he did most of groundbreaking work.

Pavlov’s "conditioned reflexes" experiments worked not only with sound and lights they also worked with painful stimuli. In one experiment the dogs were given strong, painful electric shocks and then feed. After having this done many times the dogs began to salivate and wag their tails when given the shock because they knew it meant mealtime was coming.

Pavlov was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work with "Pavlov pouches," portions of an animal stomach grafted onto it abdominal wall for the study of the effect gastric juice secretions on digestion. He was the first Russian to win the prize. Pavlov once conducted an experiment in which he showed patients a red light and told them to say it was a green light. After the patients appeared to believe the light was really green, Pavlov said, "The Russian has such a weak psyche that he is unable to perceive reality objectively.” Pavlov once produced an elaborate mathematical formula that determined he would live to the age of 115. he died at pneumonia at the age of 87.

Dmitri Mendeleev and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

Russian chemist Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev formulated the Periodic Law, classifying elements according to their atomic numbers. Mendeleev was Russia's chief scientific advisor. He wrote The Principals of Chemistry (1854). He devised the periodic table in 1868 after he had a dream in which he saw all 65 known elements arranged in table.

The word vodka, a diminutive form of the Russian word for water, was coined in the late 19th century by Mendeleev. Before that time vodka was simply known as “grain wine." Disturbed by the impact that vodka was having on his people, Czar Alexander III decided to improve the quality of vodka by hiring Mendeleev. Among the improvements he made were fixing the alcohol content at 40 percent and basing the amounts of water and alcohol used to make vodka on volume rather than weight. [Source: Victor Erofeyev, The New Yorker, December 16, 2002]

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian math teacher, published Exploring Space with Reactive Devices, the first great study of rocketry in 1903. Tsiolkovsky developed the basic formulas for space travel: a rocket going 15,000mph will hold suborbital flight long enough to land halfway around the world, one traveling 17,000mph will end up in orbit and one traveling 25,000 can break free of the earth's gravity and travel to the moon. His papers were largely ignored until the 1920s when they were discovery by some German scientists fascinated with rocketry.

Nikolay I. Vavilov and the World’s Largest Seedbank

Nikolay I. Vavilov was one of the "giants of modern botanic exploration." In the 1920s and 1930s he identified eight geographic regions were he believed farmers first collected plants. With 400 research stations and a staff of 20,000 he created one of greatest seedbanks in the world in Leningrad and encouraged farmers to grow a number of strains to stave off disease decades before it was fashionable idea. [Source: Robert E. Rhoades, National Geographic, April 1991]

To give you a sense of how committed his team was, during the 900 day siege of Leningrad the corpses of researchers were found around boxes of seeds and sacks of potatoes: they preferred to starve to death rather than touch any of the seeds. By one count 31 scientist died directly or indirectly from hunger. Vavilov was arrested under Stalin for speaking out against some his crazy agricultural schemes and died in prison in 1943. A number of Vavilov’s collegues were also arrested and died in prison.

The seedbank and the facilities associated with it were later named the N.I. Vavilove Research Institute. By the 1990s, it had collected 330,000 genetically-distinct samples, many of which varieties of traditional food plants and the their wold source, some of which have virtually disappeared from the wild. There are several billion seeds. Most are kept in small packets labeled only with codes. many are frozen. Periodically some of tem are regrown in special fields and greenhouses so the remain viable. Explaining the value of the facility, once scientist there told the Los Angeles Times, “Gene banks ate the main guarantee of food security in the world.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union it faced hard times. In the 1990s it survived despite sharp budget cuts and survived only with the help of money sent in from abroad. , In May 2003, the genese ban faced eviction. The buildings its occupies are located near a picturesque square in St. Petersburg and authorities wanted the institute to move so it cold make some money off te valuable property. It is expected that it wold six years just to move the seeds and there is a strong likelihood that some of the frozen seeds will be damaged. In one fight scientist at the facility hired veterans of the Afghanistan war to protect the buildings from thugs hired by gangsters who wanted to take over the property.

Mikhail M. Gerasimov

The Mikhail M. Gerasimov (1907- 1970) was Russian archeologist, paleontologist and sculptor who developed a theory for approximating the faces of Ice Age hunters and famous people like Ivan the Terrible, Tamerlane and the poet Schiller by analyzing their skull features. His techniques have been adopted by forensics experts around the world to identify victims of murder, war crimes and other atrocities whose bones were found but not identified. Scientists using his techniques have re-created the faces of King Tut, the 9,200-year-old Kennewick Man found in the northwest United States, and all the great czars.

Gerasimov was the not the first to re-create faces based on skulls but was the first to use scientific methods to do so. Tapping into his vast reservoir of knowledge of facial and skull features based on years of working in forensic science, archeology and anthropology, he applied strips of clay to a cast of skull to create likeness of skull’s owner. Gerasimov was the inspiration for the brilliant scientist, who helps solve the murder of thee victims who had their faces peeled away in the novel Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith and a film based on the novel with William Hurt.

Gerasimov was born in St. Petersburg and grew up in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, As a boy he liked to collect mammoth bones and mix the bones of animals, say, putting a cats skull on the skeleton of a duck. He studied archeology at Irkutsk University and Leningrad and helped establish the Laboratory for Plastic Reconstruction (now the Institute of Ethnology) in Leningrad. In the early 1940s Gerasimov was sent to Uzbekistan to open the tomb of Tamerlane, an act which is said to have unleashed a curse that unleashed World War II on the Soviet Union.

Gerasimov was a chubby, jolly man who liked to tell jokes. He relied on his skills as sculptor for his reconstructions and some of his observations went beyond the bounds of science. On the skull he found in the sarcophagus of Ivan the Terrible in 1953 he later wrote: “The mouth with its dropping corners and expression if disgust was determined by the shape of dentition. The face was hard, commanding, undoubtedly clever but cruel and unpleasing, with pendulous nose and clumsy chin.

Gerasimov Techniques of Facial Reconstruction

Scientists who studied under Gerasimov were asked to identified the remains of Nicholas II and the his family after their bones were dug up in Yekateriburg before the wide use of DNA testing used Gerasimov’s techniques. Scientists using his techniques have re-create the faces of King Tut, the 9,200-year-old Kennewick Man found in the northwest United States, and all the great czars.

Scientists using Gerasimov’s techniques begin by making a mold and copy of the skull and inserting pegs cut to average tissue thickness—bases on sex, race and size of the individual. Glass eyes were added, and clay strips of proper thickness were laid across the skull mold. Features were then added based on information gleaned from facial bones.

Many scientist who use Gerasimov’s techniques have extensive training an anatomy, osterology and craniology. The key to get a face right is often in the details . Permanent ridges left by face muscles, for example, may provide clues to kind of expression worn on the face moth of the time. The nose is create based on a mirror image of the skeletal structure around the nostrils.”

With the widespread sue of DNA testing Gerasimov’s techniques are no longer needed to help solve murders and identify victims in mass graves. In Russia, the techniques are still used to help solve murders. Their busy season is in the spring when bodies killed during the winter are revealed in the melting snow.

Famous Russian Charlatans

Soviet astronomer Nikolai S. Kardashev (1932- ) believed he received radio signals from celestial objects in the constellations Pegasus and Aries. Russian scientist Immanuel Velikovsky (1895- 1979) caused a commotion in academic circles when his theory—that the Earth suffered catastrophic close contacts with other planets (principally Venus and Mars) in ancient times—was furiously attacked by some scholars, and defended by others. His book When Worlds Collide became a bestseller in the United States. He based his theory on comparative mythology and ancient literary sources (including the Old Testament).

Paul Kammerer (1880-1926) was an Austrian scientist who was acclaimed in Russia as a great scientist for experiments which appeared to alter and speed up evolution on salamanders and toads. He claimed that he produced yellow salamanders by feeding them a diet of yellow dirt and produced toads that developed "nupital pads" (copulating devices usually only associated with frogs) in a few generations. About the same time the Communist Party was heralding his ides as a confirmation of Marxist theory his experiments were uncovered as hoaxes.

In 1997, a leading Russian scientist reported it would be possible to produce a clone from Lenin's body. Professor Valeri Bykov of the Russian Institute of Biological Studies, told a Turkish newspaper, "with intensive efforts, the clone of Lenin is possible because the cell structure and the genetic code have been conserved." Russian scientist have been able to preserve bodies so that cell tissues remain virtually intact. "We can mummify a body for $350,000 with a guarantee of 200 years," Bykov said.

Trofim Lysenko, the Charlatan Who Killed Millions

Trofim Denisoveich Lysenko (1898-1976) was a charlatan biologist who worked under Stalin and Khrushchev and found favor among Communist ideologues because his theories that acquired characteristics could be inherited seemed to confirm Marxist doctrine and transcended Darwinism and Mendel genetics, which were popular in the West.

Lysenko played a major role in the famine of 1932-34. A specialist in agronomy, he claimed that he developed a technique called vernalization that could "train" spring wheat to be winter wheat and produce additional harvests. Soviet agricultural specialists agreed to try his methods on a large scale even though his technique had not been properly tested. The result: failed crops and farming methods that contributed to the starving deaths of millions of people.

Lysenko’s “miracles” were supposed to cure the Soviet Union of the problems caused for forced collectivization, but they made them much worse. Lysenko sent Soviet biology back decades with his wacky ideas and caused the Soviet Union to miss out on the genetics revolution. He also supplied ideology for led pogroms. Colleagues that dared to speak out against his ideas, in many cases were imprisoned and even executed.

Book: Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science by Valery Soyfer (Rutgers University Press, 1995).

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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