I’ve been reading Francis Spufford’s book Red Plenty recently—not a history book, not a novel, but something in between. (Much more interesting than most history books, but with more footnotes than most novels that aren’t by David Foster Wallace.) It’s about the Soviet economy in the years around 1960, and it’s a lot more fun than that sounds.
One of the settings for the book is the Siberian science town of Akademgorodok (‘Academytown’), founded outside Novosibirsk in the 1950s by the Soviet Academy of Science. Here it is at the planning stage:
The town is outside the city of Novosibirsk, and is formally a part of it. When it was being built, different disciplines squabbled bitterly over who would get which building: ‘Cytology and Genetics itself obtained its premises by seizing, one weekend, a facility promised to the Computer Centre, and the Computer Centre nearly lost its next earmarked site as well, to an opportunistic grab by a group researching transplant surgery.’
And the many advantages that the academics enjoyed meant that their Siberian neighbours weren’t always helpful: ‘Envy of the town’s material privileges was a factor in the unhelpfulness of the city government of Novosibirk [sic] over such issues as the water supply. At one point, the city stole an entire trainload of supplies earmarked for Akademgorodok, and Academician Lavrentiev, the de facto mayor, had to ring Khrushchev personally to get it back.’ (Spufford, notes to p. 151—his main source for all this is Paul Josephson’s New Atlantis Revisited).
The place went into a tailspin after the Soviet period but—as some of the references to the Wikipedia article show—has recently been trying to reinvent itself as a tech hub, a kind of Silicon Forest.
It has something of a web presence, from the unexpected photos of sunbathers and sailing boats on on TripAdvisor that came up when I looked on Google images (they’re on the Ob Sea, a large artificial lake, and resort, next to the town) to the excellent Facebook page that I got these images from. That’s well worth a look, even if like me you speak no Russian. It has lots of archival photos and other resources, including this short cine-film tour, with its er delightful backing music:
And there’s Spufford’s own website for the book, linked at the top of the page, which includes his travel notes from a research trip to Siberia in 2006. If you’re looking for something to keep you busy in reading week, you could do a lot worse than spend a bit of time in high Soviet Siberia.
Click images for source