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Siberia Is Russia's Hot Spot for Technology Workers

The brain drain is abating as a new generation opts to stay home. Many of their clients are in the United States and Europe.

August 15, 2004|Steve Gutterman | Associated Press Writer

AKADEMGORODOK, Russia — Sipping from an outsized cup at a coffee shop, his computer jargon competing with the sounds of U2 and frothing latte, software designer Yuri Bannov could almost be in Silicon Valley. Only the birch trees and babushkas outside give away his actual location: Siberia.

Although Bannov lives in Akademgorodok, a faded former center of Soviet scientific might, his company does almost all its work for clients in the United States and Europe. He is part of a new generation that has stemmed the brain drain that sapped the nation of many of its best and brightest after the Soviet collapse.

They stay home because they want to -- not because they can't get out. Russia's economy has improved since the desperate early 1990s, and Russians are now used to the post-Soviet freedoms that let them see the world and come back. For many, the desire to leave has become less pressing.

"I've traveled a lot, and I like to vacation abroad, but I don't think I would like to live there," said Bannov, who abandoned his postgraduate studies in mathematics to go into lucrative business designing software.

The name Akademgorodok, Russian for Little Academic City, comes from some 30 scientific institutes set along its tree-lined streets. It was founded about 1,750 miles east of Moscow in the late 1950s as the Soviet Union raced to develop Siberia and surpass Western science. Now, one of its roles is in outsourcing for companies in the West.

"There's not much to brag about here -- not high salaries or anything else -- but everything has become more stable," said Gennady Kulipanov, deputy head of the Nuclear Physics Institute in Akademgorodok. "Six, four years ago, you didn't know if money would come or not, and the pervasive feeling of uncertainty put great psychological pressure on people."

About 150 people from Kulipanov's institute have immigrated, he said, reeling off the names of top U.S. laboratories where many of them now work. Fermilab in Illinois could field two soccer teams of the institute's alumni, he said.

Although the brain drain has peaked, the Academy of Sciences still struggles against the odds to attract and keep promising graduates, in part by offering housing loans. Grants from mostly foreign but also Russian sources keep some scientists working here, while others make lengthy working visits abroad and then return to Russia.

"We cannot compete with the United States or Japan or Germany in terms of salary levels -- we'd lose hands down," Kulipanov said. "We can't compete in housing -- each of our young people who has left for Europe or the States has a good house after a few years of work. Where we can compete is in the level of interesting work."

As Pavel Logachev proudly shows off the particle accelerator being built in a big underground room at his lab at the Nuclear Physics Institute, it's clear that love of the job is a major factor keeping the 39-year-old father of two teenagers in Russia.

"I can do things here that I would not be able to do there," Logachev said. "Here we have good young people, we have interesting work -- we do work on the very leading edge of science."

Although it used to serve the Cold War interests of the Soviet state, the institute -- like Bannov's software company -- survives on foreign orders, making and exporting smaller accelerators and other equipment.

Other institutes supplement their state subsidies with private deals that Kulipanov said sometimes involved foreign clients -- and creative thinking.

"The Institute of Archaeology had a big mammoth in the lobby next door here; it stood there for 20 years doing nothing. So they took it apart and sent it to Japan and Australia to appear in exhibits," he said.

In recent years, the Nuclear Physics Institute has sent 40 accelerators to such countries as China, South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and Germany, and sold only one domestically. Kulipanov says that ratio underlines the limits of Russia's growth, which is based largely on oil and gas exports, and the need to diversify the economy.

"This is now the main task -- not strengthening the authorities but solving economic problems: the creation of an internal market, investment in industry and science," he said.

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