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In Russia's Tech Center, Scientists Face Rewarding But Unpredictable Life


During the Cold War, the U.S. competed with the Soviet Union on land and sea, in the air and even in outer space. To keep up with the Americans, the Kremlin founded its own version of Silicon Valley 60 years ago deep inside Siberia, far from distractions and prying eyes. NPR's Lucian Kim traveled to the community and found out that it is still innovating despite a brain drain and legal risks for entrepreneurs.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: I've traveled almost 2,000 miles east of Moscow to Akademgorodok - literally academic town - a suburb of Siberia's largest city, Novosibirsk.

VLADIMIR NIKONOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Vladimir Nikonov, the director of Akademgorodok's technology park, is my guide as we cruise down a broad street that cuts through the forest.

NIKONOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Nikonov says this leafy avenue was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the smartest street in the world. Two dozen research institutes, most of them four-story concrete blocks, are partially hidden behind the trees. But there are also gleaming shopping centers and a Siberian burger joint. This is how far Akademgorodok has come since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and rocket scientists fell on hard times. Irina Travina, the head of the local IT business association, remembers those days.

IRINA TRAVINA: (Through interpreter) Scientists were earning $5 to $10 a month. We understood that in order to survive we either had to leave the country and find a place where we'd get paid more or try to earn a living in our country by other means.

KIM: Travina saw friends leave, but she stayed and founded a software company.

TRAVINA: (Through interpreter) We realized that we could be in demand as programmers and could earn a living while doing our scientific work.

KIM: Today, Travina's company has customers in more than 30 countries. That's the kind of business President Vladimir Putin had in mind when he came to Akademgorodok in 2005 and proposed creating a technology park. He was inspired by a visit to India's tech hub in Bangalore. Now, more than a decade later, Akadempark is home to more than 200 companies with 5,000 employees. It's a tightly knit community of very smart people, so everybody was shocked when the founder of an air purifier company made the national news in June. Investigators accused businessman Dmitry Trubitsyn of selling fake air purifiers to hundreds of hospitals.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: A judge put him under two months' house arrest. At the time, Vladimir Nikonov, the head of Akadempark, personally vouched for Trubitsyn's good standing. He later put the case into a wider context.

NIKONOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Nikonov said he can't rule out the possibility of a hostile takeover, as such cases do occur from time to time. Irina Travina, the local business association head, is concerned not only for her fellow entrepreneur.

TRAVINA: (Through interpreter) It's a hundred percent certain that this case will have a horrible effect on the local investment and innovation climate.

KIM: It wouldn't be the first time that a successful business in Russia found itself under new ownership after murky legal proceedings. But game designer Alexander Lyskovsky seems unfazed.

ALEXANDER LYSKOVSKY: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: He says nobody is interfering in the work of the company he founded nearly two decades ago, Alawar. One of their latest games is called "Beholder." It takes place in an Orwellian surveillance state.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Dear Carl Shteyn, we are happy to announce you've been appointed a landlord of the class-D apartment block on Krushvits 6.

KIM: The player's task is to spy on neighbors and report back to the authorities. Lyskovsky insists, though, that he's not interested in politics. He just wants to sell games. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Akademgorodok, Siberia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.