Russian Research Institutes Are Dying Cushy Jobs Go out with Communism

Article excerpt

From the Institute of Railway Hygiene to the Institute for the Design of Refrigeration and Ice Cream Factories, one of the most distinctive legacies of the Soviet era is in serious trouble.

When President Leonid I. Brezhnev presided over a decade of stagnation, few sinecures were more comfortable than a perch in one of Moscow's top research institutes. There, fortunate intellectuals could think in peace or gossip the days away.

There were hundreds of institutes in and around Moscow, and they employed an astounding 950,000 people - more than one out of 10 Muscovites.

Some, like the Physics Institute - where Andrei D. Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, worked - performed serious research and stood as symbols of a great power that could devote resources to more than just profit and production.

Others served more as symbols of the absurdities of the communist system creaking to its death. All signified the cushiness of life in Moscow as compared with the countryside.

Today no one is suffering more in the transition to a free market from communist economics than these institutes, useful and useless alike.

Vyacheslav Minaev, director of the Institute of Metrology, Testing and Standardization of Instruments, said, "In the past there was a lot of activity here. Now people come in to get their salaries and then go elsewhere to find some other money. If you tour our building, you will get the impression of a dead enterprise."

At virtually every institute, scientists, researchers and technical workers are in the vanguard of the semi-employed or the soon-to-be-unemployed. The government can no longer afford so many people doing such "non-productive" work; therefore, salaries are extremely low, and they are paid erratically.

Although factories and stores also are burdened by excess labor and old technology, they can often find something to sell that either a Russian or a foreigner might want. But the institutes have little to offer to someone wanting to turn a quick profit.

"To survive in these times, you must give somebody a reason to support you," said Nikita Bogdanov, director of the Institute of the Lithosphere, where the staff of scientists who studied the Earth's crust has been reduced by nearly a third. …