A most leavening experience

July 26, 1996

Jobless nuclear scientists in Russia enjoy the support of the Morozov Project, which helps some bake bread to survive the funding collapse. Nick Holdsworth investigates the fallout from Obninsk.

Tatiana Sotnikova swapped the sterile atmosphere of a nuclear research institute for the warm aroma of freshly-baked bread when she quit her poorly paid academic job in pursuit of a better life in the private sector.

The collapse of state funding for science and research five years ago sent shock waves through communities like Obninsk, a nuclear research town 60 miles south-west of Moscow. It was in places like this that top scientists and their staff enjoyed privileged status under the old communist regimes.

Specialists like Ms Sotnikova, whose work with computer-aided reactor design was in great demand for a brief period following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, realised they must adapt or face an increasingly difficult future.

Today she runs the Vesna Bakery, in what was once the staff canteen of a large state supermarket.

Ms Sotnikova said: "I left the Institute of Nuclear Energy for a job working in a grocery shop which paid five times as much. But when I noticed that the stale loaves from the local bread factory turned customers away I seized the opportunity to set up my own business."

The bakery - like many of the more than 3,000 small firms set up across Russia by enterprising former academics in the last few years - enjoys the support of the town's business training centre, part of the Morozov project, a Russian small-business development programme.

Today, in a town with a population of 108,000, more than half the highly educated workforce is employed in small businesses, making everything from tomato ketchup to specialist environmental filters, to help reduce industrial pollution.

The Small Business Centre is the focus for Obninsk's vigorous response to Russia's chaotic economy.

Based in a former kindergarten and affiliated with an accredited institute of business administration set up three years ago, the centre provides business training courses for 175 undergraduates; consultancy for small businesses, investment advice; and business incubator programmes, where small groups of would-be entrepreneurs spend three months researching and creating detailed business plans before putting them into practice.

Special courses for the unemployed - overwhelmingly highly educated women in their thirties and forties - are also provided, paid for by the town's employment service.

The centre's director, Anatoly Sotnikov, a former nuclear energy professor, displays as much pride in his wife's bakery as in the rest of the small firms now engaging the brains and skills of Obninsk's scientists.

"Obninsk is lucky in many ways - we have a lot of young, intelligent and highly trained people here, willing and able to meet the challenges of Russia's rapidly-changing circumstances.

"Many of the small businesses we've supported are involved in trading goods and services, but others are more closely connected to the work their directors were involved in when they were employed by institutes."

Technologies developed for the Soviet Union's nuclear energy programme and space race are now being turned to peaceful, and profitable uses.

At the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering, one of 16 research centres in the town, where the world's first nuclear power station was designed and built in the early 1950s, decades of highly specialised engineering skills are being used to develop and market industrial filtration equipment and extreme-heat resistant ceramics.

Alexandr Sobolev, director of the institute's conversion centre, which opened two years ago, is in charge of finding commercial outlets for its nuclear technologies. Last year his small team of manager and scientists, most of whom are still employed at the institute, had a turnover of Pounds 150,000 from commercial, catering and scientific consultancy activities.

"We have some of the highest quality scientists in the world working here, but what we have always lacked is proper management to turn their skills to commercial advantage," he said.

"Our scientists simply cannot make the transition to the market unless we establish centres like this to find outlets."

Those outlets include filtration systems for the dairy industry, using techniques originally designed to prevent radioactive seepage from nuclear power plants and lean-burn equipment for industrial heating plants. Mono-crystal ceramics, intended for use in spacecraft, are also being redesigned for more terrestrial purposes.

In Obninsk it is difficult to forget the town's nuclear heritage: blue uniformed officers from the Russian navy's nuclear fleet who attend courses at a formerly secret training centre mill around its public squares and a huge mosaic on Lenin Street proclaims "E=MC2".

Those who have left the institutes to go into business are keen to continue its tradition for scientific excellence: the town is twinned with Oakridge, Tennessee, the United State's nuclear research town, and is home to the Chernobyl Database, which holds health records on 600,000 Russians affected by fall-out from the nuclear reactor meltdown.

But they are realists and know that they must move with the times: Inna Kleschenko, 32, who lost her job as an ecologist at the Institute of Atomic Power Engineering two years ago, is now learning how to set up her own business.

She said: "Life has changed, so now I'm looking for a new profession in business and would like to go into advertising or promotions."

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