The model of an isolated modernising community in Russia has been around for quite some time and is still alive: we can think of 'foreign' compounds in the 16-18-century Russian towns, the 1920-30s foreign industrial concessions, or the Stalin-era research and development groups of convicted scientists (sharashka). Then came the so-called 'science towns' (akademgorodok) built between late 1950s and mid-1970s in four Siberian cities, including Novosibirsk, as well as in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. Recent Skolkovo project follows exactly the same pattern: instead of modernising the whole country's political system and economy, the authorities again create an isolated 'hi-tech' compound. This approach is not uniquely Russian though. In many catch-up development countries, a thin and relatively modernised layer of elites at power shape the demand for modernity but even these elites understand modernity only in terms of learning to produce technology, not to scrap centuries-old political models or 'disenchant' people's minds, so that the country can develop freely and evenly throughout the territory. This thinking is: all we need is tractors and nukes, everything else is a threat to our uniqueness.    

Russia's history is thus a continuous strive for technological modernisation without modernising politically. This is one of the reasons why it has been thrashing about between antiquity and utopia, between repression and 'thaws', making steps ahead, then backing up.

In late 1950s, after another archaic plunge that was Stalin's era, a need to modernise Russia emerged again. And again modernisation was going to be only technological and was meant to mainly serve the defense; touching the political or economic system was not at issue. The easiest way was – you guessed it – to create an isolated innovative compound, thus reproducing the centuries-old model.

Still, the 'science town' in Novosibirsk came to be the most successful in Russian history. Mikhail Lavrentiev, a prominent scientist in mathematics and hydrodynamics and a close ally of the then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, formulated the idea to build a scientific center in Siberia. Scientific institutions were to be placed close to each other which helped conduct research at the intersection of disciplines. The outstanding scientific achievements, including one of the world's first colliders (designed and built here in 1963 by a group of Russian physicists led by Gersh Budker), as well as a relative freedom of thought, made Akademgorodok world-famous and even raised it to the rank of a Soviet myth. But did it all help modernise the country outside of it?

As for the design and planning, the idea was simple: quickly and cheaply build research facilities and standardised housing amidst wild forest 20 km south of Novosibirsk while preserving the pines and birches around. The quality of construction was rather low, so Akademgorodok looks almost identical to other Soviet-built areas of that time and, at some places, reminds a typically Soviet promzona, or bleak and derelict industrial area. But there is something symbolic or even charming to it, too: scientific achievements were being made here amidst a spartan, not to say undeveloped environment. In the end, a very Russian story: a community of innovatively-thinking people – a utopia within utopia of sorts – created at the behest of the authorities amidst wild forest, enthusiasm, modesty and unselfishness, an unlikely proximity of scientific thought and archaic entourage, an unpresentable appearance and gradual decay with no ambitious vision for the future.