SEVEN CITIES IN FOURTEEN DAYS

A TOUR OF RUSSIA by Peter Lancaster

Quite recently an agency known as the Civilian Research and Development Foundation has been formed in the USA (see www.crdf.org). It is funded by the McArthur Foundation and US government agencies with the objectives of (briefly) providing Russia with research and development opportunities, advancing defense conversion, and assisting in establishing a market economy by partially funding R&D ventures.

Under its Basic Research and Higher Education (BRHE) program the foundation, together with the Russian Ministry of Research and Professional Education, is operating a system of awards in the natural sciences for regional Russian universites (regional meaning outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg). I was asked to serve on a Site Visit Delegation for the program and have recently returned from a two week tour of Russia in which six universities were visited and their proposals assessed. There is strong competition for the grants, each of which provides approximately one million US dollars over a three year period. For interested friends and colleagues, here is an account of my travels and impressions.

On March 10th I left Calgary and flew to Moscow via Frankfurt, arriving at about 7pm local time on Saturday the 11th. A friend and collaborator, Andrei Shkalikov, was at the airport to meet me and drive me to the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel. It really is grand! Five-star service and accomodation. The two of us chat for a while, make plans for Sunday, and sample my Talisker malt whisky. On Sunday morning I make a walking tour. It is quite cold, and out of the city center the sidewalks are treacherous with snow and ice. I pass through Red Square, and cross the river looking for the Tretyakov Gallery. I fail to find it and make my way back through dreary urban streets to the city center. I visit the magnificent, refurbished cathedral at Kropotynskaya where I enjoy the deep reverberating choral music. By accident I find the Pushkin Museum. It has a wondrous ancient Egyptian collection. I also enjoy the impressionists collection very much. There are many paintings by Monet and I am particulary impressed by the Renoir and Degas collections and two brilliant Van Gogh ("wheatfieds" and "red vineyard").

I got back to the hotel about 1.30pm and Andrei picked me up at 2.30 (after indoor tennis) to visit the family home; a small apartment twenty-seven km out from the city-centre. Delighted to see Nadia again, as vivacious as ever. Their two sons Alek and Ivan and Alek's wife Ilana (a musician) were there and, by pure chance, Nadia's brother Iskander, who is a differential geometer from Novosibirsk. We had a happy afternoon with a meal and then A. and N. took me back to the city and the Bolshoi Ballet. They had tickets for "Don Quixote" by L. Minkus. A wonderful performance in a historic building. I count myself lucky to have seen the building (not to mention the ballet) as, at the end of the season, it is to be closed for two years for major restorations. A. and N. walk me back to the hotel (about half-an-hour) as Andrei wanted to show me Moscow by night. We made our goodbyes at about 10.45. I got little or no sleep.

For Monday (March 13th) I had ambitions to tour the Kremlin, but decided against. I took a one-hour walk around the streets in bright, cold weather, and then had a quiet time trying to work and rest. About mid-day I checked-out and met our delegation's translator, Ludmilla Vassilyeva in the lobby. Joined by Frank Garner (materials science, Washington State) and Douglas Siegel-Causey (biology, NSF and Harvard) who will chair the delegation, along with a Russian co-chair. Also Sergey Egerov, the senior participant from the Russian Ministry. We were taken by van to the airport. There was a preparatory meeting at the airport Novotel where we met other group members: Kristin Wildermann from the CRDF, Olga and another Sergey from the ministry and scientists William Smit (co-chair, organic chemist), Serge Timashaev (physics), both of Moscow, and Victor Bagratashvili (laser technology, Troitsk). We were briefed by one or two senior scientists (who would not be travelling) and, after discussion, were taken through the formalities and out to the tarmac where our charter jet awaited. The company was "Rus-air", a subsidiary of a US company, "Clintondale Charters".

With the exception of one day in Novosibirsk, the next eleven days were taken up with site visits to Kazan State University (in Kajan, the capital of Tatarstan), Ural State University (in Ekaterinburg, formerly Sverdlovsk, just east of the Urals), Novosibirsk State University (in Novosibirsk, Siberia, about 1,500km further east), back westwards to Bashkir State University (in Ufa, capital of Bashkortostan), Saratov State University (in Saratov, on the Volga) and, finally, Voronezh State University. The twelfth day, March 24th was taken up with preparing our final report and return to Moscow. I left Moscow early on the 25th and arrived home that evening. Rather than continuing with a diarized (blow by blow) account of the journey, I will try to record some general impressions.

First, the Russian ministry and, especially Olga, did a great job of organizing travel, meals, accomodation, meeting rooms, etc.. The charter company was very efficient and eager to please. We had first-class service in flight and through the various airports. This was, of course, vital for the success of such a complicated task and travel plan. The hotels that we stayed in were, generally, very good. I did not like the Kazan hotel so much, but that is just one of eight different hotels. It may be that, in most cases, we were staying in the only westernized hotel of the city. However, in contrast to some years ago, they seemed to operate independently, and the spectre of "intourist" never appeared.

While we lived in relative luxury we did, of course, get some impression of the relatively low standard of living of the vast majority of Russians. In all the provincial cities there is still lots of older housing stock; much of it of timber, possibly a hundred years old. Some of logs, and all with colourful painted window shutters. Often looking very picturesque, but stressed under a couple of feet of snow. However, in all the cities the vast majority seem to live in large apartment blocks built during the soviet era. I didn't enter any on this trip but, based on earlier experience, the public areas of these buildings are probably grotty, while the interiors of the tiny apartments are immaculate and heavily populated. I have no doubt that the traditional hospitality and good-nature are alive and well.

In contrast, on the streets, people generally seem unfriendly. It is difficult not to be seen as a westerner; we are spotted at a distance by our clothes, shoes, complexions. The weather was generally cold and unpleasant; a few degrees below zero, cloudy, windy, much colder than similar temperature regimes in Calgary, for example. The snow was generally piled high on the sides of the streets and walkways, just poised for the eagerly awaited spring thaw. I was surprised by the elegance of the fur-coats worn by many women. The men tended to wear very substantial fur hats. (I seem to remember that they were more common in Calgary when I arrived in the early sixties.) Another obvious contrast with the west is the relatively old vehicles that one sees on the streets. Once a car is acquired it seems to be necessary to keep it running for ever.

The maintenance of roads and buildings is generally very poor. The provision of operating funds for these purposes has doubtless had low priority for decades. Consequently, fierce potholes in the roads are common and univerity buildings are often decrepit. Novosibirsk is one of the worlds leading nuclear physics research centers and we saw huge particle accelerators in perfect working order, but housed in visibly deteriorating buildings. It was also apparent that the newer the university the better the condition of the buildings, simply because they had not had so much time to fall into disrepair. A related problem is the expense of buying western instruments, computer installations, etc.. This results in a spirit of self-reliance in the laboratories of the universities where, if equipment is out of reach financially, they make their own. This has led to the design and manufacture of some commercially viable instruments which improve on western design. By western standards, research laboratories appeared very cramped. In some cases it looked as though every available cubic centimetre was put to use.

In spite of operating under difficult physical and financial conditions, a striking feature of the universities is their determination to stick to traditional standards of excellence. Each university we visited would quote with pride the small proportion of qualified applicants for admission that they could accept. Although government ministries now permit 25% of fee-paying students the Novosibirsk State University (for example) will accept NONE. They argue that admitting fee-paying students will lead to deterioration in their admission standards. Similar reservations were expressed by other universities. Another striking feature common to all the universities we visited (the BRHE program fosters research AND education) was their very close connection with the high-school system. It seems that the separation of the education and academic professions that is normal in North America never occurred in Russia. For example, all the universities we visited are involved in Olymiad competitions for high-school students in mathematics, physics, and chemistry. In some cases this involvement dates back more than forty years. Academic staff seem to accept a significant commitment of time in the high-school arena as normal.

Western influence on the universities is apparent in several ways, one of which is, of course, the CRDF program itself. But there are other such programs operated by the Soros Foudation, the European Union, and others. The traditional 5-year program of study concluding with a diploma (equated roughly with a western masters degree level) is under pressure to change. So the universities now offer a 4-year baccalaureate program followed by a 2-year master's degree, even though the students themselves may not be pleased with the change, and may prefer the well-understood traditional qualifications. The development of graduate course work in the North American style is also apparent. To some extent, these changes are influenced by the development of exchange programs with western universities. Incidentally, there appear to be quite strong links between Russian universities and those in Japan and South Korea. The financial situation of the universities seems to have improved in recent years. Where, not very long ago, the professoriat may have their salaries left unpaid for some months, at least they get paid regularly now. The salary level for a professor seems to be about US$200 per month (at about 28 roubles to the US dollar).

To put the BRHE funding in focus, I gather that the total operating budget for a university of about 18,000 students is around two million US$. The winners of the BRHE program would get funding for their proposal for three years at an average of 1/3 million per year with 1/4 million per year coming from CRDF and the balance from Russian federal and local sources. A principal researcher/ administrator for the program may have a further US$200 per month from the program, although the actual level was at the discretion of the proponents and, in fact, varied quite widely.

A typical site visit would begin with greetings at the airport by the rector of the university and the leaders of the scientific proposal. On arrival at the university there would be a welcoming address by the rector including some local history and information about the university as a whole. Then the serious work would begin with presentations made by the team that drew up the proposal. The team was required to consist of at least four people, a project director and three program managers, for research, education, and linkages. There would be visits to laboratories of the university and institutes of the academy that may be involved. We would do our best to quiz the proponents collectively, and to talk individually to members of their team, leading researchers, and students. In retrospect, a great deal depended on the provision of time for questioning and, of course, the nature of the responses. This provided us with the information not found in the written proposals and, naturally, justified the existence of the site visit team. The reception team would also be at the airport to say farewell.

Our program included some social and cultural events. Two very enjoyable and more or less spontaneous events were a sauna (Siberian style) in Novosibirsk, and a celebration near the completion of our travels (in Voronezh). I counted nineteen toasts. On our free day in Novosibirsk we had private guided tours of their wonderful geology and ethnology museums. I really felt that I learned something about Siberia. And on the previous evening we heard a concert of baroque music, mostly madrigals. The performing group sang unaccompanied or to period instruments. It made a refreshing change and the performance was highly professional. In Ufa we saw another very interesting ethnology museum where a gold hoard discovered in 1988 is the most startling exhibit. It is presently being prepared to go on tour to the Metropolitan, the Hermitage, and then back home to Ufa.

The Russians view the new free-market economy with some suspiscion. They see some people become very rich very fast and everyone knows that this can only be done dishonestly. After some years of access to some western goods in the mid nineties, the crash of the rouble (from 6 to the $ to 28 to the $) in 1998 destroyed any optimism that may have been built up. The term "New Russians" is now used in an insulting way to refer to those who can afford BMW's and expensive life-styles. The Soviet system, for all its faults, had a moral, or altruistic basis that many people accepted and cannot easily forget. It is not easy for them to accept a market-based philosophy when there are only very few (if any) signs of improvement in their standard of living. To try and correct this perceived scepticism there are moves to introduce a subject known as "economics" in the high-schools. In turn, this provokes the fear that young people are to be brain-washed into political correctness again.

Another interesting glimpse of life in Russia concerns the democratic process. I have some doubts about the recent presidential election and the way in which the incumbent, Putin, used his position of power in his campaign, and I am sure that many Russians share this doubt. (These doubts may be no stronger than those about the need to be very wealthy before one could run for the US presidency.) On the other hand, I got the impresssion that Russians value democracy highly, and that the democratic process has entered their lives in a variety of ways. An example close to home is the fact that university rectors are elected in a free ballot by academic staff. In contrast to this (and perhaps accounting for it to some degree) there is still a great respect for authority, and authoritarian figures may be more successful than they would be in the west.

This thought reminds me of the great pride that the universities take in their history and scholarship. In fact, this is sometimes excessive and our committee was occasionally regailed at length about scientists of the last century when our interest was mainly in the present and the future, and not much time to examine that. On the other hand, I was pleased to be reminded of the geometer Lobateschewsky and the role that he played at Kazan State University.

A major personal satisfaction from this exercise was the exposure to people and personalities. First, the committee itself lived and worked together closely for two weeks. We mixed very well in spite of some language differences. In general, among ourselves, English predominated and our translator, Ludmilla, was always there to help in translating in either direction (and taking careful notes of new turns of phrase or vocabulary that came up). To some degree, we learned how to conduct our reviews as we went along. But by the end of our work together I think we all felt that good understanding, and firm friendships had been formed among the travelling group. Then, of course, we met university rectors, vice-rectors, and famous scientists at all the universities. Many interesting personalities!