Twenty years ago, tens of thousands of people inhabited a Russian city called Arzamas-16, some 220 miles east of Moscow. Officially the city was nonexistent; unofficially, its residents were building the Soviet Union’s mighty nuclear arsenal.
“Arzamas-16 was one of 10 closed cities in the Soviet Union where residents worked on nuclear weapons around the clock,” explains Raphael Della Ratta, project manager at the Partnership for Global Security. “The cities were isolated, but the quality of life was good, because the scientists were involved with national security work.”
When the Cold War flamed out, this army of nuclear experts faced the loss of both status and livelihood. Governments feared a mass exodus of Soviet nuclear weapons experts, eager to sell their expertise to well-paying countries and terrorist groups.
“Nuclear experts were, and still are, under constant supervision,” explains Yuri Yudin, a former Arzamas-16 scientist.
Michael Valentine is a senior manager at the International Science and Technology Center, an intergovernmental organization in charge of keeping ex-Soviet nuclear scientists busy, preferably with marketable pursuits. Today, the residents of Arzamas-16 — now renamed Sarov — make computer chips for Intel.
But the market economy remains a tricky field for the former bomb-makers. “Earlier this year, President Medvedev visited Sarov and talked about ways to create non-defense-related jobs here,” explains Yudin, who now heads Sarov’s new science center.
“We have specialists in mathematics and computers, but they’re not entrepreneurs. Nobody cares about marketing.”