Soviet High-Tech Bonanza
Russian military scientists have world-class know-how that could be applied to peaceful uses, but they need help from Western entrepreneurs
LAST November I was invited by the former Soviet Union, now the Commonwealth of Independent States, to lead a delegation of the first Western scientists allowed into their secret weapons laboratories, which are attempting to change their focus from military to civilian technology.
The scientists and administrators at the laboratories want to establish collaborative ventures with the West and need marketing advice, but they are by no means technological beggars. These scientists have made some astonishing breakthroughs in material science, nuclear science, and laser physics. Much of their equipment is state-of-the-art. From what I saw, the labs have a lot to offer the world community, and in time the commonwealth will achieve success in the world market.
I agreed to join the Western delegation before the coup attempt last August. News of the coup brought some misgivings, and several scientists decided to decline the invitation. However, a combination of curiosity about the level of technology and interest in the Soviet people convinced me to proceed.
Along with Dr. Andreas Ulrich of the Technical University of Munich and Dr. Frederick Boody, president of NPL (Nuclear-Pumped Laser) Corp. and a University of Missouri-Columbia graduate, I visited the Institute of Experimental Physics at Arzamas-16, the Institute of Technical Physics at Chelyabinsk-70, and previously secret laboratories at the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering at Obninsk.
During the visit I became friends with many Russian scientists, especially the six with whom I traveled for 11 days over 6,000 miles of the Russian Republic in a 12-seat chartered Aeroflot jet. The scientists are men with high moral and ethical standards who share my concerns about the prudent transfer of technology. They want their valuable technology to be used for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of mankind, but they need the knowledge and capital to commercialize it.
The openness and honesty of the Russians in allowing our visit conveyed a positive, cooperative intent. The unique nature of our visit, which required special clearance from the Soviet Foreign Ministry, became clear before my departure from the United States when I was questioned about my visa application by suspicious officials at the Soviet Embassy.
Citizens of the Soviet Union were required to carry two passports, one for travel outside the Soviet Union and another for travel inside. The secret facilities and towns near the Russian postal code designations Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-70 were not only off limits to Western scientists, but to Soviet scientists and citizens without special documentation on their internal passports.
Even information about the self-sustaining, closed cities, such as their names and populations, is classified. By my estimate, Arzamas-16 had a population of 200,000 and Chelyabinsk-70 about half that. We were told that Arzamas-16's real name is based on the Sarovskogo Monastery, a Russian Orthodox holy shrine located within the city and dating to the 13th century. Chelyabinsk-70 was once a playground for Russian noblemen. One of them built the house in which we stayed, a magnificent building nestled in the forest about 200 yards from a large ice-covered lake, with a staff of three to provide for our needs.
Over the years, the Soviet Union spent more than 40 percent of its gross national product in support of its military, sacrificing basic human needs such as adequate housing, food, medical care, and transportation. The situation has led to concern in the West that the collapse of the Soviet Union will result in the sale of military and nuclear technology to the highest, and often most a disreputable, bidder.
The terrible state of the commonwealth's economy has made this concern difficult to dismiss. The true value of any country is its people, and the best technical people in the commonwealth are terribly undervalued. I know a scientist who is a member of the Russian Academy of Science, equivalent to our National Academy of Science, and makes about $6 a month.
The commonwealth has exceptional capabilities in several areas. For example, some aspects of its space program are far ahead of their US counterparts, and the Russian microwave and materials technology is simply the best in the world. These and other military technologies have many non-military applications, but the mechanisms to bring them to the marketplace do not yet exist.
One field in which the Russians could have an immediate impact is computer programming. They were using IBM PCs, relatively unsophisticated computers, for very sophisticated purposes, requiring extraordinary programming talent. We have a shortage of good programmers and software in the West, so collaboration with the Russians in this area could be extremely profitable for both parties.
The commonwealth has a lot to offer the world community. After seeing its capabilities up close, I believe it is only a matter of time before the commonwealth becomes successful in the world market. When the people begin to put their creativity into capitalistic endeavors, their economy will rise quickly.
We must aid their efforts to establish a free market. The country is a potential bonanza for Western entrepreneurs who have the stomach to go in and help the people learn the ways of capitalism. In the end, both East and West will profit, and it is smarter to help a friend now than have a bitter rival in the future.