In the postwar drive to harness the atom, the Soviet government built little towns charged with various scientific tasks. About 60 of these towns were created between the late 1940s and early 1980s. Some of them, towns where new weapons were designed, were not even on the map. Other towns worked on what the Soviets called “the peaceful atom” and were considered “open,” which meant that access to them was highly restricted for foreigners and that the residents themselves were closely monitored by the secret police.
In 1990 science funding suddenly dropped about 90 percent. With the country on the brink of collapse, international prestige finally had to take a back seat to economic emergencies. Construction in the science towns froze and the trickle of young science graduates dried up. By 1993, many institutes could not afford to keep their electricity turned on, and the life in most labs had ground to a halt. While the economic disaster of the early ’90s hit the entire country, the science towns were arguably in the worst position to adjust. Unlike military-factory towns, which also lost their funding overnight, the science towns had no industry to convert to civilian production. Unlike their colleagues living in other cities, the scientists in science towns could not switch to careers in finance or the service industries: most of them lived hours away from anything that wasn’t a research institute, and they had no money to move.