A hothouse has never looked so cold. Twenty miles south of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk lies Akademgorodok, literally Academic Town. This is Russia's answer to Silicon Valley, a place for coders and investors to come together and create ground-breaking tech start-ups. They call it Silicon Forest, and it's meant to replicate its Californian counterpart – only within the confines of a planned 1950s Soviet town next to a lake where they cut a hole in the ice when they want to go swimming.
"If you took Russia and folded it in half, Akademgorodok is on the crease," says Grant Slater, a 31-year-old American who spent two months photographing the town this year. "It was built in 1957 out of nothing, as a place to store science and minds outside Moscow. They didn't want to have all the smart people in the capital, in case a bomb wiped it off the map."
As such, the town housed the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences along with dozens of research institutions, leading studies into genetics and nuclear physics. "They built these institutes and then the apartments around them," says Slater. "It was meritocratic heaven; the more important you were as a scientist, the bigger your apartment." When the Soviet Union collapsed, however, Akademgorodok lost its purpose. "There was a brain drain; people left to go to IBM, Microsoft or Boeing in the US. You still meet people whose husbands went to work at Boeing and never came back."
The president of the Russian arm of microprocessor firm Intel once said, "If you have something tough, give it to the Americans. If you have something difficult, give it to the Indians. If you have something impossible, give it to the Russians." In the 2000s, drawn by Russia's wealth of brilliant programmers, Intel and IBM set up offices in the town. Sensing opportunity, Vladimir Putin promised to turn Akademgorodok into a technological hothouse.
"This was the big idea to revitalise the town and universities, to graft this tech incubator on top of the existing academies," explains Slater. "They invite smart kids from the universities to compete, inventing their own start-up companies. They have to make a proposal, k and if they win they get to be part of the start-up incubator." Investors are invited to bridge any intellectual, financial or technological gap. "The products they make are games and apps that people use in the US," says Slater. "On top of that is the biotech research, where there is real innovation. That's a hypercharged version of what they've done all along, with genetics and nuclear physics."
Slater was eager to see how the community worked. "I'm from a college town so it was something I thought I'd understand, but in Russia it was significantly different and it was the look that really drew me in," he says of Akademgorodok's fascinating contrast between high-tech modernity and Soviet brutalism, all controlled by the state and covered in a thick layer of snow. "I wanted to depict the character of the town." The start-up incubator occupies two modern, 13-storey towers linked by a bridge. Populated by academics studying the genetics of domesticated foxes or building components for the Large Hadron Collider, it looms over the older academic institutions in their concrete silos.
Slater was free to photograph both "young tech people inside new buildings and older scientists in their academic offices. They feed off each other, so it's very different from Silicon Valley, where there is not this decades-old infrastructure on top. The Silicon Valley people have an ethos, 'We will disrupt paradigms.' I'm not sure the Russians share that idealistic underpinning to what they are doing."
Instead, they talked about their work and life, while Slater took pictures. "They were all incredibly kind," he says. "There was one philosophy professor I'd visit every week. I ended up taking a picture of him in the steam bath, as that's where we spent a lot of time. We'd go ice-swimming. People don't shut down their lives because it's cold, but Russian talent is still largely attracted to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, so people who stay are Siberian at heart. They are fundamentally in love with what's around them."
For more information and to see more images: grant-slater.com
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