Independent funding for science is unwelcome in Russia

The first Russian company to list on the New York Stock Exchange after the fall of Soviet Communism was not a natural resource behemoth. It was a three-year-old firm providing mobile telephony services. The year was 1996; the company’s name was VimpelCom (NYSE:VIP); its service mark, Bee Line, is now familiar to all Russians.

Unusually for a tech upstart, VimpelCom’s CEO and co-founder was in his early 60s, an experienced radio engineer, military radar designer, and research director called Dmitry Zimin. In 2001-2, he retired as CEO, sold his VimpelCom holding, and established the Dynasty Foundation. It is providing financial assistance to young Russian mathematicians and natural scientists, as well as teachers of math and science.

Zimin’s father Boris, also an engineer and a professor at the Moscow High School of Technology, was arrested in 1933, the year when Dmitry was born, and died in a penal labor camp in 1935. As Boris was only cleared by the Soviet authorities in the 1950s, Dmitry grew up with the official label of an anti-Soviet criminal’s son. Eighty years after Boris Zimin’s death in Siberia, the Russian justice ministry has designated Dmitry Zimin’s foundation a “foreign agent.” Outraged by this neo-Stalinist badge of dishonor, Zimin has decided to stop finding Dynasty.

Mikhail Gelfand, a prominent biologist and opposition activist, comments:

The foreign agent label and the withdrawal of Zimin’s support will seriously damage Dynasty’s activities. In addition to a heavy paperwork burden — Dynasty has a very lean office and its spending on internal logistics is spectacularly low — it will make local authorities unlikely to support Dynasty-funded events. Can you imagine a city mayor permitting a science festival supported by a foreign agent?..

Admittedly, Dynasty is not the only foundation supporting science…

But Dynasty is unique in the diversity of its activities and the way they are organized. Its programs are carefully considered by the board of directors, all individual grant applications are peer-reviewed, and its annual reports, including financial information, are published on its site.

It used to be the yardstick against which the performance of other foundations, both private and state, were measured. If it is closed, the damage to Russian science and education will be irreparable.

More comments here. Nature (link above) also word quotes Rutgers University professor Konstantin Severinov, who runs a genetic research lab in St. Petersburg.


  1. I always got the impression that the 3 main Russian mobile phone companies – MTC, Beeling, and Megafon – represented pretty much the only area of the Russian economy that resembled that which you could find in the West. All three companies seemed to be genuinely in competition with each other; their service levels were good (SMS, free minutes deals, etc.) even in Sakhalin, and their marketing campaigns as good as any of their western equivlents (particularly Beeline’s, which were great).

    I put this anomaly down to their being no archaic regulations impeding development of wireless networks, and I have noticed this is much of the developing world too (especially Africa, particularly Nigeria). In Thailand, for example, buying a SIM card is a matter of 2 minutes, getting a landline installed a matter of months – before you finally give up.

    • VIP and MTS both started from scratch and have been privately owned, financed and run. I guess they had rolled out their networks before regulators drew up their stifling rules. (Frequency allocation is a pain in the neck though, with the military taking up a lot, holding back LTE.) Most local fixed-line telcos remain partly privatized and state-controlled but MGTS, the Moscow regional provider, is private (part of the Sistema conglomerate, like MTS). From my experience, the quality of fixed-line service from MGTS is close to what you got in Middle America from a Baby Bell some ten years ago. Not that bad.

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