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Russia’s Captive Think Tanks

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Back in the heyday of Stalin’s Gulag, there was a very bizarre form of penal institution – the sharashka. Here’s how it worked: The NKVD would arrest a bunch of brilliant scientists and engineers, throw them in an R&D facility surrounded by barbed wire, feed them a starvation diet, and instruct them to invent whatever it was that needed to be invented. Sometimes, just to make things easier logistically, an entire research institute’s staff would be arrested and the building itself surrounded with barbed wire – instant sharashka! These unique think tanks were described in great detail in a book by a young mathematician who had spent some time in a sharashka himself. His name? Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The book? The Gulag Archipelago, of course.

Many of the Soviet Union’s greatest minds slaved away in sharashki for many years. As a rule, those of their discoveries that weren’t deemed to be state secrets were attributed to prominent Soviet scientists – far lesser minds who were not (yet) Enemies of the People. Standing out among the thousands of anonymous inmates of the sharashki are names such as:

  • Sergey Korolev – Fatherof the Soviet space program. Even his name was declared a state secretand was shrouded in total secrecy until after his death.
  • Helmut Gröttrup -One of Nazi Germany’s top V-2 rocket scientists. His boss Wernher vonBraun http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wernher_von_Braun was far luckier -he got captured by the Americans. But Gröttrup may have had the lastlaugh: after he was released and allowed to return to Germany, hebecame one of the co-inventors of the “smart card” with its embeddedmicrochip, the patent for which is worth a fortune today.
  • Andrei Tupolev  -Aircraft designer. He designed the world’s first jet airliner to beused in commercial service. Even today, the majority of Soviet- andRussian-built airframes are the products of the design bureau thatbears his name.
  • Léon Theremin  – Inventorof the world’s first electronic musical instrument, the eerie sound of which can beheard on the Beach Boys’ hit “Good Vibrations”. He also invented videointerlacing, a technology that was used to reduce flickering on everytelevision set in the world until the 1970s, and on many even today.While in the Gulag, Theremin invented a passive electroniceavesdropping device that was made famous in 1952, when it wasaccidentally discovered that a gift that had been given by Sovietschoolchildren to the US ambassador in Moscow and had been hanging inhis office for 7 years was actually a bug.

What is most amazing is not that these people actually managed toinvent great things in such conditions, but that their patriotism neverwavered throughout the whole of their inhuman ordeal. They remainedstaunch Soviet patriots who proudly served the Motherland while dressedin rags, eating tasteless gruel, sleeping on hard bunks, waking upbefore sunrise, being deprived of the most basic of creature comforts,and unable to see their families for years (even though some of thesharashki were right in Moscow, they were engaged in top-secretresearch, so family members were unaware that their loved ones wereliving in the same city).

Why this long discourse on the history of the sharashki? Well,because we were intrigued by something we read just the other day on,of all places, the Russia Today propaganda website.It seems that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has just been returned toMoscow to face a show trial on charges that truly transcend absurdity,was allowed to bring his entire book collection with him and has beenmoved into a cell with two economists. Khodorkovsky is delighted thathe’s finally got cellmates of his own age and intellectual level withwhom he can engage in meaningful discourse, instead of the usual youngsemi-literate stool pigeonshe’s been forced to live with for several years now.

Why all the sudden intellectual stimulation? Could it just possiblybe that the ex-KGB mediocrities currently running Russia, realizingtheir woeful inadequacy to handle the deepening economic crisisgripping the country, have decided to pull a page out of NKVD historyand revive the old tradition of patriotic think tanks under the organs’control – the sharashki? It’s really fiendishly simple: just installone of Theremin’s bugs as a “fly on the wall” in Khodorkovsky’s celland then listen in on all the brilliant brainstorming that will nodoubt be going on, implement what you hear as emergency economic policy, and ascribe the achievementto one of your leading siloviki!

If this not-so-far-fetched idea is true,it would be one of the smarter ideas to come from the people who havebeen hounding Khodorkovsky all these years.