Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Savior of Russia

Russia, lover of all things gigantic, is staking its bet on nanotechnology, the study of the infinitely small. Providing the ability to construct anything from the atoms up, the near magical world of nanotechnology promises breakthroughs in medicine (“swallowing the surgeon”), economics (tiny machines constructing tinier machines ad infinitum), energy and, of course, warfare.

Recently, Anatoly Chubais, the chief of Rusnano, the company spearheading the state-backed drive to master nanotechnology, said the country’s nanotechnology industry would need 150,000 specialists by 2015! Last year, 100 people graduated with degrees in nanotechnology in Russia. Where are the other 149,900 supposed to come from?

Russia’s educational system has suffered a severe decline. In 1991, UNESCO rated it third-best in the world, but by 2007, it had slipped to 37th place. Mikhail Kovalchuk, who heads the Kurchatov Institute’s nanotechnology research, sees an advantage here, however. The old educational infrastructure could not have accommodated the “new revolution” in nanotechnology, so it is better that it withers away. And, he adds, “Nanotechnology will be the driving force of the Russian economy.”

Great leaps forward have always appealed more to the Russian imagination than slow, patient daily labor. After World War II, Japanese and German industries were in ruins. Part of the economic miracle of both countries came from their modernized industrial bases rebuilt after the war. Russia, with its economy in shambles after its defeat in the Cold War, also wants to leapfrog from one level of technology to the next.

The Soviets achieved nuclear parity with the United States in astonishing time. The drive was headed by Igor Kurchatov and the science done by Andrei Sakharov. When the first Soviet H-bomb was exploded in 1953, Kurchatov embraced Sakharov and called him the “savior of Russia.” Later, Sakharov worked on the Tokamak, a device designed to produce fission energy, the same mighty energy that powers the sun and H-bombs, but that work has yet to fulfill its great promise.

Abdul Kalam, the president of India from 2002 to 2007 and himself an eminent scientist specializing in ballistic missiles, has said nanotechnology “would revolutionize the total concepts of future warfare.”  Putin agrees, calling nanotech the “key to creating the newest, modern and supereffective weapons systems. Nanotechnology is an activity for which the government will not spare money.” The Kremlin has allocated $7.7 billion for nanotech for the period from 2007 to 2015.

The military application of nanotechnology has obvious appeal to Russia in its drive to regain superpower status. Between 2001 and 2005, Russia was the world’s leading exporter of military equipment. Now it is in third place, behind Italy and the United States, which has 10 times the market share. New Russian weapons systems have been problematic, to say the least. The much-vaunted Bulava naval intercontinental missile has failed seven of its 11 tests since 2004. Russian army equipment proved outmoded in the 2008 war with Georgia.

Nanotechnology will also revolutionize economics, especially the production of energy, delivering Russia from its dependence on exporting oil and gas. Kovalchuk believes that the nanoengineering of the Tokamak could be the key to producing nuclear fusion energy. It would be irony on an epic scale if Sakharov, the saintly genius of nuclear physics, once more proved the “savior of Russia.” But Russia is exactly the sort of place where those kinds of things can, and do, happen.

Richard Lourie is the author of “The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin” and “Sakharov: A Biography.”