Retraining in Moscow

The peace dividend pays off in the challenges of teaching English to former bioterrorism researchers

Jan 1, 2006
Tobi Nagel

I'm holding a business card that reads "Head of Anthrax Laboratory." It's from a kindly, older gentleman I met in Moscow last year whose demeanor belies his former occupation: creating bioterrorism agents. We met when I US government foundation hire me to teach him scientific English, as part of an overall strategy to help former Soviet bioweapons scientists find viable employment options within the peaceful global community. Through this innovative program, the US Civilian and Research Development Foundation (CRDF) provides funding for individual principal investigators to shift to nonweapons research topics, awards institutional grants to shore up equipment and infrastructure that have deteriorated, and offers free English immersion workshops to give the scientists an essential skill for making a transition into the worldwide scientific community.

More than half of the scientists at our two-week English workshop were from a formerly secret institute called Obolensk, where a genetically modified, vaccine-resistant form of anthrax had been developed. During the Soviet era, Obolensk was a closed community, meaning that no one could enter or leave without permission, and the entire town was concealed within a forest. As threatening as that work sounds, the horrifying nature of the Soviet bioweapons program became even more personal and scary when I previewed the curricula vitae of the scientists who would be attending our workshop. They were littered with words like "bubonic plague," "bacterial pathogens," and "particularly dangerous zoonoses." What kind of people would actually conduct those experiments? Who would handle the test tubes? Would I really want to meet these people?

All those concerns melted away, however, when I came face to face with the delightful people of Obolensk. Like me, they have families and enjoy gardening, listening to classical music, and telling good jokes. I doubt any of the scientists I met would have volunteered to work on the research topics that were selected for them, but under the former Soviet regime their livelihoods depended on it. Many who once developed bioterrorism agents now develop sensitive methods for detecting sudden outbreaks of tuberculosis, smallpox and anthrax. Others are working on vaccines for diseases such as influenza and AIDS, turning their talents toward cures rather than weapons.

<figcaption>American and Russian colleagues near St. Basil's cathedral in Red Square, Moscow. Credit: Photograph: Tobi Nagel</figcaption>
American and Russian colleagues near St. Basil's cathedral in Red Square, Moscow. Credit: Photograph: Tobi Nagel

There were inevitable awkward moments. One day, the students asked how much money I make. Not only did asking the question represent a cultural difference between us, but also, I knew that the average Russian scientist makes a few hundred dollars a month. My typical US salary would seen astronomical to them. I started by discussing the cost of living in the United States versus Russia - my rent is approximately 10 times theirs. That shocked them. I didn't, however, highlight the fact that I live alone, whereas they commonly live with extended families in relatively small apartments. My attempts to put things in perspective by pointing out the differences in the costs of transportation and food went only so far. When I finally told them the standard salary range for a scientist in the United States, the depressed looks on their faces clearly indicated that they felt trapped in their world. An overall goal of our organization is to encourage scientists from the former Soviet republics to stay in their homelands and build up the scientific infrastructures there. I wasn't feeling very successful on that front. It's hard to argue against the facts.

One night, I sat down to dinner with the oldest participant in our workshop and asked how his life had changed since the end of communism. "Communists liked scientists," he said, and despite his language limitations, slowly but determinedly described the cards, home, money, and prestige he has received as rewards for his latents under the former regime. As he spoke, his usual charm and warmth faded and were replaced by sadness. He acknowledged that those scientists who are now supported by organizations such as CRDF have better salaries, laboratory resources, and funding for attending international conferences, but he emphasized that their situations are simply not what they once were. Though his words were limited, his message was clear: These Russian scientists can't go back, but the road ahead for them will require an acceptance of their altered social status as well as diminished resources, probably for many years ahead.

Tobi Nagel is a Principal Scientist at Chiron Coporation and a consultant for the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation.