It is early morning and still dark. The camera zooms in on a tall block of flats, and we see a couple of windows with lights on. The camera cuts to inside one of these illuminated flats. A single mother is getting her three young children ready for nursery and school and herself ready for work. She utters a sigh of relief as she bids goodbye to her oldest son who takes himself off to school. One down, two more to go!

The above scene could be in any town, in any country. Except that we soon learn that the children’s father is absent. He is often ill, which the film later suggests to us is a tragic long-term effect of working at the nearby radioactive nuclear power plant.

Built in 1946, Ozersk has opened up but is still restricted to outsiders, both to Russians from other towns and to foreigners, and surrounded by a double fence.

This is the opening scene of a new documentary about life in one of Russia’s closed nuclear towns, CITY 40. Ozersk (previously known as Chelyabinsk-40) was created in the 1940s as part of the Soviet Union’s response to the US atomic bombing of Nagasaki in August 1945. Up until 1954, it was a totally closed town to the outside world even within the rest of the Soviet Union. Since then, it has opened up but is still restricted to outsiders, both to Russians from other towns and to foreigners, and surrounded by a double fence. The town was built to house the scientists and workers of the nearby Mayak nuclear power plant complex from 1946. In 1945, Soviet agents managed to get hold of classified information about the US nuclear weapons Manhattan Project; then the Soviet Union used that knowledge to start its own nuclear weapons programme to catch up with the US. Mayak remains the biggest processing centre of nuclear waste and decommissioned material from nuclear weapons in Russia – the likely source of the polonium-210 used to poison former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006.

(Trailer of CITY 40 on youtube)

The Soviet Union’s political and scientific leadership’s determination to not be left behind in the nuclear race meant that they overlooked the possible negative effects on the health of the scientists and workers at Mayak and other nuclear power plants – and on the health of their families who lived with them, and residents of surrounding areas. One result of this oversight is that half a million people in Ozersk and the nearby area are contaminated with five times the amount of radiation of people living in the areas of Ukraine affected by the 1989 Chernobyl nuclear accident.

A kind of social contract between the Mayak management and political leaders on the one hand, and the population on the other hand.

To persuade people to work in Mayak and move with their families, the authorities lauded the town with privileges and luxuries unimaginable in ‘ordinary’ towns and villages of the Soviet Union. So we can think of a kind of social contract between the Mayak management and political leaders on the one hand, and the population on the other hand: the former provided the latter with comfortable, private apartments to live in, supported excellent kindergartens, schools, and healthcare provision, maintained well-stocked grocery stores, and offered them a plethora of cultural activities such as cinemas and theatres. In exchange, the latter were expected to maintain the secrets of the town, and not even tell strangers where they live in the pre-1991 period when the city did not appear on maps. Many residents had no idea that they were living in a highly radioactive area and the damage this had on their bodies or their offspring.

Samira Goetschel’s documentary ‘CITY 40’ manages to get a hidden camera past the security gates of Ozersk – we do not see how the film crew managed to get their cameras through the gates to protect their fixer’s and gatekeepers’ identity and that of the film crew. The documentary films the brave work of a handful of nuclear scientists, human rights activists, and residents as they help others living in Ozersk and surrounding villages pursue their legal claims for compensation against the Russian state for the long-term radiation exposure they have faced over the past half century. We hear from a young man who does not want to be identified on camera but states that he loves his lake, his fish, and mushrooms: in brief, he loves his ‘little homeland’ but dislikes the political regime. We hear most from the brave and feisty Nadezhda, the mother of three young children whom I described at the start of this blog post. She was born and grew up in Ozersk, trained in sociology and law, bringing up three young children single-handedly and co-founding a non-profit organization to help other Ozersk residents and those living in the surrounding villages on contaminated land claim seek compensation.

I do wonder about the effects of the undercover filming on the people who agreed to participate and cooperate. Clearly, they had an informed choice whether or not to participate in the film. They chose to do so at substantial risk to their and their families’ lives. We learn from the end credits that in October 2015 several months after filming, Nadezhda and her three young children fled Russia after the Russian Security Service (the FSB) interrogated them as to why they were seen filming in public spaces in the town. She was accused of industrial espionage under the 2012 ‘foreign agent’ law (a law that requires non-profit organizations in receipt of foreign donations and engaging in ‘political activity’ to register and self-declare as foreign agents). Shortly after fleeing Russia, the film tells us that Nadezhda and her family were granted political asylum in France. Did Nadezhda see participation in the filming process as a possible way out of her hometown and motherland, or did she take part purely to enlighten the world about how the Russian state has pursued its nuclear ambitions?

It tells a global story about the environmental, security, and human rights implications of nuclear production.

Goetschel’s documentary is an incredibly brave film that tells a global story about deceitful authorities and nation-states’ superpower nuclear ambitions at the expense of their citizens, unknowing victims of long-term radiation exposure. It tells a global story about the environmental, security, and human rights implications of nuclear production. It is not, however, the first attempt by an outsider to study this particular nuclear town near the Urals mountains of Russia, about 1700 km east of Moscow. In 2013, Oxford University Press published Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by the American historian, Kate Brown ( The book has won 7 awards. Brown meticulously documents the origins, governance, and ways of life in two closed nuclear towns created within just a few years of each other: Richland in Washington state, US and Ozersk in the Soviet Union. Despite being located in two rival superpowers, Brown finds surprising similarities in Richland and Ozersk.

It is this human dimension that makes the film so powerful.

CITY 40 nevertheless manages to make an original contribution to our understanding about nuclear towns through its efforts to get a film crew into the town. It creates a human connection between viewers and its protagonists, letting the latter speak in their own words about their everyday lives residing in one of Russia’s closed towns. It is this human dimension that makes the film so powerful.


CITY 40 (released in 2016) had its European premiere at the Sheffield Doc Fest on June 11 2016 where it was nominated for a Grand Jury Award –

It is showing in London on June 14 at 7pm at the Frontline Club followed by a Q&A moderated by the Guardian’s Luke Harding –

Facebook: @CITY40documentary


By Imogen Wade, PhD candidate at University College London writing a thesis on the role of the Russian state in supporting innovation through special infrastructures such as science towns and science parks.


Why doing a PhD is like gathering mushrooms


The author with her gathered mushrooms. Photo: I. Wade (Sep. 2014), taken with an Olypus Digital Camera

People in Russia love to go mushroom gathering. In the autumn months especially, people head out in droves to their out-of-town small holdings (dachas) in the evenings and weekends. Equipped with buckets or baskets, a pocket knife, and plenty of tacit knowledge about how to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ mushrooms picked up over the years from their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, older siblings, and others, they head off into nearby woods and grassland.

One September when I was in Russia, I was invited by a friend to join her and some friends on one of their mushroom-gathering expeditions just outside Moscow.

Here are four reasons why I think that gathering mushrooms is a process similar to writing a PhD.

1. Both activities demand effort and concentration

Just as you have to focus on the ground in front of you to find mushrooms and then identify whether the mushrooms are of the edible kind, so too with a PhD.

2. You need to persevere

Don’t give up! Finding mushrooms and completing a PhD take time. Both can be frustrating at times. The rewards can be great at the end, so keep sight of the goals!


Laying out all gathered mushrooms afterwards. Photo: I. Wade (Sep. 2014), taken with an Olympus Digital Camera

3. You have to look carefully in ways and places you would not normally to get desired results

Mushrooms are good at camouflaging with the fallen leaves, dead logs, and soil. Part of the tacit knowledge about mushroom gathering (i.e. the knowledge that is hard to transmit via books or other printed media) is about where different kinds of mushrooms are most likely to be found. Some like to grow on dead logs, others under certain species of trees, and others still under dead leaves.

This photo shows a typical woodland in Moscow region – you can see there are lots of leaves, which might be hiding mushrooms!


Mushrooms can be really hidden away! Photo: I. Wade (Sep. 2014), taken with an Olympus Digital Camera

4. A solitary activity

Both gathering mushrooms and writing a PhD are essentially solitary activities. Yet it is also true that you are part of a group – whether your friends or family when mushroom-gathering or your PhD cohort in your department or school. Don’t isolate yourselves from these people as they can be an excellent support network: good company, sharing lunch or tea, exchanging advice (for example, about telling the differences between good and poisonous mushrooms), and moral support.

Giving feedback on a paper – patter

If you’re working with a writing partner, or a group, there’ll come a time when you want to give each other feedback. And you’ll want that feedback to be affirming not debilitating, and helpfully critical and not crushingly negative. Here’s a few starting points that you can consider. They are leads to help you to … Continue reading giving feedback on a paper

via giving feedback on a paper — patter

The parallels between a canoeing trip and doing a PhD

Photo of us in a canoe, 03.06.2015

Photo of us in a canoe // Photo: Chantal. 03.06.2015

At the beginning of June this year, my mum and I were lucky to be invited by our extremely sporty French neighbour to go canoeing in the Ardèche region of France. Just west of the Rhône river, the Ardèche region is a remote plateau area with an elevation ranging from 40m above sea level to 1,754 metres (Mont Mézenc). The Ardèche river has carved out some dramatic gorges as it winds its way eastwards through the area down to join the Rhône river. It is these gorges that are now a major international tourist destination, with dozens of companies offering canoe or kayak rentals. The evening before, the three of us drove the 2 hour journey in our neighbour’s camper van to the start of our canoeing descent of the river, complete with a kayak on the trailer. We pitched up right at a camping site beside the river, and bedded down for the night.

The next morning we awoke bright and early, feeling determined, energetic, and – for my mum and I – a little bit anxious about what lay ahead! We were worried that our neighbour’s view of a ‘pleasant day leisurely canoeing / kayaking 24km down a river’ would be different to our own interpretation of such a day, which involved a lot of lounging around, reading books, swimming, and sunbathing. We were right. After renting a 2-person canoe and getting a quick tutorial on the basics of paddling from my mum (who was passing on her knowledge from a recent sea kayaking holiday in Greece), we set off. A 2-person canoe and a solo kayak. The day turned out to involve going through a handful of rapids, capsizing in one rapid and losing a hat, much hot sun, and a test of our endurance.

Here is my (light-hearted) take on why a canoeing trip is similar to doing a PhD. Below I go through six reasons.

1. Both are a long journey – endurance and stamina needed

Our canoeing and kayaking trip was 24km and took us the best part of 8 hours to complete, including three breaks. I was so tired for the final stretch on the river that I felt like we would never reach the end – I began to be bored by the ‘same-old’ landscape on either side of the river and to resent every next bend in the river. Undertaking a PhD in a UK university usually requires between 3 years and 6 years (depending on your level of commitment and whether you do it full-time or part-time).

2. Rough at times

A PhD, like our canoeing and kayaking trip, can be rough at times. Both can give you euphoric feelings at times but more often feel like a hard slog. After just an hour of paddling in the canoe, I felt the beginnings of blisters on my hands (probably from gripping the paddle too hard, out of stress and uncertainty about what to do). Luckily, borrowing a waterproof glove from my mum helped. You just have to keep going and keep your final destination in mind.

We were warned by the guys who rented us the canoe that there were a few rapids and that to successfully negotiate the worst one (‘la dente noire’, or the ‘black tooth’) you should steer to the right, where the current was slower and there were fewer rocks to hit. However, our teamwork and canoeing skills (see point 6 below) were not at the level where we could manage to follow those instructions…. like around 30% of other people doing the same route as us, we went straight through the middle of the rapid and collided with a particularly big rock – and promptly capsized! My mum was at the back of the canoe, while I was in the front of the canoe and my shoulder took a bashing (which came up in a big bruise later).

Luckily, we came to no serious harm. Our life jackets kept us afloat and we allowed ourselves to be pushed downstream by the fast current, and then recovered our canoe. Our neighbour also capsized (despite her confident assertions that morning about how she ‘never capsizes!’) Sadly, she lost her straw hat which floated away to begin its own little adventure.

3. A beautiful journey – if you care to look around you


View from the road onto the Ardèche river and and gorges. // Photo: I. Wade. 03.06.2015

Doing a PhD and canoeing 24km down a river are both very intensive activities, meaning – unless you are a super experienced researcher or paddler – you need to concentrate on them and work hard to make progress.

However, if you allow yourself to keep your ‘blinkers’ on and not look around you at all, you can miss some beautiful sights. On our journey down the river, we were lucky to see soaring cliffs, birds of prey gliding above our heads, fish jumping out of the water with a ‘plop’, and we heard the songs of countless small birds in the trees and bushes.

Similarly, take time while doing your PhD to look around you, reflect, and consider the broader implications of your particular research topic – and maybe you will find new ideas and directions for your thesis.

4. Noise can be an issue

Particularly towards the end of our 24km river journey, where the river flattened out, the beaches of the river became crowded with day-trippers from the nearby towns and villages. Many of them were clearly enjoying themselves and were playing music loudly from portable radios or speakers. To us, however, their music was just noise and was in stark contrast to the silences and sounds of nature that accompanied us for the earlier part of our journey. When doing a PhD, it is also common to meet a lot of noise – whether that is noise in your data (in economics and statistics, noise means your data are inadequate for various reasons) or distractions along the way that divert your attention too much away from your thesis.

5. Longer than planned

Our super fit neighbour thought initially that we would be finished by 5pm. However, it was after 6pm by the time we managed to drag ourselves and our canoe out of the water and onto the waiting trailer and minibus that drove us back to where we had left our car. Our neighbour overestimated the fitness levels of my mum and me, and often had to wait for us to catch up with her.

Likewise, I have taken much longer than planned to write my PhD. I am now nearing the end of my 5th year as a (part-time) PhD candidate at UCL. Initially, I thought I would have submitted my thesis by January 2015. It is now July 2015 and I am still gathering data and writing. On the positive side, I have been able to experience a variety of opportunities, from spending 6 months in the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) on a policy placement via UCL (more information available here) … to doing a 3 month internship funded by CEELBAS in the online digital commons, openDemocracy Russia (more information here).

6. Teamwork is a not-so-simple necessity

Although a PhD is undoubtedly a solo venture in the sense that only you write the thing and you are the ‘driver’ of your research project, it is important to remember that teamwork also helps. From working in a team to collaborate, knowing whom to ask (and when) for help with data or access to interviewees, to working effectively with your supervisor(s) – the art of teamwork is a critical factor in being able to successfully complete a PhD. Similarly, canoeing 24km down a river relies on effective teamwork between the two people in the canoe. When you get it right, you can really feel the power of the canoe gliding through the water. Yet, if you get it wrong you end up either zig-zagging your way along the river (a very inefficient way of paddling because you have to go twice as far!) or worse, going round and round in circles. My mum and I zig-zagged a lot but also managed eventually to go straight for short distances!

Cathedral Rock_03.06.15_Chantal

Cathedral Rock // Photo: Chantal, 03.06.2015

So, on both a canoeing trip and during a PhD, it is key to define your roles clearly from the start. In a canoe, the person at the back of the canoe steers and helps out with paddling, while the person at the front concentrates on paddling evenly on the left and right hand sides of the boat to make the boat go forward. Clear, reassuring, and unstressed communication between you (and both understanding what certain key instructions – such as ‘paddle hard on the right!’ – mean) are also crucial! It took me until lunchtime to figure this out on our epic canoeing trip… by the end of the day, I had much improved (but still very much a beginner).

Overall, I strongly recommend a canoeing trip in the magnificent landscape of the Ardèche region of France – though avoid peak summer time as this is when the river is most crowded.

I hope that this short, light-hearted account has given some insights into what it is like to do a PhD. It is a journey that has its ups and downs as well as good and challenging parts!

writing where the energy is

Today’s resolution to myself is to do some free writing today on anything to do with Russian science and innovation!


The conventional writing advice offered to people who have some trouble writing is to engage in free writing. Write, usually in timed sessions, whatever comes into your head about a particular topic. Write without stopping. Write perhaps to prompts about a particular aspect of your work. Write without stopping to think, because it is the thinking that gets you into trouble. Shut off your inner editor and just write.

There are many versions and modifications to free writing. One that I like is what is called “Writing without a parachute”. Parachute-free writing, or what Barbara Turner-Vessalago calls free fall writing, is a process designed for creative writers. It has five basic tenets, three of which are easily applicable to academic writing:

1. write what comes up for you – this suggests that you don’t have a plan or prompts, you just write what comes into your mind

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Learning from the French? French competitiveness poles and Russia’s new clusters

Today I read an interesting report about a seminar that took place on December 8-11, 2014 in HSE, Moscow. It was organised by the centre for the development of a nuclear innovation cluster in the town of Dimitrovgrad, Ulyanovsk region (Центр развития ядерного инновационного кластера города Димитровграда Ульяновской области). The keynote presenter was Jean-Francois Boisson, a French businessman and the main founder of an aeronautics and space cluster called ‘Pegase’ in southern France.

The key points covered in the report are:

  • state policies and support clusters in France
  • towards financial independence for France’s competitiveness poles
  • Governance and strategy
  • Building up a critical mass
  • Attracting new companies as residents of the competitiveness poles, both large firms and small and medium enterprises

The report also has a useful map of all the competitiveness poles across France as of October 2014.

The original article can be read here: (published January 14, 2015)

A subjective take on the most interesting economics research about Russia in 2014

This is a rather nice list. It gives the authors, the title of the paper, and a link to the full paper. It is in Russian.


ТОП-14. Самые интересные экономические исследования 2014 года, посвященные России


Here is the link to the original article: