Moscow State University high-tech valley: Scientific oasis or another ‘New Vasyuki’ for officials?

Moscow State University high-tech valley: Scientific oasis or another ‘New Vasyuki’ for officials?
Moscow State University Main Building Photo: Grigory Sobchenko / Kommersant

The Russian Government intends to create a modern science city on the basis of the Moscow State University and vows that this project won’t suffer the same fate as Skolkovo. What is the reality?

The Silicone Valley fame makes restless both the domestic scientific society and Kremlin officials. The first attempt to adapt this concept on the Russian soil was unsuccessful – the Skolkovo Innovation Center is rather dead than alive. Therefore, both the authors of the new high-tech valley project and the Government pretend that they have nothing to do with the once-praised innovation center. Still, the Moscow State University (MSU) valley is increasingly reminiscent of the fictional world chess capital – New Vasyuki

The most elegant center of Europe, and very soon – of the whole world

The Vorobievi Gori (Sparrow Hills) MSU high-tech valley project was born in the university; Rector Victor Sadovnichy is its main mastermind and supervisor. The purpose of the project is to improve the quality of education and research in the MSU, make it a real competitor to leading world universities, and ultimately stop and even turn back the multiyear ‘brain drain’ from Russia. Furthermore, the Vorobievi Gori high-tech valley intends to combine both the interests of fundamental science and business. Involvement of business is a forced concession of the university to the harsh reality. In situation when the government abstains from funding hospitals and schools, making these institutions self-financing, the science has to rely on private investors. However, it turns out that the investor is already ‘appointed’ at the top level.

To the credit of Sadovnichy, it must be said that initially the MSU high-tech valley seemed to be a reasonable and balanced project. Victor Sadovnichy announced it in the end of 2013, at a meeting of the Board of Trustees chaired by Vladimir Putin. Only the overall project idea was presented at that time: construction of numerous research clusters and a large green recreation zone with museums and a sports facility. Almost six month later, Sadovnichy presented the project details to the MSU Academic Council.

The presentation included two options of the future Vorobievi Gori layout – both developed by the MSU jointly with the Center of National Intellectual Reserve (CNIR). CNIR is one of the university subdivisions, but works in close collaboration with the National Intellectual Development non-commercial fund headed by Katerina Tikhonova. These structures are united under the Innopraktika (Innovation Practices) brand. Innopraktika became famous after Reuters and Bloomberg publications alleging that Katerina Tikhonova is a relative to Vladimir Putin. Despite being established just recently, Innopraktika has already secured large contracts with such structures as Rosatom, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), and Transneft. According to SPARK, the total amount of two contracts with Rosatom exceeds 39.7 million rubles.

Проект застройки

Photo: Sketch: One of the layout options. 2014

The valley design options developed by Innopraktika and presented to the MSU Academic Council in May 2014 were consistent with Sadovnichy’s words: the schemes and sketches show the above-mentioned university clusters and a spacious green zone. However, we have earlier mentioned the forced compromise between the science and business for a reason. According to the presentation below, a half of Vorobievi Gori will be occupied by commercial real estate.

Скриншот страницы презентации

Photo: Snapshot from the MSU presentation

Losing quality and winning time

The devil is in the details, in our case – in figures. And the figures indicate that by mid-2014, Vorobievi Gori has already transformed into a semi-commercial project. Furthermore, the figures continued to change towards the commercial component during the whole project preparation phase. For example, at a meeting with Putin in January 2015, the MSU Rector provided a firm cost of the high-tech valley – 110 billion rubles – and assured that 65% of this amount will be spent on construction of university laboratories. It would be logical to assume that the total area of these laboratories will exceed the footage of luxury apartments. But this ordinary logic is not applicable to Russian projects. According to RBK, the presentation produced for the session of the Moscow City and Land Planning Committee shows different figures: the total cost of the project is 149.9 billion rubles in the prices of 2014 – i.e. now this amount must be multiplied by at least one and half. Could the MSU management be forgiven for this confusion, taking that private investors provide 97% of funding? No, not really. Science is a national asset, and the MSU expands its territory to the state, not private, lands.

And who is that investor who, apparently, is ready and willing to spend all its money on the MSU development? Officially, the general developer is not approved yet. However, Victor Sadovnichy said at the meeting with the President that all economic issues have been already settled. Therefore, de facto the project has its investors. 

Media were naming Inteko company the general investor for the Vorobievi Gori project from the very beginning. First of all, the MSU had already collaborated with Inteko in the past. The company, then owned by Elena Baturina, has built the Fundamental Library, medical center, and several university facilities on the area of 120.2 ha provided by the MSU. According to Sobesednik.ru, Shuvalovsky and Dominion luxury residential complexes with the total area over 800 thousand square meters have been built on the same territory. Secondly, Inteko, jointly with the university, was the customer who ordered the valley design project. And finally, Mikhail Gutseriev, current co-owner of Inteko, is, together with other oligarchs, a member of the MSU Board of Trustees.

As soon as Inteko has become a co-customer for Vorobievi Gori project documentation, the appearance of the high-tech valley changed beyond recognition. For example, at the meeting of the Board of Trustees in 2013, Sadovnichy said that 100 ha of lands will be used for construction; now this area is four times larger. The development area now includes both federal and municipal lands. Apparently, Victor Sadovnichy is not very happy with this: he admitted that such an expansion caused public protests against the high-tech valley as a whole.

 План застройки

Photo: Development plan submitted for public hearings

The planned construction in the park zone #7 caused an outcry among Ramenki district residents, who suddenly became neighbors of the high-tech valley. Furthermore, the projected green zone of the valley has mysteriously disappeared. But the total footage of real estate, according the BBC Russian Service citing Inteko, has increased to 1.7 million square meters, including 704 thousand square meters of residential units. This considerably exceeds the area of the famous Federation Tower residential complex.

Public hearings on the construction of Vorobievi Gori, conducted in July 2015, have resulted in predicable outcry of Moscow residents and fiasco. Instead of the park and numerous recreation zones promised by Sadovnichy, the people got a cynical escapade by Sergey Kuznetsov, the Chief Architect of Moscow: “You can not make parks everywhere”. Then Kuznetsov touched on a sore subject for Ramenki residents: a garage cooperative, currently used by criminals and social outcasts as a shelter. According to Sobesednik, the developers promised to replace asocial public with intellectuals in the presence of tough private security guards and ubiquitous Christian activists. The video of the hearings shows police officers appearing right before the vote counting. Then a well-known math formula was used to calculate votes: “Individually we all say No, but together we vote Yes”. The park is already lost for Ramenki, but will Moscow get an ultramodern high-tech valley as promised?

“My personal connections and your activity”

According to Ostap Bender, these were the only two things required to create New-Vasyuki. The success of Vorobievi Gori was determined by the same two factors. And somebody’s ‘personal connections’ turned out to be more powerful than those of Victor Sadovnichy. The MSU Rector was ready to make an inevitable – or rather forced – compromise with the authorities and business, but he is still committed to the university interests. This makes him inconvenient for those interested only in the commercial component of Vorobievi Gori. As a result, Sadovnichy was ‘softly thrown out’ of his own project.

The radical switch from science to business started from the Bill “On technological valley”. It was developed by the Ministry of Economic Development of the Russian Federation not only without any input from the MSU, but even without a single reference to the university in the text.

The opinion of the MSU management was demonstratively ignored. According to the university press release, the rectorate became aware of the bill publication post factum. The Ministry of Economic Development, answering a question by the BBC Russian Service, called the MSU “an associate contractor, according to an instruction by A.V. Dvorkovich, in the framework of the implementation of the instruction by the President”. Therefore, the role of the university has been diminished from principal to nominal. The Ministry also stated that it had sent letters to the MSU to inquire of the rectorate opinion. The letters had been wisely sent right before the March 8 holidays – as a result, the Russian Post delivered them after the Bill publication on the Internet.

Plans of the Ministry – i.e. the Government as whole – are suspiciously reminiscent of the Skolkovo project. According to the Bill, a state management company shall overlook the construction and development of the high-tech valley. The future state corporation will have wide-ranging powers, including Master Plan and land use regulations development, issuance of construction and clearance permits, and hiring foreign workers in excess of federal quotes. Taking the nature of the upcoming construction, it is unlikely that the state corporation intends to retain leading world scientists. In addition, parties involved into the high-tech valley construction shall enjoy, similarly with Skolkovo, a special tax regime. The bill hasn’t been approved yet – but the site is already transformed into a ‘business nursery’ for questionable innovations. Research projects will be also supervised by effective managers of the state corporation, which does not look very promising for the science. 

So the question is: What the MSU has to do with all of it now? And the answer is: Nothing. The MSU was used for the project branding, and now, when it is not needed anymore, thrown away. The selection of builders and contractors, as well as functional designation of buildings, are exclusive prerogatives of the state management company. The state corporation is not bound by any obligations with regards to construction quality and parameters. No one can guarantee that a single university facility would ever be built in the ‘MSU valley’. Furthermore, even the management of lands allocated to the MSU for perpetual use (the above mentioned 120.2 ha with the Fundamental Library and residential complexes built by Inteko), most probably, would be transferred to the newly-established state corporation. The Bill will be heard by the next convocation of the State Duma. The Ministry of Economic Development promised to take the MSU opinion into consideration, but what would it mean in reality? Especially taking that the first construction phase is planned to be completed by 2018.

No one can guarantee anything with regards to research laboratories, but luxury residential high-rises will definitely be erected by that time. As Ostap Bender promised, hundreds of wealthy people will strive to settle here. They have enough personal connections, while the Russian government is taking care of required activities.

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