In this paper, we study the influence of path dependencies on the development of an emerging technology in a transitional economy. Our focus is the development of nanotechnology in Russia in the period between 1990 and 2012. By examining outputs, publication paths and collaboration patterns, we identify a series of factors that help to explain Russia’s limited success in leveraging its ambitious national nanotechnology initiative. The analysis highlights four path-dependent tendencies of Russian nanotechnology research: publication pathways and the gatekeeping role of the Russian Academy of Sciences; increasing geographical and institutional centralisation of nanotechnology research; limited institutional diffusion; and patterns associated with the internationalisation of Russian research. We discuss policy implications related to path dependence, nanotechnology research in Russia and to the broader reform of the Russian science system.