Esther Dyson’s hopes for Russia

January 25, 2012
Esther Dyson this afternoon and get a dose of refreshing optimism -- and about Russia, of all places.

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In the general atmosphere here in Davos of worry and apprehension, it was great to be able to sit down with Esther Dyson this afternoon and get a dose of refreshing optimism — and about Russia, of all places. There’s an elite group of Russian technologists here — Dyson, a lifelong Russophile who’s fluent in the language and on many boards of Russian technology companies, introduced me to both Arkady Volozh of Yandex and Anatoly Karachinsky of IBS. And she’s convinced that the success of the Russian technology sector can not only make for thriving companies but also for a much improved country.

I was skeptical, but Dyson made a number of good points. For one thing, it’s really hard to build a successful software company through corruption and bribery and other dark arts — especially when you’re creating websites which are judged on their broad popularity. And while natural resources can be stolen, human resources really can’t be.

More importantly, a whole generation of Russians is growing up on the internet, freely using Russia-developed websites which are every bit as good as their US counterparts. Their life online is transparent and not controlled by large and oppressive bureaucracies, and Dyson is convinced that once they’ve experienced that much freedom online, they’re going to start demanding it in real life as well.

Not immediately, of course: Putin is going to win the next election, and he’s going to do so legitimately. But at some point a majority of the Russian population will have no memories of the Soviet era. And already that younger generation is both demanding change and driving growth.

They’re fantastic engineers, for one — look at the way, for instance, in which Boeing does a large part of its engineering work in Russia. Or, more generally, at the Israeli technology sector, much of which is powered by Russian emigres. Russia has many problems, but there’s no doubt that its computer-science colleges are churning out a lot of smart graduates, and that the likes of Karachinsky are hiring those people at a rate of thousands per year. And they’re not robots, either: these kids are creative.

Dyson is intimately familiar with projects like Digital October in Moscow, and she’s a huge fan. Meanwhile, of course, there are the much larger phenomena which get a lot of global attention — things like Mikhail Prokhorov’s bid for the presidency, or the massive Skolkovo science park. If these things fail — and there’s a good chance that both of them will — that’s not necessarily a bad thing: free and successful societies have lots of failure. And importantly, when you look at both of them, you see hope and optimism. Which are not what you might call classic Russian traits.

I’m not entirely convinced. The population of Russia has been declining for the past 20 years, and is continuing to shrink: there are 14.2 deaths per 1,000 people per year, and just 12.6 births. And if you look at the weirdly-shaped population pyramid, you can see that the post-Soviet generation is dwarfed by its more conservative elders. It’s going to take a very long time indeed before they can or will effect any real change.

Still, if there’s any hope for Russia, it’s in the idea that democracy will percolate up from youth and the internet, rather than being demanded in some kind of revolution. As Prokhorov says, “every time we have a revolution, it was a very bloody period”. Russian democracy is not going to mean a US-style free-market economy: Russia tried that, in the 1990s, with disastrous results for the broad population. But a wired country is, by its nature, always going to be a little less corrupt. And a little more hopeful.


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