The Kremlin wants to engineer its own Silicon Valley. In a plan that was revealed in February, the Russian high-tech haven will come complete with new-wave architecture and all the comforts of a resort, a place for Russian geniuses to get together and invent the biggest thing since, well, the Internet. That's the hope, anyway. President Dmitri Medvedev, who has cultivated the image of a tech-savvy liberal, is staking much of his economic vision on the plan's success. And Russia has a resource that other nations envy: a fervid hacker culture with a reputation for excellence, or at least daring.
Since the Soviet collapse, no major platforms have emerged in Russia for its computer experts to innovate. As a result, many of them have emigrated, while many others have turned to hacking, a field in which Russians seem to excel. In January, police arrested a 40-year-old computer whiz for hacking into a Moscow advertising mainframe and turning a giant billboard display into a clip of hard-core pornography over one of the city's main streets. To avoid detection, the man had routed his attack through a proxy in Chechnya, a sophisticated trick. But for all his skills, the man was found to be unemployed. He told police he had done it "just to give people a laugh." The Russian government's idea now seems to be giving minds like his something more productive to do.
That ambition, at least, is admirable. But for all Medvedev's project evokes of free thinkers brainstorming in a park, it still has a distinctly Soviet feel. It relies on central planning rather than a movement of geeks in garages, and it will be managed by the state. What it reveals, experts say, is the irreconcilable conflict between the Kremlin's new-age ambitions and age-old desire to control.
The government has clear goals. It wants the denizens of its Silicon Valley to hatch lucrative inventions that will help break the economy's dependence on the sale of oil and gas. "The appearance of great ideas, like life itself, is still considered a miracle," said the Kremlin's chief ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, who laid out the project in a rare interview with Vedomosti, a Russian business daily, on Feb. 15. "There are, of course, no miracle workers among bureaucrats and businessmen, but together we need to create an environment where miracles are possible."
Surkov, officially Medvedev's deputy chief of staff, said that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had approved the idea of a Russian Silicon Valley after Medvedev came up with it. Surkov said he himself had been assigned to oversee its creation, most likely on the outskirts of Moscow. It is an unusual role for him. Both under Putin's presidency between 2000 and 2008 and now under Medvedev's, Surkov has been widely seen as Russia's éminence grise. He is the author of the "sovereign democracy" theory that underpins Russia's neo-authoritarianism and the engineer of the Kremlin youth group Nashi, which uses strategic thuggery to discourage opposition. Now he has embraced his role as Russia's innovation guru.
He has been doing his homework. In January, he traveled to MIT to take part in a two-day seminar on innovation, visiting the kinds of labs, design rooms and incubators where new technologies are born. Two weeks ago in Moscow, he hosted a delegation from the real Silicon Valley that included top executives from eBay, Twitter and Cisco Systems. The actor Ashton Kutcher also came along, and documented the visit on his Twitter feed. "Russia is building their own Silicon valley. And they want help," Kutcher tweeted on Feb. 18. "If we rebuilt it today what would we do differently?"