Russia, As Seen From Silicon Valley
Here’s a provocative essay by Max Skibinsky, a Russian emigre who is now a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. A Russian friend passed it on to me, and said Skibinsky nails how it is in Russia today. I know this blog has some Russian readers, and readers knowledgeable about Russia, so I request their feedback.
Here’s how Skibinsky begins:
Many people in Silicon Valley inquired over the years why I was not coming back to Russia often (I visited once in two decades) or why I’m not spending much time helping Russian startups. I usually answered these questions in generalities while keeping my grim thoughts and predictions to myself. The events of the past few days, unfortunately, show that the worst predictions I feared all these years did come true. The nightmare scenario is now unfolding as we speak, and Russia position in the world is now altered forever.
Well, “forever” is a very long time. Anyway, Skibinsky says that modern Russia is a corrupt oligarchy in which the great masses of people are misled by state propaganda, and supported by oil revenues:
Modern Russia is not a weaker version of Soviet Union “empire of evil.” This capability is, thankfully, long gone. Russia is “cargo cult” of Soviet empire. It lacks competent professionals, leaders and minimal work ethics to accomplish anything on that scale. It just have enough capacity to cover everything in a blanket of lies, and as long as it works on captive domestic population that is all that it’s leaders need to keep channeling profits from Russia to London accounts.
The best way to understand modern Russia is to imagine a steep pyramid. At the very top there is a clique of KGB-affiliated oligarchs, who manage barely-competent class of middle-managers (which can and do steal a fraction of everything they touch) which in turn sit on top of largely brainwashed and deranged mass population living on life-long government welfare.
Needless to say this is most toxic environment imaginable to incubate a startup ecosystem.
He goes on to say that Russia’s political, legal, and social situation conspire to drive out the kind of people who could revitalize its economy:
Creative class was a minority in modern day Russia and there is a strong emergent behaviour that draining their numbers. That is a class of people with the skills most in demand in Europe and USA. During “peaceful” decade of Putin’s rule over two million people emigrated from Russia: this is a number higher then immigration after communist revolution and civil war.
By my estimate there is probably few hundreds of thousands of people in the creative class in Russia. This vocal, yet very small group so far never succeeded at thwarting russian mafia state at anything.
Skibinsky concludes that Silicon Valley ought to be doing everything it can to support Ukraine and to disassociate itself from Russia, from which, he says, “there is nothing of value to recover.”
What do you think? Do not assume that by posting this, I agree with him. Perhaps if I knew more about the situation, I would agree with him. Or not. I can say that of the handful of Russians I know, mostly emigres but also a Russian Orthodox academic in Moscow, and none of them liberals in the American sense, this fairly represents their position on prospects in their homeland, if not necessarily their position on the Ukraine-Russia fight (thought it might; I’m not sure).
What’s interesting to me about this is what it says about prospects for Russia, or any nation whose creative minority believes it cannot thrive in that country. I’ve been thinking a lot about exile lately, not only because of Dante, but because of a side project I’m working on. Few people go willingly into exile. Many are sent, but many also send themselves, as the lesser evil. At what point do things get so bad in a country that people who do not have to leave, either because they’re thrown out of fear for their lives, decide that they and their children have no meaningful future there, and so must become strangers in a strange land.
(Oh, earlier today an old (Catholic) friend wrote from Paris to say that with the latest spasm of Islamic anti-Semitic violence, he’s never been so downcast about the future of his country. So things are bad all over.)