Inside Russia’s Creepy, Innovative Internet

Episode 9: For the past five years, Russia’s been building walls around its web and packing it with tech oligarchs, startup cities, face-finding algorithms, hacker hunters, and, of course, a few bears.

By Ashlee Vance | November 30, 2016

 

The best mouse I’ve ever met lives in Akademgorodok, a Siberian city about an hour’s drive from Novosibirsk. The mouse is not alive. It’s a 2-foot statue that stands watch over a genetic engineering laboratory. Frozen in time, the mouse wears glasses and a lab coat, using a pair of knitting needles to stitch together strands of DNA.

The Akadempark logo in winter.
The Akadempark logo in winter.
Photographer: Grant Slater

This tribute to the sacrifices mice have made on behalf of humanity feels right in Akademgorodok. Sixty years ago, the Soviets set up the city as a remote science and technology center—just in case the scientists in Moscow were wiped out by a hydrogen bomb. The researchers were enticed to the middle of nowhere with nice apartments, good food, and the chance to think up radical ideas away from the prying eyes of the Kremlin. Their labs—ranging from biotech to nuclear fusion centers—still hum, and the city’s still packed with engineers.

On this episode of Hello World, I travel to Akademgorodok to learn about its history and its future. The fall of the Soviet Union meant many of the labs had their funding cut. But, of late, the Russian government has been pumping money back into the city, hoping it will emerge as a startup paradise in the taiga. Dozens of young companies have already clustered together to work on projects that include new takes on drones, slick air-filtration systems, and, yes, nuclear fusion. With its mix of nerds, peculiar restaurants, and lakeside banyas, it’s a startup city unlike any other on the planet.

Dmitry Vinnick pours water on the scalding rocks of a steam bath.
Dmitriy Vinnik, a philosophy professor in Akademgorodok, prepares a steam bath.
Photographer: Grant Slater

Akademgorodok, though, is just one part of my journey in this episode. From Siberia, I travel to Moscow, where another strange world is being created—the world of the Russian internet.

Russia is one of only a handful of countries to have developed its own internet, including its own search engines, e-mail systems, and social networks. To get to the roots of this sovereign internet, I spend a day hanging out with Dmitry Grishin, co-founder and chairman of Russian internet giant Mail.Ru Group. Grishin is a technology legend in Russia. We cruise Moscow in his Tesla, check out his gadget collection at the Mail.Ru offices, and dine at the highest restaurant in Europe, because that’s what Russian techno oligarchs do.

As for the budding tech oligarchs, well, there are plenty of those running around Moscow, too. Over the past few years, Russia’s wealth of smart, aggressive entrepreneurs has yielded a new generation of world-class technology companies. There’s Prisma, which uses artificial intelligence to turn your photos and videos into works of art, and Group-IB, one of the world’s top cybersecurity firms, which has an unmatched track record when it comes to hunting down hackers.

But the most stunning—and creepiest—software developed in Russia is something called FindFace. It’s an app that lets you take a picture of a stranger and then almost instantly, using a facial-recognition algorithm, find the person on a social network. If you’re hoping the software doesn’t work that well, you’ll be disappointed: When I tested the app, it found the right faces all the freaking time. Privacy is so 2015.

The Institute of Nuclear Physics at night.
The Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics at night.
Photographer: Grant Slater

The Russian startup scene has all the charms and oddities you might expect. The young engineers are clever, eager, and ready to make their mark on the world. They’re also operating in a climate where the government meddles in their affairs and, sometimes, takes control of their companies. Nobody cares to speak much about this in the open, but the grimaces and non-answers tell the story quite well.

There’s a part of Russia that desperately wants to build a booming technology industry that can provide the economy with a buffer from the swings in oil and mineral prices. And then there’s that part of Russia that can’t let go enough to give the engineers the freedom to actually make this happen.

Grab yourself a vodka, and a mouse, and join me in witnessing the bizarre spectacle that is Russian technology.

Watch more from Hello World



Episode 6: Australia
Australia's Tech Underground Comes to Life

Episode 7: England
England’s Bold Attempt to Revive Its Tech Industry

Episode 8: Japan
Japan’s Robot Inventors Are Creating the Future