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Revolutionizing Russia

To embrace its economic future, Russia must let go of its past

Many experts wonder what will emerge from Russia’s economic turn away from the West. Is its standing among the so-called BRIC nations—the up-and-coming economic powers of Brazil, Russia, India and China—in jeopardy? In the future, will we be discussing the rise of the BICS nations instead, replacing Russia with South Africa, whose growing momentum can’t be ignored? And how will Russia’s past, with its complicated attitudes toward business and capitalization, affect the country’s present ability to cultivate aspiring entrepreneurs from within?

In Lonely Ideas: Can Russia Compete? (The MIT Press, 2013), Loren Graham chronicles the brilliance of Russian inventiveness, as well as the nation’s continued failure to sustain and build upon its scientific achievements. A leading U.S. scholar on Russian science and technology and a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Graham goes on to question whether Russia can reverse its centuries-old pattern of stifling domestic technological progress. 

“[Russians] have made the mistake again and again and again of thinking that modernization is the same thing as obtaining technology,” says Graham, who is a research scholar in Russian studies at Harvard University. “They’ve got to come to the realization that a high-tech country possesses those ingredients in the society that make the development of high technology self-sustaining. It doesn’t have to be ordered from above. If you get the right ingredients together, it will take off on its own.”

Graham characterizes Russia’s failure to achieve success commensurate with its intellectual firepower as, in part, an attitudinal problem that stems from its distain for business as a “disreputable activity.” Even today, with the rise of Russia’s middle class and its burgeoning business community, Russian scholars maintain negative attitudes about commercializing their inventions, he says. Graham does concede that there are calls for commercialization of technology among Russia’s growing business class and in its schools of management. Still, he finds that the attitudes of many innovators remain mired in a distain for the “bourgeoisie.”

Nonetheless, Graham sees some hopeful signs for Russia’s economic future, such as systemic changes in the way it invests in science and technology. New institutions like the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (akin to the U.S. National Science Foundation) and such venture capital funds as Maxwell Biotech have been established, making it possible for individuals and small groups to seek funding outside of state control and direction. In addition, foreign technology companies have made inroads and forged collaborations with Russian scientists and nascent entrepreneurs. 

Yet foreigners with available cash don’t feel legally secure investing in Russian science, according to Graham.Reforming Russian laws to provide businesses with greater intellectual property protections, he says, would go a long way toward improving the country’s economic prospects. Otherwise, Russia will likely maintain the status quo, or as Graham describes it, its “consistent record, both brilliant and dismal.”

Illustration by Nicolet Schenck‚Äč

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