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  • From Russia with Code: Programming Migrations in Post-Soviet Times ed. by Mario Biagioli and Vincent Antonin Lépinay
  • Barbara Walker (bio)
From Russia with Code: Programming Migrations in Post-Soviet Times Edited by Mario Biagioli and Vincent Antonin Lépinay. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. Pp. 384.

While the title and back matter of this fascinating collection suggest that it covers contemporary Russian coding practices with a global impact, the volume does not address the most notorious of those practices—economic and political hacking with impacts around the world. Yet these elegant, deeply researched articles, predominantly by Russian scholars, illuminate a central quality of Russian IT culture that may explain the difficulty of addressing such illicit phenomena. That quality is a complex tension between professional and entrepreneurial identity that shapes the IT innovation emerging from this region. It originated historically in the massive Soviet state investment in computing initiated in the 1960s, when many in both the Soviet intelligentsia and the state hoped to secure the Soviet command economy through cybernetics. For working together, those players created a unique Soviet professional culture of almost religious national commitment and "enthusiasm," with little explicit acknowledgement of the profit motive.

Part I brings out the theme of professional identity in Russian IT culture as influenced by a pursuit of spiritual meaning. Ksenia Tatarchenko's [End Page 266] article shows how Soviet-era Andrey Ershov sought to build a spiritually rich, new professional programmer identity and community. Marina Fedorovna explores the professional community of the search engine Yandex, originally a search tool for the Bible, as one of ritual practices to preserve and enhance the "sacred corpus" of its code. Ksenia Ershina's research on Russian civic hacking communities reveals a link between that spiritual emphasis in professional identity and Western academic predictions of the 1980s and 1990s that the collapse of the Soviet Union would see the rise of a "civil society." This concept emphasizing a non-profit culture may have discouraged Russian IT practitioners and scholars from exploring the full significance of the profit motive in post-Soviet IT.

Part II turns to the inter-relations on Russian territory among entrepreneurship, professional university culture, "enthusiasm," and the Russian state. We learn of a small IT industry in the far eastern city of Vladivostok formed around commerce in used Japanese cars. Nourished by local university and "enthusiast" networks, this thriving community was easily damaged by tariffs and university reforms instituted by the government. The would-be "showcase" city of Kazan, with government-funded European-style physical infrastructure built to attract entrepreneurs, suffers from a government failure to invest in the institutional and legal infrastructure required for a successful entrepreneurial culture. An article on technoparks in and near Moscow, the center of Russian state power, echoes similar themes while also revealing the impact of brain-drain on the region. Andrey Indukaev analyzes IT software business activity in Siberia, nurtured by the strong research community networks emanating from the Soviet-built Academy of Sciences community near Novosibirsk. He raises a central dilemma for legitimate Russian entrepreneurship in IT: "the long-lasting aversion that Russians have toward making money through technological entrepreneurship" (p. 210). In the only article on non-Russian post-Soviet IT cultures, Daria Savchenko discusses the successes and difficulties of "e-Estonia" as a bulwark against historically lethal Russian government interventions in that country.

Following an "interval" to transition readers from the post-Soviet to the Russian émigré experience, part IV traces émigré activities in Great Britain, the United States, and Israel. Each case study reveals the impact of Soviet-rooted professional culture. Irina Antoschyuk focuses on the experiences of Russian students in British academia. Diane Kurkovsky West describes how many Russian IT emigrants in Boston, not culturally inclined toward entrepreneurial activities, typically turned to what she calls "upper-middle tech" corporate IT employment. Maria Fedorov completes the volume by discussing the difficulties for Russian IT émigrés to Israel of adapting to Israeli business (as well as military) needs and networks, as their cultural discomfort with entrepreneurship has extended even into the next generation. [End Page 267]

This is a superb collection of articles on post-Soviet IT by...


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pp. 266-268
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