Learning from Russia’s hi-tech Soviet heritage. Review: From Russia with Code

Article Information

  • Author(s): Zhenia Vasiliev
  • Affiliation(s): Goldsmiths, University of London
  • Publication Date: July 2021
  • Issue: 8
  • Citation: Zhenia Vasiliev. “Learning from Russia’s hi-tech Soviet heritage. Review: From Russia with Code.” Computational Culture 8 (July 2021). http://computationalculture.net/learning-from-russias-hi-tech-soviet-heritage-review-from-russia-with-code/.


Review of Mario Biagioli and Vincent Antonin Lépinay, eds. From Russia with Code: Programming Migrations in Post-Soviet Times. Durham: Duke University Press. 2019. 384 pages. ISBN 978-1-4780-0299-4
Why are Russian IT professionals unsuccessful in business? The problematics of this and other related questions are addressed in From Russia with Code, a collection of essays edited by media and communication scholars Mario Biagioli and Vincent Antonin Lépinay. The book offers an extensive contribution to science, technology, and innovation studies via a series of ethnographic investigations involving Russian software engineers at home and abroad. Coming from a theorisation of programming code as a social phenomenon initially proposed by literary and media scholar Friedrich Kittler, the volume looks at the code’s ability for setting the conditions of possibility of human collaboration in two ways. One side of the argument sees a pattern of failed Russian innovation that prevents the country from modernising its technology and economy. As the historian of science Loren Graham puts it, to develop a high-technology superpower, Russia needs to adopt a more aggressive profit-oriented or entrepreneurial approach to innovation. The other side of the argument responds that the Western capitalist model is not the only way, and there is value in fostering the tradition of high technical skill and complex problem-solving that constitute Russia’s Soviet heritage. The book delivers on its promise of providing a comprehensive multi-site ethnographic study looking at a variety of geographical locations: Russia, Estonia, the UK, USA, Israel and Finland, and gives a plethora of statistical data and encompasses studies from the academic as well as professional IT community. Most importantly, however, it sets the grounds for the wider investigations, such as lessons learned from the Russian historical context, and a possibility of a refreshed critique of global capital stemming from territorial and cultural divides.


Russia has historically led scientific invention, however, it has consistently failed to commercialise and implement it. This claim, initially voiced by historian of science Loren Graham, discussing the sphere of innovation and business, is subjected to detailed scrutiny in From Russia with Code. A collection of essays edited by Science and Technology scholars Mario Biagioli and Vincent Antonin Lépinay, the book tells ethnographic and other stories about Soviet and post-Soviet IT professionals, tracing their narratives at home and abroad. The aim, as Biagioli and Lépinay describe in the introduction, is to contribute to ‘science, technology, and innovation studies, focusing simultaneously on technological matters like software and IT development and the difficult emergence of the new Russian public sphere’ consisting of entrepreneurs and their system of values.1 The book sets out to achieve this methodologically via a multi-sited ethnography,2 looking at practices and goals across a variety of geographical locations: Russia, Estonia, the UK, USA, Israel and Finland. The character of professional relations is exposed as the mechanism that frames both the individuals’ migration options and their sense of being ‘Russian’. While the essays are focussing on the narratives around Russia and post-Soviet spaces, the volume as a whole opens the pathways to thinking about the relationship between software production as a business and the political aspect of migration of professionals in a more general sense. For example, what does the Russian case have to offer to the struggles that IT workers are facing regardless of which country they come from, or end up working in? The two approaches to the hi-tech industry that the book explores — profit-oriented and ‘communal’, oriented towards social justice — create a backdrop for a critique of the capitalist mode of production that goes beyond clear-cut territorial divides.

The notion of ‘Russia’ is used in the book’s conceptual layout as a central axis that cuts the geopolitics into East (Russia) and West (non-Russia), as well as the temporality of IT innovation into Soviet and post-Soviet periods. We find references to this framework in each chapter, as authors examine the Russian identity in transit — either from one spatial zone to another, one temporal zone to another, or both. The book is divided into three segments that reflect these themes. First is Coding Collectives, which looks at identity and the power networks inside the country. Second, Outward-Looking Enclaves zooms in to the initiatives on the inside that look to create links with the outside, — the West. The third, Bridges and Mismatches, tells stories of those individuals who left Russia to live abroad. The book also contains an interlude, titled Russian Maps, which provides a comprehensive statistical analysis of the key changes in the economy, education, policy and migration that have affected the IT sphere since the collapse of the USSR.

Coding Collectives opens by Ksenia Tatarchenko’s historiographical account of Russian IT, arguing that Western and Eastern IT histories have been historically entangled on many levels and that the Iron Curtain simultaneously isolated and connected these two worlds.3 Switching gears to the present day, Marina Fedorova tells us about Yandex and the company’s community-building efforts, looking at the education, professionalisation, and membership processes within the emerging corporate sector of Russian IT. Subsequently, Ksenia Ermoshina looks at the Russian civic hacker movement, a community that develops apps to help short circuit the deficiencies of various governmental services. ‘Apptivism, — Ermoshina argues — enables the innovation of Russian political practices and forms of participation as much as it contributes to the innovation of Russian IT.’4

Outward-Looking Enclaves looks at Russian innovation centres, from independent local businesses in the Far East to top-down governmental initiatives in Kazan and Moscow. Alina Kontareva’s study acknowledges the relative success of government initiatives at branding the Tatarstan region into an emblem of the new ‘tech’ Russia. By contrast, Alexandra Simonova sees the grandiose Skolkovo technopark in the outskirts of Moscow as failing compared to Neuron, a more successful small-scale hackerspace located in the heart of the city. She explains that top-down projects often overlook the entrepreneurial dynamics that are crucial for the successful operation of tech clusters. In his chapter, Andrey Indukaev paints a picture of a business model which has evolved in the Siberian academic community quite distinctly from the Western logic of profit generation. Here the strategy is centred around research in highly complex engineering projects which are nevertheless capable of functioning as successful businesses. Moving on to the post-Soviet territory, Daria Savchenko’s piece explores the digital transformation in Estonia as ‘the most advanced digital society in the world.’5 She observes that the practice of coding can be easily downplayed by state ideologies as something ephemeral, making it easy to manipulate and to develop a technocratic discourse.6 This explains her particular interest in Estonia’s experience with integrating computer programming into school education. The interlude by Dmitrii Zhikharevich provides an in-depth history and markets of the IT industry which is rich in statistics. He argues that the ‘brain drain’ in the sphere of IT is not an unfixable curse and could instead be argued as ‘brain circulation’, with people looking for better conditions regardless of the country.7

The last segment, Bridges and Mismatches, is interested in the central position that an aspiration for the Western style of working and living holds in the minds of Russian software professionals. The essays of this part examine, firstly, the misconceptions that surround the process of integration of migrant IT workers — such as downplaying the role of US education compared to the pedagogical excellence that Russia claims to have inherited from the Soviet system. Secondly, it aims to unpack the barriers that IT professionals encounter when they migrate, obstacles that arise from the limitations of the Russian innovation ecosystem. These are the lack of support to entrepreneurs, the lax attitude toward intellectual property and the absence of trust among young professionals that dictates the choice of their business partners.8 The section opens with Irina Antoschyuk’s essay on Russian computer scientists in the UK. She argues that academic and scientific migration needs to be studied as a distinct type of alliance-making through professional connections, as opposed to other migration types based on kin, household, friends or community ties.9 Looking at the migration of Russian Jewish IT practitioners to Boston during the Soviet period, Diana Kurkovsky West gets back to the critique of the ‘brain drain’ narrative. The term might not be applicable, she argues because more often than not the migrants had to re-train and upgrade their skills sets before they could find employment in US companies. Continuing the historiography of Jewish emigration from Russia, Marina Fedorova looks at Israel and the economic and cultural barriers that IT migrants face in that country. She aligns with the previous piece by claiming that transferability of technical skills is largely a myth, since ‘their utilisation in the host economy is culturally sensitive.’10 Lastly, in the closing essay, Lyubava Shatokhina looks at Russian IT professionals living and working in Finland. Through the concept of ‘lifestyle migration’, or the migration that allow for the re-recreate of identity through making sense of one’s own milieu, she arrives at an important distinction — not all Western countries share the same approach to running IT businesses. Alongside the entrepreneurial model, Shatokhina distinguishes two other types: corporate capitalist — risk-averse and profit-oriented, and socialist — risk-averse and oriented towards social justice.

While the essays offer a vast variety of outlooks on the landscape of the Russian IT industry, it is noticeable that they can be roughly broken into the two main camps. For the most part, the book does little to challenge the assumption that the way of doing business in the West, such as the ‘Silicon Valley’ start-up ethos is either optimal or at least the default model of software production. Chapters 7 and 13, however, break away from this paradigm and investigate instead what we can learn from the Soviet heritage. As the authors in this camp find, there are circumstances where a ‘socialist’ technological model is more applicable than the purely business-oriented outlook. Both sides rise from the social nature of the relationship between the code and identity. Code, Biagioli and Lépinay explain, operates on two surfaces, facing the human counterpart on one side and the machinic on the other. Between the two facets, code infinitely folds into itself via nested layers of abstractions, which are managed by interpretations of different kinds, such as API calls or compilers. Code thus has a remarkable diversity, yet there can be no semantic ambiguity due to the extremely explicit nature of the underlying machine code.11 This unique attribute of expressive variety that ultimately compiles as standardised sets of machine instructions is key to code’s sociality. As the editors explain, code ‘sets specific conditions of possibility for the ways in which people can collaborate with and through it.’12 This notion should be viewed as an extension of the theory of literary and media scholar Friedrich Kittler, who observed that the two-sided peculiarity of code makes it capable of creating material reality. In Kittler, while human-to-human languages support daily communication and carry poetic qualities that allow for emotional expression, code, due to the recursive relations within its abstractions, can infinitely reproduce itself — ‘technology puts code into the practice of realities, that is to say: it encodes the world.’13 Even in this extremely general approach, without breaking the code into the various uses and paradigms that engage abstractions in different ways, it is obvious that code can create things in the world differently to the way in which human language does.

The key problematic around the involvement of business strategy in technological development emerges in this context via two theoretical avenues. The first is proposed by Loren Graham as a ‘pattern of failed Russian innovation’, a potential reason for Russia’s failure to modernise its technology and economy.14 Graham sees the Russian history of technological invention inevitably accompanied by a failure to commercialise and implement it. The cause of that lies in neglecting the conditions for technological innovation that were historically nurtured in the West. These are the social attitudes that value inventiveness and practicality; an economic system that provides investment opportunities; a legal system that protects intellectual property, and a political order that does not fear technological innovation and promotes successful businesspeople.15 In terms of attitudes, Russians do not see making money from technological innovation as an honourable thing to do. Politically, the problem is authoritarianism, which means that the policies that govern technological development are defined by the leaders in disregard of the market forces and ‘best practices’ as in Western countries. Social barriers at play in Russia block the free movement of citizens, even inside the country, which hinders the creation of professional networks. Legally, the Russian system is a disaster for technological innovation — the laws are subject to capricious political influence, which makes inventors feel unprotected. Economically, the climate is unfavourable to innovative businesses due to the low interest of investors and lack of VC management talent. Russia’s widespread corruption and crime mean that tax is imposed arbitrarily, and disruptive innovation is criminalised to discourage inventors who fall out of favour with the authorities. Lastly, education and research, as Graham points out, is organised based on the model that had enjoyed popularity in the early twentieth century, but is not as relevant today. In this model, the non-teaching research institutes were seen as more productive, as they didn’t take much of the valuable staff time to teaching — in the US, Rockefeller Institute, Carnegie Institute in Washington and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced study were founded with this model in mind. In the Soviet Union, similarly, The Soviet Academy of Sciences contained such institutes. The American model, however, was reassessed in the 1950s, based on the concerns that the lack of teaching at the research facilities created a ‘cloistered’ and ‘isolated’ contexts ensuing too much of inbreeding of ideas, and the institutes were reformed to become universities with students. This has not yet happened in Russia, where ‘great research universities do not exist’.16 In Graham’s overall assessment of demobilising factors, however, there’s hope — at the present moment of unprecedented technological growth, Russia has the best chance in its history to break its pattern of technological failure. The solution, to Graham, lies not in science or technology, but in society itself. To become a high-technology superpower, Russia needs to ‘become a normal Western nation.’17 On the one hand, this could be done, however hypothetically, by the country’s current leadership completely transferring administration to the younger middle class who would be capable of completely reimagining how the country should function. The other way, that Graham admits is more realistic, is a ‘gradual improvement’, whereby the elements of the favourable technological innovation environment are improved individually, via changes in law, shifts in attitudes and educational reforms.18

The other part of the debate, referenced in this volume by the link to the work of sociologist and economist Martin Kenney, argues that a view of innovation as essentially entailing a disruption with the support of venture capital (VC) is not the only way — ‘one should not necessarily embrace the business logic obsessed with explosive growth to contribute to technological development.’19 Kenney uses the term ‘nice growth firms’ to define businesses that do not involve the growth rapid enough for them to become profitable for VCs. The alternative mindset of ‘high technical skill and complex problem-solving’20 promotes business models focused on competence development and technical excellence. Some spheres, such as design, consulting, or medical and scientific services, would predominantly have firms that operate under this principle. Kenney’s examples are Jena, a German company which works in optics; a US-based firm SDP, doing cancer research; Ideo and frog design, the two California design firms which have gone multinational and SAS, a North Carolina State University project that develops the world’s most widely used analytics software.21 The Siberian firms that Andrey Indukaev looks at in his survey also fall into this category — they work in bioinformatics or complex system programming projects that involve producing operating systems and tools for industrial automation. Even though these companies do not grow rapidly, they are valid players in the global IT ecosystem and can have a significant positive impact on employment, contribute to local taxes and face a lesser risk of relocation.22 In his argument, Kenney even goes on to claim that in fact, these are precisely the firms that ‘provide the resources necessary for the emergence of [the VC industry].23 From Russia with Code illustrates, however that despite Graham discouraging verdicts, Russia’s IT companies can proliferate by incorporating the Soviet-style professionalisation into the Silicon Valley style work habits — if, as in the example of Fedorova’s essay on Yandex, they develop their culture in the realisation that ‘code writing is not a purely technical skill but a social practice’.24

The scope of the book is understandably wide, as it tells the stories of IT specialists from radically different walks of life alongside dense statistics on demographics and industry performance. The book will be of interest to anthropologists interested in diaspora and migration studies, as well as to IT professionals. Those concerned with currents in post-Cold War geopolitics, as well as in the formation of academic and IT communities, will also find here a plethora of engaging material. The book’s historiographic part is very lively in narration and uses a good balance of archival research and face-to-face interviews. Yet, the reader must be aware of the certain inclination towards the ‘western gaze’ present in this volume, as in many other books on Russia published in the West. As we saw, only two chapters (7 and 13) examine the side of the argument that explores alternatives to the Silicon Valley start-up mentality. Those two chapters are quite direct in developing their critique and perform quite well in establishing the key standpoints (Kenney and Graham) around which the book’s main argument is structured. Overall, the book delivers on its promise of providing multi-sited ethnographic research, a method appropriate for its analysis of macro-construction of capitalism as a large social order. The logical continuation of the debate, such as lessons learned from the Russian historical context, or a possibility of a refreshed critique of global capital, is perhaps something that will emerge in the aftermath of the volume’s publication. Yet, a broader argument would demand, in turn, a wider contextual lens — such as looking at stories, emerging from the duality of code theorised by Kittler, alongside the voices of IT professionals, in and out of the particular geographic territories.



Avnimelech, Gil, Kenney, Martin, Teubal, Morris. “A Life Cycle Model for the Creation of National Venture Capital Industries: Comparing the U.S. and Israeli Experiences” in Clusters Facing Competition: The Importance of External Linkages. Edited by Elisa Giuliani, Roberta Rabellotti, and Meine Pieter Vav Dijk. London: Ashgate, 2005.

Graham, Loren. Lonely Ideas: Can Russia Compete? Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013.

Kenney, Martin. “Venture Capital Has a Role, But Do Not Forget Nice Growth Firms”. Kasvuyrityskatsaus no.20 (2012): 60–72.

Kittler, Friedrich, “Code” in Software Studies: A Lexicon. Edited by Matthew Fuller. Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: The MIT Press, 2008.


  1. Biagioli, Mario, and Vincent Antonin Lépinay, eds., From Russia with Code: Programming Migrations in Post-Soviet Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 18.
  2. Ibid 7.
  3. Biagioli and Lépinay, From Russia with Code, 40.
  4. Ibid, 105
  5. Biagioli and Lépinay, From Russia with Code, 26.
  6. Ibid, 225.
  7. Ibid, 251.
  8. Biagioli and Lépinay, From Russia with Code, 27.
  9. Ibid, 273.
  10. Ibid, 339.
  11. Biagioli and Lépinay, From Russia with Code, 23.
  12. Ibid
  13. Friedrich Kittler, “Code” in Software Studies: A Lexicon. ed. Matthew Fuller (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England:The MIT Press, 2008), 45.
  14. Biagioli and Lépinay, From Russia with Code, 195, 203.
  15. Loren Graham, Lonely Ideas: Can Russia Compete? (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013), xi.
  16. Loren Graham, Lonely Ideas, 163.
  17. Ibid 163.
  18. Loren Graham, Lonely Ideas, 164.
  19. Biagioli and Lépinay, From Russia with Code, 203.
  20. Ibid. 196
  21. Martin Kenney, “Venture Capital Has a Role, But Do Not Forget Nice Growth Firms,” Kasvuyrityskatsaus, no.20: 67-68.
  22. Martin Kenney, “Venture Capital Has a Role”, 67.
  23. Martin Kenney et al., “A Life Cycle Model for the Creation of National Venture Capital Industries: Comparing the U.S. and Israeli Experiences” in Clusters Facing Competition: The Importance of External Linkages, ed. Elisa Giuliani, Roberta Rabellotti, and Meine Pieter Vav Dijk (London: Ashgate, 2005), 197.
  24. Biagioli and Lépinay, From Russia with Code, 195, 63.