It emerged as a dot on the horizon but soon morphed into a small autonomous vehicle trundling along an icy path lined with piles of gleaming snow. Touched with frost, a red triangular flag on the machine’s antenna wobbled as it moved along the unsteady surface.
The Yandex rover was making an important delivery: it was bringing me a latte from a café in Innopolis, a futuristic town built for tech workers in the republic of Tatarstan. A hot beverage is exactly what was needed on a -19 C day, which is fairly normal winter weather in the eastern parts of European Russia. The rover was one of seven in a pilot food delivery program — a modest fleet but enough to cover the needs of one of Russia’s smallest towns, whose local restaurant scene includes a fancy Italian bistro, a pan-Asian lunch place, a gourmet burger outfit, and a shawarma joint. The latter, according to a spokeswoman for the pilotless vehicle program, is the most popular option.
Founded in 2015, Innopolis comprises a smattering of neat-looking cubical tower blocks that stand on windswept hills, towering over the Volga River. The main landmark is the city university, where courses are taught in English and the curriculum is developed in partnership with Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh. Innopolis is home to 3,800 people, mostly students, faculty, and employees of over 200 tech companies, ranging from little-known startups to corporate giants such as Yandex, MTS (a mobile network operator), and the fintech branch of Sberbank. Another roughly 1,400 people commute into the city daily, primarily from the nearby regional capital Kazan. All of the firms were lured by the town’s special economic zone, which offers generous tax breaks to what officials deem innovative businesses.
Innopolis provides a glimpse into what technocrats within Putin’s regime hope will be the vision of a future Russia. As the government looks for ways to make the country less dependent on hydrocarbons and to build up the national tech sector, which is desperately lacking in qualified workers, techno hubs and startup corridors are being launched all over the country. Together with two other tech clusters, Skolkovo outside Moscow and Koltsovo in Siberia, Innopolis marries the Soviet tradition of naukogrady (science towns) with the realities of 21st century tech. Unlike in the Soviet times, when state support for science was dictated by the needs of Cold War competition, the goal is far more pragmatic today — to ensure that Russia doesn’t turn into a basket case if, or when, green energy elbows out oil and gas from the world’s markets.
But these efforts are undermined by a more powerful political trend — that of repression and stifling censorship, both of which are not exactly conducive to grooming innovation or any other creative activities. Since opposition leader Alexey Navalny returned to Moscow in January, after a near-lethal poisoning blamed on Russian secret services, the country has seen a new wave of nationwide protests led mainly by the creative middle class, of which tech talent is a very prominent part. While this mix of intellectuals, students, freelance and corporate professionals, tech experts, and independent business owners benefited from rapid economic growth during the first decade of Putin’s rule, now, with the country hampered by rampant corruption and economic stagnation, they are enraged by what they see as an ever-expanding dictatorship.
Both sides in the Russian political standoff agree that technological modernization is an existential necessity for the country. And the battle for the hearts and minds of tech workers is crucial to the outcome. One of the opposition’s most popular slogans, coined by Navalny, refers to “the beautiful future Russia,” evoking a vision of a country free of corruption and open to technological breakthroughs. The Kremlin’s take on modernization is quite different — innovation might be appealing, but political freedoms are definitely not part of the plan.
The town is compact enough that everyone seems to know each other — if not in person, then at least through Innopolis’ numerous Telegram groups, which power community life here. One of the main groups is the local “concierge service,” a channel that helps residents resolve issues ranging from figuring out municipal schedules to helping someone who got locked out of their apartment. Informally, there are channels dedicated to fishing, zero-waste initiatives, car sharing, farm milk deliveries, dogs, Covid-19 relief — you name it. “It’s good we can finally talk about [Telegram] aloud,” says Ruslan Shagaleev, the town’s mayor. “We had a hard time when Roskomnadzor [the Russian censorship body] attempted to ban it.”
Using Innopolis’s Telegram concierge service, I decided to explore the town and ordered a taxi to the university. Innopolis is the first place on the European continent where customers can choose between conventional taxis and driverless ones, which is a bit of a no-brainer, since the latter are free of charge. The taxis are also part of the pilotless vehicle project being run by Yandex, which is Russia’s Google, Uber, Amazon, and Waymo, all rolled into one.
A few minutes later, a Yandex-branded Hyundai Sonata with a lidar device on its roof pulled up to the curb. The driver’s seat was empty, but an engineer sat in the front passenger seat to ensure that everything ran smoothly. As the car began to move, the wheel started turning by itself, as if manipulated by the ill-starred protagonist of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. The trip was short because Innopolis is tiny, and the car moved carefully, taking extra time to turn or change lanes, like a diligent student during a driving exam.
“With its harsh weather conditions, Innopolis is ideal for running tests,” says Marat Mannanov, a Yandex engineer who runs the local fleet of taxis and rovers. “It’s either freezing cold, or there’s a snowdrift or fog — there is no better place to check functionality!” Studies have confirmed that California-made lidars malfunction when the temperature falls below -20 C, forcing human drivers to take over, so Yandex has commissioned a new generation of cold-proof devices. (Another endemic problem in Innopolis are hares, which regularly invade the streets, but so far lidars have reacted to them without any trouble.)
Since the launch of Innopolis’ driverless car service in 2018, Mannanov says that the fleet has made 10,000 trips with no accidents. According to Mannanov, the issues that have arisen usually stem from the robots’ inhumanely law-abiding character. If a snowplow is blocking the road, for instance, a pilotless taxi might simply wait rather than driving onto the curb to bypass the vehicle.
Mayor Shagaleev turned 41 this spring. A trained engineer, he built his career in Russian tech before switching to civil service. In his previous life, he helped develop Yota, a Russian mobile phone operator, and collaborated with its founder, former Deputy Minister of Communications Denis Sverdlov, on developing electric vehicles. They parted their ways when Sverdlov moved his business to the West and founded Arrival, an electric vehicle company, which went on to become a unicorn and was named by LinkedIn as the U.K.’s number one startup in 2020. According to Shagaleev, this move was prompted by Western sanctions introduced in the wake of the Kremlin’s military aggression in Ukraine. It illustrates the extent to which the drive to modernize the Russian economy clashes with the Kremlin’s propensity for isolationism and conflict.
Russia’s lack of qualified tech workers is partly the fault of politics, but, according to Shagaleev, it’s also a result of the education system, which fails to keep up with the breakneck speed of technological progress. Brain drain is another major issue. “IT experts can work where they please,” Shagaleev notes. “Therefore, we must compete with the rest of the world.” A loyalist to the regime, the mayor is nevertheless practical about the challenges the country faces in retaining talent. “Technology doesn’t tolerate borders, and expertise largely gravitates to the West,” he says. According to the mayor, a study commissioned by Innopolis revealed that 61% of Russian IT experts have considered moving abroad, and Shagaleev estimates the deficit of skilled programmers in Russia at around one million.
Asked whether he thinks that the tightening of the screws underway in Russia is compatible with the goal of preventing brain drain, Shagaleev sighs, “It’s not conducive to it.” Innovation, he points out, can only occur in an atmosphere of open discussion that allows for clashing narratives. “You can’t tell a person — think this and don’t think that,” he maintains. “Pluralism of opinion is always important.”
As much as Innopolis represents Russia’s technological progress, it also presents a microcosm of its democratic deficits, with curbs to political freedoms baked into the city’s design. Because the majority of people in Innopolis rent, they’re not considered permanent residents and, per a national policy, are unable to vote in municipal elections. As a result, fewer than 300 people, less than 8% of the total population, can cast ballots in local elections. This policy doesn’t cause much controversy in most of Russia, where the vast majority of people own their homes, but, in Innopolis, it angers residents who would like to have their voices heard. A series of Levada-Center polls conducted in recent months shows that young people and active Telegram users — in other words, two demographics that strongly overlap with Innopolis’ — are about twice as likely to be sympathetic to the Navalny-led opposition protests as the average Russian. The movement is still a minority, but it is slowly growing.
Disenfranchisement is a big reason why Stas and Sasha Litvinov are considering relocating abroad. Stas, a software developer, has been based in Innopolis since before its founding, except for the nine months he spent in Pittsburgh on a joint program with Innopolis University. On the one hand, the young couple love living in what they refer to as “a first-world village.” They praised the responsiveness of the mayor, whom they call by his first name, and said that civic problems are generally resolved efficiently. They also love the idyllic area surrounding the town. Residents take their dogs to roam in the fields outside town, and, on hot days, locals cycle to the sandy beach on the Sviyaga. In the winter, a modern ski resort is ten minutes away by free shuttle bus.
But their disillusionment with Russia’s national politics has mounted over time, and it reached a critical point last year when Russia held a referendum on a set of constitutional amendments, including one that would allow Putin to stay in power until 2036. The Litvinovs expected a high percentage of local votes to oppose the amendments and were flabbergasted when the results turned out to be close to Tatarstan’s regional average, with 67% of the town voting in favor of the amendments. Sasha says that, when she proposed holding an online poll in the town Telegram group to verify the official result, she was banished from the channel for a week. Stas ended up writing a satirical play about the events and posting it on Facebook.
Navalny’s poisoning, which happened less than two months later, brought their spirits even lower. In January, Sasha witnessed a crackdown on two opposition protests in Kazan, among the largest Tatarstan has seen since the early 1990s. The experiences left her deeply distressed: “It feels like living in a computer game in which someone hammers you as soon as you stick your head out of a hole.” She said she attended the rallies to overcome growing existential fear: “I went there because living in Russia scares me. I’m afraid of having children, of getting sick here, of seeing policemen walk by, of what might happen to my parents.” When Navalny’s organization asked supporters to take to the streets at 8 p.m. on Valentine’s Day and turn on the flashlights in their phones, Sasha heeded the call. She joined up with Innopolis’ other dissidents, the crowd numbering around 50.
High-flying tech entrepreneurs and giant companies are facing much the same dilemma as Sasha and Stas. They must either strike a Faustian deal with the regime and try to get the most out of Putin’s authoritarian modernization or leave Russia for good. Yandex, which operates pilot programs in Innopolis and also runs driverless car and courier-less food delivery projects in Moscow, is a shining example of this dynamic. After establishing itself as the country’s number one search engine, it developed a digital infrastructure that has become essential to many Russians. This includes navigation apps and delivery services that revolutionized the way people shop, especially at the height of the strict coronavirus lockdown last spring. When walking beyond the immediate vicinity of one’s house was banned, Yandex’s rapid and precisely timed delivery services became a lifeline for millions of Russians. And in turn, the company benefited from the crisis. Its 2020 revenues rose by 24%, compared with the year before, and its net income soared by a whopping 116%.
At the same time, the company is distracted by the need to protect itself from, and collaborate with, the state. Since before 2020, several Yandex services have been legally forced to share information about customers with security agencies upon their request. This came to light via the case of an investigative journalist who was arrested in June 2019 on charges of drug dealing. In a rare win for civil society, the charges were eventually dropped, and police were instead prosecuted for planting drugs on him. During the course of that investigation, it was revealed that the policemen had requested and received data about the journalist’s movements from Yandex’s taxi service — a move Yandex justified by saying cooperating with law-enforcement could help save lives.
The company has mostly managed to preserve its internal freedom. An indication of that is that Roman “kukutz” Ivanov, the head of Yandex’s desktop browser project, openly helped pay for Navalny’s treatment last fall at a German clinic after his poisoning. But should conditions in the country continue to deteriorate, entrepreneurs and engineers alike may end up leaving for Silicon Valley or smaller tech havens nearby in Baltic countries. The Litvinovs are now bracing for what feels like their imminent departure from Russia. They’re planning to have their dog and four cats chipped and documented, so the family will be able to leave any time they want. Self-styled idealists, they decided that the tech utopia of Innopolis no longer matched their beliefs. And with Stas’ impressive CV, they have no doubt that they will be able to earn a living wherever they end up.