02 October 2012

Zuckerberg, Facebook, and Russia's Brain Drain

Russia is important to Facebook, and Facebook is important to Russia. Russian investors have sunk $billions into the global social network company, and Facebook has played a role in some of the deep underlying social ferment occurring in Putin's Russia.
...Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, met Russia’s prime minister and former president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, on Monday.

...Facebook played an integral role in political dissent in Russia last winter, allowing street protests to coalesce when handing out fliers or posting notices on corkboards would not have worked.

Russia is also home to two large and early Facebook investors, Alisher Usmanov, a steel tycoon, and Yuri Milner, an expert on monetizing social network traffic in emerging markets. The two partly cashed out in the initial public offering of Facebook stock earlier this year but still own billions of dollars’ worth of shares.

...Earlier this month, in another step deeper into the Russian market, Facebook made a deal with one of Russia’s mobile phone operators, Beeline, to provide a free application to subscribers. _NYT

Many people in Russia are worried about how Facebook will affect the ongoing brain drain of young technologically savvy Russians to the west:
Facebook has been enticing program developers from Russia, Pavel Durov, founder and General Director of the biggest Russian social network VKontakte, told Vedomosti. “I know for sure that one of the VK Cup [VKontakte developers’ competition] finalists is already working for Facebook,” said Durov. When asked whether VKontakte employees are generally leaving for Facebook, Durov said: “We aren’t fools. It’s a sinking ship.”...

...programmers make $30,000-$40,000 a year in Russia and $70,000-$80,000 in the United States.... Western companies have every reason to be interested in Russian programmers: they are as technically proficient as Indian developers, for example. Russian programmers even surpass others when it comes to creativity and the ability to address unconventional tasks, says Russoft Association President Valentin Makarov. _Indrus

The salary comparisons above may be a bit misleading (and subject to changes in the price of oil & gas): The opportunities to achieve positions for top-level programmers in Russian companies is far more limited than the number of positions for much higher paid programmers in western companies. From Facebook to Google to Microsoft and on and on . . . the appetite of western tech companies for clever engineers and coders is insatiable -- even in the middle of a prolonged Euro-crisis and Obama recession.

Russia herself can be seen as a sinking ship, in terms of demographics and the dull, grey inertia that grows more debilitating to Russian society for every year that the corrupt Putin government maintains control.

Facebook is one symbol among many, of the strong appeal of more balanced economies outside Russia -- foreign economies that are not dependent in a life or death manner on just one industry.

Russia's technology sector has suffered well over a decade of brain drain, and Russia in general has suffered from corruption, capital flight, a crumbling public health infrastructure, a collapse in populations of ethnic Russians at the same time that Muslim immigrants are flooding into the country illegally, and legally.

We can always hope that the Russian people will find a way out of their largely self-made labyrinth of stagnation. But they have no historical guide by which to plot a better course. Perhaps if enough of Russia's best young people leave the country, and learn better ways of doing things, some of them may return to push Russia toward nation-saving reforms.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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