From Russia With Code: Programming Migrations in Post-Soviet Times

Edited by Mario Biagioli and Vincent Antonin Lépinay, Duke University Press: 2019, 384 pp. paperback, $29.95 (ISBN: 9781478002994)

From Russia With Code cover


The decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union have seen monumental shifts as economies transformed, new nations emerged, and people moved across previously closed borders. From Russia With Code: Programming Migrations in Post-Soviet Times, edited by Mario Biagioli and Vincent Antonin Lépinay, chronicles the post-Soviet evolution of programming and computer science cultures as they have unfolded over these years. The book is organized into four sections of varying lengths, each of which expands its focus from programming in the Soviet era to modern Russian information technology (IT) firms, coding culture at Russia’s boundaries, and the movement of  IT and computer science professionals from Russia to other countries.

Section I, “Coding Collectives,” presents a view of programming communities within post-Soviet Russia. The initial chapter’s overview of programming during the Soviet era and the field’s view of cybernetics will be particularly interesting to Western readers with a different history of this concept in mind. Chapter 2 uses code itself as a powerful lens to understand the culture at Yandex, one of the largest IT companies in modern Russia; interviews with programmers at the company reveal how they read each other’s code as a way to assimilate into the corporate community of practice and how they employ (or eschew) comments in their code as meaning-making devices. In Chapter 3, various Russian civic hacking projects are compared, using their foci on corruption, electoral integrity, leaky roofs, and potholes to understand how these emergent “apptivist” communities reflect the interactions between politics and the IT sector.

In Section II, “Outward-Looking Enclaves,” the case studies turn to technical communities in different border regions across Russia. Vladivostok, on the physical periphery of Russian territory, is the subject of Chapter 4. This city’s auto importing and repair economy has given rise to a vibrant IT community and innovative collaborations between local businesses and universities. Chapter 5 focuses on Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. Through strategic intervention and support from Moscow, Kazan is growing its IT sector and strengthening its ties back to the capital. A comparison between hackerspaces in the heart of the city and the flashy technopark developments in the suburbs animate Chapter 6. While the Skolkovo technopark benefitted from publicity and significant financial investment, the hackerspace Neuron feels more vibrant and prone to foster innovation due to its ideal location in downtown Moscow. Chapter 7 describes software development in Siberia where the transition toward market-driven work and startups has proven difficult but rewarding for some of Russia’s most successful computer scientists. The former Soviet nation of Estonia and its radical transformation into a digital society form Chapter 8. While the rest of the world looks on with admiration at a country where every child learns to program in elementary school, this chapter reveals the difficulties of nation-building and managing a relationship with both Russia and the West.

Section III is the shortest in From Russia with Code, containing only one chapter which provides a broad introduction to Russian IT. This analysis includes economic data and emigration statistics to illustrate the brain drain and global movements of Russian IT workers to the countries that take center stage in the final section of the book.

Section IV, “Bridges and Mismatches,” finds Russian IT professionals in the countries they move to around the world. Chapter 10 provides a detailed picture of how personal relationships and budding communities of Russians at UK universities lead to more Russian interest in these schools and how these researchers maintain strong ties across the diaspora. Chapter 11 finds the reader in the Boston area, full of Russian Jews with strong technical skills, an ability to adapt to new corporate environments, and a desire to find stable, intellectually stimulating employment in their newly adopted country. In Chapter 12, Russian Jewish immigrants to Israel navigate an unfamiliar society in which the familiar Soviet paths to IT success through universities may not hold as much promise as the possibilities opened up through elite military service in cybersecurity units in the Israeli army. Finally, Chapter 13 focuses on Finland, a country which borders Russia but maintains a more attractive programming culture and lifestyle for some émigrés while still being close to home.

In the introduction, Biagioli and Lépinay explain that their goal in collecting these disparate studies and ethnographies of post-Soviet programming was originally to define the “Russian programmer,” those elite technical wizards much sought after around the world for their unique skillset born out of rigorous training. This multisite, globe spanning volume, does this and more. From Russia With Code shows how the transition from centralized to market-driven economy unleashed a range of potentials for Russian programmers, some full of promise while others vulnerable to repeating the patterns of the past.

Readers with some knowledge of the Russian world, the Soviet Union, and the Commonwealth of Independent States will find themselves familiar with the places and examples introduced, while those less familiar with the background and context may want to consult a map to situate different vignettes and institutions presented in the book. Still, this book is a valuable read for those with an interest in computer programming and high-tech cultures outside the United States, in post-Soviet ethnography, and in the elusive myth of the Russian programmer.

Adam Kriesberg, Simmons University