“We should learn to earn money with our brains” – Vladislav Surkov
In an interview with the Vesti television channel, Surkov elaborated on Russia’s modernization plans and its intellectual potential, as well as shared details of the construction of the innovation center near Moscow.
RT presents the transcript of the interview.
Question: Thank you that you have agreed to answer our questions. The launch of a new big project, called Silicon Valley, has been announced. Why is it being done now? What do we need this project for?
Vladislav Surkov: First of all, the project is not called Silicon Valley. This is a kind of symbol that makes things more clear. I would like to say at once that Silicon Valley in the United States is first and foremost associated with information technologies. This is exactly a branch of industry that gave it its name. The Russian project, of which the Russian president spoke and which is now being implemented by his decision, covers five priority areas which the president indicated as “Priority Directions of Modernization of Our Economy”. Naturally, they include energy and IT, because today these branches are in the vanguard of world economic development. It is also biomedical technologies which we urgently need for social security reasons because Russia should take care of its citizens and their health. There is no doubt that biomedical technologies play a very important role here. This is also a technology in which Russia has traditionally been strong, and we should preserve and increase our advantage in it.
Telecommunications is another important area. We do not have to explain that this industry is a strategic vector of development for the entire world civilization, the entire modern technological world. Russia has also been assigned with this task. So, these are the five big macro industries which are going to develop under the new project.
The president has already said that the project will be located near Moscow. Why is it being implemented today? Well, it is about time. There are several points of view on the promptitude of this project. Today, our economy is predominantly based on raw materials. This is a primitive type of economy. It may be unpleasant to say that but we need to talk about it. This kind of economy has certain development limits. It is determined by nature and is the most simplified type of economy, which is inadequate to the current level of development of world civilization.
You extract something from the bowels of the Earth, then sell it and your activities stop at that. Second, mineral resources are, in principle, exhaustible, and Russia should certainly pass over to the next stage of civilization and to the next stage of technological development if it wants to preserve certain positions in the world, be a respected country and a country whose opinion is taken into account.
Our economy should, above all, be based on our intellectual advantages, our knowledge and ability to invent new technologies. This is a matter of political influence, because no weapons in the contemporary world, no powerful army can replace essential products, in the broad sense of this word, which people use in everyday life. All the things around us which we use are, by and large, not made or invented in Russia. And in this sense, we are a country which cannot say that it is in the vanguard and that it is a leader who takes others after itself.
I repeat that you do not have to read books or present lofty arguments to understand this. Just look around. Look in your pockets. What kind of cell phone do you have…what kind of car do you ride and what household appliances do you use, etc? Then, you will understand a lot. This is a question of political influence which is disclosed in full measure in this capacity and achieves maximum effect. Those who possess unique knowledge and hold dominating positions in technology are the leaders in modern world.
I do not think that this is the last task for Russia. But, apart from that, there are very simple things which we should understand almost literally. A higher level of technological development, I know that I am saying trivial things now but let us remember them: if the labor productivity is high, then society is rich. Sometimes we forget that the living standards depend on the level of technological development in the first place. What was impossible a hundred years ago is possible today.
I can give you an example of crop yields. I was recently in the Lipetsk region, my birthplace. My friend who does agricultural business there told me that the crop yields, the word may not be quite from the modern lexicon, may not be Silicon Valley, but had increased several times after reforms were carried out. Today, it can easily be compared to the levels which we had in soviet times.
The thing is not in some kind of political transformations, although they also played their role, the thing is that we simply started applying modern technologies in a trite way. Consequently, you may calculate: the higher the yield, the more money earned, and more money means that not only businessmen, but also farmers, agricultural engineers and all those who are involved in the work have higher earnings. Look what kind of harvesters they have! If previously you used to sweat all over when you were riding a harvester and dust, straw and other stuff were getting in your eyes, modern harvesters look almost like executive cars. Their driver cabins are cool and comfortable. This is also important especially for human health. These are pleasant conditions or comfortable working conditions, so to speak. This is a primitive example of how important technologies are.
In our everyday life, we tend to forget and it somehow escapes us that if we do not maintain our industry at a fairly high level of technological development, we will start degrading and getting poorer. In this sense, we are very close to this even today. All the previous decades have shown us the abilities of an economy based exclusively on the extraction of raw materials. Super effective world competition is extremely beneficial to us, so are unprecedented prices for fuel and energy.
But what of it? We ourselves should try to become the driving force of economic development, we should be a country that re-launches its economy and of which everybody expects growth and not vice versa. But let us get down to earth once again. This is, above all, a social task, because I am absolutely sure that a raw-material economy is unable to elementarily feed this country in a long-term perspective. We cannot proceed from the fact that we are going to survive on a primitive, as I have already said, approach – we sell raw materials and buy various products – for another hundred years. If we grasp it and get to the core of the economy, then we will understand that this is the way we are living now. I am sure that the economy of raw materials has exhausted its abilities to improve the well-being of our citizens. We are not like Kuwait. We are a very big country with a large population. We have stretched wide, we have a very big and costly infrastructure. Besides, we should also bear in mind that we are a northern country. Our expenses are too high. We will be unable to be a prosperous small emirate; we are a great big country, which oil will be unable to feed. We should learn to earn money with our brains. In my view, what we have in our heads is far more expensive and profitable than what we have in our soil.
What we have in our heads is the main natural resource of Russia and its people. Our people are talented, and I am absolutely sure that a nation that has given the world an engineer like Zaurekin, who invented television and changed the face of modern civilization, is capable of higher achievements in this sphere. That is why we should do it today and not a day later; we can no longer put off this project. It should be a locomotive and a driving force behind these modernization efforts. We should understand that it won’t solve all our problems but can be a good method to move forward the sockdolager of our economy. I am sure that this project will fulfill its mission.
Question: But why did you decide to build this town in an open field? Why did you decide to start everything from scratch?
VS: This is an issue for discussion. This decision has produced various reactions. We have excellent scientific centers, which were created in Soviet days in Siberia, near Moscow and in many other regions. Excellent experts and highly-qualified scientists work there. These centers have a very interesting and very qualified population. In fact, these are entire towns of mathematicians, scientists, etc. They have attained huge achievements. But, nevertheless, a decision has been made and it is not supposed to offend anybody.
We should understand what I have already said. Our task is to enter a new stage of civilization. Our task is not to carry out a European-style makeover in our Soviet home, but to build a new Russia with a new economy, and in order to do that it is sometimes very useful to find yourself in an open field. And I think that it is not accidental that Peter the First went into an open field because he understood that in the traditional tissue of Russian life he would do what he wanted at a much slower pace.
Sometimes, you have to start things from scratch so that what impedes us stops being a hindrance. We can try to create on a certain stretch of land and in a certain area a certain space to where we will take the best of what we have in our life and will leave behind the worst, which is a hindrance in our everyday life. The best conditions will be created for these best people. They will know that they are the best. They will know that they are in the best place in Russia and in one of the best places in the world. And thanks to this, we will be able to inject this new creative energy and raise it to a new level among the people on whom the future of our economy depends.
And who are they? They are engineers, inventors and scientists. I, in fact, think that these are number one professions for Russia. We have enough lawyers and we have many economists. We are rich in representatives of many professions. But it is the engineer who will bring his country forward in the first place. We should keep that in mind and should turn our face to the engineer again. We should make an engineer, an inventor and a scientist representing applied sectors of knowledge the main persons in this country. We should build a country the way they want to see it.
If the engineer says that we need a certain type of a political system in which he feels comfortable, then it should be the way the engineer says. The entire life of our society should gradually become subordinate to goals that will help our society to become adequate to its tasks. It should be comfortable for people who will move it forward. In my view, today these are primarily people with technical knowledge and businessmen, of course, who will help applying these technological achievements in practical life.
There is another reason why we are trying to start everything in a new place. We want to create a unique and creative atmosphere. This is really a new town, and it is vitally important that it becomes international in the very beginning. It should be of a level and quality that will attract the best experts from all over the world. And we should solve this task.
I think that if two, three or four Nobel Prize winners do not live and work in this town in the long run, it will mean that we have not solved our task. This is really so. The headquarters of the world leading and most prestigious and modern companies should sit in this town. There should also be research centers that are traditional to our economy. We should not think that an economy linked to raw materials is bad in itself because, in fact, it is good rather than bad. This type of economy simply allows us to be innovative. We can invent new drilling methods. It is also possible to create new technologies and optimize the existing ones. One can attain new technological achievements. But one can also sit idle: just pump resources, do nothing and relax. This is also a matter of mental choice.
Do we want to be inventors or not? Do we want to continue obtaining things or do we want to invent them? I think that an invention should be taken to the first leading positions in this country? Again – why a new place? It seems to me that even architecture matters. I think that a social environment is also very important. It seems to me that a young man, a young scientist should look around and say: yes, this is the best place of all. This is the most modern and comfortable place. Even what surrounds a person should be inspiring, including for aesthetic reasons. We do have this concept.
I would like to repeat that this is, in no way, belittling the significance of our traditional territories where scientists and engineers work and which the state supports and will continue supporting in future. And we really hope that this new facility, our new innovative complex will be closely integrated with all the scientific centers in this country.
Question:This is a large-scale project. When can this large-scale project be implemented? What are the deadlines?
VS: This is, indeed, a fairly big project. But I wouldn’t call it extremely large scale. We have a big country that can develop only with the help of big projects. On the contrary, I think that it’s not so large scale. In recent times we’ve developed an awkwardness of thought. We are afraid of any new ventures. People say that everything is being stolen away. We call each big project adventurous and say that it will never be a success.
This abjection of thought is the main problem for this country, from my point of view. I think that we should have several such projects. But since we are pressed to the ground with budget lines – this is tough – and have a general understanding that this country, like the rest of the world, is being hit by crisis, this may not be the easiest time to pass such vital decisions. For the time being, we will have just one such project. But I am sure that we need to have quite a few of them, and I think that we will be able to make them larger.
Look at other countries. They are not afraid of being ambitious. India is building several universities at a time. Enormous corporate towns with a population of 500,000 people are emerging in China. We are talking about 10,000 or 20,000, but these cities in China have 500,000 people. This is serious. But I simply cannot understand why we should be worse. I am sure that this is absolutely realistic, and the scale of this project is proportionate to the size of this country. We have a big country – and a great one on top of that, although this may be argued today. But we are a big country and we should be as tall as our country is. What country are we? We are the citizens of Russia, a vast country with an outstanding history and enormous achievements. We shouldn’t grow down and pull our common homeland down with us. I think that we should be at the height of our position. Rank imposes obligations. Therefore, we will have big projects here in Russia without fail, whether someone likes it or not.Question:
How will this project be carried out in organizational terms? Who will supervise its implementation?
VS: First of all, a working group has been set up on order from the president to coordinate all this work. There is a great deal of work to be done and that certainly requires considerable effort. The president gave me the honor to head this working group and its work. As for the work itself, the current work, I think it’s going to be the most important aspect in the entire set of decisions. A special body will be set up to supervise this work. The composition of this new body is now being decided. It should include representatives of domestic organizations, our development institutes and scientific and educational establishments. We believe that our major and prominent international partners should join in at a certain stage. This new body is going to be formed soon. The line-up of its founders will expand as negotiations will develop, including with foreign partners whose presence in this project is absolutely essential because it’s their experience that will help us to avoid mistakes.
On the other hand, we need partners who will provide a direct link with the global economy, with top-class world scientific and technological communities, and with world companies advanced in all high-tech sectors. I hope that we will find this partner. I hope that there will be people in the world who will believe in our project and will agree to join it. And, of course, it’s also important – who will be at the helm of this new body? The only thing we are going to need now is a special legislative decision. It should be added, and this was said publicly and formulated by the president: I think that if this town doesn’t have a special tax regime and administrative regime, it will be difficult for us to make it efficient and productive in full measure. It seems to me that it needs a special regime. I think that the president has the same opinion. He formulated and set this task. This question call for a discussion but, nevertheless, I think it’s going to be solved. A certain legislative decision is to be passed but I think that they will come up with it quite soon and implement it in the near rather than distant future.
It is also important to choose a general manager who will run this project directly. I know the position of the Russian president. He believes that the personality of this individual should be proportionate to the scale of this project. He believes that this should be a person who, on the one hand, has experience in developing huge productions and in solving multidimensional tasks. On the other hand, it’s desirable that he represents private business, for I believe that bureaucrats should not be vested with such a task. Since the president is putting the question this way, this is going to be someone from Russia’s big business. I think that the president will decide who he is going to be. I think that the Russian prime minister also has the same attitude to the future development of events, especially in organizational terms. This is how the first steps approximately look like. Naturally, work has begun to prepare all the necessary documents related to land issues. Business plans are being drafted and finalized. And we do hope that in the end, or in the second half of next year, we will be able to order design works. In order to place an order, we should have some vision, and quite detailed, of what we would like to have. I repeat, we hope to meet this short deadline and get down to designing.
Question: Can we talk about any duration guidelines if we speak about the creation of this town?
VS: Of course we can. I think that if it is to be realistic, there are many measurements, so to speak. The construction itself may take from three to seven years, dependending on how things will go. This is a matter of expansion. The question is what is going to be built first: the town nucleus, the town center from where it will apparently grow largely independently, without any further assistance from the state? At this moment, the state should turn away from all this and let the town develop on its own. This is what I can say about deadlines.
Of course, it’s very difficult to say in advance when a miracle is going to happen, a sacred spark that could flare up in this kind of community that will draw together entrepreneurs and scientists and that will simultaneously host a university center, laboratories and research departments of major basic material companies and non-basic material companies and also high-tech companies; where venture capital, which at the moment is practically non-existent in Russia, will be present, and where small enterprises are going to emerge and operate in comfortable conditions.
The Silicon Valley which you have just mentioned didn’t emerge overnight. Stanford University, which actually started to develop it, had been founded long before those innovative miracles, and of course it’s very hard to say anything in advance. Everybody knows how to build industrial estates. This is like a cook book in which everybody can read how to cook pancakes. The trouble is that not everybody will be able to cook them. The mechanical recipe is clear: what facilities should be built in this town and what kind of people should live there and work? Will the necessary atmosphere be created? If I am speaking responsibly, it’s no good to speak about that in my position, this question is unpredictable in many ways, but we should exert every effort to make that happen. I think that this will certainly happen. When we speak about an innovative economy – we often lump terms together – we mean everything that is based on innovation, on constant improvement of things…. We have a very convenient position: this is something far and distant, and that is why it doesn’t concern me. There are scientists sitting somewhere, making inventions. But in fact, the spirit of innovation is everyday culture.
Innovation is something which is far from us. That depends on the very spirit of innovation in society. If an individual who sees a problem wants to solve it instead of thinking that someone else could solve it for him, if he sees a certain thing and wants to improve it, this is what an innovative economy is about. This is not an economy of miracles, not an economy of some fundamental knowledge or some celestial never-before-seen truths – this is everyday life. The improvement of a pen and the improvement of shoes – all this is innovative economy. Soap, washing powder, household appliances are links of constant improvement. Millions of men and women around the world are working on it. If we don’t have this spirit, a desire to improve life around us, no innovative economy will emerge in this country because this is a clue to it, this is what makes it possible.
I think that our country is moving in the right direction and that we will achieve the desired effect and create an environment that we will be able to spread wider and transfer to other places, that it will draw together people who will want to improve the daily lives and the living conditions for all people and solve everyday tasks – because if not, then why are satellites being sent to outer space? Why do ships sail and why do we stimulate our scientific figures and our scientists? So that concrete people have comfortable lives in the long run. All this comes to our everyday life, all high achievements around us make us live better or worse. A hi-tech science is impossible if it is of no use to people. It simply loses any sense.
Therefore, I think that this environment, this spirit of innovation, is going to be born in this new town. I am repeating it once again. In my view, this environment can be formed in 10 or 15 years. I think that after that time, a chain reaction that will be difficult to stop may start. It will last for quite a long period of time, and will result in a wave of Russian inventions. Then, people will be able to turn to Russia not only for a pail of oil or a bunch of wood but also for an advanced medical technology which they will be able to get only in Russia. No matter how strange it may sound in principle, I know that many are going to grin at what I am saying, I expect great skepticism around this project, but it’s all right. Skeptics don’t make history. It is made by those who believe that a better world is possible. I personally believe in this. I think that we are going to succeed.
Question: May I ask you one more question. We’ve somehow omitted it. It concerns development. We’ve said that we can buy modern technologies. This is very important.
VS: Formulate your question and I will try to answer it.
Question: You’ve said that the project is being launched to enable Russia to have its own new technologies. But we are living with the conditions of a global market. Why can’t we simply buy these new technologies abroad?
VS: It’s a fair question. Many people are asking it. Moreover, it’s not that it’s being asked, it’s not even a question for us. I would call it a paradigm of Russian life. We have been selling raw materials for 500 years. We sell raw materials and buy the latest achievements, including the latest technologies abroad. It runs in our blood, and it seems that we can hardly imagine how things can be different. Nevertheless, first of all, there’s nothing wrong in buying the existing technologies. It’s absolutely normal. Moreover, Russia, at this stage, needs to obtain as many modern technologies that exist in the open market as possible. Very many entrepreneurs are right when they say that the first thing we should do is to modernize the existing domestic industries. Our energy consumption is very high and our labor productivity is low. This is a well-know fact. In order to improve all these parameters, become more competitive and elementarily improve people’s living standards, of which I already spoke, we simply need to buy foreign technologies. There’s nothing wrong in that. The worst thing is to start making something which they already have. Many people in this country consider it to be innovative activity: we will produce something which they already have abroad. But what’s the point in making what they already have?
I think that under no circumstances should we try to produce on our own what is already being produced in the world without us. These things should be bought and introduced on a wide scale. Incidentally, we are not doing enough of it, in my view, because we need very fast modernization of our industrial complex. It shouldn’t drag on for years because the gap between us and other countries grows from year to year. I think that we should create additional incentives, including financial and tax ones, in order to ensure this fast progress through the purchase of the latest foreign technologies abroad and their introduction in the national economy. This is an absolutely normal process. Some industrialists call it re-industrialization, others call it new industrialization. But I believe that we indeed need new industrialization, we need a new industry that will match modern standards. This is true in ecological terms and in terms of labor productivity and energy consumption. But there should be some sectors in which we should occupy exceptional positions and produce something unique. I think that otherwise we are not going to be interesting to anyone, including ourselves.
If we cannot produce anything which only we can produce, then what do we live for? Each of us, you and me, sit in our job places. Apparently, what attracts us in our professions is that we want to do some things better than other people. Other people use our services because, I may be mistaken and I am talking about myself now, we do something better than others. Thus, in general our people apparently deserve to occupy this kind of position in the world. I don’t think that we should seek to be leaders in all areas. This is impossible. Moreover, I am sure that there are sectors in which we should decrease our activities – sorry for my criminal words – because they’ve gone hopelessly ahead or simply because one cannot embrace the boundless – for these two reasons, at least.
This is exactly why the president formulated five priorities. So we are moving in that direction and are focusing our efforts on these areas. But I would like to emphasize that a popular phrase that “knowledge is strength,” which became so trivial in its time, can also be interpreted as “knowledge is power.” I’ve already said that if we are unable to invent new unique technologies which no one else will possess, the degree or the success of our economic development will always be in question because we will always depend on others’ knowledge and will always play second roles. You know, I will give you one example. I’ve been talking for a long time today and I’ll give you one simple example. Just imagine a huge plant which has raw materials. These materials are extracted in a pit and taken to some other place to be processed. Then some kind of product is produced and sold. There are various types of work at the plant. You may sit in the pit with a spade or a modern spade in your hands, you may work in a workshop of primary processing amid dust and noise, you may work in a workshop in a white dressing gown, you may be an engineer and wear an undercoat or sit on the board of directors, you can be a director after all. You may choose. This is how the world economy is built.
Russia has to choose what it would like to be: a driller, a limber or a director. I choose in favor of a director. It seems to me that it’s better for this country because we an educated and capable nation. And if anybody thinks different, we are going to argue. Russia should also occupy a worthy place in the international division of labor. I think, and I am returning to this question once again, that a more sophisticated economy that controls intellectual resources always benefits from world technologies. We will be unable to be rich enough, we will be unable, let me repeat it once again, to maintain the living standards of our citizens at a decent level worthy of our great nation, if we don’t become white-collar workers in the international division of labor. We should become them. Therefore, we are now saying that we shouldn’t buy everything abroad. We have to learn to make something on our own. Then we will be sitting on the board of directors, rather than in the pit.