Is the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 the end of Russia as a brand? That's what one of the most successful Russian professionals in the tech industry, Max Skibinsky, thinks. He has a point: Whoever is really responsible for the tragedy, it's the perception that matters.
A Moscow-trained physicist, Skibinsky is a serial entrepreneur associated with the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz LLC. Although he has spent the last two decades in the U.S., people in Silicon Valley still see him as a Russian -- an identity he worries may turn into a stigma. As he put it in a lengthy blog post:
Personally, I’m thinking to start calling myself Euro-Slavic instead of “Russian”. It’s a flimsy defense, yet Russian brand, after already being tainted with gulag and the rest of its toxic legacy, is now synonymous with mass murder of innocent civilians. There is nothing of value left to recover.
Skibinsky wouldn't be the first Russian tech guru to give up on his native country. Sergei Brin, the Google Inc. co-founder, famously called Russia "Nigeria with snow" in a 2003 interview with Red Herring magazine, adding that Russia's rulers were "a bunch of criminal cowboys" trying to control the world's energy supply.
Skibinsky's remarks, though, have deeper implications. Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempts to shift blame for MH17 are not going to fly in the court of Western public opinion. U.S. President Barack Obama was simply reflecting public perception when, in a speech today, he asserted that Putin has "extraordinary" and "direct" influence on the separatists in eastern Ukraine. In the public mind, Russia is already at fault for the tragic death of 298 innocent people.
"This situation will get worse before it gets better," wrote Skibinsky. The Kremlin "will fight to the last: we will yet see the massive flood of lies and deceit they will unleash to mitigate the anger of their recent mass murder. Very unfortunately everything they do will be branded with the words Russia or Russian."
To Russians plugged into Western banking or technology, two industries in which they have a large presence, this means dealing with disapproval by extension. There will be nothing rational about it, just an emotional undertone, forcing them to explain without being asked that they do not support Putin and have nothing to do with his treatment of Ukraine. In Russia itself -- where, according to a recent Gallup poll, 83 percent of people are in favor of Putin -- only a minority gets the uncomfortable urge to dissociate themselves from leader and country. To those of us living in the West, it's going to be a fact of daily life.
Skibinsky wrote that Silicon Valley should expect a lot of Russian resumes soon. He wants tech firms to consider these applicants seriously: "They are not just looking for a job, they looking to save themselves and their families." He also called on the tech industry to help Ukraine by sending work to its outsourcing shops and by boycotting firms associated with the Russian government and state-owned companies (some of them, such as venture capital firm Russian Venture Co. OJSC and VTB Bank OJSC, have been looking to invest in Silicon Valley startups lately).
The industry is quite likely to follow Skibinsky's advice, even without reading his post. Russia is getting more than unfashionable. It's on its way to taking on the Soviet Union's onetime status as an object of fear and hatred.
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