IT at the Russian borders: the case of Vladivostok

Vladivostok is the final destination of the famous Trans-Siberian railroad, which starts more than 9000 km away in Moscow. Vladivostok is the largest city in the Russian Far East region, established in 1860 as a military bastion on the cost of the Pacific Ocean, not far from the border with Japan,  China and North Korea. The city functioned as the main naval base of the Russian Pacific fleet. Its military importance has remained a major factor in the city's urban development - the whole perimeter of the city, including Russkii island, is dotted by old forts and artillery batteries. But while Vladivostok has a particular regional history and identity, from the IT perspective  it is very typical case, one which illustrates general tendencies not only about knowledge exchange and  professional community formation in post-Soviet Russia, but also the tensions between Moscow and the regional peripheries.

The rise of the IT community in Vladivostok had its origins in the Cold War, as the Soviet State sought to establish a society based on “scientific” foundations. While IT communities arose across the USSR, that of Vladivostok was shaped by particular geographic and military conditions, among them geographical location “at the borders” of the country, distance from Moscow, the strong presence of the military and the fleet, and  a long-standing research tradition in the field of maritime and oceanographic  studies. The local IT community emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in the research centers of the Academy of Science and the state universities. It was composed of mathematicians, cyberneticists and electronics engineers employed within the three main Academy of Science centers - The Institute of Automation and Control Processes (established in 1971), Institute of Applied Mathematics (1988) and Institute of Marine Technology Problems specialized in underwater robots (1988), and local Universities. Popular interest in IT grew in the 1980s due to the region's long-standing connections with Japan. Japanese computers like the first-generation Yamaha MSX and the later machine, the MSX-2, were purchased for educational purposes. In 1984 under an official state reform  introduced a new subject, “Fundamentals of Informatics and Computer Engineering,” into the regular secondary school curriculum.

A second impetus to IT development  in Vladivostok emerged in response to the developing market for imported cars from Japan in the 1990s.  This new market was so successful that it rapidly spread through all of Siberia, and from there across Russia and through neighboring countries of Central Asia. Given its wide geographic dispersal, the car  market  soon expanded into online trade.  IT skills were needed to create online trade services, created electronic catalogues, search tools, online price calculators, electronic delivery “trackers”, software for stock management, etc. In the post-Soviet economy of Vladivostok, this process introduced a completely new industry, and a new arena for IT development.

In recent years, this early explosion of creative activity has subsided.  Today Vladivostok experiences lack of IT professionals. Most of the Russian universities and research institutes lost their cadres in the mid-1990s, both to emigration and to movement into the commercial sector. This process forced the universities into close collaborations with local IT companies as a strategy to maintain the level of the university training by involving IT practitioners in teaching.

To compensate for the subsidence of academic and business activity during the second half of the 2000s, the State stepped in.  The Far East has become a focus of attention from the federal government, whose presence had previously been felt only distantly in the Far East. A new federal university was established in Vladivostok in 2010 - The Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU). The effects of this federal intervention into the existing system of IT professional training in Vladivostok proved controversial. Moscow appeared to be inattentive to local IT developments. The curriculum of the new university lacks a focus on IT education - five separate units of the School of Natural Sciences currently train programmers in FEFU.  As the result, local IT leaders recognized that the only way to develop their businesses was to come to terms with the federal government, and to accept its priorities in the regional politics of knowledge.

Data and Fieldwork

Analysis of the Vladivostok case was mostly based on empirical data – interviews, publications and observations – collected by Alexandra Masalskaya during a three-week field trip to Vladivostok in November 2014, and secondary literature as well as on-line publications. Prior to the field trip, a network of contacts with professionals from IT industry was established by Daria Savcheko.

Sixteen biographical interviews were conducted. Alexandra mostly relied on the "snowball" sampling technique. A number of contacts were established via the Facebook communities of Vladivostok, and a few of these informants were specifically searched for in the Web of Science publications database.