The Oil and the Glory

My coffee with Dmitry

Today’s guest post on The Oil & the Glory comes from Eugene Mazo, a Palo Alto, Ca.-based lawyer with a specialty in Russian politics. Mazo (at far right in the above picture) sat in with two dozen Russian technologists for a casual coffee with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week, during his visit to Silicon ...

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Today’s guest post on The Oil & the Glory comes from Eugene Mazo, a Palo Alto, Ca.-based lawyer with a specialty in Russian politics. Mazo (at far right in the above picture) sat in with two dozen Russian technologists for a casual coffee with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week, during his visit to Silicon Valley. His report:

Before Russia’s president walked into the Printers Inc. Cafe, a well-dressed Russian woman approached and kindly asked if I would remove my tie. "Our president will not be wearing a tie today," she said. "After all, this is California." I obliged.

A few moments later, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev entered the Palo Alto coffee house in an open-collar shirt, a light blue jacket and blue jeans. He shook everyone’s hand, then spun around, took a seat, smiled broadly, and exclaimed, "Hello there! How’s life?"

"Khorosho," the Russians arrayed around him answered in unison.

So began Medvedev’s two-hour coffee klatch last Wednesday with two dozen technologists and entrepreneurs from Russia who now make Silicon Valley their home. Though I am American, I had been invited to the event by my friend Andrey Kunov, who directs a group called the American Business Association of Russian-Speaking Professionals (AMBAR), and organized the get-together. The idea for the meeting of course didn’t come from nowhere — in May, Kunov had already organized a trip for some two dozen venture capitalists to Moscow. They had met with Medvedev at his home.

Now, Medvedev wanted to see similar people on their own turf, relaxed, over coffee. He wanted to hear their ideas for Skolkovo, what he describes as a Russian version of Silicon Valley in the suburbs of Moscow. How could he reproduce the start-up and venture-capital culture of Silicon Valley in Russia? And how could he dissuade talented Russians from dropping everything and moving to California?

Medvedev is confident, perhaps even arrogant, but in person he is also inquisitive, easy to talk to, and inviting of discussion and debate. In that sense, he struck me as more professorial than presidential. He had arrived in the Promised Land of technology, and he knew it.

One of the Russian entrepreneurs present repeated a cliché about the valley: that it is "not a place, but a state of mind." But Medvedev seemed already to grasp this. "To understand how business is done here, you have to soak it in — how everything breathes, how it looks, how it works," Medvedev said. "This has so far all just been great" to observe, he said, but sadly different from the way business worked in Russia. "So the main thing that I came here to see is what we need to fix. Tell me, what should I take from here with me back to Russia, apart from the people? They are important, of course, but maybe I can take something else?"

Several of the Russians explained that the valley is a place with few walls, where ideas move freely back and forth between people. Again, Medvedev seemed to understand this much — and he admitted that the Russian government had to be measured in how much it got involved in Skolkovo’s activities. "We can give a small push" — the Russian word he chose was "tolchok" — "but only a push," he said.

My feeling was that Medvedev needed to get practical if he wanted to transfer ideas from the valley to Moscow, meaning he needed to make it dead easy to travel between the two places. "There is no such thing as a direct flight between San Francisco and Moscow," I told him when he turned my way. He cut me off, retorting, "That’s not true. I flew here direct yesterday." As the laughter died down, I kept at him. "So what the Russian government should do first is purchase two new airplanes. Have one take off every night from Skolkovo for San Francisco, while the other takes off from San Francisco in the opposite direction." I said, "If you foot the bill for the airline tickets, in a year, you will have Silicon Valley."

That was of course a gross simplification, but Medvedev got the point. "Do you think Obama would allow this?" he asked.

Now came a bit of Silicon Valley-style business. Peter Loukianoff, a California venture capitalist who invests in Russian technology companies, handed Medvedev a napkin. On it, Loukianoff had just sketched a blueprint for how Russia and Silicon Valley could better collaborate. His idea was to establish a permanent video link through which entrepreneurs on both sides could speak at any time. "The more contact, the better," Loukianoff said. "When Americans and Russians get together, they often find that they have more in common than not, and out of this, business relationships develop."

A few minutes later, Andrey Kunov — the friend who had invited me to the coffee — took a one-page business proposal out of his pocket, and handed that to Medvedev, too. It outlined the creation of a Russian-American innovation center in Palo Alto, which would function with the Russian government’s institutional backing.

Medvedev seems sincere and serious in wanting to diversify Russia’s economy. But he’s not the first Moscow leader to consider such an idea — some two decades ago, Loukianoff himself organized a symposium on the development and commercialization of Russian technology abroad with the circle of then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

As he got up to leave the café, Medvedev carefully folded Loukianoff’s napkin and Kunov’s business plan into his jacket pocket, then left the café for his next meeting.

"One of my best business ideas," Loukianoff later told me, "once came my way on the back of a napkin." In Silicon Valley, Medvedev knew that what was true for Loukianoff could also be for him.

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