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Russia Should Insource High-Tech Imagination

It’s been recently suggested that Russia needs to radically change its image to boost innovation. But this is putting the cart before the horse.

When a Russian mind thinks up something truly innovative and useful for consumers — like Google, Yandex or Kaspersky antivirus software — it sells.

But no amount of image building will ever hide the fact that Russia has not yet mastered the art of designing a decent internal-combustion engine, a 19th-century technology.

I believe that instilling the nation with a limitless faith in its future is much more important for spurning technological innovation than all the artificial exercises in image-building.

Russians used to have that feeling of limitless opportunity and unwavering faith in their country’s success, like what most Soviets used to feel in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Soviet Union had just immerged victorious from a horrible war, harnessed nuclear power and launched Sputnik, a word recognized today in almost every culture.

Internal repression subsided, and there was a sense that Russia was on the edge of a breakthrough. As a child, I distinctly remember the feeling of a nation on an ascending trajectory in history, despite the jarring reality of mass poverty, food shortages and dismal housing.

Starting in the early and mid-1990s, Russians lost faith in the country’s future. They were overcome by cynicism and despair. Although Russians became much more optimistic about Russia’s future during Vladimir Putin’s second presidential term, the global financial crisis has knocked the country down several notches.

Meanwhile, right next door, China seems to be brimming with limitless faith in its technological prowess. Sixty-three percent of Chinese citizens are confident that their country will be the global technology leader within 30 years, producing the next society-changing innovation, according to a Global Innovation Survey conducted by Newsweek and Intel and reported in The New York Times. Russia is not even on the map.

A futuristic faith is essential for unleashing the only component of innovation that cannot be outsourced in a globalized world — imagination. Russia needs to start imagining products that other people would want to buy (even if many of them will be manufactured in China).

Infusing the nation with such faith in its future is the principal challenge of Medvedev’s presidency.

Vladimir Frolov is president of LEFF Group, a government-relations and PR company.

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