Rise of technology in Russia

Over the last two decades there have been several major shifts in Russia. Most obviously, we are all familiar with the regime change but sometimes as onlookers we fail to connect the influence of the Internet and rise of technology in Russia. For most of us, the Internet did not coincide with another major change in our home country. In Russia, many opportunities opened at the same time the Internet was bringing the rest of the world together on the web, potentially exacerbating the amount of change happening in Russia. This blog is derived from interviews with two Russian experts who have studied and lived in the region before and after the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of technology.

Through these interviews, we learn a few perspectives on the way the rise of technology has impacted Russian culture and everyday life.  Yandex intern, Morgan Peters, sat down with two of her professors Elena Reznikova, an adjunct Instructor of Russian at Union College and Kristin Bidoshi, an associate professor of Russian, and the Director of Russian and Eastern European Studies at Union College, to learn more about some of the ways Russia has changed over the years. Reznikova was born and raised in the Soviet Union, and received her secondary and higher education in Ukraine.  Bidoshi has studied Russian since 1987, has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Ohio State University.

Russian Life After the Soviet Union

After the Soviet Union dissolved, life for Russians began to open up especially with the help of technology.  The 90s in Russia brought significant change to almost all aspects of life – work, travel, religion, and so on. Although still limited by some regulations, travel options allowed Russians to have more opportunities to travel abroad. Media, films, and books from the west became more accessible opening up more information for Russians to consume.  Even clothing choices, like Levi jeans, made their way to Russia and style slowly started changing.  In less than thirty years, way of life in this area has changed dramatically.

These days Russians are more easily and more often visiting other countries, picking out their fashion from a Cosmo magazine, and buying it from international chains, perhaps to the movies to see something playing worldwide. In such a short period of time, Russia has shifted to a far more open and globalized place. Among many other factors, the Internet has help speed this up by giving users instant access to knowledge and options to be on a level playing field with the rest of the online world.

According to Reznikova, the most important developments in Russian culture are the westernization of culture and language. More specifically she explains, “The influx of new realia (products, concepts, occupations, media and technology etc.) has had a tremendous impact on all spheres of life, including language and culture.” The Internet has played a big role in this “influx of new realia.” For example, initially in the 90s the majority of Russians traveled and made purchases within Russia, but with access to the Internet Russians were able to start doing these things abroad. eCommerce has made it possible for Russian shoppers to shop abroad right from their homes or mobile devices.

Rise of Technology in Russia

Today, there isn’t much that can’t be accomplished with the help of the Internet. Whether it is checking a bus schedule, buying a plane ticket, or reading the news, the Internet tends to play a role more often than not. Thanks to Russia’s rich resources in mathematics and engineering, Russians enjoy several local Internet companies like global tech leader Yandex (established 1997) and social media sites VK and Odnoklassniki. As Russia was experiencing significant change, local engineers helped build products and services for the local user with their needs in mind. Russians have since adopted several international sites and uses of the Internet but just at a slightly slower rate than in the west where it is widespread. Internet penetration in Russia is still around 60%, leaving significant room for even more growth.

As seen below, based on Yandex query research on Russian searches for “what is?” Russians adopt many common tech products and services and welcome it in their lives. It is incredible to compare some of the searches from a few years ago when one of the most common searches was “What is wifi?” to today when users everywhere are accessing it regularly.   Similarly, Russians were asking what a selfie and Instagram were and today Instagram is one of the top ten websites in Russia where users are quite regularly posting selfies.

Yandex question queries

Although some locations in Russia are not up to speed like the central region, in many ways, the Internet and technology are affecting Russians in the same way they have been affecting communication and relationships like they are in other places like the US. Both Reznikova and Bidoshi see similarities in the way Americans and Russian are adjusting to technology in their daily lives. Reznikova explains, “They are just as engaged on social media (VK, Odnoklassniki, Live Journal, Facebook), they watch as much Youtube (or Rutube), engage on dating sites, send смски or emails as their North American counterparts.” According to eMarketer, 48% of consumers in Russia are registered to a social networking platform, and said they sometimes or constantly used social media. In time, this number will continue to grow as more Russians get online and the younger generations with 99% Internet penetration age and even younger users get online.

Russians are experiencing similar increases in technology as the west, especially involving mobile devices and smartphones. Bidoshi noticed this while recently traveling to Russia. She explains, “Almost everyone has a cell phone there with data.  Every café, restaurant, hostel, university has Internet connections (free WiFi).” Clearly, Russia like many other countries has also adapted to the rising popularity of free public Internet access. As a result, Reznikova’s communication with family and friends abroad benefits from more accessible Internet. Reznikova states, “It’s very common to see anyone who can afford a cell phone, a computer and Internet connection, to have these resources.”  She concludes that this is creating a more connected society.  While mobile devices are becoming more popular, not everyone owns a cell phone yet.  Russians who have smartphones are often using them to access the Internet. According to eMarketer, 80.3% of Russians will use Internet on their mobile phone in 2016.

Email and messaging apps have made it easy for Russians and the rest of of to stay connected in our global tech community. As explained by the interviewees, their main form of communication with Russian friends is usually on free services that run on wifi such as, Skype and Whatsapp. These communication apps are common for Russian communications with westerners but more popular apps in Russia like Whatsapp and Telegram are far less used by people in the US. In addition to some variation of messaging apps, Bidoshi explains this is similar for other local sites, “As an American, I don’t have a VK account or a Yandex account… My connection to my older friends in Russia is probably impacted by this.”  Many Russians are on globalized social media accounts used by westerners but these are often secondary to local sites.  Personal feeds and even the use of Yandex makes Russians’ experience with the Internet slightly different than Bidoshi’s everyday online use.

Beyond the most common uses for the Internet, using search engines, social media visits, and messaging, Russians are also regularly playing games online, shopping, and planning their travel. This result is not uncalled for, and has had similar effects in the U.S., as well as worldwide. Russians used to travel and shop domestically, but with the increase in technology and Internet, Russians are big  eCommerce shoppers and cross-border sales are on the rise.   Last year 39% of Russia’s online shoppers made a cross-border digital purchase at least once that year, according to research by eMarketer. Clothing, accessories, and footwear are the most common products Russian shopper by abroad, making up over 51% of Russian cross-border digital purchases.  The online travel industry is becoming increasingly popular in Russia, with sites like Airbnb, Tripadvisor, Booking.com, and Hotels.com having strong impacts in the Russian market where self planned trips are trending.

Overall, the Internet has helped Russia in its process of opening up to more opportunities and realizations. Russians, like other nations, will hold onto their values and the core of their culture but the Internet and globalization continues to bring Russians and other nations closer together the more we use the same products and services with access to most of the same opportunities only a few clicks away.