Online in Russia is Not Just About Education

John Harrison

There have been a lot of conferences in Russia over the past few months about online education courses and online business. Both of these activities seem to really be taking off in Russia particularly amongst young people. I was invited by Marie Staroverova to a breakfast meeting of 5 ladies, each of whom is involved with what can only be described as a movement in different ways. Here are some of the highlights of our meeting:


Anastasia, what is your course about?

Anastasia Totok, online student, business consultant: 

My course, which I started three years ago is called: ‘Leading From The Emerging Future’ and it is run by u.lab, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s a fascinating course. I am one of a few current students from Russia. My course is about business, society and myself. I realised quite early on in the course that you have to have an open mind and an open heart. It is all about seeing how the future is going to develop and how that fits in with business and technology. The course teaches you not only to use and act with knowledge from the past, but to base our understanding, and what we should do next from our understanding of the future. Roughly 8,000 people worldwide have and are attending it. I am the first person from Russia who will be attending the offline sessions at MIT, if I can get a visa!

The thing is, I have the choice between many different sources of knowledge, and I found out about all of this online. That’s the point. Having found the course that was right for me, I was able to dive into it. I gained a huge amount from it, and am still learning.

Do you see online education growing in Russia?

Anastasia Totok: Yes I do, it has a huge potential here. Online courses are really very important here. Offline courses are expensive. Online is much cheaper and less time consuming.

And you can do what you want.

Anastasia Totok: Yes, but you must understand that this is your responsibility to learn and use the knowledge. It places the onus on you.

Marie Staroverova: Yes, this is the challenge. Online education is all about learning new skills, and this is what happens. But when you have finished the course, you are the one who has to go out and use the skills, and this is the same all over the world, not only in Russia.

(To Natalie Kiss) What do you do?

Natalie Kiss, online entrepreneur: I have a clothes retail business, and I do the actual business offline. I find the clients online, but then I meet them offline. I find that online is really good as a first point of contact but offline is better for deciding customer preferences, prices and so on.

Is this a new business model in Russia?

It’s not new, a lot of people are doing this now.

Anastasia Totok: It depends where you are talking about – Moscow or Russia, they are different.

So there is nothing outside of Moscow; an empty void?

Marie Staroverova: I would argue with that.

Is the internet changing the way that people do business here?

Anastasia Totok: The most important thing is the environment. It is very difficult to do something new with old minds. It is very difficult to cross this border and make something new.

What are the specifics of doing business online in Russia?

Anastasia Totok: I think in Russia now it is easier to set up businesses, and establish your business because there is a low level of competition, and the tax regime is good for start-ups. But to build something really solid is still difficult. When you get big there are all sorts of administrative issues, but to create something just to survive is quite possible.

As long as it is under the radar?

Anastasia Totok: I created a business club for people who are motivated not just by money and ego, but who also feel it important to consider ethical aspects of business as well. In a way, online business can help foster ethical business. I think one difference between doing business here and in other countries is that in Russia you don’t know how you should do it. In other countries it is ABCD but here, you just try and see what happens. Maybe it works out. It depends on you. Every time you try, you can have a different result and nobody knows what kind of result you will have. People ask me – why do you do business in Russia? I say – because it’s fun here. Nobody knows what will happen. Try it and see.

(To Vika Lupik) Please tell us a bit about what you do and the connection between what you do and the online universe.

Vika Lupik, film producer: I work in the film business, I am a producer. I’ve been working in this business for around 15 years. I am working in a small film company which produces mostly documentary films. One of the problems we have run up against is distribution. We used to distribute our productions through cinemas like in the old days, but now the situation has changed completely because there are so many online platforms. You can find just about any film you want to see now online.

How do film production companies get paid?

Vika Lupik: Because we now know that it is really very difficult to earn money from distribution, production companies now try to earn money from production.

From product placement?

Vika Lupik: Sometimes yes, sometimes the producers don’t even try to earn money from distribution, and find sponsors such as the Ministry of Culture, and other sponsors. This model usually works only with large productions, or with films paid for by TV stations which outsource the production of TV series for example.

So the low budget documentaries get made because the people who are involved in production simply love what they are doing?

Vika Lupik: The documentary which we are trying to distribute now, for example, took 5 years to make, which is not unusual. The director put his own money into it in the beginning. Only in the middle of production did he receive some very limited financing.

Do you feel that the internet is changing Russian society?

Marie Staroverova: Yes. I think that this is because it is something fundamentally new. I want to share this circle with you (Marie draws a diagram). This is a development circle. In this part of the circle, there are people who have the old way of thinking. ‘OK, I don’t have much money, the government or somebody else is to blame for what is going on, it’s not us who are to blame, we are not really responsible for what is happening in our lives, everything is bad, the government is bad, we don’t have any opportunities and so on. There is a large chunk of people here. Then there is another section of people. At some point, about 7 years ago, something happened, a huge number of young people thought that here we are, we don’t have any money, but we should try to develop ourselves. We want to have a good life; different things drove those people. Some wanted to move out, away from this country, some didn’t want to move out, there were all sorts of ideas. But the point is, people said that they wanted to learn, they wanted to grow, wanted to take responsibility. They want high quality products, so people were moving up the circle. Slowly, but they moved.

Their perspective was different. They basically said: let’s change our lives, let’s have a goal that we can work towards, let’s change ourselves. So this development of the online world is reflects this change. That’s my understanding.

So where are we now in the circle?

Marie Staroverova: Us?

Good question!

Marie Staroverova: Moscow is about here (Marie shows a spot about half way up the circle). It’s about awareness and consciousness.

Anastasia Totok: I realised that I can’t change everything. I can’t change the environment but I can change myself. I try to find information, this is my dream, I think that when people take responsibility for their lives, and for the lives of their families, something amazing happens. Only very few people realise it now, but the most important thing in the world is actually knowledge. The knowledge itself could be from anywhere.

 Do you think that this whole process means that we need to have another system?

Marie Staroverova: I think that a lot of what we are talking about is not just about money. This is the future and I am not sure how it will work out, but it seems that change is coming. This whole online thing is to do with helping people who know what they want, but you have to know what you want first.

18.10.17. John Harrison © RussiaKnowledge