St. Petersburg, Russia

A truly interesting event, this was – and in more than one level. For me, it was the first public appearance of “The Digital Self Manifesto” and I am very happy about how it went: despite being at the very end of the event, I had a full house and a lively debate – and I have met at least one person (my good friend Valery) who bought the book right there and then!

That aside, the experience for me was amazing.

The big theme everyone was debating was one of “Russia in search of the story” it wants to tell the world; there were quite a bit of complaints about the poor image associated to russian politicians. On day 1, there was an unbelievably heated debate featuring ultra-nationalist Duma member mr. Milonov who proposed a so-called “Law to protect children from filth” of openly homophobic content, which the Duma promptly passed.

(NOTE: Andrey pointed out to me that mr. Milonov is not a member of the Duma but a member of St.Petersburg’ local parliament)

While I do not share ANY of mr. Milonov’ views, I recognize he did not take the easy way out of shifting the responsibility to the whole Duma, but instead  bravely argued his case against a more or less unanimously unfriendly audience: you see above in one of the pics two ladies making sort of a statement from the audience while he was speaking.

Hyper-conservative politicians are nothing new and there are quite a few in every country, but they tend to speak from their owned, protected channels instead of exposing themselves to the prodding the moderating journalist submitted mr. Milonov to, challenging him at almost every statement he made. In all it was a very interesting debate which I don’t think you would easily see in Europe or the U.S. – unfortunately I, Mike Copland, Peter Fleischer and Henrik Stroier, a german gentleman who spoke the next day were the only non-russians in attendance and this is a great shame: if I can give any advice to Andrey and the organizing crew for 2014 that is to get more european and american delegates, as this will do wonders for the perception of Russia in the west.

In the afternoon of day 1 I attended an excellent discussion called“Made in Russia” where we discussed whether russian products are ready for export. Someone from Lada took us though the great strides they are making on product quality; I must say I am not sold on this at all and although I engaged in a Twitter exchange later with someone claiming the new management is so good that Lada may be competing with BMW in 5 to 10 years, this seems a tad over the top.

A recommendation for Russia

While it waits for its Lada, its Megafon and many other companies to be ready to slug it out in the open competitve market, I think Russia should leverage NOW things it already has a world leadership on: nature, wilderness, lakes, rivers in a pristine condition most of us in western Europe can only dream of. After all 11.5% of the world’ landmass is situated in Russia – the only other country coming near to such a treasure trove of beauty is perhaps Canada, but how comes Russia does’t get a similar number of adventuresome tourists anxious to see places very few other people have seen before?

Have someone publish the equivalent of the Milepost, create a few campgrounds and service stations and spread the word on Internet boards where hordes of motorhome equipped dutch, french and italians are desperately searching for new destinations.

They will come back with wonderful stories and pictures, making more people want to come the following year and so on, in a truly viral fashion.

Then, next time a Russian politician discredits the country, one of these people will stand up and say: “I’ve been to Russia last summer, they’re not like that at all, this guy is a jerk!”. Believe you me, I speak from experience: if the perception of Italy and Italians depended on our politicians, we would be in worse shape than Russia, but luckily millions of people pour in our country every year, experience our food, visit our cities, talk to our people and no amount of vile behaviour on the part of an Italian politician will ever be able to taint the great image of Italy.