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Articles10 technological failures of modern Russia, or why it won’t be able...

10 technological failures of modern Russia, or why it won’t be able to survive on its own

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People who believe the Russian propaganda live in a fantastical world where everyone has a cheap electric car, owns a Russian-made smartphone and flies to Crimea on a spanking new Russian-made plane.

The reality is, in fact, much worse. While every new sanction forces Russia to scream louder and louder about its ability to make everything by itself, like in the good old Soviet times, those arguments sound as hollow as that of the Communist party. Even the USSR, while making most of its electronics in-house, based almost everything on foreign design. The famously sturdy cars had something distinctly Italian about them, and if its home electronics could speak, they most probably would do so in Japanese. 

Modern Russia is not a country of inventions. While the borders were open, most of its brilliant minds were escaping to the West, where the pay was better and the air felt freer. And yet the propaganda machine kept producing new nonsense stories about technological breakthroughs… so let’s remember some of those iPhone and Tesla killers, shall we?

YotaPhone

We can’t live without our smartphones, and the Russians are exactly the same. But while president Medvedev was more than happy to use an iPhone, some in the country wanted to make their own unique device. And to give the company Yota some credit, their smartphone named YotaPhone was at least unique. Without obviously copying the rival devices, it had one main attraction: the second e-ink display at the back. The screen that used almost no energy and could be handy in some situations. Totally not a gimmick.

Anyways, it was first announced at the end of the 2010, and soon even Medvedev was trying to use the Russia-made device, which, unfortunately, immediately froze in his hands. Doesn’t matter — the state-funded propaganda channel Russia Today still proudly announced that Apple is trembling in anticipations of its release. Not really: In 2013 and 2014, the company released two generations of YotaPhone smartphones, but sales were poor. By the way, in the first version of the E-Ink device, the screen was not touch sensitive. Only a small area at the bottom could react to touches. In many ways, it looked like interacting with an e-book.

Yota-Phone

In 2016, a major shareholder of Yota Devices was the Chinese corporation China Baoli, which began to use the company’s developments for its own products. In 2017, the new team presented the third generation of mobile phone. In 2018, Rostec State Corporation left the project, and in 2019, the head structure of China Baoli Corporation was declared bankrupt. Overall, about 106k devices were sold across all generations.

Nowadays no one even remembers this “iPhone killer,” which had one novel idea and nothing more. By the way, it’s not the only “Russian-made” smartphone that failed: in 2017 there was a TaigaPhone, which cost 40 mil rubles to develop and sold about 5k units. There’s also the INOI brand, but it, too, is more Chinese than it wants to admit.

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Yo-Mobile

Yo-Mobile sounds quite hip, but it was nothing more than a massive flop. Much bigger flop than the YotaPhone, which at least was an actual working device.

The history of Yo-Mobile (Yo being the name of the Russian letter Ё) began in 2010, when Mikhail Prokhorov’s investment company ONEXIM and the Russian-Belarusian holding Yarovit Motors announced the creation of the first people’s hybrid car in Russia.

It sounded like a big project with huge ambitions and 150 million dollars of investment. Not a hefty sum, but the brand was confident, attending car events and speaking proudly of the future market leader.

Yo-Mobile

Initially, the idea was to produce three models: a three-door coupe, a crossover and a van. All cars had to be equipped with an electric motor with a capacity of 50 kW, a rotary engine capable of operating on both gasoline and gas fuel and powering an electric motor. The brand was extremely ambitious, and its promises sounded insane back in 2013. 

The situation is typical: while overpromising, the company had no legs to stand on. When it looks too good to be true, it most probably isn’t. April 7th in 2014 was a fateful day for Yo-Mobile. Mikhail Prokhorov’s company sold all developments to the NAMI Institute for 1 euro and announced its intention to sell the plant in St. Petersburg. 

Marussia Motors

Yeah, another car story, but bear with me. Marussia Motors appeared and disappeared at the same time as the Yo-Mobile. The Marussia Motors project was all about unrealistic promises — again. The founder of the company showman Nikolai Fomenko wanted to produce and sell 500-700 supercars per year, thus seriously competing with Lamborghini, Ferrari and Porsche. Yes, not “people’s cars”, but actual supercars.

Marussia

A year later, the first Marussia B1 car was introduced, a little later there was a reveal of the second version of the B2 supercar. In the summer of 2010, the concept of the Marussia F2 crossover was presented. But none of these cars have ever entered mass production. At the end of 2009. Marussia Motors became a partner of Richard Branson’s Virgin Racing and took part in Formula 1. The new team was called Marussia Virgin Racing, and Nikolai Fomenko became the head of the engineering division. The project failed: the 2011 season brought no points for the team. In 2012, the car of the Marussia MR-01 team did not pass the mandatory crash tests, and could not participate in the final races.

By that point nobody wanted the Russian supercar that barely functioned. Fomenko was desperate, offering the Ministry of Defence the development of tactical and technical means for a multi-purpose SUV (“Susha-2”). But it was a thinly veiled attempt to find money.  All that is left are 30 test versions of Marussia B1, B2, one F2, an analogue of B2 in the Need for Speed video game, and a couple of renders and photos on the internet.

Sukhoi Superjet 100

From cars to planes — the bigger the project, the harder the fall. Well, from one point of view the Sukhoi Superjet 100 is at least actually in service, although mostly because the Russians have no choice in the matter: whole most of the Russia’s fleet consists of AirBuses and Boeings, the state-approved Sukhoi Superjet 100 has been increasing in numbers ever since its inauguration in 2011. But this doesn’t make it a success story.

The Sukhoi Superjet 100 is the first Russian aircraft developed after 1991 and the first mainline passenger aircraft developed by the Sukhoi Design Bureau, which specialized in fighters in Soviet times. SSJ is a regional aircraft with 95 seats, It was supposed to replace the Soviet-made Tu-134 and Yak-42.

Sukhoi Jet

The Sukhoi project has been in development ever since 2000, as post-Soviet Russia desperately needed an all-new commercial aircraft. And things looked good until it actually started flying: First, there was a fatal crash in Indonesia, although that was human error. The second and last incident with the loss of the aircraft occurred in Yakutsk in the autumn of 2018 – Superjet rolled out of the runway by 250 meters during landing. 

It was costly to maintain, and even the Russia’s flag carrier Aeroflot made it clear that the plane is not reliable. And after a couple of humiliating incidents most people in Russia preferred the good old AirBuses. 

Sukhoi Civil Aircraft were counting on 800 orders by 2024 – 300 for the Russian market and 500 for foreign customers. By April 2019, 186 aircraft had been produced, almost a third is being used by Aeroflot who had no say in the matter, and the only European buyer refused Superjet in early 2019.

But still, it seems like the ill-fated plane is destined to become the saviour of the new Putin’s Russia. Seems like its time to shine, right? Well, not quite so: Many foreign components are used in the design of this aircraft, which are not available under sanctions. The most important of them is the Russian-French PowerJet SaM146 engine. Work is underway to create a modernized and largely “import-substituted” Sukhoi Superjet New (SSJ-New). But the domestic PD-8 engine has not yet been created, and the SaM146 engine, with which the aircraft was originally supposed to be equipped, consists of foreign-made parts. Supplies of French components will now be stopped. Doesn’t mean that it won’t fly, but that will not happen soon. And in any way, this was the uncompetitive plane in the best of times.

Elbrus-8S

An 8-core MCST Elbrus-8S processor was presented in Russia not that long ago. Finally, the answer to Intel! The processor of the future! Elbrus-8S is to be used in many Russian institutions, such as banks, IT and technology companies. The processor developed by the Russian company MCST was supposed to be an alternative solution that would bring Russia closer to independence from American corporations.

MCST Elbrus-8S is an 8-core 8-threaded processor with a clock speed of 1.3 GHz. It has 16 MB of L3 cache and 2.78 billion transistors. Its production uses 28 nm TSMC process technology, and TDP reaches 70 W. It is also worth noting that Elbrus-8C is not based on x86 or ARM. The architecture used is VLIW, which requires x86 emulation. The manufacturer states that in this way it is possible to get up to 80% of the full performance of the VLIW architecture.

Elbrus processor

The processor was tried by the largest financial institution in Russia – Sberbank. The results were not very favorable to say the last. The Elbrus-8C chip is a very weak block that cannot compete with Intel Xeon processors of the Cascade Lake-X family. The main reasons are: low processor clock speed, small L3 cache too slow, poor DDR3 memory controller and a small number of cores.

So, it’s pretty much another uncompetitive development that’s good only for state-funded TV channels propaganda. But even if it works, it’s not strictly Russian made, either: this processor was produced at the facilities of the Taiwanese TSMC, which also joined the sanctions against the Russian Federation. Another “Russian” product that depends on Chinese and Taiwanese factories.

Fobos-Grunt spacecraft

Russian space program is famous for the amounts of failures it produces. The only things that work were all developed in the USSR. Everything new is always delayed and then cancelled. I can list quite a few of those failures, but let’s remember one of the most obvious ones — Fobos-Grunt.

The project of the Phobos-Grunt space craft was approved in 1998, ten years after the unsuccessful completion of the Phobos mission, when communication with two Soviet probes was lost. The main task was to deliver the lander module to the satellite and take soil samples could not be completed.

Fobos-Grunt

The Phobos-Grunt station consisted of engines, flight and return modules. The task was the same – to take soil samples on Phobos and return them to Earth.

The new Martian project was difficult and was repeatedly postponed for technical reasons. Finally, on the night of November 8-9, 2011, the launch took place. It was the first space interplanetary project implemented after perestroika, and the launch was probably watched by the whole country. The spacecraft successfully entered the low orbit of the Earth, from where it was supposed to go to Mars – and communication with it was interrupted. According to the official version, the on-board computer of the space station failed due to powerful cosmic radiation.

“Rosnano” flexible display

In 2011, Rosnano State Corporation invested in the British startup Plastic Logic, which promised to develop a flexible plastic chip. Innovation could turn the school textbook market upside down by replacing heavy paper books with a light unbreakable tablet, it was said. The head of Rusnano Anatoly Chubais presented a tablet on a plastic chip to Vladimir Putin.

Rosnano display

Rosnano has invested $150 million in Plastic Logic on the condition that the company establishes the production of displays in Russia. The plant was to be built in the domestic Silicon Valley, in Zelenograd, but soon it was abandoned for economic reasons. Meanwhile, the development of flexible chips continued, and Russian schools tested school textbooks based on them. However, in 2015, this direction was also curtailed. Chubais assured journalists that the flexible display project was not closed, but would be reorganized.

In 2016, the project was divided into two parts. Plastic Logic in Germany focused on devices for universal payment cards, secondary screens for smartphones, and displays for gadgets. And the direction of flexible electronics continued at the FlexEnable branch in the UK. Typical.

Sputnik search engine

Seems like ever since the Soviet-made Sputnik space satellite the Russians can’t come up with a better word for its inventions. But dubious vaccines and legendary satellites aside, in 2006 the Russians decided to take battle to Google. 

A group of programmers at KM Online started developing a new search engine in 2006 without advertising it. In 2010, information about the state’s interest in creating its own national search engine was leaked into the media, and two years later it was announced to buy a search engine from KM Online through one of Rostelecom’s daughters.

Sputnik search

The search engine was called “Sputnik” and presented in May 2014 at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, which was preceded by a large PR campaign at the state level. The search engine was positioned as an access point to the digital infrastructure of the state, facilitating the search for the necessary services and information on state sites, while filtering (of course) unwanted content. Special services were planned, as well as integration with payment systems, Public Services, and Pension Fund. In 2015, the browser of the same name with the ad-block function was released.

Despite large investments, Sputnik did not gain popularity. As Deputy Minister of Communications and Mass Media Alexei Volin explained in 2017, the search engine was an artificial construction without a clear target audience, so it failed. 

There is a successful Google rival in Russia, though, let’s be fair, Yandex has long been the most popular search engine, and its policy of censorship makes it about the same thing as the failed “Sputnik.” But it heavily depends on foreign investments, too, so its future remains unclear.

Skolkovo 

The American Silicon Valley has always been something the Russian government despised. Probably because all of Russia’s top minds have long been working there. Better work, better pay. Russia never had anything like that — not really. Until Dmitry Medvedev tried — and failed.

This multibillion-dollar project was designed to show the whole world that Russian science is not just alive, but is also at the forefront.

It so happened that, despite all the aspirations, this innovation center became famous only for corruption scandals.

Skolkovo

But it all started very well. Among the first investors were such corporations as Samsung, Siemens, Microsoft, Cisco and Boeing. After a series of those very scandals, Medvedev’s brainchild almost disappeared from the news background, having been a source of memes for some time.

To attract companies to the then seemingly dubious idea, in addition to budget grants, they were offered a fantastically favorable tax regime. Residents of Skolkovo did not pay taxes on profit, property and land, as well as VAT until the profit of $10 million. But money doesn’t automatically mean progress.

It all started very well. The world’s largest companies and world-renowned scientists were involved. But just a couple of years after the start, something went wrong. More precisely, the presidential elections. Well, “elections,” won again by a certain mister Putin. He didn’t care for the project and never tried to help it grow. The world’s largest media wrote about corruption scandals, because of which investments in the fund ended at the initial stage of its creation, when the construction of only one building was completed.

Over the 10 years of the project’s existence, ₽130 billion private and ₽56 billion budget funds have been invested in the development of its infrastructure and the fund. At the same time, in Silicon Valley in May 2020 alone (the peak of the coronavirus pandemic), its companies attracted $8 billion in venture investments (about ₽600 billion rubles). And after the Ukrainian war we can be sure that no respectable company will ever touch the place. Not that anyone would notice the difference.

“Derzhava” drone

In 2014, the Institute of National Security of Tambov State University presented its own development – an unmanned aerial vehicle with a built-in camera, called Derzhava (country).

The official statement of the developers of Derzhava read: “Scientists of Derzhavin University have created an alternative to expensive devices for monitoring natural objects, as well as ensuring law and order during mass events.

Derzhava drone

The ideas of the management of the Institute of National Security and the knowledge of scientists of the Department of Computer and Mathematical Modeling made it possible to create this small but very functional aircraft in six months. It is able to climb to a height of over three hundred meters, move at a speed of 30 kilometers per hour, transmit data from the territory of 5 square kilometers.” You could buy the miracle device for 100 thousand rubles ($957).

However, upon careful consideration, it turned out that Derzhava was an outdated Chinese quadcopter DJI Phantom FC40, the price of which at that time was only 20 thousand rubles. And all the “half-year work” of Tambov scientists consisted only of changing the label. If you think that it sounds strange, don’t: there are hundreds of stories like that in Russia. Mostly all, if not all, of its own tech is usually some Chinese junk with a brand new label in Cyrillic. 

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