Vekselberg is short and stocky, with a graying beard, blue eyes, and unusually long eyelashes. The four times I saw him over the past year, he was wearing a soft-colored suit, typically gray and sometimes without a tie. He speaks quietly, makes a point of courtesy, and smiles often. In a country of vivid tsars—where, as the old Russia hand and Peterson Institute scholar Anders Aslund puts it, the rule in politics is “Always escalate”—Vekselberg’s public persona is self-deprecating, patient, and mild. His life, he tells me, is “as boring as that of a gray mouse: meeting, meeting, meeting, meeting, official meeting, meeting, meeting, meeting, meeting. Sleep—just a little bit. Another meeting.”
Since March 23, 2010, when he was appointed by Medvedev to lead the Skolkovo project, Vekselberg has divided his time between establishing the legal underpinnings for the techno-park back home and traveling the world on his private jet to sell the project abroad. His itinerary has included the Shanghai Expo; a couple of trips to Silicon Valley; a visit to Washington, D.C., as part of Medvedev’s delegation; Davos; and Yalta, where a friend of his, the Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk, hosts an annual gathering of business and political leaders.
Like everyone I spoke with, Vekselberg thinks the Skolkovo project is a gamble with forbidding odds. “Having studied the international experience, we see that at least half of these projects … don’t work,” he said. “Strong countries that have tremendous financial resources built fabulous buildings, which are half empty, and streets which have no one on them.” Building is not the problem, Vekselberg told me. “Early, or a little late, more beautiful, or a little less beautiful, we will build a city.” The hard part is “what comes after that.”
Vekselberg is adamant that the heavy initial involvement of the government is not antithetical to the creation of a free-thinking, innovative local culture—but, rather, essential to it. “When it comes to innovation, Silicon Valley appeared thanks to the government,” Vekselberg insisted. “Let’s not have illusions about this. It appeared in the first instance thanks to serious contracts from the military-industrial complex. And to this day, Silicon Valley—don’t try to twist things around—still relies heavily on state contracts … Wherever you look, if we take other examples, the state always plays a dominant role. Singapore: the state plays a dominant role in an analogous project. India: huge involvement of the state.”
When it comes to Russia, Vekselberg argued, the role of the state is even more critical. “Especially in Russia, you can’t get by without the state—I don’t believe it,” he told me. “The role of the state is absolutely essential. For example, the laws about Skolkovo will be passed. Who does that? The state. Without the law, there will be nothing. Who gave the start-up capital? Well, the state gave it.”