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I've been listening to the BBC podcast The Hackers of Siberia. The notes on the web page include:
Intellectuals banished to an inhospitable land, settled in Siberia and created a pool of talent from the time of the tsars. Generations of creative people have been perfecting their skills here ever since. These days the reputation of Russian hackers has reached every corner of the world and Siberian hackers are the best.
'SiBears,' for example, are ethical hackers in the Siberian city of Tomsk. As they prepare for a hacking competition in Moscow, they reveal their motivations and the secrets of their success. What tasks are the hackers set? A whole city is built, with its own railway and hospitals, and the task is to hack into the city's infrastructure. Alternatively, hackers can try their hand at hacking while drinking vodka with each attempt to break the code.
At the very end of the podcast can be heard:
There's still competition in Silicon Valley. It's very, very expensive to live there, and there are many difficulties in getting a visa.
People say that in provincial Russia, every day life is quite difficult, with lower standards of living, and difficulties in finding work. But in this vacuum, in reality, it is easier to create your own work.
I consider Tomsk as a sort of playground, which allows me to develop. I develop, together with Tomsk.
What I have found here, in Siberia, is an incredible talent pool of gifted, freedom-loving computer security enthusiasts.
They are the descendants of those sent to the gulags here. The irony is that now, the State wants them back!
When scientists and intellectuals were released from the Tomsk gulag, did they in fact just settle nearby, and eventually start families, who's descendants are now "ethical hackers" such as the one in the interview? For those that had existing families, did some bring there families to Tomsk as well?
I'm just having a hard time understanding if this is just metaphorical irony, or if what the speaker describes is actually what happened.
Two elements can be araised to answer the question.
First, the Gulags of the tsars and of the Soviet Union were very different: different people were put there, and they had different conditions of life.
During the Impérial period, some cities effectively develop from the families of people sent to Gulag, and with the other infrastructure around these prisonner camps. However during the Soviet period, Gulags were not developping in cities as the prisonners were moved from place to place to participate in different works. Also, a lot of people who were "gifted and freedom loving" were separated from each other, and sometimes executed, as a way to prevent uprising.
So how did the cities in Siberia developed? The major factor is World War Two: the massive movements of plants and industrial facilities to the East of the Uram began the de facto relocation of very skilled workers,that before the war ware working in industrial regions west of Moscow or in Ukrainia. These movements could have inverted after the war, but many land resources were discovered (gas, oil, coal, iron… ) and thhese discoveries led to even more industries to be settled at the East of Ural and in Siberia.
Thus, those cities with massive engineers and tech workers population, from all social classes, were built. Living conditions are difficult, but as in other European countries, the technological middle of the workers led their sons and daughters to work also in technological industries.
Add to these situations the revolution of internet communication, that allows someone in Tomsk to have nearly the same possibilities as someone in the Silicon Valley (which was also at the start in the 90s a "background playground"), and you have the conditions to find Russian hackers in the middle of nowhere in Siberia.