The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russian entrepreneurs wish you’d stop worrying about Putin and start thinking about them

ST. PETERSBURG — Armor-clad men waved menacingly heavy longswords in a promotion for a Disney movie about Russian knights. Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova knocked down three-pointers at a mini basketball court. A test-tube-size rocket spewed smoke on the launchpad at a scale-sized space center, and suited business executives giggled for selfies alongside a gleaming black life-size helicopter.

These were among the real-life amusements you could see if you were inside the 2017 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, and the fun and games underscored an air of optimism over signs that Russia's economy is finally nudging its way out of recession.

But none of that is what you saw if you watched coverage of the three-day event, which wrapped up Saturday, from afar. It was all Russian President Vladimir Putin, all the time. The Kremlin leader dominated his signature investment forum, making oddball comparisons of hackers to painters and IP addresses to goat tracks, temporarily breaking Twitter by talking a long walk with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, berating NBC anchor Megyn Kelly for her stubborn grilling over Russian election meddling.

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With European governments grappling over whether and how Russian hackers might be attacking their electoral systems, and Washington torn asunder over the question of possible collusion between the Kremlin and members of President Trump's campaign and administration, the forum presented journalists with a chance to go face to face with Moscow's principal players.

Meanwhile, Russia's business leaders were trying to focus on showing how the country has embraced digital technologies and begun to adapt them for marketable civilian use, and on hopes for economic growth driven by these technologies, not just oil and gas exports.

The moment that summed up this disconnect came during a panel discussion moderated by Sergei Gorkov, the Kremlin-connected banker who figures in an FBI probe into Russian meddling because of his secret meeting in December with President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. What exactly the two discussed is a mystery because of conflicting accounts by the White House and Vnesheconombank, the Russian development institution Gorkov heads, which made him the most wanted man for journalists at this forum.

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At one point, Gorkov peered from the stage at the crowd jam-packed into the auditorium and expressed surprise at the size of the audience. Surely all these people hadn't come to hear about applications of blockchain, the networking technology originally created to move digital currencies.

Crowded by reporters after the discussion, Gorkov muttered a series of “no comments” as he fled.

Other executives happily spoke to me but expressed consternation at the Western fascination with Russia as a malevolent force.

“It's so strange that we are hated," said Vasily Brovko, director of special projects at Rostec, a major Russian conglomerate that makes everything — Kalashnikov firearms, advanced optics, helicopters, communication systems, trucks, you name it.

Rostec is busy adapting its military-inspired technologies to civilian ones as part of Putin's national program to partially convert defense industries. It is also one of the Russian companies under U.S. sanctions imposed over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and its military involvement in eastern Ukraine. To many Russians, including Brovko, the country is being punished for defending itself from what it considers an American-backed coup d'état in Ukraine and the advance of a NATO alliance it sees as a military threat.

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“We have gone past the Cold War, but it seems that in America, the Cold War remains,” said Brovko, who, at 30, doesn't remember the Cold War. But like other business leaders at the forum, he said Russia had learned to cope and was turning things around.

Outside assessments back this notion.

“In the first quarter of 2017, the Russian economy grew 0.5 percent while direct investment was up 2.3 percent,” wrote Bloomberg News columnist Leonid Bershidsky in a commentary on Putin and his forum. “The punishing decline in retail sales, which had plunged Russia into a long recession, has also stopped. Russia's non-oil exports are beginning to grow slowly, and Putin says he's hoping for a technology-driven acceleration of growth.”

Bershidsky went on to argue that Putin's “mocking, cheeky tone won't convince anyone to move past the Trump-Russia scandals,” and he's probably right.

But all the fury the United States and its allies can muster over Russia's meddling and its leader's menace doesn't appear to be dampening the spirits of some Russian entrepreneurs, who mimic Putin's stance that sanctions have only made Russian producers stronger.

“Russia is a country which has natural, maybe genetic, reaction to any pressure,” said Alexey Repik, president of Delovaya Rossiya, a union of Russian entrepreneurs. “If you want Russia to be the number-one economy in the world, all you need is to have some major catastrophe, and Russia will be the ones who save the world.”

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