Russia’s ambitions for “digital sovereignty” had a sudden encounter with the real world this week, as the country’s plans for a state-funded Russian “national gaming machine” (opens in a new tab) went up in smoke as soon as its parliament realized that the project would cost a lot and gain little. However, it is not dead yet, reports Vedomosti (opens in a new tab) that an unnamed private investor stepped in to continue the project.
Minister for Digital Development Maksut Shadayev branded the saga of the Russian technology industry’s plans for a domestic alternative to Unreal Engine and Unity as a “painful story”. For good reason, too: Shadayev told the Duma—Russia’s parliament—that the Russian engine proposal was “poorly monetized,” and would cost far more than it would bring in. A bucket of cold water for a national ambition that once burned. very hot indeed.
Shadayev added that it would be “pointless” for the Duma to talk about subsidies for Russian developers who promised to use a domestic engine. It seems reasonable, given the fact that the Russian national engine is purely hypothetical at this point and Shadayev himself has recently played down its chances at state funding. But it raises the question of whether Russian developers have already developed business plans based on securing “patriotic” subsidies.
The minister said the scheme would have to rely on private finance if it was to continue, and someone seems to have listened to him. Sources tell Vedomosti that a private investor – so far unnamed – has stepped in to fill the financial vacuum left by the Russian state. Of course, in July, Russian media reported that the project would require “billions of rubles.” (opens in a new tab) to ever see fruit. One private investor—unless they’re a particularly rich and spendthrift oligarch—might not be enough to see the project through, but it’s probably enough for a living.
It’s rather surprising to see these plans meet with a rough reception in Russia’s parliament: they had the backing of big names in the Russian tech sector—like the country’s state-linked Facebook alternative VKontakte—as well as the support of internet backbone Rostelecom . . Looks like even heavy hitters like those can’t avoid reality for too long, though. Although Western sanctions had a less severe impact (opens in a new tab) than forecasts once suggested, Russia’s economy is still in a very delicate position. It turns out that no amount of support can make throwing billions of rubles at a slot machine during wartime look like a good idea.