Mathematician, internet pioneer and businessman, Nikolai Repin is a serious character. Even curt digressions into his former hobby (“sailing”) or family life (“a wife and a little daughter”) are matter-of-fact and give no cause for even a smile of pride. Life is not a joking matter to 41-year-old Nikolai Repin.
A graduate of Moscow’s famous secondary mathematics school, Repin attended MGU’s prestigious Mechanics and Mathematics Faculty, graduating in 1981. He then went on to postgraduate work at the Steklov Institute of Mathematics and obtained a PhD in math, writing his dissertation on the algorithmic theory of groups.
While still at the Steklov Institute, Repin became one of Russia’s internet pioneers, heading the Moscow Internet Project, which (with financing from George Soros) established the first high-speed fiber optic internet line in Russia. Built in the capital’s southwest district, the line—and thus dubbed the Southern Moscow Backbone —linked together major high schools, Moscow State University, the Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Physics and the Institute of Organic Chemistry, to name just a few.
From this not-for-profit effort, Repin soon moved into an internet business venture, MTU-Inform, which he called “a real Russian project with real Russian money.” As director of internet technologies, Repin was so successful that his activities spun off into a separate company, MTU-Intel, which, under his leadership, became Russia’s largest commuted line internet service provider (ISP), serving 130,000 users, or some 25% of the market. In 2000, MTU-Intel was cited as Internet Provider of the Year and Repin as Manager of the Year by Company magazine.
Repin estimates that Russia is about three years behind Europe or the US in internet market penetration. “What makes me feel good is that we are narrowing this gap,” Repin said. “Moreover, in late 2000 we witnessed a major event: for the first time Russia’s outbound internet traffic exceeded inbound traffic ... Before 1997 incoming traffic was at least 10 times outbound traffic. There was no content. But now we have something to offer. We are thus approaching international levels. We are not an advanced internet country yet, but we are ahead of, say, India, or China. And in some areas — like ADSLs — we are just one year behind the world leaders.”
Repin is as bullish about the prospects for his company as for Russia’s internet prospects more broadly. “In mid-2000,” he said, “there were roughly 300,000 internet connections in Moscow — either from private or corporate phone numbers ... And each year Moscow registers a doubling in its number of connections. So, by the end of 2001, Moscow may have 600,000 connections.” Which, applying simple math, could potentially mean a doubling of Repin’s own business.
Nikolai Repin’s career shows that it is possible to make a happy marriage between serious scientific education and contemporary business. “I got lucky,” Repin says of his ability to combine his theoretical mathematical background with the hard science of technology and business. Indeed, he, along with other internet leaders, met with Vladimir Putin just days before Putin became president of Russia, and Repin continues to be actively involved in shaping the country’s internet policies. So he is understandably quick to dismiss the notion that the internet only does harm to young Russians, turning them away from books. Repin makes clear that such arguments are just demagoguery. “By the way, the internet also initiates one to education,” he said.
As if to make his point, Repin the mathematician notes with pride that the system of strong specialized secondary education in math (a breeding ground for the next generation of computing engineers) is still going strong in Moscow. “There are still many more applicants to special secondary mathematics schools than there are spaces in each class,” he said.
So it is that computers and the internet may keep the fires burning in the hard sciences in Russia so that, to quote poet and MGU founder Mikhail Lomonosov, “Russia will give birth to its own Platos and quick-witted Newtons.”
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