Eighteen years ago, Anton Nosik considered himself a “marked man” of the Soviet regime. Today he is president of one of Russia’s top internet companies. It is a transition that says much about the distance Russia has traveled in two decades.
“It was 1983,” the wiry Nosik recalled, “our phones were tapped, my teacher of Hebrew was in prison, the Afghan war was raging, and the exemption from the army draft at the institutes was being withdrawn. In such a situation it was clear that my most realistic future would either be to spend time in the camps like my teacher or in the fields of Herat and Kandahar [main battle cities in Afghanistan]. And in such places it is better to have a profession which can be of use in war-time conditions ...”
His Jewish background, the fact that most of his friends had emigrated to Israel, and his stepfather’s status as an “unofficial artist,” all put Nosik under scrutiny. About that time, he also initiated himself to illegal samizdat literature, reading “only books which would earn you a prison term.” So Nosik decided to take up a “useful” profession and went to medical school to become a urologist.
History, however, had different plans. By the time Nosik had graduated from the medical institute, the Soviet Union was collapsing and the “usefulness” of his profession to him had fallen away. In 1989, he and his family visited his stepfather in Israel for two weeks, and later Nosik moved to Israel to work for seven years, his once clandestine Hebrew studies coming in handy. “I took up journalism, writing in Hebrew, Russian and English.” Nosik also speaks Czech, Slovak, French and Polish, plus some German and Greek. “When the commercial Internet began developing in Israel, I created a company which won tenders from state banks and state ministries. How did we make it? I guess it was all based on pure arrogance ...”
By early 1997, the self-styled “by-product of the USSR’s disintegration” returned to Moscow to live. His business here was taking up increasing shares of his time and was twice as profitable.
Today, as president of Rambler, Nosik heads up one of the top two internet businesses in Russia. It is either the largest or second largest, depending on who you ask and when. “What is relevant,” Nosik says, “is whether we can meet our financial objectives at the end of the year.” Apparently some big players think they can. Recently, First Mercantile Capital Group bought a 42% share in Rambler and promoted Nosik to his present post.
“I am the fourth president of Rambler since its inception,” Nosik said. “I don’t think this company is so hooked to me. I just came to make it profitable. But without Rambler, Russia’s internet market would change for the worse ...” In addition to Rambler, Nosik has also created Lenta.ru and Gazeta.ru, what he called “two parts of the [internet] landscape without which many people who are part of the Russian internet can’t conceive their lives.”
Success may have made Nosik rich, but he cannot help reflecting back on life in the Soviet era, which had “some positive sides,” he said. “To live like a poor yet honest man is a worthy occupation. To not have those demands, to not be subjugated to one’s mortgage, to one’s expensive car, insurance, etc ... The ‘rich’ man is enslaved by things he has bought. By repaying in installments, he is giving up his life in installments to keep using these things. We didn’t know such phrases like ‘private housing,’ or think about renovated downtown flats or brand new private cars as a way to build up our masculinity. All we cared about was spiritual strength. ... Maybe we lived happier and at that we spent less money and, consequently, less time exchanging our health for this money. Instead, we spent more time on spiritual improvement and enriching one’s culture.”
Whether such nostalgia for “the simple life” will influence Nosik’s future internet adventures, one can only guess. But certainly Nosik’s vision will influence the future of the internet in Russia.
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