How Europe’s Last Dictatorship Became a Tech Hub
By IVAN NECHEPURENKOOCT. 5, 2017
MINSK, Belarus — On Friday nights, Zybitskaya street — or simply Zyba,
as locals call it — turns into a vast party scene, filled with hipsters
in bright shirts, tight dark jeans and black-rimmed glasses, showing
how they can be carefree in a country that has been labeled the last
dictatorship of Europe.
Over the past few years, Zyba has turned into an island in the middle
of Minsk, the Belarusian capital — still mostly a sterile, utterly
unfashionable city with long lines of dominating Soviet buildings and
people hurrying past, seemingly terrified of making any form of
contact. On Zyba, a crowd of convivial youngsters migrates from one
little bar to another, drinking Jack and Coke, smoking endlessly.
Many of those carousing belong to Belarus’s sprouting technology
industry — young, savvy and forward-looking designers, bookish and shy
engineers, and many others who aspire to belong. More than 30,000 tech
specialists now work in Minsk, a city of about two million, many of
them creating mobile apps that are used by more than a billion people
in 193 countries, according to the local government.
One of the Minsk techies is Dmitri Kovalyov, 35, an artist who a couple
of years ago worked for MSQRD, a smartphone tool that lets people
superimpose various masks over their faces in selfie videos.
Mr. Lukashenko’s son is a fan of World of Tanks, a multiplayer online
game developed in Belarus in which people fight in tank battles. With
more than 200 million registered users across the world, it is one of
the top 10 games in terms of total digital revenue.
Tanks have an important cultural meaning for Belarus and other former
Soviet states, where almost every family has an ancestor who fought in
“He plays tanks, but this is controlled,” Mr. Lukashenko said of his
son at a televised meeting with schoolteachers.
“One hour for tanks, 1.5 hours for music,” the president added,
explaining how he controls his son’s time spent on the game. “Two hours
for tanks — four hours for music.”
“Four hours is difficult,” Mr. Lukashenko said, “so he doesn’t play for
longer than one hour.”
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