This week, Sergei Kiriyenko, Kremlin eminence grise and deputy head of the presidential administration, announced that Elon Musk would speak at a state-sponsored education forum. At first, it looked like a weird PR stunt. But, against all expectations, Musk actually gave a speech via a video link and spent 40 minutes answering questions from students.
- Struggling with an unstable connection, Musk often dissolved into pixels as he outlined his vision. “Cars will be totally self-driving and all transport on earth, from ships to airplanes, will be electric,” he told his audience. He also waded into geopolitics, stating that “there should be more communication between Russia and the USA.”
- He expounded on U.S.-Russia relations in answer to a question about why he had agreed to appear at the forum. He said it was a personal invitation from President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov.
- All this was a clear Kremlin propaganda win (the event that included Musk attracted 20 million views, according to Kiriyenko). It’s also a triumph for the Znaniye Society that organized it. This society was ‘revived’ by Putin in 2015 as part of a push to create a number of groups for schoolchildren to replicate the Soviet-era pioneer movement. This did not meet with much success until Znaniye began making waves.
- Znaniye was set-up by Stalin after the Second World War to retrain adult workers and foster patriotism. Members of the society gave lectures and published scientific magazines. The decree that established the group stated its goal was “the dissemination of political and scientific knowledge”. Putin’s version of Znaniye has similar aims: it was created, first and foremost, for the “development of civil society and the spiritual and moral education of citizens”.
- In addition to Musk’s speech, there was a flurry of reports in Russian media about the prospect that Tesla plants might open in Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan. This got several Russian governors over-excited. “Welcome to Udmurtia!”, wrote regional head Alexander Brechalov on his social media. Half an hour he added that Musk could count on tax breaks if he chose this region. Governor Andrei Vorobyov waxed lyrical about Moscow Region’s logistics, but Alexander Klychov from Oryol Region went further than everyone, punning on the Russian word for eagle to compare Tesla to “a fearless conqueror of new heights.”
- Whether Musk is actually planning to build factories in Russia is still a big question. But Tesla does have high profile devotees. Back in 2017 billionaire Roman Abramovich bought about 20 of Musk’s cars for himself and friends.
Why the world should care
It might seem like Musk’s invitation was a signal from the Russian authorities that they are ready for dialogue. In reality, it’s just a facade — there’s no evidence anything of substance was at stake.