The Slavic countries are producing exceptionally skilled hackers—and sometimes that’s no bad thingby Tom Ball / January 21, 2019 / Leave a comment
If you were in any doubt about the computing excellence of young people from the nations left in the rubble of the Soviet Union’s collapse, consider those nations’ performance at the International Collegiate Programming Contest over the last 15 years. At this annual competition—where teams of young computer scientists from around the world go head-to-head in answering a series of programming problems—there is no competition. Since 2004, the gold medal has been won by teams from either Russia, Ukraine or Poland in every year without fail. You wonder why anyone else bothers to turn up.
By comparison, the United States fares poorly. Supposed powerhouses of American learning like Berkeley and MIT will usually make it into the upper quartile of the final leader board, but often without a medal, finding themselves bested by institutions of far lesser repute, far smaller budgets: the Ural Federal University (Bronze, 2017); the University of Zagreb (Silver, 2014); Belarusian State University (Silver, 2013).
This is not just excellence, but total supremacy of east over west. Until recently though, no one outside the computing community really knew it. In that sense, the last three years, which have seen repeated cyber-attacks on western European and American institutions, have been an abrupt and noisy awakening to the fact that the east, and most specifically the Russian state, has at its disposal the finest programmers, coders and hackers in the world—and is prepared to use them as a weapon.
The reasons for eastern technical superiority are historical. The Soviet education system placed far greater emphasis on the study of concrete disciplines, like engineering, astrophysics and mathematics, than it did on liberal arts subjects—interpretative fields that were more liable to breed divergence and dissent. A degree in chemistry was therefore better regarded by the system than, say, a degree from the faculty of philology. More fundamentally though, science and technology were the key cornerstones in the building of a communist state. From Lenin’s electrification programme of the early 1920s to Gagarin becoming the first man in orbit, the white heat of technological advancement wasn’t just political rhetoric, but an integral component of the Soviet project. Today’s eastern Europe is no longer saddled with that ideology. But being only a generation removed from it, the countries of the former Soviet Union have not lost their respect for the power of technology.