How a Cold War Russia Child Became a Privacy Expert in the USA

By Elena Elkina

I was a privacy and data protection expert before the profession was sexy and the subject was hot, like it is today. Most privacy professionals transitioned into this field from the legal field, and I’m no exception: I started my career as a lawyer 20 years ago, spent time in software development, finance, and HealthTech, and finally entered this industry 10 years ago. Currently, I have my own privacy consulting practice where I work with tech companies that build disruptive technologies that design and shape the future.

Considering that I grew up in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, my journey into the privacy space has been both remarkable and natural.
— Elena Elkina

I once tried to explain to my grandparents (who don’t speak English, only Russian) what I do for a living and I realized an interesting thing — there is no exact word for “privacy” in the Russian language. There are many words that are similar and can be used to describe what “privacy” means, but they are not quite the same. I found this fact fascinating and it made me wonder whether the concept of privacy really exists in Russia. This line of thinking took me back all the way to my childhood….

Saint Seraphim feeding a bear outside of his hermitage (from lithograph  The Way to Sarov , 1903).  Image Source:  Wikipedia

Saint Seraphim feeding a bear outside of his hermitage (from lithograph The Way to Sarov, 1903).
Image Source: Wikipedia

I grew up in the “Soviet Los Alamos,” a former secret city in the Soviet Union called Arzamas-16 (currently Sarov, the Russian Federal Nuclear Center). I was two years old when my parents, who are software engineers, were sent to work for the Federal Nuclear Center to design an atomic bomb. During the 1970s Arzamas-16 was a wonderful place to live as the town was located in one of the most beautiful state parks. In the earlier history of Russia, Arzamas-16 used to be a monastery town known as one of the holy places of the Russian Orthodox Church, and gave Russia one of its greatest saints, St. Seraphim.

In addition to beautiful culture and lush nature, we were surrounded by the brilliant minds of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and physicists who were working on an important task for the Soviet community — to build an atomic bomb. While the rest of the Soviet Union suffered from lack of infrastructure, resources, food, and clothes, we were surrounded by the best schools, each family had a car or two, and our stores had a variety of products, including such luxuries like Indian black tea and Chinese bath towels (these items were a rare commodity that you could not find in the country).

Location of Sarov   Image Source:  Red Kalinka

Location of Sarov
Image Source: Red Kalinka

What I didn’t realize then was there was a price to pay for such luxuries and that the price was freedom. I am not referring to freedom of speech; Soviets did not know this term. I am talking about the freedom to live a regular, private life. Railway tickets weren’t on sale in Arzamas-16 because the city was excluded from the list of rail stations. We could not invite our friends or family members to visit us because of the strict restrictions on visitations. Our phone conversations and actions were under constant surveillance. But at that time, being watched in our home or having our phone calls recorded seemed like a normal course of action.

Growing up in a city that was not on any map, surrounded by fences, patrolled by guards and watchdogs, with restricted movements of ins and outs made a significant impact on me personally and professionally. It made me appreciate what we often take for granted, which is a basic human need for a private life, for individuality, for freedom of expression, for creativity.

Sarov before becoming in Arzamas-16   Image Source:  Red Kalinka

Sarov before becoming in Arzamas-16
Image Source: Red Kalinka

Living behind the fence, I did not know if there was another way of living, but I knew there was something. That strong desire to find my lost self, or the self I never had, pushed me on a quest to find my way out. Getting into law school was my initial way into a new, brave world. I wanted to be a lawyer because I wanted to save the world; however, later I realized that the question was not who I wanted to be, but how I wanted to be. I wanted to leave a legacy and make a difference in the world  — and I found my how in a privacy profession.

After practicing law for seven years, I realized that my passion for law was outmatched by my desire to build and innovate, and I saw technology as a vehicle to make my desired impact in our society. I strategically transitioned from law into technology, which took me to privacy because of the nature of the information that our modern technologies are built on. This is why I am driving my career in privacy and data protection to solve some of the most pressing technology issues and make meaningful changes in society, business, and our daily lives, so that we can all enjoy our right to privacy.

Today, I find joy working with brave and daring companies, helping them build new emerging technologies and find their own individuality in the business space. I wear my privacy badge with honor by making sure companies respect individual privacy and support creative expressions. My professional life is a constant struggle and I love it because this means that I am part of something big and important. This is exactly what I wanted growing up.

And who knew that living behind the fence under the constant surveillance of the Soviet regime could open so many other doors and opportunities towards liberalization, democratization, and modernization.

About Elena Elkina

Elena Elkina is a Sr. Privacy and Data Protection Expert and the vice chair and co-founder of Women in Security and Privacy (WISP), a non-profit organization that focuses on advancing women in security and privacy fields.

More About Elena