The apparent success of state‐managed market economies has challenged the conventional wisdom that liberal democracy is the norm around which all capitalist countries tend to converge. If the link between democracy and development is more tenuous than we often think, the authoritarian variety of capitalism is not without its own problems, especially with respect to political legitimacy, innovation and regional development. This article explores these issues through the prism of ‘authoritarian modernization’ in Russia. We argue that this strategy is unlikely to succeed, even in its own terms, because (1) the political system fails to create favourable institutional conditions for modernization; (2) the economic system is beset by deeply embedded structural problems; and (3) the regional policy apparatus is torn between the goals of spatial equalization and spatial agglomeration. The article focuses on the Skolkovo Innovation Centre, the main symbol of Russian modernization, to demonstrate the territorial repertoire of the mega‐project, a state‐sponsored development strategy to create innovation clusters from above because they cannot emerge from below.