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Back | Programme Area: Technology and Society (2000 - 2009)

Mapping Russian Cyberspace: Perspectives on Democracy and the Net



In 1991, a group of senior Soviet officials attempted to oust President Gorbachev from power. They were unsuccessful in part because an unofficial computer network named Relcom/Demos helped maintain the flow of information required to mobilize against them. This experience, which exposed the latent power of a small but growing civil society, encouraged many analysts to speak confidently of the democratising potential of the Internet in Russia.

Rafal Rohozinski shares some of their optimism. But he suggests that in Russia, as in any other part of the world, it is necessary to adopt a socially and historically specific approach to cyberspace. The Net is not a single undifferentiated phenomenon whose properties can be taken for granted wherever it appears. It is a technological system that exists within widely varying economic contexts, structures of power and organizational settings. And the role it can play in the construction of democracy depends very much upon the way these factors shape the specific nature of cyberspace in each concrete case.

Rohozinski begins by explaining the technological characteristics of the Russian Net, which is the 23rd largest in the world and is currently growing more modestly than the global average. Its scope has been limited by an underdeveloped telecommunications sector, fragmented among a number of competing and, in some cases, mutually exclusive systems. This not only restricts ease of access to the Net but also affects the quality of on-line connections. Therefore, unlike their colleagues in the West, the majority of Russian users experience the Net only through off-line e-mail and Usenet groups.

These users may be involved in one or more of at least four different segments of the Russian Net, each with its own technology and organizational history. The first, Relcom/Demos, which appeared during the late 1980s, was based in the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Despite this official background, it was from the outset a commercial venture. Service providers within the Relcom/Demos system charge for every byte of data they send or receive, providing little incentive for on-line services such as the Web, for which per-byte accounting is practically impossible.

The second segment of the Russian Net consists of a variety of non-profit academic and research efforts, led by the Russian Academy of Sciences and a number of universities and research institutes. This initiative has been supported by foreign sponsors, including the Soros-funded International Science Foundation. FreeNet is the most successful of these ventures. The latter are nevertheless far more modest than those to be found in the third segment of the Russian Net, which is made up of Internet Service Providers (like Glasnet and Sovam) that are entirely on-line and similar in some respects to CompuServe or America Online. The clientele of this group is largely Moscow-based, including many foreigners and the new class of rich Russians.

The fourth and final segment of the Russian Net—Fidonet—rarely receives attention in the West, but its penetration of Russian society is considerable and growing. Unlike Relcom/Demos and the premium services offered by Glasnet and Sovam, Fidonet is cost-free to anyone with a computer, a modem and a desire to communicate. It is connected with the global Internet and offers roughly the same level of service as commercial providers, particularly in the regions. Finally, Fidonet preserves an ethos of sharing and community which attracts a wide-spread and loyal following. But even Fidonet is overwhelmingly an urban phenomenon, concentrated disproportionately—like other systems—along the Moscow-St. Petersburg axis.

All of these networks emerged as “private” spheres of activity during a period when the Soviet state still enjoyed formidable control over communication and information, and was furthermore engaged in a concerted effort to build large-scale official computer networks. In the second part of the paper, Rohozinski asks how this apparently paradoxical development was possible; and he finds an answer in the deepening contradiction between centralised bureaucratic control and the requirements of everyday survival that characterised the late Soviet social order.

State-run attempts to establish computer-mediated networks withered, despite the high priority they were accorded, because they suffered from the same difficulties as the larger public sphere: competition among institutions and power groups, the resistance of line managers at all levels to increasing centralised control of valuable information, and the pervasiveness of bureaucratic regulations, which made it very difficult for anyone to gain authorized access to a computer network without enormous delay.

At the same time, private networks flourished—often with the tacit agreement of the same line managers and directors who resisted official networking efforts—because they were congruent with everyone’s needs for reliable information. The informal social networks, or blat, which pervaded Russian society and facilitated day-to-day decisions in an ossified system, formed the basis for constructing Russian cyberspace. They routed around the hierarchies and blockages of the existing institutional order, utilizing state-provided resources to construct private networks of communication.

In this sense, it is possible to say that the construction of a Russian Net has facilitated the growth of civil society. Nevertheless it should be noted that the Russian Net, like its global counterpart, remains a relatively elitist phenomenon, more the preserve of the privileged than of society writ large.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Oct 1999
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD