Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Embattled Civil Society ‘Migrating to the Internet’

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 27 – As the Kremlin continues to tighten its grip on mass media outlets, ever more Russians are turning to the Internet not only for their news but also to participate in the blogosphere, the last “preserve” of “democratic communications” in the country, according to a leading online editor.
In an essay posted last week, Aleksandr Yusupovskiy, who works at “Living Journal” (known as “ZhZh” from its Russian initials), said that 25 million Russians now use the Internet, that more than half of all Russians view it as an important source of news, and some 13 percent now rely on the web as their basic source of news (http://www.russ.ru/layout/set/print/politics/docs/politika_I_blogosfera_osobennosti_russkogo_virtual_nogo_gajd_parka).
But he suggested that there is an even more important measure of the importance of the Internet in Vladimir Putin’s Russia: that is the roughly half a million people who participate in blogs, posting articles or reactions to the articles of others, thus developing “a virtual political space” that is far more free than the country’s “real” one.
Yusupovskiy pointed out that in the Russian blogosphere – which he said is attracting “tens of thousands” of new participants ever few weeks – the influence of what is posted “does not depend on any type of ‘administrative resource’ or the post occupied” by the writer.
The age, formal education, and status of those who participate in blogs, he continued, “do not play a role” in deciding whose ideas will be influential and whose will be found wanting. “Like in a bathhouse where generals are indistinguishable from private soldiers.”
Because of this, the Russian blogosphere serves as a school for democracy and debate, even if -- as Yusupovskiy freely admitted – extremists of various kinds exploit its openness to market their views. But because the blogosphere promotes open debate, their ideas do not fester underground but can be openly challenged by others.
Unfortunately, the Internet editor noted, many who rose through the ranks in Soviet times or who work for such people all too often discuss the Internet “only in connection with a desire to somehow limit it, to prohibit something or to regulate it somehow.” Indeed, many of these view the Internet as a source of “all possible dangers.”
“But,” Yusupovskiy said, “the harsher the laws regulating real political space become … the greater importance this virtual Hyde Park will have” not only for its participants but as a school for the next generation of Russian politicians.
While most Russian politicians and bureaucrats fear the Internet and especially its blogosphere, some are learning that it can help them to test their ideas and to come up with new ones. And Yusupovskiy suggested that if he were a party leader today, he would insist that all his junior party officials go online in order to learn the ropes.
The “ZhZh” editor observed that he had no wish “to idealize the blogosphere.” Many postings are illiterate or worse, and deciding which ones to trust and which to ignore is far from easy. But he asks: “does not this problem exist in the other kinds of mass media – and who knows where it is worse?”
Indeed, while the blogosphere is often “wild,” it has the “wildness” of freedom, while much of the rest of the Russian mass media have lost both that freedom and that wildness. Some try to suggest otherwise, to portray the Russian media as still free, but they forget that “the imitation of freedom is always only its imitation.”
The Russian authorities in the name of fighting terrorism, defending public morality, or promoting national values are likely to continue to try to limit the blogosphere, Yusupovskiy said, but the very nature of the Internet almost certainly will keep the Russian government from taking over the web and the blogosphere.
And that, in Yusupovskiy’s view, is a good thing: Had there been a blogosphere in the Germany of the 1920s and 1930s, he pointed out, the history of that country and indeed the entire world in the 20th century almost certainly would have been not only different but considerably better than it was.

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