Thursday, March 12, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Bloggers Play a Much Larger Role than Soviet-Era Dissidents Did, Moscow Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 12 – Russian bloggers, many Moscow commentators have suggested, are today’s version of the dissidents of Brezhnev’s time. But on the occasion of Internet Free Speech Day, one Moscow analyst is arguing that blogs already play a larger role than the dissidents ever did and that they could serve as the seedbed for the growth of a Russian civil society.
Azer Mursaliyev writes that he finds it “difficult to agree” with those who assert that “dissidents in Brezhnev’s time played the role of a genuinely authoritative counter-elite.” The average Soviet citizen “frequently did not even suspect” that such people existed or know anything about them (
Instead, most Soviet citizens developed their “oppositionist” inclinations not from the writings of samizdat authors who seldom reached more than a few hundred people but rather from the actions of the regime itself which constantly “discredited itself” in the eyes of the population and thus “in a certain sense formulated the opposition’s order of the day.”
Now, however, thanks to the rise of the Internet with its blogosphere, he argues, there is the possibility as yet not fully realized that those who make use of it can not only formulate ideas in opposition to the authorities but ensure that those ideas reach a large or at least a critical audience quickly and effectively.
There are several reasons why this role of the Internet has not yet been recognized in full, Mursaliyev says. First of all, until the current economic crisis, Russians had lived through eight “fat” years, and as a result, the regime build up a certain amount of political capital and the pro-government media, especially television, were trusted.
At present, the Moscow commentator says, “it is too early to speak about a crisis of power.” That will happen only when “people begin to go out on the streets, when production shuts down in far more places, and when breakdowns in the food distribution system occur – all things which took place in the last years of Soviet power.”
Despite fears and threats, none of that has happened yet in today’s Russia, Mursaliyev continues, but if and when these things do happen, the opponents of the regime will be in a far better position to influence the situation than were the Soviet-era dissidents precisely because of the existence of the blogosphere.
In the past, members of the intelligentsia “assembled in kitchens, drank vodka, and discussed problems. But this was a typical Soviet phenomenon. It has died and thank God,” says Mursaliyev, adding that he hopes that such phenomena “will not exist with us, in North Korea or in America. It was,” he insists, “a meaningless waste of time.”
But despite that, many who participated in it remember those times with something like affection and are inclined to exaggerate the role that such tiny groups played, he says. And consequently, they try to suggest that what bloggers are doing now is nothing more than an update of their own activities.
In fact, Mursaliyev suggests, what the bloggers are doing is not only fundamentally different but much more important. And he points to the actions of those opposed to Vladimir Putin’s increase in the tariffs imposed on foreign cars as an example of the Internet’s far broader reach and its ability to mobilize people even when the official media are silent.
Thus, in the event of a political crisis, “the mechanisms [now] exist” for the appearance of groups defined by the ideas of their leaders rather than simply as a response to the regime and for the rapid spread of the influence of such groups to large segments of the population across the entire country and not just in a few major cities.
(One indication that an increasing number of politically active people are becoming bloggers was the decision this week by Garry Kasparov to launch his own blog on the LiveJournal network. His blog is available at For a list of other opposition figures with blogs, see
Mursaliyev sums up his argument with the following words: “The Internet is the principle way in which present-day conditions are different from the 1980s. In Soviet times, information was distributed primarily by methods of direct action, by personal contacts, meetings, broadsides, and the like.”
“Now,” he continues, “instead of meetings and broadsides, there is the Internet. And the media in the classical sense of this word as in soviet times cannot help the powers that be or stop the opposition movement. And today, the classical media -- whether they are silent or speak -- in general decide very little.”

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