When Russians thought the Internet would make them free
The first years of the Internet in Russia were full of ecstasy and euphoria. We believed that the times of propaganda were gone. Two decades later and it’s hard to find the traces of our belief in the Russian Internet. By Sergey Kuznetsov
Once an old French man of the May '68 generation said to me: “You can’t imagine what sexual revolution means for us, who grew up in the Catholic country where sex was a sin.” I answered: “It has to be like the Internet for us, who grew up in Soviet Union where information was a treasure.”
For the majority of young men, imagining a Soviet closed society is as hard as it is to imagine the world without miniskirts, contraception, and X-rated video. However, I grew up in a world where any information was strictly controlled. There were a handful of Hollywood movies each year, translations of 20-30 years old sci-fi novels, the first volume of Lord of the Rings (no second and third), only one disc from The Beatles and no discs of The Doors or Rolling Stones. Many foreign books and movies were prohibited or just unavailable: not only the politically charged 1984, but the innocent Star Wars (because Star Wars was a nickname of Reagan’s space program). As a result, the rare lucky ones who traveled abroad, retold movies that they saw (“You know, Jaws has very simple plot…”). We had Samizdat – the underground circulation of typewritten books – but mostly it was anti-Soviet prose and poetry or – rarely – poorly-translated pornography. We had no fanzine system or means for sharing independent information about movies, books, music etc.
I grew up and the Iron Curtain collapsed – and after a few years we discovered the Internet. Soon we could find everything we needed: the full filmography of any director, the receipts of bomb and drug manufacturers, English texts of classics and Russian translations of almost everything.
It was like the sexual revolution for a graduate of Catholic school.
We were overdosed by free information.
The first years of the Internet in Russia were full of ecstasy and euphoria. We believed that information must be free and the times of propaganda were gone: any person who has access to non-censored news would easily choose the truth. We felt secure and safe: we knew encryption and nobody could catch us in our new brave world.
Two decades later and it’s hard to find the traces of our belief in the Russian Internet. The only thing we inherited from the nineties and the Samizdat are the torrents and e-libraries. Copyright is dead: almost any film and any book can be downloaded for free after a five minute search. The film distributors have to make arrangements with pirates about “two week vacancies” after theatre premieres, but the small publishers are just bankrupt. I’m not sure it’s the great result we dreamt in early years of the Internet.
Talking about security and freedom, we have only bad news: the secret service spying (not only in Russia), mailbox hacking, the blocking of anti-Putin sites… the Kremlin controls the majority of online media in Russia and talks about building a China-style Great Russian Firewall.
However the worst is the old good propaganda. Surprise! – It still works! There are dozens of comments on any political post. The commentators write about the wisdom of Putin, the increasing Russian economy and the greedy and guileful United States who dreams to destroy Russia and conquest their territory before a San-Andreas earthquake or Yellowstone explosion ruins their country. It is said that some of the comments are sponsored by a special political center (the pay is 3 bucks per comment), however I’m afraid somebody writes this bullshit for free: sometimes people choose lies even when they have access to independent information.
So, we are lost: there is no freedom of information that we dreamt about and spying and the state propaganda are stronger than ever. It seems that we are like the generation from the sixties who believed that everybody who tasted sex-drugs-rock-n-roll would never be slave of the System.
Nice to know we are not the first to delude ourselves about the importance of new technology and new culture. It is a weak consolation. However, you can envy us: we were so happy twenty years ago when we discovered the Internet and thought we discovered a cure for lies and mind-control. That kind of of happiness is a rare experience.
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