If you need a 15-minute introduction to what will soon become Evgeny’s first book, his TED talk is a good place to start. Basically, Evgeny used to do pretty much what I do nowadays: work with activists and journalists to teach them how to use new media tools to further their work. Back in April 2007, when his bloodstream was still polluted with a few drops of idealism, he wrote an article arguing that the internet is the new frontier of human rights activism. (So happy he is that the article is locked behind a subscriber-only wall.)
But then Evgeny rightly learned that you don’t get paid much and you don’t get much attention when you work toward social progress. If you want fame and money, ’tis better to complain about what’s wrong than to work toward making it right. (Many a web pundit and “internet researcher” have discovered this truth.)
So now he manages to publish an article in mainstream media or give a televised interview almost every single day about how the internet is bad, bad, bad. This of course is a compelling message because so many of us (hand raised) spend too much time online and by the end of the day we feel that the internet is bad, bad, bad.
But, back to the topic at hand:
Earlier this month Russians went to the polls across the country to elect their local representatives. The pro-Kremlin United Russia party (I admit to liking their iconic bear mascot) led by Vladimir Putin got 66% of the vote and 32 of the 35 open legislative seats. (The only other party to win a legislative seat was the Communist Party.) As Veronica notes on her Global Voices article, Russian bloggers immediately began to question the results. Official returns at the polls didn’t match up with the observations of election monitors. At polling station #192 the Yabloko party didn’t receive a single vote even though there are photographs of Yabloko candidate Sergei Mitrokhin and his family casting their votes there. The Russian mass media for the most part weren’t covering the allegations of fraud, but according to Igor Yakovlev, “on blogs this has been one of the most discussed topics of the past three days.”
So why then did all this discussion about electoral fraud in Russia not lead to the same internal discontent that we saw in Iran (or, for that matter, in Ukraine in 2004), or the sort of external, international pressure that led to a recount and a run-off in Afghanistan? That is the very question to which Clifford Levy sought an answer in this past Sunday New York Times.
For Levy the answer lies in Russians’ passive apathy when it comes to political participation – only 36 percent of registered voters went to the polls in Moscow; some estimate “that the true figure was 22 percent, with the extra votes improperly assigned to United Russia.” Levy cites (without a link of course) one opinion poll which showed that 94 percent of respondents believed that they could not influence events in Russia, and another which found that 62 percent did not think that elections reflect the people’s will.
Those findings seem to support Evgeny’s thesis that the internet “may actually be the new opium for the masses which will keep the same people in their rooms downloading pornography.” But I am less interested in explanations and more interested in solutions. Russia offers an excellent case study: despite initial expectations, democracy there does not seem to be advancing. The one-party central government is gaining more control and the people seem apathetic. So, for those of us who care about public participation in the political process, how do we move forward? Evgeny’s proposal is to think “about ways in which we can empower intellectuals, dissidents, NGOs, and then the members of civil society.” (Though he doesn’t offer any ideas … apparently just thinking about it is enough.) If only Russian intellectuals had more power, the thinking goes, then democracy in Russia might stand a chance. But as a 1998 article in Le Monde makes clear, Russian intellectuals – when not spending their time battling the church’s growing influence – have traditionally been more concerned about their reputation abroad than social change at home:
In short, Russia’s intellectuals, particularly its writers, were often behaving in some disconcerting ways. As the country sank into poverty, with its economy becoming increasingly “dollarised”, its intellectuals looked for ways to make up for the mixture of privileges and constraints to which they had been subject during the Soviet period. They appeared to have a blind faith in the free market economy and its potential benefits for the world of culture. Particularly because the end of the old regime was bringing Russia back into fashion. Now they could enjoy foreign travel, sign juicy contracts, travel about like stars, open bank accounts in Paris and Munich and feel themselves on an equal footing with Europe’s elites. And a number of literary figures who had been kept in the shadows by the state machine now emerged into the light – albeit not bringing much by way of revelation with them.
This is perhaps a bit of a low blow, but in essence, Russian intellectuals during the fall of the Soviet Union did exactly what Evgeny has done over the past couple years: moved to the West, became fashionable speakers to eager English-speaking audiences, and more or less forgot about their home countries.
Back to Veronica’s post on Global Voices. She translates a post from the LiveJournal blog Notes of a Misanthrope, which compares the reach and influence of samizdat – in which Soviet dissidents hand-copied censored texts and underground protest pamphlets – with the reach of today’s opposition blogs. One of those dissidents was Natalya Gorbanevskaya who began publishing the Chronicle of Current Events to monitor human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. In 1969 she was dragged away from her typewriter by KGB agents and jailed in a psychiatric prison until 1972. She emigrated to Paris three years later and Joan Baez released a song in 1976 in her honor.
Did Natalya Gorbanevskaya bring down the Berlin Wall? Probably not. Notes of a Misanthrope estimates that the total circulation of the Chronicle of Current Events was between 30 and 50 (people). Today Natalya’s blog on LiveJournal is read by thousands and Andrey Malgin’s post on election fraud favoring United Russia was read by 45,000 people. It didn’t lead to a recount. It didn’t even lead to protests in the streets, but if you ask me, it is a step in the right direction.
(Evgeny would argue that it is a step in the wrong direction; that by reading the blog post those 45,000 people feel like they are contributing to change when in fact they are only increasing their awareness. For me, increasing awareness is a major accomplishment in itself … even greater than protesting in the streets.)
Last week I was at a bar with Veronica and some of her friends here in Kyiv. The walls are lined with yellowed sheet music and scratched records with Cyrillic labels. The air is all smoke and nicotine, the speakers all classic rock and blues, the voices loud, drunk and raspy from too much drink and too many cigarettes.
Veronica’s friend sits next to me. It is his voice you hear when a report is filed from Ukraine on NPR. “You know, they say that this bar is where the Orange Revolution began,” he tells me.
And I look at him unresponsive, half-stumped. Had it never occurred to me before that a so-called revolution … begins … somewhere? Right here, in this bar. Two, three, ten people decide that they have had enough, that they want to start a revolution. And the rest is history?
Is this what happened in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 and Mexico in 1910?
Probably not. Most of these struggles are years, if not decades, in the making. We like to simplify the story and pretend that social change is the result of spontaneity rather than careful strategy. (The legend of Rosa Parks embodies this myth perhaps more than any other.) We have yet to see the real social or political impact of the participatory internet because it simply hasn’t existed for long enough. I am quite sure that when the Gutenberg printing press spread throughout Europe the pundits of the day argued over whether it would lead to social progress or an opiated masses reading comic books. Maybe some visionary thinkers even anticipated that comic books would become a form of political protest and an important tool for development agencies.
All that we can be sure of now is that we can be sure of little. But I’d much rather spend my days trying than spend them complaining.
Note: I consider Evgeny a friend and we spend a considerable amount of time passing almost-witty notes back and forth via direct message. I’d be happy to share an abode with him if circumstance ever puts us in the same city. I’m also just as happy to continue pointing out our differing perspectives.