Despite the fact that I only agree with about 10% of what he has to say, Evgeny Morozov is still one of my favorite Twitterers. Dude cracks me up.
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.
David, thanks for the free PR, which I always appreciate! Guilty as charged; I guess I have to wave goodbye to a prospective Noble Peace Prize, now? Next time, though, I hope you can devote an ENTIRE post to my persona – aren’t we friends and all – instead of lumping me with some regional problems in Russia and Ukraine. Those bore people and I fear they never finished your beautiful essay on my imperfections. Basically, I am looking forward to a strong, intellectually coherent 5000-word minimum takedown of my argument (preferably expressed in a venue that is longer than a 12 min talk or a 140 character Twitter feed, but hey, if you can analyze all of my tweets this way, I’ll be happy, too). Even better if you post to the PBS blog 🙂
p.s. and who are these pesky Russian intellectuals that left in early 1990s and became fashionable? I want to PayPal them some dough and get some advice re fashion….
PS – I know Evgeny’s argument isn’t so reductive/deterministic – just that I’m more interested in the “thinking” and “doing” bits.
I knew that you would come up with something witty in response … but to gripe that this post is too much about Russia and not enough about you, that is very clever. Don’t worry friend, I’m sure there will be a new incarnation of Valleywag dedicated especially to internet pundits and that the details of your personal life will flow forth. In the mean time, I’ve learned that your standard answer to the “what should we do” question is “read the last chapter of my book”. And so I will. But I warn you: it better be one hell of a book chapter.
I think what is most remarkable about our work (which I consider to be ‘improving communication to try to improve society’) is how unremarkable it is; how long and slow of a process it is. So, a (small) part of me always cheers Evgeny on when he points out the lunacy of “the revolution will be tweeted” headlines. But, like you, I think the best thing to do is find what works, what doesn’t, and move on.
Also, I should admit to both of you and to all that I know next to nothing about Russia in particular and about the region in general. So when I say that Russian intellectuals all move abroad to seek fame I’m really just speaking out of my ass based on a single Le Monde Diplomatique article. But I’ll keep my eyes out for that “Dead Again” book.
Pivoting off Ivan’s comment, in my undergrad studies of communication, one of the two or three most influential classes I took was intercultural communications. I remember thinking clearly that we were all seriously fucked (and this was pre-9/11) because it turns out that humans are just inherently not interested in hearing each other. I also remember thinking that if we could solve that problem we’d have basically achieved world peace.
Activism seems to be inherently not about hearing the other, but trying to make yourself heard, which may be why online activism (co-opting a naturally two-way medium for broadcast purposes) hasn’t been so successful in fomenting sustained social change (ie: Every Color of the Rainbow Revolutions like in Iran and Ukraine). It might also explain why GV, a project more focused on engagement than pushing a point of view, has been so successful but has also sometimes run up against tension with the human rights community. The ‘long and slow process’ doesn’t naturally fit with the objectives of organizations that are trying to create immediate awareness.
This might be a ridiculously provocative thing to say, but sometimes it seems that HR orgs and oppressive regimes have the same tendency to need to “control the message.” It’d be nice if more HR orgs recognized that their potential for change is in facilitating whatever conversation is out there waiting to be had.
Anyway, this is completely off topic and not at all informed by any knowledge of the regional context (David, you’re welcome for saving you from being the least informed on this comment thread) so feel free to disregard at will.