Russian Cyberspace - reflecting, not changing reality

Floriana Fossato
6 March 2009

When I attend international conferences and seminars on the Russian segment of the Internet I am struck by the disparity between European and American research fields of choice and those of their Russian counterparts. My discussions with active practitioners or researchers on the Russian Internet scene confirm that they share this impression. What gives rise to this disparity?

A number of American researchers and their colleagues in Europe and English-speaking countries around the world are keenly interested in the Russian networked public sphere. They are inspired by the belief that modern communications can support press freedom and establish new bonds of cooperation between people. They hope it could lead to the creation of grassroots movements and the mobilisation of broad and diverse offline groups into civil and politicalaction.

Russian colleagues admit they are often frustrated by this reading and regard it, only half jokingly, as an "obsession" with politics.They regard this view of online engagement as at best naïve and/or narrow, preventing serious analyses of more subtle social and cultural developments.

The desire to examine the political and participatory aspects of RuNet is often considered a by-productof the dominant American and/or British attitude.  This aims to impose on the study of all things Russian a biased approach, one that has little to do with Russia's real and diverse developments and mainly leads to judgmental and confrontational conclusions.

Focus of Russian interest

In the last few years Russian researchers and internet experts have been keen to focus on two issues.  Firstly, the quantitative aspects ofinternet penetration, understandable in the light of the recent Russian Internet boom that has generated significant business growth, enabling smart practitioners to become successful entrepreneurs.  Secondly, on the opposite side of the spectrum, specialised issues concerning literature and the cultural discourse on the Web, following the celebrated Russian cultural and intellectual tradition. 

As far as I know, there is no comprehensive assessment of content available in the Russian segment of the internet, including an analysis of online civic and political engagement. In conversations with Russian internet practitioners and research colleagues I sometimes have the feeling that many are unwilling to look at the "big picture"and to tackle political issues relevant to their own country's future.  

At the same time the Russian practitioners who are actually interested and personally engaged in the life of civil movements in the Russian blogosphere seem rather over-optimistic as to the real -as opposed to virtual- outcome of RuNet's potential for social-networking initiatives at grassroots level. 

In October 2008 an international conference was held at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. Internet expert and respected practitioner Sergei Kuznetsov spoke at length about the value of RuNet initiatives and projects that have produced excellent engagement results online.  While sharing Kuznetsov's enthusiasm to a large extent, I and other participants pointed out that only a tiny number of initiatives with a potentially political angle could be considered consistent or successful in the offline world and that an accurate assessment would be most valuable.  Kuznetsov is personally engaged in a number of worthy charity and cultural initiatives, alongside his principal online content-producing entrepreneurial activity.

Another conference participant, Olessia Koltsova, from the St Petersburg Higher School of Economics, presented her research on the online and offline activity surrounding last year's attempts to prevent the closing of the European University in St. Petersburg. Koltsova's conclusion was that the online activism of students, scholars and supporters of this university, which is highly respected in Russia and abroad, had indeed been very significant and visible.  She said, however, that the total lack of political transparency made it impossible to assess the importance of online activism in the decision-making process that eventually spared the university.

In this article I want to offer my reading of the cultural and sociological background that I take into consideration when I examine Russian online activity. I will base my argument on the insightful points of view of several Russian scholars and also on the results of a recent research on the political influence and practice of the Russian Internet, which I conducted with other colleagues for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

The Alternative SocialUniverse

As part of the research project I interviewed sociologist Boris Dubin.  He argued that the hopes of those who expect internet civil society activities in Russia to increase quickly and have a significant impact on the offline world are naive. Since the internet is essentially a horizontal communication network, he maintained, the creation of ideas that could successfully translate into offline activity and mobilisation would require a corresponding vertical network of existing institutions (whose functions are sometimes obstructed, but whose existence is nonetheless respected by society and by the political leadership).

The discussion of the importance of institutions is not new, and remains one of the most important keys to understanding a situation that seems to develop mainly by endlessly reproducing itself. One very interesting contribution in this respect is that of Irina Prokhorova, the very able editor of the New Literary Review, who offers an explanation accurately reflecting the view of most Russian academic and intellectual circles in her paper "Heirs to the Underground, or What Keeps Russian Culture Going" (Kultura, October 2005).

Responding to the complaint of a Western colleague that "It's impossible to work in Russia - so many brilliant personalities, but no institutions at all," Prokhorova explains that:

What is peculiar about Russia is not the absence of institutions as such, but rather a fatal discrepancy between those institutions and the functions they were created to fulfil...The most important result of this social deformation has been the spontaneous evolution of informal, parallel infrastructures of social life in Russia, which usually remain in the shadow of public attention and are therefore difficult to access for outsiders. (Prokhorova,2005).

This situation, Prokhorova argues, has clearly created a "cultural duality," one of the consequences of which has been the strengthening of Russian literature as a social institution.This, in turn, supported the emergence and consolidation between the 1950s and the 1980s of a strong and varied Russian underground movement.

Prokhorova emphasises that the underground movement should not be seen as a unified group opposing Soviet totalitarianism (a fairly common point of view until recently in the US and Europe) but rather as "an alternative social universe with its own creative associations and circles, its own authorities and aesthetic criteria, its own press, an efficient distribution system for its political and artistic production, its own literary prizes, a social life with its own peculiar rituals, its own foreign contacts". (Prokhorova,2005).

It could be said this description corresponds quite neatly to the model of the Russian Internet. This feeling is reinforced by Prokhorova's assertion that the style of behaviour characteristic of the underground movement centred on a narrow circle of friends. It continued, and in many new professional ways developed, in the 1990s and remains valid to this day. Prokhorova talks about the "internet boom, which spawned a plethora of virtual projects."

She singles out the economic crisis of 1998, which triggered a shift of political priorities, setting off mechanisms that she defines as "partial re-Sovietisation."  She specifically identifies the restoration process set in motion after the crisis, targeting the weak socio-cultural institutions of the late and post-Soviet periods, "in an attempt to concentrate all means of influencing public opinion in the hands of the state."

Prokhorova perceives the role of the internet as a response to just such developments. The new medium follows on from the pioneering age of self-made and naïve websites.  In Russia and elsewhere this age has given way to web-based platforms with endless networking possibilities. The natural modus vivendi of these networks in Russia is aimed, in Prokhorova's view, at preserving and restructuring the system of cultural initiatives that supported the existence of an alternative social universe in Soviet times. It was legitimised, albeit on a very shaky base, in the first post-Soviet decade. 

It is in this alternative social universe, she maintains, that heated political debates and fully-fledged literary disputes take place. As researchers of the Russian Internet will have noticed, debates and disputes are indeed intense and at times fierce, but they are far from mobilising enduring forms of activism, particularly activism with tangible social and political repercussions offline.

Should these repercussions be relevant for Russian internet users involved in a vibrant and varied alternative social reality? I have discussed this with a large number of Russian Internet users and experts.  In their view researchers seeking signs of political activism are repeating the pattern of their colleagues who, in Soviet times, regarded the underground movement as a single whole united in its opposition to Soviet totalitarianism. A handful of activists were undeniably committed to that cause and bravely ready to risk their own life and freedom. It should not, however, be forgotten that the vast majority of the Soviet underground movement was motivated by the very natural urge to express publicly various points of view on personal, artistic and cultural issues and ultimately to have fun amid the grim realities of Soviet life.

 Buffer reality, not activisttool

After a discussion on online engagement and participatory internet in Russia in October 2008 one of the participants posted on his LiveJournal blog the following comment:

Participants were engaged and the discussion wasinteresting. I was, however, rather surprised by the serious approach of some [participants] towards civil activism… In Russia this kind of engagement has a real effect only when it is supported by other activities carried out among personal connections in the so-called corridors of power. (Drugoi <Rustem Adagamov> 2008).

The blogger writing this comment was Live Journal User Rustem Adagamov. His identity on Russia's best-known blogging platform is User Drugoi (Russian for The Other).  Adagamov's interesting photoblog has consistently been one of the leaders of the Russian blogosphere and the unchallenged leader of Live Journal in 2008. According to Yandex, Russia's main search engine, the blog had 198,644 hits on January 7, 2009 and had enjoyed roughly the same popularity index throughout 2008.

Adagamov's assessment reached beyond the particular cases discussed at the symposium.  He said that "no online petition or mobilisation carried out in online communities and street actions" can achieve tangible results in the offline reality unless it is supported by informal ties with powerful decision-makers.

Russian Internet users, currently estimated at nearly 28 million, are generally defensive and mistrustful of the Internet's potential for democratisation.  This is often masked by a layer of cynicism. The main reason for this distrust would appear to be the emergence of an alternative social universe, which has exploited modern technological developments.

If substantiated by comprehensive empirical research, this trend would indicate that the Internet has also assumed the role of a tool of adjustment to a political reality that users see outside their realistic personal and collective influence. This hypothesis for the moment seems to be substantiated by the results of public opinion research.  Levada Centre polls, for instance, show that 72% of Russians in 2007 said they had no way to influence the state decision-making process. 80% believed they were not able to participate in the political and economic life of the country.

In this respect internet users are in tune with the majority of the population. Russian sociologists affirm that it is adjustment strategies, together with distrust of every civil society institution (with the notable exclusion of the presidency) that are responsible for the lack of widespread civil activity aimed at change on- and offline.

Sociologist Boris Dubin describes post-Soviet Russia as an "adjusting society" (Dubin2008). He conceptualises adjustment in terms of "passive and mainly reactive (in a stimulus-reaction mode) behaviour of most social groups." Dubin notes that the definition relates to behaviour "dependent on the centralised power, on a social and political order imposed by this powe rand accepted by the population, rather than on citizens' assertion of their own individual and group interest or a vigorous activity aimed at changing the balance of social forces". (Dubin 2008).

In Dubin's view, this behaviour is determined by habit and by the fear of losing perceived securities. It deeply influences attitudes, ultimately resulting in different forms of criticism of other people's activity and success. Widespread forms of disapproval are in turn fertile soil for negative and generally cynical approaches toward "the other" and strictly limit the emergence of attitudes of positive solidarity for anyone outside one's immediate circle of family and like-minded individuals. Equally importantly, the adaptation mode is seen by Dubin as one of the main reasons for the fragmentation of civil activity and the atomisation of society.

Dubin sees a direct correlation between these reactive and fragmentary tendencies and the protective reflexes that support the continued existence of an alternative social universe. The correlation, essential for the study of Internet engagement and mobilisation, is based on the conviction that any social form of social initiative can be manipulated by the state. Levada Centre data in the last few years record feelings of vulnerability and individual weakness vis-à-vis the law and the very institutions in charge of enforcing it, including the courts, prosecutors and the police. This feeling been growing among Russians and is now common to more than two-thirds of the population.

In a recent article another Russian sociologist, Daniel Dondurei, lamented that " the huge number of contrasting interpretations of events of the last two decades seems to have confused many people. According to recent polls some three-quarters of Russians think of themselves as happy, roughly the same amount approve the official stance on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but at the same time do not trust any official, except the president and the prime minister. Despite the fact that private property is widespread and legal, most people continue to rely mostly on the state. At the same time, 78% of businessmen, when involved in commercial disputes, say they prefer to avoid court decisions because they do not trust the impartiality of the judges. Such eclecticism is not an accident. The Russian political, economic and media elite has been working intensively and assiduously to manipulate social perceptions. This has resulted in public disenchantment with modernisations."(Dondurei 2008).

Dondurei appears to sustain Dubin's argument concerning adjustment and its dangers when he asks "how are we going to fight legal nihilism whenthe public has completely adjusted to it?   Six out of ten citizens acknowledge that they have a more or less tolerant attitude towards corruption. Some of them believe that it is actually corruption that allows the complex system of Russian life to function" (Dondurei 2008).

Call for joint research

This article does not aim to be judgmental about different scholarly approaches to internet research.  Far from it.  It is meant to be a call for more joint research on the different aspects of internet use, in particular on the internet as a tool of adjustment aimed at preserving an alternative social universe.   Strategies adopted by different actors -communities of various orientation, as well as manipulative groups often linked to the state - to achieve their goals should also be examined.

The Reuters Institute's pilot project concluded that in the Russian context, at present at least, new developments in communication are not breaking down well-established patterns of power. The state remains the main mobilising agent. Following a few years of spontaneous - and inexpensive - ‘anarchy', RuNet currently operates as a device to spread and share information, but largely among closed clusters of like-minded users who are seldom able or willing to cooperate. However, it is also a platform which the state uses increasingly successfully to consolidate its power. The activists are rendered at best only partly effective by their limited public and political skills, difficulty in fostering productive discussion among themselves, and inability to overcome the widespread lack of trust among users.

Our pilot research by and large confirmed Dubin's view that RuNet (at least at the moment) is restricted to the status of ‘a device to test one's own circle' and can be used to reproduce mechanisms of propaganda and manipulation well tested offline.

There is a great need for multi-disciplinary studies that would link the use of the Russian internet for literary expression to strategies explaining how information technologies are shaped by the social context in which they are deployed.  Literary expression would include such interesting developments as the widespread language of padonki and its possible use for manipulation and verbal bullying.

A United Nations report examined the emergence of new telecommunication technologies in the late years of the Soviet Union and the early post-Soviet era.  In it researcher Rafal Rahozinski said "what is the most interesting about the internet's emergence in Russia is not the way in which technology transformed society, but rather the way in which society colonised the technology." The report was published in 1999 and it would be extremely valuable to see whether Rahozinski's conclusion can still be considered relevant.

Copyright The Russian Cyberspace Journal, where this article first appeared, Vol 1, N1, 2009 http://www.russian-cyberspace.com/


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData