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The Usenet coup: how the USSR discovered the internet in 1991

Twenty five years ago this week, government hardliners attempted to take control of the Soviet Union — but failed. These momentous events were documented in detail on the early internet, but have yet to find their place in history. Русский

A list of some of Usenet's biggest binary groups. With 1317+ days retention, the (binary) Usenet storage (which binsearch.info indexes) is more than 9 petabytes. CC A-SA 3.0 / FlippyFlink. Some rights reserved. In 1980, two American programmers attempted to link computers in two neighbouring universities and almost accidentally invented Usenet, a system of group mailouts that was the prototype of today’s social networks.

The programmers’ idea was to share software with one another and keep in touch at the same time. They couldn’t have imagined that a few years later, thousands of people working at universities in the USA and across the world would connect to the Usenet, calling it “the soul of the Internet” and “the place where important things happen”.

For the next 15 years, the system was to remain a platform for serious international discussion, a tool for self-organisation and even a basis for building political utopias. “What was once impossible, is now possible... Usenet is conducted publicly, and is mostly uncensored. This means that everyone can both contribute and gain from everyone else’s opinion”, wrote Michael Houben, an early enthusiast and first historian of the internet community.

 These words appeared in an essay entitled “The computer as a democratizer”, in which Hauben hailed the dawn of a new age of real democracy, based on local, grassroots communication and cooperation. 

 The USSR joints the network… Just kidding!

From its earliest days, Usenet was very effective in serving itself – capable of conducting interactive monitoring of its communications, creating its own ‘Halls of Fame” and recording its activity in its own chronicles.

An important entry in any imagined Usenet chronicle would relate to 1 April 1984, the day it published a welcoming letter signed by the Soviet Union’s then Communist Party chief Konstantin Chernenko. The letter announced that the USSR had signed up to Usenet and read, “Well, today, 840401, this is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics joining the Usenet network at last and saying hallo to everyone. The reason we have joined this network is to have a forum for open discussion with the American and European people and make clear to them our resolute efforts towards maintaining peaceful coexistence between the peoples of the Soviet Union and those of the United States and Europe”. 

The Kremvax hoax. Credit: godfatherof.nl/kremvax.html.This April Fools’ Day hoax, posted by Dutch internet pioneer Piet Beertema in the year of Orwell’s Anti-utopia, used the fake ID "Kremvax” and was a huge success among users. According to Beertema, his joke was even appreciated in the Pentagon, where the “Chernenko letter” provoked a lively discussion about information security. The joke was all the more funny because the idea of the USSR having the internet was ridiculous: no one expected real people to appear from behind the Iron Curtain.

Only five years later, however, the Berlin Wall fell, Mikhail Gorbachev travelled widely in the Capitalist world, some Americans visited the USSR for the first time and a computer club was set up at Moscow State University. Usenet awaited its first members from the Soviet Union. A posting appeared on the talk.politics.soviet group page headed “The Russians are Coming”. People were asking how they could communicate with people from the USSR, who, as everybody knew, didn’t speak English well. And they were banned from owning personal computers and even photocopiers, so how could they access the internet anyway? And if they managed to do it, wouldn’t that compromise state security, and should the American intelligence agencies be informed? These questions occupied Usenet users for several months.

In 1990, programmers from Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute (Russia's leading nuclear energy research and development institution) who had created an operating system known as “Demos”, managed to access the internet, register their domain (*su) and quietly, without trumpeting their presence, sign up to a number of Usenet groups. A couple of weeks later Vadim Antonov, the first Soviet internet user, posted a joke about socialism, capitalism and communism in a meat queue, a ubiquitous phenomenon of the time. It was a decisive moment for Muscovites.

By September 1990, the "Kremvax” hoax had become an old chestnut, and the programmers were not immediately believed. First reactions included: “Are you really from the USSR? Prove it!”; “These guys from Moscow have a funny address”; “It’s a pity their first post was about humour – now we can’t tell if it was a joke or not!”; “I can’t believe I’ve actually lived to see this!” And when people finally got used to the idea of the USSR being on Usenet, the Demos people were inundated with hundreds of questions: “How do I connect to Riga?”; “Does email work in Kazakhstan?”; “How many universities are online?”; “Say hello to Ivanov in Irkutsk!”

They answered the questions, shared their software, renamed their Demos server “Kremvax” and added the message, “This is not a joke”, to their address “Moscow, USSR”. Just a few months remained until what came to be known as their finest hour.

The August coup

In August 1991, several members of the Soviet government, as part of an attempt to overthrow the USSR’s president Mikhail Gorbachev, seized control of TV and the press and closed the main channels of communication with the west. The only traditional media that didn’t comply were regional outlets such as the “Ekho Moskvy” radio station, which continued to broadcast on telephone lines.  

Theoretically, KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov, one of the coup organisers, should have known about the internet

Theoretically, KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov, one of the organisers of the coup, should have known about the internet. According to research institute staff, KGB officers on the ground had been aware that thanks to new technology, communication with the west had been outside their control since the late 1980s. The KGB’s leadership, however, was still relying for information on their old favourite, phone bugging, even during the coup. Either no one had told Kryuchkov about the importance of the internet, or he failed to see its significance, but it was through the web that the world learned about the events of 19-21 August.

It’s a common belief that after Radio Liberty and CNN were taken off the air, the one connection left with the west was through Demos (now renamed “Relcom”) channels to Usenet groups. However, in August 1991 there was at least one more alternative functional connection to the internet – staff at the Interfax news agency were also collecting and circulating information. Interfax had become an independent agency not long before, had opened an office in the USA and connected to the web via the American provider SprintNet. So staff at the agency’s American office could receive emails from Moscow and immediately fax them to the press, or just phone the White House if the news was urgent. Interfax reports also circulated amongst Usenet users, and ironically, one of the first posts about the coup was from Piet Beertema, author of the Kremvax hoax.

August 1991: Muscovites read leaflets stuck to a telegraph pole for news of what was happening in the Soviet capital. (c) Vladimir Fedorenko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Unlike Interfax employees, the computer specialists Demos and Relcom were not journalists and didn’t take it on themselves to post information online. But they quickly realised that they needed to use the global link they had set up not long before the August events.

According to the accounts published in security experts’ Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan’s book The Red Web, Demos head Valery Bardin, his colleague Vadim Antonov and Relcom head Aleksey Soldatov, after discussing the risks involved, decided to inform Usenet about the events in Moscow. For three days they posted extracts from TV News, their own observations on the streets, reports from news agencies and Ekho Moskvy, as well as remarks made by web users in various Soviet cities.

At some point Boris Yeltsin’s aides also discovered the internet – his people turned up at the Demos offices in search of a photocopier

At some point Boris Yeltsin’s aides also discovered the internet – his people turned up at the Demos offices in search of a photocopier and posted a message from the president  on the web, i.e sent it straight to the west. The text read “A coup attempt has been launched; the president of the USSR has been removed from power”. It was written in Russian but transliterated into approximate Latin script – Russian Cyrillic script only began to be used online a few months later when a critical mass of Russian users emerged. The American media reacted swiftly, and messages from that small office reached the papers and TV news without any delay.

Usenet’s archive, which was bought up by Google a few years ago, still contains posts from Demos/Relcom to the civilised world. One of them reads: “Don’t worry; we’re OK, though frightened and angry. Moscow is full of tanks and military vehicles, I hate them. They are trying to close all mass media, they shut down CNN an hour ago, and Soviet TV is showing opera and old movies. But, thank Heavens, they don’t think of Relcom as part of the media, or perhaps they have simply forgotten about us. Now we are transmitting enough information to put us in prison for the rest of our lives :-) I hope everything will turn out well in the end…”

The Usenet community mobilised pretty quickly, and in three August days two groups dedicated to the USSR sent thousands of messages. One user, for example, suggested that subscribers living in the west send their postal addresses, evidently so that they could maintain some kind of communication with the world if the internet went down. Another posted dozens of pages of addresses and phone numbers of American senators and ambassadors, so that internet users could send demands to governments, asking them to react to the situation.

“Usenetters” were so keen to help that Demos and Relcom’s email systems kept crashing: they were reliant telephone lines, via Finland, that couldn’t deal with heavy traffic. In the end Vadim Antonov had to ask them not to overload the lines with stupid questions, so as not to get in the way of people organising resistance actions or unwittingly help “these fascists.”

The events of August 1991 showed that during a critical moment, grassroots-level online communication and cooperation win out over traditional media. In any case, in the early 1990s, there was much more trust for a personal electronic message, as written by a witness to some major event. That’s beside the fact that such messages spread instantly.

A brave (and prosaic) new world

For Usenet users, communication with people who witnessed the coup was not only a useful means of getting the latest news, but the dawning of a new age. Historic events were taking place live on screen and anyone could be part of it. The digital utopia was turning into reality in front of their very eyes. So the glorification of the Moscow programmers’ civil activity began as soon as the attempted coup had been put down. Larry Press, a Usenet user and Information Systems specialist at California State University, had already met them in 1989 when he visited the USSR for a Computer Sciences conference.

During the coup, Press, like many other users of Usenet, forwarded messages from Moscow colleagues directly to user groups. One such read, “Oy, don’t tell me. We’ve seen the tanks with our own eyes. I hope we can get in touch again in the next few days. The communists can’t rape Mother Russia again!” After it was all over, Press made a big effort to ensure that the heroism of the Demos staff would not be forgotten: he shared eyewitness accounts of the coup days on Usenet, scrupulously collected material and initiated the creation of an archive which is still in existence.   

Neither new technologies nor even the coup itself became important for post-Soviet Russia

Years later, articles are still appearing in the western press about the democratic victories of the early years of the internet: titles such as “Before the Twitter revolutions, there was the Usenet revolution”  and “The first case of international digital activism” convey their tone.

Revolutions that take place during the internet age have one important common denominator. Even if certain political forces are involved in them, they are not centralised and take place due to cooperation and grassroots-level connections between people – those same connections that were glorified by internet romanticist Michael Hauben in the early 1990s. This is why without the August coup, the history of digital activism would be incomplete – even if there was no such thing as mass internet use back then. The fact that neither new technologies, nor even the coup itself became important for post-Soviet Russia is another matter entirely.

This becomes obvious when you consider that Soviet people who took part in the events in Moscow had a different perspective on them – less dramatic and apolitical - which was very noticeable against the background of western euphoria. Vadim Antonov called the August events “an advertising campaign for Relcom” and was modest about his own part in it: “My role was as censor in chief – I would remove the headlines from the eyewitness reports before sending them to the news department” (ironic use of “censor” and “propaganda” is a noticeable habit of Russian internet pioneers, who were exploring a new, international space while using old, Soviet language).

August 1991: Kremvakh goes from hoax to reality. Credit: som.csudh.edu.The glorious days of August 1991 have had mentions in a couple of interviews and memoirs about the history of the Russian internet, but they haven’t become a major historic event for the former USSR. “The Librarian of Congress, James H Billington, a Russian Language and Slavistic specialist, asked me personally for a copy of email correspondence during August 1991, but I refused”, wrote Demos founder Mikhail Davidov in 1998 in a volume devoted to the first ten years of the cooperative. “You should have given him a copy”, answered Vadim Antonov. “Local TV abandoned me several times. But I have a good memory.” 

The same person who once complained about communists trying to “rape” Russia spoke rather prosaically about his own experience of that time seven years later.

Without the August coup, the history of digital activism would be incomplete

It’s doubtful that he did this because he didn’t care. It was just that he thought that pathos was inappropriate, and too reminiscent of Soviet rhetoric, which the personal experiences of citizens of a disappeared nation proved to be worthless.

And the paradise that had been promised did not arise in place of the USSR by the late 1990s. Grassroots democratic institutions, such as a free media, were not formed. In light of all that, perhaps one could only view own élan in 1991 with skepticism and irony.

Soon after the coup, the USSR collapsed, Relcom and Demos went their separate ways and the Usenet was swamped by users from the new Russia who had to go through a traumatic process of integration with the Internet community. The “long memory” of August 1991, nurtured by the American media, seemed to its first Russian users a pleasant, but naïve, flight of fancy of their western colleagues. While Russians gradually made sense of the social reality of the internet, digital activism and the use of new technologies to combat totalitarianism, people in the west were hung up on the technologies themselves.

The next chance for digital activism in Russia came in the 2010s with the advent of social media. But this is a story for another day —and of another failed revolution. 

About the author

Natalia Konradova is a cultural historian and journalist, and a member of the project "Digital dissent: history of the early Russian internet" at the Peter Szondi Institute of Comparative Literature, Freie Universität Berlin. She writes about media history and theory, problems of historical memory and anthropology in Russia.


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