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Monday, February 19, 2007

Commissars of the Internet: Part I, Installment 1

Today La Russophobe is pleased to begin presenting the results of our translator's most impressive project to date, translating a major investigative piece from a trio of Russian human rights activists exposing the horrifying ways in which the KGB is monitoring and controlling the Internet in Russia. The first part of the lengthy piece will appear in four daily installments this week, the second part next week. Once the installments are completed, we will publish the entire article as its own single web page.

LR can speak to this issue from personal experience. In the article you will notice the authors write about roving KGB-sponsored Internet gangs who seek to manipulate criticism of Russia in the Kremlin's favor:

The phenomenon we are here trying to investigate is by no means an ideological or spiritual community of post-Soviet people, tied together by common views, nor the aggressions of isolated anonymous boors on the Russian Internet. In our view, this is a qualitatively different phenomenon – the appearance on RuNet forums of organized and fairly professional “Brigades”, composed of ideologically and methodologically identical personalities, who “work” to form the public opinion desired by the authorities, in practically every single one of the popular political/social web-forms having even a few hundred viewers a day.
A contributor to the forum on the Yezhedevny Zhurnal website has posted a list of the screen names of some such "brigade" members. One of the names on the list is "ENOT" (in Russian "EHOT"), a commenter who regularly attacks the items published on Publius Pundit by La Russophobe (relying not on substance but on personal abuse and invective). Moreover, the attentive reader will notice that many of the techniques of disinformation employed by the "brigades" are in use by commenters at this blog, particularly those who recently attacked LR's chatbox by impersonating other commenters and seeking to change the topic of discussion.

The article is entitled "Commissars of the Internet." Lead author Anna Polyanskaya is a well-known journalist from Saint Petersburg Russia, who has participated in the democratic and human rights movement. From 1993 – 1998 she as an assistant to the Russian Duma deputy Galina Starovoitova, who was murdered under circumstances shockingly similar to those of Anna Politkovskaya. Polyanskaya also worked at the leading program “Alternatives” on Petersburg television, as a radio correspondent for the Russian language service of the BBC, and has appeared in various Russian and Western publications. Since 1998 she has lived in Paris. Author Andrei Krivov, a historian by training, formerly a Soviet dissident, is one of the leaders of the independent Moscow-based NGODoveria” (Trust). He has also worked since its founding at the uncensored journal “Glasnost’” of Sergei Grigoryanets. Since 1988 he has lived in France. Finally, author Ivan Lomko was born in Moscow in the 1950’s, graduated from the Physics department of Moscow State Teachers College (MGPI), worked as a schoolteacher and scientist, then changed to being a computer programmer. In 1991, he emigrated with his family to the U.S. and currently works in New York as a programmer-analyst with a financial services company.
An earlier version of this article was also published inVestnik OnlineApril 30, 2003. It is only through the heroic work of our translator that it finally sees the light of day in English.

Here is Part I, Installment 1: Introduction

Commissars of the Internet
The FSB at the Computer

Anna Polyanskaya, Andrei Krivov & Ivan Lomko
September 16, 2006

Part 1. The Virtual Eye of Big Brother

Political forums on the Internet are a relatively new pastime for Russians, a virtual world-wide kitchen where public opinion is brewed. More and more often, in various printed and online publications, articles are appearing that examine contributions to these forums as a way of monitoring Russian public opinion. The primary tone of these articles is generally one of complete surprise: “What is going on with the Russian educated class and intellectuals?” After all, it is surely these people who are the main users of the Internet and the ones most interested in politics and social trends. But what one finds on Russian web-forums is an orgy of hatred, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, violent propaganda, amoral barbarism and raving. A normal person, after reading forums like these, becomes ill. “With growing speed, the country is falling into insanity”; “the Russian educated class has become bestial” – this is the general tone of commentaries on “Radio Svoboda”, “Moskovskiye Novosti”, the web publication “”, and various mass media in the West.

A number of institutes for political studies in the West have created offices and political forums for researching the so-called RuNet (the Russian portion of the Internet), wherein specialists judge the mood of the intellectual elite in Russia. Following is just one very typical quote from the site of the Israeli research group MAOF:

“The commentaries of average Russians are striking in the ferocious unanimity of their readers. One gets the sense that America has attacked not just innocent Arabs, but Russia itself. In their postings on the forum, Internet users show exactly the same sort of wild malice as their Islamic protectorates. And what is most interesting, they do not need any sort of Imam. They are so consumed with spite that it can be hard for me, after only 12 years away from Russia, to tell whether they are even using Russian to express themselves.”

The majority of researchers who quote web-forum postings from the RuNet come to the same conclusion, that in most cases the people posting on these forums fully and completely support the leadership of the government, and that Russian intellectuals and youth have suddenly and simultaneously become aggressive thugs. But we will here try to rehabilitate the reputation of the thinking portion of Russia that expresses itself on the Internet.

For a fairly long time we have had our doubts about whether Russian public opinion has been so well-represented on RuNet forums. Are these really just the “commentaries of average Russians” that all these researchers find so “striking in the ferocious unanimity of their readers”?

Without doubt, the influence of official propaganda on public opinion in Russia is enormous, and the rebirth of totalitarian ideology is in full stride. Many long-forgotten Soviet ideals and values are being served up by Putin’s ideologues as know-how, and a well-planned restoration of the totalitarian concept is underway. So it is not surprising that among the participants of web-forms one sometimes finds radical anti-Americans, anti-Semites, and advocates of totalitarianism. But we would suggest that they – real people with totalitarian viewpoints – are much fewer than one would suppose from a quick glance at the postings on any forum.

Being on the Internet in Russia presupposes a few at least approximate “minimal qualifications”: a certain level of material well-being (sufficient at least to provide food, a residence, and a home computer), a certain degree of competence with computers, and a certain level of education, as would allow one to make use of political and historical categories. People with marginal, Soviet-Communist or National-Fascist outlooks exist, of course, but their range of interests lie, as a rule, some distance from the Internet and liberal political forums. Besides, people of the older generations, having not become familiar with computers, have a much harder time actively participating on the Internet.

Until 1998-1999, forums on the RuNet were fairly uniform in the sociological characteristics of their users. About 70-80% of the audience consisted of people in agreement with one another, people of liberal and democratic persuasions, representatives of the Russian middle class, and Russian-speaking émigrés. Now, just four years later, totalitarian opinions have suddenly risen to 60-80% of all postings on Russian forums.

This sharp quantitative spike has not corresponded with the range of public opinion, and is at odds with data from Internet polls on current issues of modern life. For instance, about 80% of authors on all web-forums very aggressively and uniformly curse the USA. But in polls in which a single computer can vote only once, 84% of Russian-speaking Internet users support the USA. A similar picture appears regarding approval-disapproval of the war in Chechnya, support for the policies of Putin and his administration, etc. Everywhere the situation is the same: wherever the voting is protected – where one cannot vote a second time – the results are diametrically opposed to the results of “unprotected” polls and inversely proportional to the percentage of “totalitarian” postings on forums.

Personalities from this group present themselves as individuals from various professions, living in a variety of cities and countries, and according to themselves belong to a range of social and age groups. Nonetheless, from long experience and close observation of these personalities, one inescapably notices a full range of typical features and general characteristics not held by any other participants in the discussions.

The guarded-aggressive, totalitarian ideology put forth by these people is their main indicator. A few members of this group try to look even somewhat liberal. But, alongside the usual “governmental” ideology (as well as xenophobia, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and intolerance toward differing points of view), these people are distinguished by the extremity of their orientations, corporate-group morale, common base of information, clear norms of behavior, and very specific methods of argument and “working toward an objective”. In all forums, this group applies uniform principles for creating mass consciousness, connected, above all else, with the use of intentional and well-planned lies, slanders and disinformation.

In addition, the year 1999 was a watershed for the appearance on the RuNet of all these clearly unified groups of uniform participants in web-discussions.

The phenomenon we are here trying to investigate is by no means an ideological or spiritual community of post-Soviet people, tied together by common views, nor the aggressions of isolated anonymous boors on the Russian Internet. In our view, this is a qualitatively different phenomenon – the appearance on RuNet forums of organized and fairly professional “Brigades”, composed of ideologically and methodologically identical personalities, who “work” to form the public opinion desired by the authorities, in practically every single one of the popular political/social web-forms having even a few hundred viewers a day.



Mamuka said...

It seems like "average" Russians are very bitter about the experience with democracy which has left them with super rich new Russians, abject poverty they did not know before, and the frightening prospect of having to make decisions.

Does this make them hostile toward the liberal intelligenstsia who are viewed as complicit with Western Democracy?

Couple this with the rock-star aura surrounding Vova and it makes a fertile ground for nationalism (neo or otherwise)

Penny said...

"abject poverty they did not know before"

Are you suggesting that Russians are poorer now or never had poverty in their past?

..."and the frightening prospect of having to make decisions."

The Russian sheeple had better hurry in making decisions because otherwise Putin is making all of them. Other post-Communist countries got off of their knees and empowered themselves. Sorry, but, I'm not sympathetic to that excuse.

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to hold these up as an excuse, just to point out some of the reasons people are embracing a return to the good (bad) old days.

In many post-Soviet states (not the Baltics or Eastern Europe), some people are successfully making this transition. But most people seem to either be caught off-guard (and yearning for the old order) or busily trying to extort money from the few people who are succeeding. This second group seems to embrace the new/old totalitarianism.