When Russians thought the Internet would make them free



The internet has great potential, but is limited by language and infrastructure. The Russian net is essentially a completely different beast than the English one.

Even for Russians who can speak and read English, access is a huge problem, with the Russian state controlling the literal connections into and out of the country. Unless you’re operating a satellite connection, you’re subject to their whims and controls.

Of course, many Russians don’t know English well enough to live on the English net, even if they get access. Moreoever, the English net isn’t geared towards Russian interests, so they have to work harder to find content worth consuming. With only the largest, most internationally visited English language sites having any content available in Russian, there’s not much to DO on our side of the fence if you can’t read and write the language fluently. (I’ve experienced this personally trying to navigate the Japanese net without fluency.)

It’s all one big recipe for frustration, and it means that the average Russian user is just going to stick with the Russian net out of ease of use - akin to sticking with Windows over Linux, because it’s just so much less work in the end.


I remember in the early 1990s, Internet users in America thought that the Internet was going to be the vehicle that was going to convert the entire world to using English. After all, all the foreigners we met on-line seemed to have a great grasp of English. Of course that was because the only foreigners using the Net at that time were people fluent in English – back then many USENET servers worked in pure ASCII – not the extended forms allowing accents, umlauts, etc, and certainly not other alphabets. It was hard to write online in any other language other than English.


I’m afraid somebody writes this bullshit for free: sometimes people choose lies even when they have access to independent information.

This is why Fox News is successful in the US. And why there are anti-vaxxers and anti-evolution types and climate change deniers and all kinds of idiocy.


Not only United Statesians are closed minded nationalist slobs, other countries do it too.
My first shortwave set around 1981 was made in Riga Latvia, somebody forgot it on one of my fathers airplanes. SW was of course restricted to someone or a group who could afford broadcast time on a >100k watt station aimed at the USSR. There was also amateur radio to cross borders though I remember old hams saying that while the previous king of Jordan would famously Morse chat with anyone, Soviet stations would only QSL(ack) CQ calls on their freq and maybe give power and antenna info no chatting. I think they would send QSL cards though, as would Soviet shortwave stations if you mailed them, you also got a free FBI file opened on you.


As an American, I can totally relate to that.

The optimism I felt in '94 when I quit my job and started an Internet company has largely faded. Yes, on balance the Internet is a good thing, but I, for one, really underestimated the ability for almost anything to be co-opted by dominant social mores. In US the Internet had largely devolved into a platform for buying shit and watching TV, not living up to its promise at all. In Russia the co-opting is different, but I imaging the failed potentials feel kind of the same…


I believe that the problems the author describes in Russia are, though more pronounced, the same that we find in the global internet and how states/markets use it to serve their own purposes.

A big problem is that the Internet has become, for many, a source of consumption, an online virtual mall, with Youtube as the cineplex.

When you use the Internet as a passive spectator, you miss the most fundamental aspect about it, that it is not a thing, that when you go online, you not only “Connect to the internet” you essentially increase its size by one and become a part of it.

And that consuming “content” (has anybody come up with a better word for this?) without thought to how that content was created and how it found its way to you, is to ignore all the ways you are being exploited. And to consume without creating is to surrender your will to those who exploit you.

Now, this is not meant as a rebuke to your comment, I’m sort of trying to figure out for myself exactly how the Russian experience as described by Mr Kuznetsov relates to the way I see the state of the Internet today.


It’s like paying tribute to a demon. There’s a giant, gelatinous blob of money and power squishing around in the sky and if you shill hard enough and truly believe you may, one day, be ushered into it’s undulating curtain of tentacles.


Wait, what? Nazi bigfoot in a top hat on a rampage with an ax? Who do I talk to to green light this movie?


Wait. Whut?
*Puts down salt shaker of human ashes.


I think it’s our primal weakness that’s being exploited.
You can easily put people off political/social/environmental engagement by simply offering them Cheap’n’Tasty entertainment instead.
And corporate marketeers (Satan’s spawn) are on a major offensive to rid the planet of all its pesky resources to do just that.

Uhm… actually, it did just that for the most part. Outside of a few less developed nations, everywhere I go in the world, educated people of middle age or younger speak fairly good English and can read it just fine. A lot of that is because of the Internet (and American hegemony in media as well as politics).

Well, I think that’s a huge exaggeration outside maybe the tourist areas of Western Europe (but maybe that’s what you mean by “developed nations”). Heck, I lived in Quebec for a while and even there running into people who couldn’t speak English was an issue (and no, they weren’t just refusing to speak English to be rude).

But the real point is back then we didn’t expect that other languages would develop their own web presence. They did. As the author said, there’s a huge Russian internet that non-Russian speakers don’t see. The same for lots of other languages. The world didn’t just flock to the American Web. They made it their own.

Places I’ve been where I was able to get by in English fine:

  1. England (surprise!)
  2. France
  3. Spain
  4. Greece
  5. Egypt (in areas)
  6. Bali (tourist mecca, I’ll admit)
  7. Japan
  8. Italy
  9. Turkey
  10. Thailand

So, yeah, Western Europe but urban areas in other parts of the world too. I’ve not been to Africa outside of Egypt or rural China though.

People in Quebec don’t speak English because they’re a French speaking minority in an English speaking nation and it is a matter of pride to only speak French for many of them. Not a very good example at all.

As someone who works on a web browser for a living, we’ve found that a significant number of folks in non-English language countries never download the version localized for their language. They get the en-US or en-GB versions because all of their online communication, outside of some friends, is done via English so they don’t want, for example, the Danish version of the browser.

I don’t think people in the west know how much the government controls the media in Russia. My Facebook friends have been sharing lots of links to RT News lately, thinking it’s “edgy” or “alternative”, when it’s really part of Putin’s propaganda machine.


Perhaps you will even be eaten first. Such an honor!

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Thank you for response.
You are right, it’s the point: our dissapointment about the failed potential of the Internet. I wrote about Russia, but of couse first of all we shared an American optimism that has faded now.

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