Home History From the Tank Turret to Usenet: First International Case of Digital Activism?

[UPDATED] In this age of pervasive social media, it’s easy to forget that digital activism precedes the world wide web. In 1991, activist geeks from the Soviet Union, the US, and Western Europe employedUsenetas an alternative form of mass mediato relay information about a coup attemptagainst Mikhail Gorbachev and protect the reform process.

Usenet, a forum-email hybrid, consisted of topical newsgroups of threaded comments. News of the coup was broadcast on the newsgrouptalk.politics.soviet, with information flowing through a Russian network called Relcom, theonly network to provide Russians a domestic andinternational internet connection.

Information was passed into, out of, and through Russia via Relcom’s Usenet service. This prevented the coup initiators – hardline Communists who opposed Gorbachev’s reforms – from creating an information black-out, which they attempted to create by censoring Russian TV broadcasts, taking radio stations off the air, blocking CNN, and even destroying the fax machines at publishing houses. Relcom was not shut down due to simple ignorance,said one newsgroup participant: “Thanks [sic.] Heaven, these cretins don’t consider usmass media!”

Commentators likeEthan Zuckermanof MIT’s Center for Civic Media have pointed out that during the Arab Springmedia ecologies were at work in disseminating information about the revolutions. It was not just social media or mobile phones or Al Jazeera, it was all of them working in concert.

Though much Russian media was shut down, a media ecology was also at work during the 1991 coup. Supporters in the West transmitted CNN and BBC broadcasts into Russia via Usenet. According to Larry Press,a Californian academic who participated in the information exchange and subsequently published accounts of the events,”pay phones were working in Moscow,and people in the streets could phone news in” to Demos, the programmers collective that founded Relcom and posted most of the Russian news on talk.politics.soviet during the coup attempt.

The coup occurred when bothSoviet head of state Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin were away from Moscow. In an odd twist, even after Yeltsin returned to Moscow, he had no access to mass media, and was forced to disseminate his declaration of opposition via paper flyers. The Usenet activists also helped to distribute his statements via talk.politics.soviet. According to Larry Press, “a copy of the letter Boris Yeltsin read from a tank turret in front of the Russian Parliament building was brought to Demos headquarters (a short trip), entered into a computer, and forwarded across the network.”

Founded only a year earlier, Relcom had surprising reach. At the time of the coup seventy Soviet cities “from Leningrad in theWest to Vladivostok in the East” had connections, according to Press. These connections were housed within a surprising variety of civil society organizations. Wrote Press later that year, “395 organizations were using it–universities, research institutes, stock and commodity exchanges,news services, high schools, politicians, and government agencies.” Relcom had a real capacity for national broadcast.

Despite attempts to keep the Russian people in the dark, information was able to spread enough that a group of unarmed Muscovites rallied around Yeltsin in the White House, which housed the legislature, and used trolley cars and street cleaning machines to block the tanks and military units descending on the building. Rather than launch a bloody attack in the middle of the capital, the coup leaders stepped down, Gorbachev retained his position, and the reforms continued. Less than six months later, the Soviet Union was dissolved.

What effect did the Usenet information exchange have on the outcome of the coup? The turning point seems to have been the nonviolent blockade in Moscow, so what role would national and international communication have had? According toone of the members of the cooperative that started Relcom, Vadim Antonov, the Usenet group was being used “to help organize the resistance.” Though in the fragmentary style of Usenet, one can indeed see in the postings resistance throughout the Soviet Union coming into form. In these messages the media ecology is on full display, as references are made to in-person communication (Yeltsin’s address in Moscow), radio, telephone, email, and professional news agencies (message logsvia Electronic Frontier Foundation).

   20, 3:54, Dmitry V. Volodin, Demos

      Posted a copy of Yeltsin's decree with a plea to redistribute 
      it as widely as possible.  "It will be fine if this reaches 
      world information agencies."

      (was this the first posting of Yeltsin's decree?)

   20, 6:00 gmt, Kari Kankaala

      100 tanks are 100 km from Tallinn; tanks passed through Vilna; 
      one person was killed in Riga; the Finnish-Soviet border is 
      open; car, train, truck and air traffic to the Soviet Union is 
      normal; phone calls to Estonia are still possible.

   20, 6:05 gmt, Kari Kankaala

      The phonecenters of Latvia and Lithuania have been occupied, 
      and miners in Russia, the Ukraine, and Belorussia have started 
      striking in accordance with the wishes of Yeltsin.
 20, 23:00, anon email to Vadim Levin

      The following are quotes from two email messges to Levin:

      To all people of good will!  We want you to know that the 
      democaracy of the USSR is in great danger...  Right now the 
      center of Moscow is surrounded by tanks and soldiers...We need 
      your moral support!... Down with the Communist tyranny!

Accurate information about the coup damaged attempts by the coup initiators to create legitimacy around their act and created actual and incipient popular resistance.

In a smaller way, the newsgroup was an emotional support for the Russians who were able to access it. Another collective member, Polina, posted: “You can’t even imagine how grateful we are foryour help and support in this terrible time. Thebest thing is to know that we aren’t alone.”

Further sources:

image: David Broad

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