Like It or Not, They Too Are Fellow Netizens
By Benjamin NathansApril 18, 2014
Now I Know Who My Comrades Are by Emily D. Parker
EMILY PARKER introduces readers to an intriguing gallery of social media activists in China, Cuba, and Russia, three authoritarian countries marked by their passage through decades of uncompromising socialism. Her template for what they might experience next is Egypt’s “online revolution,” the unanticipated wave of Facebook-enabled public demonstrations that helped drive Hosni Mubarak from power with jaw-dropping speed in February 2011. Is “the story we missed in Egypt,” she asks, already underway in China, Cuba, and Russia?
Russians are among the most active social media users in the world — thanks in no small part to traditions of technical literacy and samizdat (literally “self-published”) media inherited from the Soviet Union. Leading platforms such as VKontakte (“In Contact”) and the Russian version of LiveJournal (Zhivoy zhurnal, affectionately known as ZheZhe) connect tens of millions of Russians every day. Millions more communicate via Facebook and Twitter. In contrast to television and most other mass media, moreover, Russia’s internet was, until the recent annexation of Crimea, an uncensored space. In December 2011, during what was still being called the “Arab Spring,” Russian social media played an indispensable role in bringing tens of thousands of Russian citizens to public demonstrations in Moscow and other cities. Well-educated and urbane protesters, including friends of mine, were fed up with widely perceived fraud in recent elections to the Russian parliament by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia. They were outraged by Putin’s announcement that he would return to the Russian presidency following a carefully orchestrated interregnum by his proxy, Dmitry Medvedev.
Parker offers breezy portraits of several influential Russian bloggers, including Rustem Adagamov, a chronicler of cultural displacement, the performance artist Artem Loskutov, and Sergei Parkhomenko, who helped the “blue bucket” YouTube video go viral — mocking the special blue sirens used by Moscow’s ruling class to bypass normal traffic rules in the capital’s frequently congested thoroughfares. (Don’t try to look up these or any other names in the book’s index — the publisher did not see fit to provide one.) Parker’s central Russian protagonist is Alexey Navalny, a lawyer and tireless anticorruption activist who is currently his country’s leading face of political opposition. What distinguishes Navalny from other social media activists in Russia is his ambition to effect change not only via the internet, but also through existing political institutions. In July 2013, despite having recently been arrested on trumped-up charges of embezzlement, he ran for mayor of Moscow, where he managed to win 27 percent of the vote despite being virtually ignored by the state-owned television networks that are the leading sources of news for most Russians. Navalny is one of just a handful of individuals who represent at least remotely plausible alternatives to the rule of Vladimir Putin.
“We have built a new political space,” Navalny wrote of the blogosphere, “All together — against United Russia.” It is of course typical of opposition movements, virtual or otherwise, to achieve greater consensus about what they oppose than about what they want. Parker, too, seems to buy into the notion that the internet fosters “virtual nations” whose netizens “are surrounded, at least virtually, by like-minded individuals.” Anyone who has spent time trolling the Russian blogosphere, however, knows otherwise: to enter that world is to be surrounded not just by the progressive activists whom Parker admires, but by monarchists, Stalinists, anarchists, Soviet patriots, and conspiracy theorists of every imaginable flavor. Russian social media are also full of people who strongly support Putin and share his visceral mistrust of the West. Parker claims that “by telling their own versions of events, bloggers reclaim the national narrative,” that “their collective voice grows louder and stronger” and “they write the truth.” But it is precisely the absence of a shared national narrative that is one of the hallmarks of Russia today — online and off. A “collective voice” isn’t to be found in Russia’s blogosphere any more than in America’s. And the diversity of opinion on Russia’s internet (again like America’s) renders meaningless the idea that it delivers “the truth.”
More plausible, it seems to me, is Parker’s argument that the internet in Russia and other authoritarian countries has had an important psychological impact on large numbers of users, lowering the barriers to self-expression and allowing them to find others who share their views (even as they inevitably bump into many who do not). This, in turn, has greatly enhanced the ability of non-state actors to reach and in some instances mobilize significant numbers of people, primarily in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also across Russia’s enormous hinterland. As Parker notes, one of the main differences between the public protests of the early post-Soviet period and those of 2011 is the astonishing speed with which the latter were summoned, and not by any recognized opposition leaders (there were none), but by relatively unknown bloggers. What she does not seem to note, however, is the similar speed with which those protests dissipated — a symptom, I suspect, of the thin consensus on which they were built. As Ilya Klishin, creator of the Facebook page that helped steer tens of thousands to the Bolotnaya Square protest in December 2011, proudly tells Parker, “The good thing is that you can’t stop the movement that is headless. It’s kind of like the Occupy Wall Street movement; you can’t stop the movement that’s organized by no one.”
Actually, you can: see Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion. Given Occupy Wall Street’s current impotence, it does not inspire confidence when a Russian blogger cites that movement as a model. But then, neither does Parker’s repeated invoking of Egypt’s “online revolution” as the high watermark of internet activism. Reading Now I Know Who My Comrades Are, one would never guess that that revolution yielded a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whose policies directly contradicted the aspirations of Egypt’s progressive social media activists. It turns out that those activists did not really know who some of their comrades were, and, as a result, “their” revolution got (democratically) hijacked by a group whose roots in Egyptian society are older, deeper, and stronger than Facebook’s. Social media yielded to social history. The subsequent military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood further demonstrated the tenuousness of the internet’s influence over the revolutionary dynamic that it had helped unleash.
The current Russian government regards social media activists such as Navalny, as well as many local human rights NGOs, as agents of Western infiltration whose goal is to weaken Russia — a “fifth column,” as Putin ominously called these “national traitors” in his March 18 speech announcing the annexation of Crimea. A substantial proportion of Russians, possibly a majority, feels similarly. While Parker casts “isolation, fear, and apathy” as “the most effective weapons of authoritarian regimes,” she is silent about the goods that those regimes deliver to their populations. In the Russian case, that means economic stability (compared to the first decade following the USSR’s collapse), renewed international power and prestige, and, most recently, the reconquest of the Crimean peninsula. Some Russian bloggers are struggling valiantly to expose the lies and misinformation that characterize much of the Kremlin’s narrative of what is happening in Ukraine. We should support them. But many others, equally ardent, are registering their enthusiasm for Putin’s Crimean caper. Like it or not, they too are fellow netizens.
Benjamin Nathans is the Ronald S. Lauder Endowed Term Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His next book is To the Success of Our Hopeless Cause: Soviet Dissidents and Human Rights.
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