In the last few weeks Russians got acquainted with censorship, American-style. The story is described in some detail in the accompanying article by Anna Arutunyan, and it highlights a very important new factor in Russian politics -- the LiveJournal internet community.
An even more poignant story is how the LiveJournal phenomenon has thus far been ignored by the Western media -- which is a kind of censorship in itself. You won't read about it in the usual English-language "Russia-watching" cabal. What you'd like to find in these rags is the same old junk -- such as yet another unimaginable boring (and just as irrelevant) "roadmap for reform" by the interminable reformer Yavlinsky. The really fresh, interesting stuff is ignored.
The LiveJournal is one of the so-called "blogspaces" -- sites where one can set up his or her "Dear Diary" to broadcast to the whole world the author's underappreciated genius. The LiveJournal site is one of the world's biggest existing blogspaces. It is almost perfect -- easy to use, make updates, post pictures, discuss every message with other bloggers, set up special interest communities and lists of friends. It has many nice features such as a "friend-stream" -- updates from selected lists of blogs in a single page, and much more.
The LiveJournal has more than three million American users, with an average age about 18 years old. It is the usual teenage stuff -- bitching about boyfriends, "Got sooo wasted at Jim's place last night," "I am starting a new job tomorrow, bagging at CostCo." Only a tiny percentage of these blogs is of any interest to more than a dozen of blogger's immediate friends.
The Russian LiveJournal domain is different. For some reason since the beginning (around 2001) it has attracted a disproportionably high number of the "Who's Who" in the informational and cultural space -- journalists, writers, publishers, politicians, etc. Russian is the largest non-English domain of the LiveJournal, with almost 200,000 accounts. Most of it is dross, like anywhere else. Nevertheless it is incomparably more engrossing than the American version. In the American domain one can jump from one blog to another for hours without encountering anything particularly eye-catching. Once you get in the Russian domain, within two or three clicks you'll find something memorable -- an outrageous sex diary, some really edgy photos or drawings, a sharp political commentary.
It does not mean, of course, that America doesn't have interesting blogs -- there are quite a lot of them, but its blogspaces are much more fragmented, whereas Russian blogs are more concentrated on the LJ.
In fact I don't remember such a robust nation-wide internet political community (bringing together broad intellectual elite with their readers in a single space) since the days of the IntelectualCapital.com, which ended with the Internet bubble; incidentally, its only foreign edition was in Russian. Yet even the Intellectual Capital in the best days barely had 10% of the fun of the Russian LJ now. It is absolutely exhilarating. Once you spend time with the LJ, reading the same old Moscow Times or Johnson's Russia List is the fastest way put oneself to sleep.
LJ was quietly building up over a time, but in the last couple of months it simply exploded. It was the confluence of several things happening almost simultaneously: the Khodorkovsky verdict, the Ivannikova trial and the "Kill Nato" censorship campaign described in the Anna Arutunyan's article in this issue.
The endless sentencing of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev naturally brought about intense shouting matches in the LiveJournal community. There was some very sane and serious stuff too. Some bloggers posted analysis of convoluted privatization transactions according to the prosecution's arguments, full of PowerPoint charts.
The story of Ivannikova -- a woman who accidentally killed an Armenian taxi driver who allegedly tried to rape her -- burst forth at about the same time, largely because her lawyer had his own LJ blog where he regularly reported on the case.
The story -- almost as big in Russia in late May and early June as the Yukos case -- was completely ignored by the Western media. According to its canon of reporting on events in Russia it could fall into one of the two mental models:
1. Russia is virulently racist place -- when an immigrant from the south is killed, the public supports the perpetrator no matter what.
2. Russia is a police state where necessary self-defense by a woman about to be raped can result in absurd prison sentence for the attempted rape victim.
Since the story had contradictory elements of both, it simply stumped Western reporters, so they ignored it.
For many in the Russian LJ community the fact that all charges against Ivannikova were eventually dismissed under public pressure itself spoke about the strengthening of the civil society in Russia. One blogger (a liberal-leaning journalist, in fact, not one of the ultra-nationalists described by Arutunyan) proclaimed that "...they [the authorities] are afraid of us. Let the Freedom House know this and upgrade Russia to 'stable democratic.'" He is very naive, of course. The Freedom House ranking does not have anything to do with degrees of freedom in various countries, or with anything at all besides promoting the triumph of the world-wide Bushism.
Civil society? For the western "commentariat" it is a very clear notion -- it is the people who talk about the "civil society" at innumerable "democracy-building" conferences, fight for money from the likes of Soros, and publish articles in The Moscow Times and the Wall Street Journal about "Putin's dictatorial regime." Anything else is simply beyond their comprehension.
At about the same time the Abuse Team at the LJ began to show its ugly face. The first Russian blogs that were censored, in fact, weren't political ones. It was a bunch of photographs showing belly buttons of under-18 girls, deemed smacking of child porn. Only the sick minds of God-fearing Middle Americans, straight as dildos, could see child porn in those pictures. Nevertheless, several blogs were canned. Then came the "Kill Nato" thing. When Russian blogs started disappearing in mid-June, the first reaction among the Russian LJ community was an incredulous "What the fuck...?" Russians got used to the much freer internet, with no censorship at all. They had their self-contained community, where in fact every user could delete offending messages at his own blog if necessary. The last thing they expected was heavy-handed meddling from some dimwits at the LJ San Francisco headquarters.
And yet the LJ is much more than all these. It is also full of fun and babes -- not just sexy kittens, but also political activists of every possible color. One of the most popular LJ bloggers is a 16-year old girl known as Karisha -- the wannabe "orange revolutionary" from one of those anti-Putin youth movements that changes its name every other day. She is known to post quite impressive and intelligent messages for a 16-year old. Another is known as "Masha the Drill Girl" from her picture posing with a hefty powerdrill. She is from one of the equally flighty pro-Putin youth groupings.
A couple of weeks ago Karisha posted details and photos of a nice bitch-slapping altercation with another babe over some post in the revolutionary hierarchy. Later she admitted that it was staged, but not before lots of wild chatter in her blog and encouragement from an old lecher like myself to keep the sexy catfight going. My wife at the same time had a virtual catfight with "Masha the Drill Girl" (nothing political, really, she is just a bit partial to bubbly pretty blondes).
The LiveJournal will be sorely incomplete without one of the most colorful characters of the Russian internet -- Mr. Parker (as in a fountain pen), aka Maxim Kononenko. He is the writer of the "VladimirVladimirovich™" stories, some of which (not the best) can be seen at the Moscow Times Op-Ed page (and where 90% of the fun is lost in translation). It is a collection of satirical sketches, a bit like That's My Bush from the South Park creators, which was canned after 9/11, only subtler and funnier.
Just two weeks ago the Vladimir Vladimirovich™ collection, with numerous commentaries, was issued as a big book that instantly became the national best-seller. Kononenko is one of the most prolific authors in the Russian internet space. In addition to the Vladimir Vladimirovich™ project he also writes excellent commentaries on pop culture, is the editor-in-chief of the pro-Putin site www.dni.ru, as well as hilarious comics series http://stengazeta.narod.ru, and also www.teeens.ru -- which is redirected to www.limonoff.ru, "Dialogues of the Revolution" (a spoof on Edward Limonov, the leader of the National-Bolshevik Party and the eXile contributor), which describes mostly the adventures of the "revolutionary girls" mentioned above.
Another very popular and intelligent blog is that of Anton Nossik (the user name is "dolboeb" -- "asshole" in Russian), also mentioned in Arutunyan's article. He is a re-pat from Israel and the creator of some of the best-known web sites in Russia. Recently, just after the Iranian elections, I had an intense exchange with him and some other participants, featuring, among other things, my earlier eXile article "Give Persians the Bomb!".
The censorship case got me thinking. Soviet censorship was like wall or a fence -- visible and imposing, monumentally built but rusting and full of cracks and holes, with most people knowing how to get around it. Putin's censorship is like the leftover rubble -- with pieces of concrete and steel rods lying around, formally non-existent but occasionally making a nuisance. American censorship is different -- it is like a virus which infects the brain from the childhood, all-encompassing but barely visible. It is harder to escape it, but necessary to fight against it.