The Story Of A Failed Soviet Coup And The Birth Of Cyber Activism

Features Writer
03.16.17

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Social media and other internet communication tools are often thought of as timewasters and welcome distractions, but they’re also vital cogs that help people run businesses, convey information, and both maintain and establish relationships. Simply put, this is how life is shared — we can riff on the small things in life and experience the big moments with friends and family even when they are geographically far from us.

It’s funny to think that we couldn’t even imagine this kind of development 25 years ago, when we were less connected through our devices to the larger world (but maybe more connected to the world and people directly in front of us).

People had an eye on the future, though. In 1979, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis created with the first ever UseNet, an online forum where users could share news and information. With no central server or group administrator, it was pure, unchecked information sharing, which helped lay the groundwork for the RSS feeds that are still used today. This led the way to Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), which allowed users to interact with one another in addition to sharing content. Next came Internet Relay Chats (IRC) in the late 1980s, the precursor to both Instant Messaging and Social Media.

But while it’s fun to look back with appreciation on the role that IRC and those other communications tools had in providing the foundation of the modern internet, it’s imperative that we realize that its legacy also had a heavy hand in shaping activism and the free spread of truth. Because, while these tools let us shrink the world and be closer to one another, at the same time, they also allow us a chance to illuminate it in times of war and unrest. In Egypt and Tahrir Square. In Ferguson and Dallas. Wherever camera phones, a few seconds of video, or a burst of words can capture a moment. And perhaps the first instance of that happened in the Soviet Union thanks to IRC and a group of brave programmers.

The full story of Valery Bardin and his fellow programmers at DEMOS can be found in The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan (as excerpted by Slate in August of 2016), but the basics give insight into how this bold action laid the track for other useful acts of techno-rebellion.

The Soviet Union’s first internet connection was established in August of 1990 with a network was dubbed RELCOM. By the summer of 1991, it was in use by more than 400 facilities throughout the Soviet Union, including universities, research institutions, and high schools. While connecting people across Russia, it also reached out beyond the borders of the motherland.

Locally, DEMOS had office space in two locations: the Kurchatov Institute and a mansion off the banks of the Moscow river. When messages were relayed to a connection in Helsinki, Finland, they were then linked to UseNet, where the information could be accessed by anyone with a connection.

Far from the mainstream and barely a blip on the radar, the KGB (Russia’s notorious spy service) paid the DEMOS offices a visit. Imagine the delight when those agents were unable to fully grasp DEMOS’ capacity to move information across the globe. Particularly in hindsight, considering the tense moments that were set to follow in Russia and DEMOS’ role in undoing a coup.

By August of 1991, food, fuel, and medicine were scarce, inflation was so bad that employers couldn’t afford to pay their salaries, and there were substantial fears that some republics would secede with Russia in crisis. A group of loyalists to the Communist Party (known as “The Gang of Eight”) saw this as the fallout from the capitalistic policies of then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and attempted a coup to overthrow him and his government.

The day the coup began, the DEMOS offices were visited by a man who represented Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s then-second in command. As Soldatov and Borogan explain, Yeltsin’s associate was on the hunt for photocopiers to help spread the word of Yeltsin’s appeals against the coup, but when he found out that a direct connection to cities across the west was available, the ball got rolling on a far more effective information campaign. This was vital considering the Gang of Eight’s efforts to silence all but a handful of state-controlled newspapers, as well as TV and radio stations during the coup.

That’s the thing with information, especially in the internet age: once it’s out in the world, there’s no real away to control its spread or gauge its impact.

From The Red Web:

On the first day of the coup someone in Bardin’s team came up with an idea they called Regime N1: to ask all subscribers of Relcom to look out the window and write back exactly what they saw—just the facts, no emotions. Soon Relcom received a picture of what was happening throughout the country, disseminating the eyewitness reports from subscribers along with news reports. It became clear that the tanks and troops were present only in two cities—Moscow and Leningrad—and the coup would not succeed.

The coup attempt collapsed on Aug. 21. Overall, during the three days, Relcom transmitted 46,000 “news units” throughout the Soviet Union and around the world.

This all because a group of programmers refused to let the signal run out.

While the fallout from the coup eventually helped undo the Soviet Union, RELCOM’s effort redefined what it meant to cover a story in the media. Suddenly, the narrative was in the hands of the people, and their posts told the real story to the rest of the world.

Of course, while the information gathered from the RELCOM network was telling the story, much of the media coverage at the time was absent any mention of IRC’s role in helping to thwart the coup.

Compare that to Egypt in 2011 when the world recognized the power of protesters who took to the streets and they used Twitter and other facets of social media for the same ends: raw, unfiltered information dispatched from the ground level. This time, however, their reliance on social media was not only central to the narrative, it became the gold standard for activism in the digital age.

As we’ve all seen in the US with the Black Lives Matter movement and other protests, the ability to communicate crucial information in real time via social media is vital to the effort of informing the public. The Periscope feed of activist DeRay Mckesson’s arrest and the sit-in in congress to protest a lack of action on gun control measures (after cameras were turned off) are prime examples. But there are so many that allow our eyes and our minds to truly get a sense of what action looks like — unedited and uncut. And with no authority to moderate or authorize what’s said, the spirit of tools that were first utilized in the Soviet Union in 1991 remain invaluable in gathering, organizing, and sharing these snapshots of what the world looks like at any given moment.

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