Yet another young Russian opposition leader has crossed the Atlantic to reach out to American leaders. First it was Oleg Kozlovsky, now Roman Dobrokhotov. Global Voices reports:
Roman Doborohotov (27) is a leader of Russian youth democratic movement “Mi” (We). He attracted media attention after he had interrupted the Russian President Dmirty Medvedev’s speech[RUS] by shouting that there were wide violations of the constitution in the country. Dobrohotov keeps his blog on Livejournal and studies political science at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. In November 2009, Dobrohotov visited the Kenan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in the U.S. where he spoke about “Mi” movement. He also talked to GVO about the Internet, democracy and online activism in Russia.
Roman, thank you for talking to GVO. Let’s start with a general question. What is the role of the Internet in Russian society?
The Internet is the only source of information [in Russia – G.V.] that is not censored. As alternatives, we have only newspaper “Kommersant” and radio “Echo Moskvy“ with, to some extent, TV channel “REN TV.” But “Kommersant” and “Echo Moskvy” also use the Web a lot as a source of information. Very often, their news sources are blogs. Most of journalists also have their online dairies.
Does the Internet help organize various opposition events?
All our activities are conducted via the Internet. Our movement is classically Internet-based. The main mechanism that creates and maintains our movement is a Google group. It is a very useful tool for sharing information. We also consider it relatively secure. We use encrypted connection. We have around 100 members of the group. Obviously, we add only people that we know. Being a member of this group is equal to being a member of our movement. The start of a new movement is symbolized by creation of a new Google group. I am a member of about ten Google groups. A Google group is an institute of civic society.
Another category is the blogosphere and particularly Livejournal.com [popular blogging platform in Russia – G.V.]. It is a broader communication sphere. And it is characterized by not only the number of people who read your blog. I have about 2,500 friends on Livejournal. The most important thing here is the “high quality” of people on the blogosphere. Among my mutual friends, there are governors, an oligarch that escaped from Russia Leonid Nevzlin, famous journalists – Ksenia Larina, for example – and various opinion leaders who have a significant impact on the public sphere and take part in public decision-making process.
They all communicate on the blogosphere because we have a tough censorship in real life in Russia. People were pushed to the Internet and successfully self-organized there. For example, we discussed the last Medvedev’s article “Rossiya vpered” [”Russia Forward” – G.V.] that, by the way, was also first published on the Internet before being distributed among traditional forms of media . Marina Litvinovich, one of the leaders of the United Civic Front [social movement in Russia – G.V.], responded to the article. It created the second wave of discussion. All the significant people on the blogosphere expressed their opinion. I also wrote a post with my reaction to Medvedev’s article. Not only because I wanted, but also because about twenty people wrote to me: “We are waiting for your response.”
The blogosphere is often treated as a kind of sublimation that replaces a real action. What’s your opinion?
The blogosphere is not responsible for the fact that people sublimate. People are responsible for their inaction. If the Internet didn’t exist, people would be discussing those issues in their kitchens. And, in that case, a number of people who do that would be very small. But on the Internet we have hundreds of thousands who talk.
I can say that there were a lot of real-life action that originated on the Internet. Someone shared an idea and it ended with a protest involving thousands of people. It is exactly what happened in the case of Sychev [a soldier tortured by his peers in the Russian army – G.V.]. The entire campaign started on the Internet. Many people took part in it and made an impact. They attracted the attention toward this case and the soldier finally received the medical care he required. The online campaign also led to implementation of shorter compulsory service in the army.
A blog is not a waste of time. It’s a place for thinking and analysis. We share our opinion and develop our strategy online. It’s much more productive than meeting in a coffee shop. The latter can be a good place for brainstorming, but the blogosphere is much more useful for deep analysis and thinking.
In addition to Google groups, we use Twitter. But we do it during our real-life actions, not before it. Since not a lot of Russian are on Twitter, everyone has only about fifteen friends. We use Twitter as a chat. When you deal with an opposition movement, it is very important that your friends can always follow you in case something bad happens. You can be arrested at any minute, for example. One of my friends was arrested on a subway. He immediately wrote about it on Twitter. The news reached Livejournal blogs and then traditional forms of media.
Do you use social networks?
Odnoklassniki.ru [one of the two most popular social networks in Russia – G.V.] is a very inconvenient platform. It is useless. Facebook it’s a great thing but it is only starting to proliferate and gain its popularity in Russia. Everyone already has a profile in Vkontakte.ru [the most popular social network in Russia with 50 million members – G.V.] and now we start to realize that the rest of the world uses Facebook. I have a profile on Facebook but we use Vkontakte.ru for our political actions. Our new project “The network of Moscow Students”[RUS] is based entirely on this social network. The great advantage of Vkontakte.ru is that it already has a category “political views” that makes it possible to find people who share similar political interests. Using this category,we already found 600 supporters. We try to create a network for distribution of information about various democratic actions so members of this group could continue to distribute those messages via their networks in universities and colleges. They can can also publish our messages on the faculty’s public boards or disseminate them using e-mail.
If we manage to create this network, we will have an ability to distribute information about particular event or campaign among millions of students within 24 hours. To have this impact, we only need several hundreds of people who can distribute this information. When we had our first meeting of the network coordinators, 30 people came. We have 600 people enrolled in our group on Vkontakte.ru and 30 is just not enough. We then asked those 600 members to join a Google group and provide us with the names of colleges and universities they attend. Only 60 people joined the Google group. It is one in ten. The problem of Vkontakte.ru is that the real-world engagement of members is very low. Everyone joins groups and even writes something on the wall but it is very difficult for them psychologically to transform their online actions into something real.
But how do you know who those people are? Some of them can be from the government.
It’s not a problem for us. We are an organization that doesn’t violate any laws. The political campaigns are prohibited inside colleges and universities but we don’t do anything on campuses. We only distribute information about our organization and it is perfectly legal.
So how do you deal with people being too passive in real life? Do you think social networks are effective in political campaigns?
We use social networks to send a message that we exist to as many people as possible. We try to connect people with similar points of view. We try to let those people know that they are not alone. It changes their self-perception and creates willingness to meet with other people just like them.
The Russian authorities try to create an illusion that democrats in the country are marginal and unable to play any significant role in politics. If people believe that, they won’t be able to create any political impact. The fascinating thing about the Internet is its ability to unite people with similar interests.
Some people claim that the Internet in Russia can have an impact only in Moscow and St. Petersburg where many Internet users live. But people in those cities comprise a small percentage of the Russian population.
It should be acknowledged that Russian authorities were very successful in developing Internet access in the country. A fiber cable reaches even remote places of Russia. It goes till the Far East. The Internet is still unavailable in villages but one can find cheap Internet access in many Russian cities. If you look at the number of comments on my blog that I get from people living in Moscow, you’ll see that it is proportional to the total population of Russia.
Are your activities limited to Moscow?
We have activities where we have active coordinators: in Cheboksary and Chelyabinsk, for example. On the other hand, St.Petersburg is a huge city, but we are very weak there. We have a lot of people from there in our online group and when we try to gather them, only two show up. We have a problem with energetic activists who understand that this kind of activities is a way to make themselves opinion leaders. It is easier to conduct a significant political campaign in a small city. Ten people will be enough to make an event visible there. Again, the problem is not Internet access but the lack of motivated people.
You use blogs for discussions and Google groups for organizing people. What about flash mobs?
We create flash mobs using Google groups. Our members brainstorm a flash mob scenario and use social networks and other open platforms to advertise the flash mob and ask people to join.
Do the Russian authorities try to control your online activities?
They can’t do anything about it. They usually try to make sure that the police arrives to the place of our campaign beforehand and arrests us.
What about different online communities that don’t approve what you do?
Someone tried to hack our Web site several times. They even managed to put “Stop condemning Putin” message on our site. But those things happen rarely.
And there is not much that can be done here. They can spam my blog with comments, but it will take one second of my time to delete them. It will take more time for them to open a new account and spam me again.
They can also to try to make provocations in real life. For instance, they hired some young ladies who invited us to an apartment and offered us drugs. They are very active on this field. And they certainly have people who provide information about us to the center “E.” It is the center responsible for the fight against extremism. And it is very effective. Sometimes we are arrested when we are only on the way to our meeting. One time we were planning to gather on the Pushkinskaya square. I was waiting for two of my friends inside a metro station. Suddenly, few policemen came, caught me by my hands and legs and took me to a police station. People around were shocked. It was a surreal picture. But it means that they are reading our Google groups and other supposedly secured sources. Actually, I don’t have any problem with it. They are welcome to read it. We have ways to make it secret anyway. We meet at coffee shops and develop codes for various places and later use these codes in Google groups. We can also change the location at the last minute.
Did you consider using any online tools to improve the security of your information?
The authorities have a legal right to ask any information from Internet providers. They have an access to everything we send through SORM 2 system. But information is encrypted and it will take a lot of time for them to decode it. The authorities can also create Internet filters or just shut down blogging services like Livejournal. But we can always work through other platforms. We can also use anonymizers and other tools like proxy services. It’s not so difficult. In general, security organizations in Russia have very unprofessional staff and it will be difficult for them to create problems for us online. They have only 20 experts in this field, but there are millions of Internet users who can challenge those experts.
There are claims that Russian Internet failed as a sphere of democracy because it exposed all the struggles inside democratic community. What do you think?
The idea of the Web that failed as a democratic sphere is wrong. We have one or two weird people who make a lot of noise about it but, aside from that, it is a very effective tool. We have only healthy discussions online. The story of Marina Litvinovich [Marina Litvinovich was expelled from the United Civil Front [ENG] party for urging members of Russian opposition movements to support the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – G.V.] was an absurd, but the Internet played a positive role even here. The committee hearings related to Litvinovich were broadcast live on the Internet. Everyone knew that hundreds of people were following it online in real time. And later thousands watched it on Youtube. This kind of transparency creates more responsibility.
And what do you think about Medvedev’s blog? Is it an attempt of Russian authorities to influence public opinion on the blogosphere?
First, I really like the fact that I am more popular on the blogosphere than Medvedev. He may have more friends on Livejournal, but my Yandex rating [rating of Russian blogs by Yandex.ru – G.V.] is higher. Medevedev’s blog only underlines the unique role of the Russian blogosphere that includes such important bloggers as governors, oligarchs, politicians, journalists and other opinion makers.
But is it a real change in Kremlin’s approach to new media or just another attempt to conduct a PR campaign?
Obviously, it is cheap PR. But the question is why Medvedev decided to conduct his PR campaign on Livejournal. It only confirms the fact that traditional media are totally censored in the country. The real discussions are pushed to another platform: the Internet. Medvedev legitimizes this claim by his appearance on Livejournal. His appearance says: “People, I acknowledge the fact that TV is not a sphere for discussion.”I think he also laughs when he watches some Russian TV programs. That is why he decided to become a blogger.
And what do you think about various initiatives of the Russian Parliament to introduce Internet regulations. Can those be a threat to your movement?
It is a threat to Russian government. If they try to regulate the Internet, they will get 15 million people who aggressively oppose it. No one wants Big Brother to follow her on the Internet. There are lots of online communities that prepare to fight against Internet regulations.
Russian people have a tendency to think that everyone is spying on them. In any online discussion group, you will find ten percent of people who always disconnect a battery on their mobile phones before they say the word “Putin” in real-life conversations. It is a part of our mentality. But it might also be good for us because this fear will only increase the tension that will follow any attempts to regulate the Internet.
Actually, I would be glad if the Russian authorities try to restrict the Internet. They won’t achieve anything by it. We always will find a technological solution to bypass online censorship. But it can create a wave of protests. It could be very helpful if the apolitical community online protests against Medvedev. It can promote group solidarity. But I am pretty sure that Medvedev won’t let it happen.
There are few initiatives in the U.S. that try to help young liberal leaders from all over the world to use Internet for their activities. What’s your take on that?
We don’t need any money because the Internet is cheap. We know how to use it and if someone doesn’t, there are a lot of easy ways to learn. But we need help with building Web sites. We have very few people who know how to do it and even they do it pretty bad. If someone could create a web platform that might be adopted for various political movements and include social networking elements, it would be great. We had an idea to create a social network for independent journalists from different regions in Russia that would allow those journalists to tell stories about different problems in their regions. The same concept can also work for other projects.
What will be the role of the Internet in Russia in the future?
I think the civil society will function better on the Internet since the authorities won’t be able to control it effectively. Chinese authorities are more effective in online control but they focused on it right when the Internet emerged in China. And even they have a lot of problems with controlling the Internet.
If economic crisis gets worse, the authorities will cut all independent Internet sources because it is impossible to control them. It will significantly increase the number of public protests.
If Russian authorities don’t do it, the Internet will continue to be a place where liberal organizations and groups thrive. The number of Internets users in the country is growing and the number of such organizations grows with it. Different blogging platforms and Facebook will become more popular. It will help eliminate all remaining attempts to control the Web and, in this way, the Russian civil society will win.