Too Much Free Time

by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
russia, twitter, usenet

How The 1991 'Usenet Revolution' In Moscow Predates The 'Twitter Revolution' Claims

from the technology-does-what-technology-does dept

With all the pointless talk about whether or not Twitter/Facebook were somehow instrumental in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, Shocklee points us to an interesting predecessor: the mostly forgotten news of how some geeks in Moscow used Usenet during a 1991 coup attempt to spread news around the world, even as the official media was totally cut off:
USSR, August 19 1991: While Mikhaïl Gorbatchev was on holiday in his datcha located in Crimea, Eight apparatchiks attempted to seize power over the state. Hostile to reforms, the “Gang of Eight” tried to prevent the Perestoika reforms and the loss of their satellite states. These eight orthodox Communists launched an attempted coup d’état by installing themselves as The State Committee of the State of Emergency. After Gobatchev returned he tried to restore order and save face, but it was clear that this episode would eventually lead to his downfall.

In this well documented event, there is an interesting historically episode which is often overlooked. During the two days of the coup the Russian media was shut down, and thus not covering Boris Yeltsin ranting on top of a tank for the crowd, nor the shock of the international community. All channels were blacked-out except for one; Usenet, which is the grandfather of chat-rooms and is capable or surviving without the Internet. For these precious 48 hours, a few dozen individuals contributed to this last means of communication with the outside world.
Obviously, it's not an identical situation to what's been going on today, but there is an interesting parallel, about how people gravitate to tools of communication in such events. And, no, I'm not serious about the "Usenet revolution" claims, but it is neat to see what was effectively an early version of the way that people in various countries have used today's online social networking tools to communicate with the outside world. At the very least, it's a fun historical read, that covers a story that many folks probably know nothing about.

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  1. icon
    Emil A. Georgiev (profile), 15 Feb 2011 @ 11:41pm


    I can remember that time quite well. Was the first time I heard of "e-mail" -).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 16 Feb 2011 @ 12:13am

    For Some Reason, That Reminds Me Of ...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    Chris Maresca (profile), 16 Feb 2011 @ 12:48am

    Wasn't the only channel...

    ... or perhaps even the largest - people also used FidoNet extensively. I was running an import/export company at the time and we specialized in sending consumer goods to the former Soviet Union. FidoNet was one of the only reliable ways to communicate as it could take days to get a phone line.

    Quite frankly, I don't remember anyone using Usenet - all the communications I ever heard off and did were through FidoNet. Even CNN was using FidoNet to file reports...

    AFAIK, most Usenet servers were in universities, not exactly bastions of independence at the time, while FidoNet was largely run by independent volunteers. But what do I know ;-)


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Feb 2011 @ 4:17am

    There is one huge difference

    There is one huge difference.

    That was computers being used to communicate to the outside world.

    This is computers being used to communicate to themselves. Communicating to the outside world is just a side effect.

    And today we have many more people who use computers to communicate, so the effect is greater.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Pickle Monger (profile), 16 Feb 2011 @ 4:31am


    Wow. Didn't know about that. I'm going to remember this next time some fucktard brings up the "nerd in parents' basement" argument.
    Ironically though, the communications inside the country and in Moscow specifically, couldn't have been less "offline". I remember lots of people constantly running back and forth, updating friends and family in person. Nobody trusted the phones all that much as it was generally assumed that they were tapped.
    And when the 1993 events rolled around people were so jaded that most just went about their business and just watched the news after work.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Mike Meyers, 16 Feb 2011 @ 6:40am

    Re: Wasn't the only channel...

    I have to agree with Chris here - even to the point of challenging this report. As I remember it was FIDONET that was getting through. Usenet was using the same internet mechanics (I'll assume university links) as anything else (like email) and would have been easily cut off. The distributed nature of Fidonet would make it nearly impossible to shut down.

    I'll leave this to others to properly research.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    jsf (profile), 16 Feb 2011 @ 6:43am

    Re: Wasn't the only channel...

    There was some crossover between FidoNet and Usenet. It was mostly FidoNet carrying Usenet groups, but there were a few Echomail conferences that were gatewayed to Usenet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Feb 2011 @ 10:37am

    I'm too young to have used Usenet and FidoNet much (I just use gmane as a cleaner interface to mailing lists) but one thing that always struck me about the older protocols is how much added robustness you can squeeze out of a protocol designed to deal with intermittent connectivity.

    In some sense, we're experiencing a bit of a renaissance in that sphere, what with distributed version control like Git/Hg/Bzr and tools like TiddlyWiki. (Many people use TiddlyWiki as a personal wiki, but it's actually designed with the intent to be used as a teaching wiki in places like Africa where Internet connectivity is sparse, intermittent, slow, and expensive like early developed-world network links and includes a plugin-backed system for behaviour akin to git pull/push)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Sirius (profile), 22 Feb 2011 @ 7:43pm

    Re: Wasn't the only channel...

    I seem to remember most usenet servers (at least the larger ones) also carried a FidoNet feed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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