Coffee with virtual comrades

The Net revolution has hit the former Soviet Union. John O'Mahony visits Russia's first cybercafe. Below, Paul Gosling goes telephoning in Tallinn
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Very few places on the face of the earth have proved more resistant to the communications revolution than the traditional Russian cafe. By definition it is a dingy, low-ceilinged basement framed by greasy cabinets displaying dog-eared sandwiches and mounds of salted sprat pate. In the darkened corners, surly babushkas ladle out a sugary concoction flavoured with coffee. But perhaps the real Luddite culprit here is the well-worn abacus sitting proudly on the counter. An abacus for goodness' sake, the archetypal symbol of a distant, innocent, long-forgotten, technology-free, World Wide Web-less age.

So, news of the arrival of Russia's first cybercafe comes as something of a tantalising surprise. Tucked away on a St Petersburg side street, Tetris Internet Cafe is the brainchild of a group of science and technology graduates, forced to diversify by the post-Soviet funding collapse. For the past two years, they have been engaged in what they presumed were immiscible commercial ventures, running the adjacent Tetris restaurant while also presiding over Dux, a local Internet access provider.

"We always dreamt of bringing together these two areas of our business, catering and computers," says Sasha Gregoriev, the driving force behind the cafe. "Only a couple of months ago, when I heard about Internet cafes, did it seem possible."

The result of their efforts bears little relation to what most of us would recognise as an Internet cafe. Originally designed as a grocery store, the space is divided in two, one room crammed full of computers, the other housing a microscopic coffee shop. But Tetris has one overwhelming point in its favour: the speed of its connection. In Russia, the main obstacle to the growth of the Net is the decaying phone system, parts of which date back to before the 1917 revolution.

Even the most state-of-the-art modem will only, on a good day, be able to chug along at 9,600 bps. Tetris has its own optical line and is placed strategically close to an upgraded switching station. "The connection can be much faster and more interactive. We can accommodate a greater range of services, video conferencing, for example, which would be impossible for most Russian Internet users."

Apart from the decaying phone system, the growth of the Net in Russia has been impeded by the cost of hardware, which can cost up to two and a half times the current prices in the West. In a country still caught in economic depression, this means that home computing is out of reach for 98 per cent of the population. Also, the media has not succumbed to the Web-frenzy that has gripped commentators in the West, so there is widespread ignorance about what exactly the Net is and why anyone should need it.

There are now about 100 servers operating throughout the country, and access providers can be found even in the more remote cities. Many indigenous users only subscribe to e-mail, an extremely useful and popular resource in a country where a letter, if it arrives at all, may take weeks to reach its destination. "We are beginning to get all types of customers now at Dux," says Gregoriev. "From regular people who just have an interest in technology to other users who have close connections with criminal structures. What those Mafia types are using it for, I am still not sure."

Russian business and other organisations are beginning to take the plunge into cyberspace. The St Petersburg securities market - which until recently did not exist in any form - has just gone online, and it is rumoured that the Russian lower house of parliament, the Duma, is preparing to launch its site. This may result in a Web presence for ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky as well as the Communist Party. Could this be the same party that once maintained a paranoid, state-sponsored vigil on every fax machine in the former USSR?

All of this is good news for Tetris Internet Cafe, which seems to be having few problems attracting customers. As we arrived, a group of pimply students were paying $5 an hour for the privilege of downloading pictures from the Russian Playboy.

The ultimate success of the venture, Gregoriev feels, will depend on broadening the services that he can provide. And on the Tetris ambience. While there are a few worrisome decorative features - 3D fruit arrangements lean out from the walls - he has been careful to keep to a minimum the hallmarks of the traditional Russian cafe: "This is a completely European- style cafe, a civilised place," he says. "We have some of the best coffee in town. And with three 75 megahertz computers in the next room, what am I going to use an abacus for?"