Out of Russia: Lack of humour hurts the great info-highway

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The Independent Online
Moscow - The easiest, but still bumpy, entry ramp to Russia's great information super-highway begins at a ramshackle building on the Moscow ring road, opposite a Stalin skyscraper built in more purposeful times for the Ministry of Transport and Construction.

It is best not to drive. Take the Metro. The ring road, eight lanes wide and forever under repair, is pitted with potholes, pockmarked by piles of rubble and frozen in a near perpetual traffic jam.

Anatoly Voronov, who looks out on this mess from the window of a tiny office with plywood walls, can almost sympathise with bureaucrats across the way who are responsible for Russia's crumbling highways.

'It is a lot easier to build from scratch than rebuild something already there,' says Mr Voronov, a trailblazer into the largely virgin territory of Russian cyberspace. 'We were lucky. We started from absolute zero. We offer transport and build the roads.'

Mr Voronov is director of Glasnet, a computer network that not only connects Russians with each other - no small service when it takes weeks for a letter to get from one end of the country to the other - but also with some 20 million people around the globe connected to the Internet, the world's biggest open network for computer messages via phone lines.

In a country where special permission was once needed to use a photocopier, the near limitless vistas of such uninhibited communication can seem dizzying. E-mail or elektronnaya pochta is still very much a novelty - the Independent's Moscow office has only just joined. It also tends to be very serious. 'People have to pay from their own pocket,' says Mr Voronov 'They don't do this for fun.'

On offer from Glasnet are dozens of electronic 'billboards' catering, for example, to greens concerned with Lake Baikal, aid workers in Siberia and just about anyone worried by nuclear radiation. Messages tend to be dull: 'Some notes and thoughts about forestry work in Katen,' begins one. A few are more intriguing. A Finnish academic asked for information about 'highly radioactive junk metal' he believes the Russian navy is smuggling out of the country through Estonia.

The earnest tone reflects Glasnet's origins. It was set up three years ago with a dollars 17,000 ( pounds 12,000) grant from the Association of Progressive Communications, a sober, non-profit organisation based in San Francisco and Brazil. For those interested in money, there are other Russian networks, the largest of which is Relkom. This is if you want to sell 100,000 cans of Frankenmarkter beer at 750 roubles a can, as did one Moscow trader yesterday.

Just as information now seeps through all borders, so too do the quirky enthusiasms of global cyberspace. From only 70 users in 1991 Glasnet now has nearly 2,000. 'Ask Me About My Lobotomy,' pleaded one user yesterday. Two others had this computer conversation: 'The first drug addict has popped up. What should we do: evict, re-educate or put him in a cell and charge admission?' The response: 'I suggest we use for commercial purposes.'

To try to stop such gibberish gatecrashing more serious forums, Glasnet set up a Russian-language bulletin board, or conference, for jokes. But freedom, it would seem, is not the handmaiden of humour. 'This conference is dying. Is there no one out there with a sense of humour?' asks one message.

The jokes are feeble. On offer yesterday: 'A boy phones up and asks, 'can I have Masha please?' Masha's mother replies 'she is not here'. Says the boy: 'I know. She is here with me. I repeat my question: 'can I have Masha'.'

Most Russian entrepreneurs have been slow to catch on, though a few, such as Konstanin Baravoi, head of the Economic Freedom Party, now list E-mail numbers on their business cards. 'Most of our so-called businessmen have prehistoric minds. They want to make money from air,' scoffs Mr Voronov. Slower still are the apparatchiks, who cling to an exclusive but often wonky official phone system built originally for the party. 'These people will never understand anything other than how to keep their cars.'

Before taking up computers, Mr Vorontsov worked as a journalist for Moscow News, a Spanish translator in Cuba and a consultant on an electricty pylon project in Angola. But, he insists, he never joined the party and despises today's nomenklatura too: 'I just ask them to keep their noses out of what we are doing. That is all. They have their own work. But I doubt that in 10 years the roads in Russia will be better. They may be worse.'