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

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.'

A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home