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.'

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
New Articles
i100... with this review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
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

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam