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.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory