More than a year has elapsed since my friend Oleg first promised to invite me to try a dish he learned to cook during a posting to Central Asia. When the day finally came, the food was a pretext for an event of much greater significance: we had been summoned to celebrate a new arrival in the household, a Toshiba laptop computer.
"Isn't it beautiful," said an enraptured Oleg, as (a little rashly, I thought) he passed the device round the table for us to admire. We raised our glasses of Armenian cognac and Georgian wine and toasted technology. Sure, it had cost all his savings, and his summer holiday to boot. But for a couple of thousand dollars, Oleg had stepped out of one class and into another.
The former Soviet Union is fracturing into two camps. There are the minority who are abreast of the new era of information exchange. And there are the rest, who know only a Dickensian world peopled by clerks and accountants and paper-clip carriers, each one armed with a waning ballpoint pen, time to waste, an ill temper, and a platoon of deputies who do even less than they.
The question is: which side will ultimately prevail? Russians show little of the snobbery with which the British greeted the personal computer. Even now that the sneering has ebbed, and the intelligentsia has resigned itself to the inevitable I still feel the need to preface every computer- related conversation with Britons by saying (truthfully) that, of course, I wouldn't know one end of a floppy disk from another. I'm no nerd; God forbid. But in Russia no apology is required.
Only a small minority have the money to enter the information age, but they have done so with zeal. Russian newspapers can be read on the Internet. Executives - at least in cosmopolitan Moscow - have electronic mail. When I visited a local paper in the semi-derelict far northern mining town of Vorkuta last year, I was amazed to find computers, complete with software that automatically translates Russian into English (the result, predictably, being gibberish). The know-how is here, sure enough; yet so is a deep-rooted institutional reluctance to apply it in a manner that really changes the way the country functions.
Take, for example, a group of unpaid striking teachers in Rostov. Last month, they sent out a message for help on the Internet. Before long, they received instructions from another school about how to sue the city administration. Then a French lycee picked up the trail and asked the French embassy in Moscow for help. The embassy began to pressure the local bosses, who eventually raised a loan to pay the wages. And yet the local authorities went on to ban the teachers from using the Internet for "political" disputes.
There is a wariness among Russians about replacing their tried-and-tested vetting systems with anything else. The other day, I checked into a hotel in St Petersburg. Behind the reception desk sat four women, each equipped with a computer. Yet I had to speak to each one before I was finally issued with a room key. You can find explanations for this - for example, many computers are not yet linked up by modems - but other factors lie at its root.
Every country suffers from an addiction to pen-pushing. The United States government can be atrocious, and the British are no slouches in this department either. But Russians are to red tape what the West Indians are to cricket: masters of the terrain. In our office, we have computers but none so powerful as our small yellow typewriter. Times have vastly changed since the Stalin era, when all typewriters had to be registered with the authorities and mere ownership was regarded as subversive. (Even in the late Eighties obtaining Xeroxes in Russia required Herculean efforts and vetting by the KGB.) But the typewriter is still the key to reaching high places.
Such is its aura that Olga, our office manager, keeps it covered with a tea-towel, shrouded like a particularly valued icon. Only on this machine can you prepare a letter which will be deemed truly authentic in the wary eyes of officialdom. Computer print-outs just do not pass muster.
Sites to seek
Russian Internet sites