The Russian Internet: Between Kitchen-Table Talks and the Public Sphere

 The Russian Internet. Fractal art by Eugene Gorny.

Internet metaphors are drawn from the pool of available cultural forms and, therefore, they reflect cross-cultural differences. Thus, the metaphor of “surfing the Internet,” which was widely used for some time (before search engines made this activity outdated), had distinctly American roots and referred to the widespread sport and entertainment activity virtually unknown to most Russians. In Russia, with its colder climate, different type of coastline, and different cultural habits, the closest analogy for surfing would be “sledging,”Eugene Gorny, “Amphiblestronic Fragments,”, (1999). but this metaphor has never been used. However, other metaphors which reflect the Russian historical experience and do not find direct analogies in other cultures have come into common use. These are the metaphors of samizdat and kitchen-table talks. In this article, I trace the origin and permutation of these metaphors as well as their interplay with the concept of public sphere. I argue that the actual use of the metaphors which interpret the role of the Internet in the Russian society has been influenced by both the changing political context and the historical dynamics of the Internet itself.

One of the prominent characteristics of Russian culture is a traditional differentiation between public and private life. Although this differentiation can be found in any culture, it is especially conspicuous in Russia, where the Internet in general and online media in particular has often been understood as an alternative or opposition to the “official” Russian media system. The use of such terms as kitchen-table talks and samizdat shows a continuity of historical experience. The alienation between the government and the people, as well as the underdevelopment of civil institutions, results in the fact that the Internet in Russia has become a substitute for the public sphere, much the same way as Russian literature substituted for civic institutions in the previous époque.

To understand the correlation between public and private on the Russian Internet and to assess its shifting role in the life of society, it is useful to consider it in the context of the dynamics of Russian mass media. The reaction to the Soviet information policy, which deprived the people of their voice and reduced their role to passive consumers of propaganda, was the development of private communication spaces such as kitchens, where people could freely express their opinions and discuss actual issues, even if in an altered state of consciousness. The re-alienation of media in the 2000s led to the revival of Soviet kitchen-table talk culture, the only difference being that now the kitchen has moved into cyberspace.

The birth of the Internet in Russia coincided with the époque of glasnost (from glas or golos meaning “voice”). It is not by chance that the name of one of the first Internet Service Providers in Russia – GlasNet – was coined by combining the Russian word glasnost and the American word “network.”A. Gagin, “Glasnost’ + Network = Lyubov” Internet, N.8 (11), (1998). The Internet as an open communicative space gave users the opportunity for direct expression and enabled them to overcome the limitations of “underground free-thinking” and dissident speech taking place behind the closed curtains. Moreover, the access to information and the opportunity to disseminate information actualized another metaphor – samizdat.

Samizdat literally means “self-publishing,” but it combines two different meanings which emphasize either “self” or “publishing.” It is the practice of making and distributing copies of forbidden works, which ranged in the Soviet Union from dissident political pamphlets and unauthorized scientific works to poetry by Akhmatova and Mandelstam and erotic literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. Wikipedia“Samizdat,” defines samizdat as a “grassroots strategy to evade officially imposed censorship in the Soviet-bloc countries wherein people clandestinely copied and distributed government-suppressed literature or other media. The idea was that copies were made a few at a time, and anyone who had a copy and access to any sort of copying equipment was encouraged to make more copies.”

The Internet, from the very beginning, has been perceived in Russia as a space of free expression and a means of escape from any kind of censorship and regulation. The typological similarity between the Internet and samizdat of the 1960s and 1970s seemed self-evident in the 1990s:S. “Pust’ poka vsego chetyre kopii (Samizdat bez politiki),” Russkij zhurnal, (1998). both involved technology (then a typewriter or tape recorder and now computers and the Internet) and were used by individuals to produce and distribute information independently from the state’s control.

 The Russian Internet. Fractal art by Eugene Gorny.

Although samizdat and the Internet have been compared, the differences between them have also been noticed, and their context and function often contrasted. The historical samizdat was limited both by the number of copies it might produce and by the size of the audience in which the copies circulated. The Internet removed these limitations by giving tools of self-publishing to any user and by making copying virtually effortless. However, the democratizing potential of the new media which gave “power to the people” has also been considered as a cause of deterioration: the gain in quantity meant the loss in quality.

Samizdat in Russia traditionally combined political and literary connotations and this ambivalence has persisted on the Internet. Aleksander Zhitinsky called the Internet and the technology of print-on-demand “samizdat of the 21st century”A. Zhitinsky, “Samizdat XXI veka,” Russian Journal, (1999). and was the first publisher who introduced print-on-demand and ordering via the Internet as a means of distribution for contemporary literary works. Numerous literary websites made literary samizdat a reality of daily life. On the other hand, websites of various political orientations used the Internet to promote their political views. Both types of websites aimed also at stimulating public discussion. The later corresponds to Habermas’ concept of public sphere as a realm of social life to which all citizens have access and where public opinion is formed. The possibility of open discussion on the Internet and the formation of online communities seemed to make this public body reality, if even in the virtual space.

Unlike kitchen-talks and samizdat, the concept of the public sphere was not homemade but borrowed from the West. Since it was less “natural,” it provoked more reflection. It has been often perceived as an “official” or “artificial” concept and criticized or, at least, “estranged” as not wholly applicable to Russia’s reality. The Internet has often been regarded by Russian users as the only real public sphere, unlike the official simulacrum of the latter., a web site launched in early 1998, first as a section of, and devoted to publishing political news and commentaries on a daily basis, was notable for its deliberate orientation to the non-official style of “kitchen intelligentsia” talk about politics. Another precedent, as LejbovR. Lejbov, “Bessrochnaya ssylk:. Vypusk ot 9 marta 1998 goda,” Russkij zhurnal, (1998). wittily noted, was the genre of “talks with the television,” i.e. remarks mumbled by someone who drinks tea and watches a TV news program. This stylistic manner made very dissimilar to “official sources”; it attracted readership and influenced the style of Russian political journalism. Historically, the experiment had an interesting parallel with Vzglyad, one of the most popular television shows of the perestroika époque, which was conceived by its producer Anatoly Lysenko as an imitation of “candid and unpredictable … kitchen-table conversation.”H. Smith, The New Russians (London: Hutchinson, 1990), 166. On the other hand, the innovation of Levkin,A. Levkin, “‘Polit. Ru’ ot chastnogo lica,” Russkij zhurnal, (1998). the editor and a leading author of, consisted in the application of the style which had already prevailed on the Russian Internet, to political topics.

The style referred to speech genres and constructed the author as a private person. Online columns of so-called web observers, the most popular of which were Anton Nosik’s Evening Internet and Alexander Gagin’s Paravozov News, each, in its own way, followed these stylistic principles.

Besides individual authors, non-formal and colloquial style was a characteristic of online group discussions. This fact allowed proclaiming guest books as a “new form of literature.”Eugene Gorny, “O gestbukakh,” Internet, 15, (1999). Various systems of self-publications propagating on the Russian net also promoted freedom of the public speech of private persons. A good example is the “open electronic newspaper” that provided tools for self-publishing to authors writing on political issues. The editorial intervention was minimal, and anybody who had something to say could say it aloud on the web site.

Among the most vivid examples of electronically assisted samizdat are Russian online libraries created by enthusiasts without much regard for copyright. Almost any book published in Russian can be found and freely downloaded online. The Russian Internet has virtually managed to realize the hacker ideal of free information,S. Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984). in contrast to the “Western” Internet in which copyright and commercial concerns have severely limited the range of online publications and creative production in general.See, for example: L. Lessig, Free culture: how big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity (New York: Penguin Press, 2004). The proliferation of online libraries in Russia is a result of a specific attitude toward property,M. Maly, Russia As It Is: Transformation of a Lose/Lose Society. (2004). especially intellectual property deeply rooted in Russian culture, which tends to disregard private interests for the sake of a common cause. Copying and distributing intellectual property on the Russian Internet is usually unselfish. Its leading motive is not profit, but love – of an author or his work. In most cases, the authors have no objections because the popularity of their works online indirectly stimulates sales of their intellectual product in the real world.Eugene Gorny , “Problema kopirajta v russkoj Seti: bitva za ‘Goluboe salo’,” 17, Internet, (2000). This attitude has found a parallel and has been reinforced by the ideas of early cyberculture problematizing the concept of intellectual property in the digital world.

If online libraries provide free access to the wealth of creative work of others, then online literary web sites stimulate creative endeavors by providing a means of distribution for a users’ own work. Literary sites with self-publishing facilities, such as Samizdat at Moshkov Library or and others members of the National Literary NetworkL. Vishnya, “Problemy Sazonova (‘Proza. Ru’ i ‘Stihi. Ru’): Literatura v ‘Nacional’noj literaturnoj seti’,”, (2004). are notorious for encouraging “online graphomania”H. Schmidt, “Literaturnyj russkoyazychnyj internet: mezhdu grafomaniej i professionalizmom,”, (2001).   (i.e. compulsive and prolific writing producing results of a low aesthetic quality) by giving everyone an opportunity to publish his or her literary work without the mediation of gatekeepers (publishers, editors, critics, etc.), normally unavoidable in “traditional” publishing. Unlike an electronic library, literary self-publishing web sites realized another meaning of samizdat: the distribution of one’s own works rather than the suppressed works of others. Maksim Moshkov, the creator of the largest online library on the Russian Internet, launched within it a self-publishing section. In an interview,I. Ovchinnikov, “Internet ub’et kino, vino i domino (interv’yu s Maksimom Moshkovym),” Russkij Zhurnal, (1997). he acknowledged the functional similarity between traditional and electronic samizdat but stressed their quantitative difference, consisting in the fact that “before, one of a thousand got published and now every fifth person can be published.” Web sites which provide free hosting for personal home pages such as (a Russian variation on Geocities) belong to this group.

Kitchen-table talks and samizdat have sometimes merged on the Internet. Talks are ephemeral because of their oral nature; when they are written down and made public, they may acquire qualities of samizdat. A typical example of this process is the publication of jokes. Jokes and humorous stories, or, in Russian, anekdoty, are an essential element of unconstrained kitchen-table talks. They can be political or politically indifferent, decorous or indecent, self-sufficient or occasional. They are a modern form of folklore that promptly reflects everything that happens in life. Jokes from Russia, a web site launched in 1995 by Dima Verner, has become a depository for this genre of people’s creativity. Verner has published jokes emailed by users without any censorship, acting as a mediator between the private situation of joke telling and the wider public. The result of this samizdat activity in a double sense has been the tremendous popularity of with Russian Internet users.

The dialectic of private and public speech is a conspicuous feature of blogs. Since 2001, the blogging service (or, as the Russians call it, Zhivoj Zurnal or simply ZhZh) has become the largest discussion center of the Russian Internet. Its blogging facilities, the ability to configure readership and communities, and its non-Russian jurisdiction made it very attractive for Russian users. A host of Internet celebrities and intellectual and cultural figures also contributed to its popularity with the masses.Eugene Gorny, “Russian LiveJournal. The Impact of Cultural Identity on the Development of a Virtual Community,” In Schmidt, H., Teubener, Konradova, N. (Eds.). Control + Shift. Public and Private Usages of the Russian Internet. (Norderstedt: Books on Demand, 2006) 73-90. LiveJournal, as well as the Internet in general, has often been described by Russian users in terms of kitchen-table talks, samizdat, and the public sphere. These terms have rather divergent connotations. Thus,samizdat emphasizes the idea of grassroots publishing, while the public sphere conveys the idea of open discussion. The concept of “public sphere” has sometimes seemed too serious and obliging to be applied to “anarcho-communist” formations such as the Russian LiveJournal (RLJ). The opposition between the “official media” and the blogosphere seems to be very similar to the historical opposition between the dullness of Soviet propaganda and the freedom of expression and communication in kitchen-table talks and samizdat. However, the actual correlation between the “official media” and uncensored online discussions is far from being clear. Thus, it is unclear how candid or provocative posts on RLJ could correlate with the users’ work in official media (many of RLJ popular users are journalists), and to which extent RLJ’s influence, even if indubitable, can produce a perceptible change to the Russian media system.

Eugene Gorny was born in Novosibirsk, USSR. In 1991, he graduated from the University of Tartu, Estonia, with the equivalent of an M.A. in Russian philology and library science. From 1996-1998 he was Editor-in-chief of From 1998-2000 he worked for Russkij Zhurnal, where he edited the Net Culture section. He has also participated in a number of online literary projects, such as Setrevaja Slovesnost, the Russian Virtual Library (RVB), and the Fundamental Digital Library of Russian Literature and Folklore (FEB). The title of his Ph.D. thesis is “A Creative History of the Russian Internet.”