10.11.2004
Nationality: Cyber-Russian
№4 2004 October/December

Critics of
the Internet often demonize it as a homogenizing force that
eradicates differences among peoples and threatens cultures. While
this assertion may have some validity, cyberspace also offers great
promise for the preservation of identity and national culture.
Through computer-mediated communication, nations – especially
challenged nations like the Russians in the ’Near Abroad’ (a
geographic term used by Russia to describe the newly independent
states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia,
Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan,
Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus) – have the ability to maintain and
reinforce their identity in new and compelling ways. Anthems,
legends, genealogies, histories, photographs, manuscripts and other
tangible assets of national culture are being protected,
distributed and accessed in cyberspace.



 

Furthermore, the Internet in conjunction with other
information technologies has significantly contributed to the
so-called “death of distance,” thus lessening the need for
individuals or communities to have face-to-face contact in order to
build and maintain strong ties. Access to the Internet is a
significant and measurable impact on the ways in which members of
the Russian nation manage their identity in today’s
post-international world.

 

National
minorities are especially well served by the emergence of
cyberspace. Historically, national minorities have been
marginalized by their states of residence and – in the case of
geographically distributed peoples – cut off from contact with
their co-nationals residing in other states. The dynamics of
communication and consumption on the Internet has broken the
state’s monopoly on information distribution and disrupted the
ability of the political, cultural and economic elites – that is
those representing the “core nationality” – to dominate thought,
common sense and everyday assumptions within societies.1 The unique
nature of the Internet allows dispersed peoples to (re)create the
bonds of community without regard for propinquity2 or, as Rob
Kitchin phrases it, “cyberspace thus offers us the opportunity to
reclaim public space and recreate the essence and nature of
community on-line.”3

According
to Kurt Mills, “Territorial boundaries are rendered meaningless as
bits and bytes, electrons, data, faxes, and images speed along
fibre optic cable, up and down satellite links, and through the
matrix of cyberspace.”4

 

By
utilizing ever more powerful search engines that scour the World
Wide Web for content, influential individuals among national
minority communities are now able to virtually connect with
millions of people who share their interests, ideas and even
prejudices. Unlike novels, newspapers, motion pictures, satellite
TV, etc., “cyberspace is not a broadcast medium with a few
producers and many consumers, but rather a decentralized
communication system where individuals are both the consumers and
the producers… cyberspace is interactive; users can choose what
information they receive and send.”5 The ramifications of selective
consumption and community-building for national minorities,
previously at the mercy of elite-dominated media platforms, are
substantial. The Internet has eliminated the barriers of distance
and time between widely dispersed ethnic groups creating conceptual
contiguity among members of these groups. This, in turn, enables
the creation and maintenance of virtual nations in cyberspace by
elites with Internet access.

 

SOVEREIGNTY AND NATIONS IN DIGITAL SPACE

 

The
emergence of cyberspace, which I define as the evolving,
public/private conceptual space created and sustained through
electronic interactions of humans over the Internet, is an exciting
development for those interested in political authority. As an
alternative spatial dimension, cyberspace creates virtual
perforations in the Westphalian structure of international
relations and has important ramifications for domestic politics, as
well. Ronald Deibert, Saskia Sassen, Rob Kitchin and others have
pointed out the challenges that the Internet poses to sovereignty
of nation-states, especially when combined with transborder
political action. If we look at cyberspace as a geography, it
becomes readily apparent that nation-states are vastly
underrepresented in virtual space versus real space.6

 

Internet-based communications and political activity conducted
within and across state borders have highlighted the increasing
porousness of the state in the postmodern, postinternational age.
As Falk states, “The communication space of the Web has the
potential to be simultaneously more universalistic and more
particularistic, and this mirrors a world in which national
boundaries are becoming more permeable.”7 Thus, cyberspace may be a
harbinger of the coming neo-medieval world predicted by Bull and
others.

 

Through
existing structures of communication and new computer-mediated
forms of interaction, Internet-enabled elites among national
minorities have begun to challenge the state’s domination of
culture production which has traditionally been maintained through
control of the media and a monopoly on the education system.
National minorities have found their voice in cyberspace and are
increasingly converting virtual identity politics into very real
political action in the “offline” world. (Arturo Escobar calls this
“tacking back and forth” between cyberpolitics – political activism
in cyberspace – and political activism in the “physical location at
which the network sits and lives.”8)

 

As Laura
Engel and Patrick Murphy state, “the Internet is dramatically
redefining the nature of social relationships between nations and
challenging cultural sovereignty by creating an increased sense of
borderlessness.”9 Nations are, of course, composed of living
breathing individuals that inhabit actual space in “real”
countries. However, national identity is on the whole a mental
construct which is just at home in the digital corridors and
cul-de-sacs of cyberspace as it is in an Irish pub, an Armenian
church or an Arab street. Mills states, “Given that all communities
are imagined, constructed in the minds of the members, it is not
surprising that such communities could appear or be strengthened in
cyberspace.”10

 

The
Internet is emerging as a powerful tool of empowerment for minority
nationalities with access to the Web as a platform for the
expression of national identity. Cyberspace thus functions as a
hearth around which the challenged nation can gather without fear
of attack from outside agents. Sherry Turkle suggests that “virtual
communities are non-threatening environments in which traditional
methods of exclusion governed by sex, race and class are rendered
meaningless. They offer a way to resist many forms of
alienation.”11

 

Cyberspace, due to its private nature and ease of use, also
allows for challenged nations to engage in nationalist rhetoric. As
Frank Louis Rusciano points out, the Internet endows marginalized
groups “the ability to ’tell one’s story’ [and] affect one’s
political conditions.”12 And as Kacper Poblocki points out, the
Internet unlike the telephone and other forms of mass-mediated
communication naturally leads to nationalist discourse because of
its very structure. Hypertext, like written language, is a powerful
vehicle for nationalism. However, unlike other media, the Internet
is horizontal thus creating new opportunities for the creation of
communities.13 And as Maya Ranganathan states, “The Internet
combines within itself features of a newspaper, radio and
television” making it a truly powerful medium indeed.14 Hypertext
pushes the envelope even further by inviting audience participation
in nearly every situation.15

 

As Saskia
Sassen puts it, “Digital space, whether public or private, is
partly embedded in actual societal structures and power dynamics:
its topography weaves in and out of non-electronic space.”16 Roma,
Vlachs and the Metis, therefore, can expect little advancement of
their interests in cyberspace since their cause has been thoroughly
ignored for the centuries prior to the advent of computer-mediated
communication. Other nationalities, e.g., the Russians in the Near
Abroad, Serbs in Bosnia and other Balkan states, Magyars in Romania
and Slovakia and Europeans in Southern Africa, by logical
extension, can expect strong support from various quarters due to
their “special” role in history as imperial minorities.

 

Increasingly, cyberspace and real space are influencing one
another. I am especially interested in the changes occurring in the
post-socialist world where there is an ongoing “redefinition of
almost the entire fabric of everyday life.”17 As the concepts of
“self” and “other” are redefined in the former states of the Soviet
Union and communist Central and Eastern Europe – all states with
significant national minorities and burgeoning Internet usage –
cybernational identity building is especially relevant.

 

IMPERIALISM IN THE WORLD WIDE WEB

 

Russians
in the Near Abroad, who are likely to be more tech-savvy, apt to
live in urban areas and to have a college education than their
indigenous counterparts (with the possible exception of the Baltic
states), have been well-positioned to take advantage of the
Internet’s possibilities for national identity building.18
Russians, who were pitifully prepared for the information
technology revolution a decade ago, have made remarkable strides.
Today, Russian is the tenth most popular Internet language and
growing rapidly.

 

Russia is
increasingly becoming a global center for high-quality, yet
inexpensive, information technology specialists. Use of the Russian
Web has grown exponentially in recent years and Russians are
rapidly gaining on Indians as the outsourcers of choice for global
corporations. According to Richard Leslie, director of the London
office of the outsourcing firm DataArt, “[Russian outsourcers] are
committed to putting St. Petersburg on the map and making it an
established leader in IT.”19 Cane suggests that Russian national
identity in the Information Age is increasingly tied to success of
its IT workers on the global stage.

 

The
combination of “intense patriotism,” information and communications
technology and Internet activity represents a potent force with the
potential to impact the Russian portions of cyberspace. And with
more than a million Russian outsourcers tied to the Web on a daily
basis and a total of 18.4 million Russians online,20 cyber-Russians
represent a strong online community by any standard.

 

Russians
have built digital bridges to compatriots in the Russian
Federation, other post-Soviet states and even farther afield (the
U.S., Australia and Western Europe), thus resewing the seams of a
nation with little regard for the boundaries of states and
providing a textbook example of Engel’s “communities without
propinquity.” The Internet is an increasingly important tool for
communication between ethnic Russians in the Near Abroad,
nongovernmental organizations who support their rights in places
like Latvia and Estonia, and actors in the Russian
Federation.

 

Some
Web-surfing Russians in the former Soviet republics have begun a
policy of what can only be called cyberimperialism. Certain elites
have effectively colonized portions of cyberspace in a quixotic
attempt to re-establish national dominance of particular regions,
albeit in conceptual rather than real space.

The
Russians of the Near Abroad represent a model case for national
identity building projects in cyberspace. They are marginalized in
their states of residence based on nationality; there are large
numbers of co-nationals online in both the “motherland” and other
countries; and they are increasingly accessing the Internet in
their states of residence.

 

MENTAL
MIGRATION
AND IRRATIONAL
IDENTITIES

 

Cyberspace
provides national minorities with a vast, uncharted space where
they may imagine, manipulate and strengthen national identity free
of state control or interference. In cases where the national
minority is in contact with well-funded, Internet-savvy
co-nationals in the territorial “homeland,” state sovereignty will
be especially challenged as marginalized minorities embark on
weekly – even daily – trips of “mental migration” in the conceptual
landscape of cyberspace. In cyberspace, minorities can virtually
coalesce with their co-nationals leaving behind the harsh realities
of marginalization in a state dominated by an “alien” nation. As
Keleman and Smith state, “Through control and management of the
stimuli and proliferation of images, individuals may be more able
to protect themselves from a real world that has become
increasingly dangerous and difficult to manage.”21

 

The
collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 brought forth a host of new (and
resurrected many old) identities onto the world stage. Politically
ambitious elites deftly made use of the national question to
maintain and increase their power in the waning years of the Soviet
Union. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, these demagogs often found
themselves at the apex of new state structures. The new situation
brought with it new challenges. The long-enduring facade of the
Soviet nation cracked to reveal a cacophony of competing
nationhoods and irredentist movements – many of which were
contradictory. It soon became apparent that the Soviet nationality
policy had both created national competition where none had ever
existed and plastered over older, deep-seated, pre-Soviet ethnic
conflicts, thus creating an often volatile mixture.

 

Cyberspace
has enabled a samizdat world where anyone with access to an
Internet-enabled device and a modicum of knowledge about Web design
can impact public and private opinion on almost any issue without
interference of government censorship, editorial review boards or
any other information regulating entity. The Russian residents of
the nationalizing states at the periphery of the Russian Federation
have begun a large-scale process that involves the reshaping of
identity in a globalized world. For them, the Internet provides a
valuable tool for locating one’s place in the world and affecting
change.

Arjun
Appadurai has eloquently described the democratizing effects of the
new technologies on “imagination,” especially the contrived notions
of state and national identity. (Appadurai argues that technology
has enabled imagination to become a collective, social fact no
longer tethered to art, mythology or ritual or dependent on
charismatic individuals who would manipulate imagination for their
own ends.22) Among the Russians beached by the ebbing of the Soviet
Union’s borders, imagination is an extremely powerful force
affecting newly minted, yet incontestably weak states and
re-emerging, re-invigorated nations. The Internet has ended
Benedict Anderson’s statist elite monopoly on national projects,
yet it is impossible to see how this will ultimately affect
sovereignty. However, the dynamics of computer-mediated interaction
undoubtedly allow multiple polities to attempt to define, re-invent
and rediscover nationally-based identity. As Appadurai states,
“Even when long-standing identities have been forgotten or buried,
the combination of migration and mass mediation assures their
reconstruction on a new scale and at larger levels”23 – what Yale
Ferguson and Richard Mansbach would call the “living
museum.”24

 

As the
historical shock troops of modernity, and to a lesser extent
globalization, the Russians occupy a unique niche in postmodern,
post-international society that enables them to manifest some of
the traits that Appadurai predicts for a new paradigm based on
“complex, non-territorial, postnational forms of
allegiance.”25

 

The
Internet is being used by these cyber-Russians as a tool to
resurrect the universalist identity that the Soviet Union was
founded on. During much of the 20th century, the U.S.S.R.
represented a massive geopolitical space that was a world unto
itself. Russian functioned as a world language in this space – a
lingua franca that almost everyone you would meet would understand.
For cyber-Russians residing in Latvia, Kazakhstan, and the other
non-Russian newly independent states, cyberspace is a godsend. It
allows them to relieve their feelings of ethno-national and
linguistic claustrophobia. Once one logs onto the Web, the feeling
of being hemmed into a restrictive imaginary evaporates. As Kurt
Mills states, “[A] revolution is taking place with the digitisation
of identity, the wedding of selfhood and the electronic age, the
redefinition, or, conversely the reification, of communal identity
via cyberspace.”26

 

By
entering Russian Web space, traumatized Russians are able to
construct conceptual contiguity, thus enabling their identity which
has been increasing challenged since 1991 to be fulfilled. In
cyberspace, no one judges you for using Russian rather than Latvian
or Kazakh, and in fact, the use of Russian is vastly preferable
since much of the Web’s content is in Russian. On the Web, a
cyber-Russian is no longer a minority in a “small” country, but
part of a community of tens of millions that stretch from Brooklyn
to Berlin to Kyiv to Moscow to Vladivostok and beyond.

 

According
to Homi K. Bhabha, “The social articulation of difference, from a
minority perspective, is a complex on-going negotiation that seeks
to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of
historical transformation.”27 For Internet-savvy national
minorities, that time has come. Periods of revolution and war have
provided such opportunities in the past (albeit on lesser,
non-global scale), but today we are seeing a massive shift in
communicative practice which allows for Bhabha’s “on-going
negotiation” to be taken to a much higher level. The Internet is
affecting the ways that regional elites view their own place in the
world. Despite the ominous predictions of Rogers Brubaker28 and
others who saw the Russian minority in the Newly Independent States
becoming a sort of fifth column for irredentist activity on the
part of the Russian Federation similar to that of Germany in the
interwar period, I found no evidence to suggest that cyber-Russians
would accept or assist in such activities.

 

The danger
of social isolation from the community of propinquity however needs
to be addressed as ethnic minorities deepen their interaction with
distant nodes. As Joel Kotkin put it, “By abolishing the need for
face-to-face contact, the Internet increases loneliness and social
isolation, expanding virtual networks that lack the intimacy of
real relationships nurtured by physical proximity. Reliance on
electronic communication can lead, research suggests, to too much
disengagement from real life.”29 National minorities may prove
especially susceptible to this phenomenon. There is the danger that
“the virtual [will] become a form of narcosis, providing
individuals with ’alternative realities,’ which trick their senses
through technical manipulation.”30

 

The
likelihood of cyber-Russians forming irrational identities is also
extremely high. As Mills states, “One can upload pictures and
stories and histories that

might
contribute to a feeling of connectedness and nationhood. But …these
tokens will pale in comparison to actually seeing the real thing,
feeling the presence.”31 Identities created on the Internet tend to
be ephemeral and can often be constructed with little regard to
reality.32 Such identities which are not forged by the sometimes
harsh daily experiences of going to grocer’s, standing in line at a
government office, visiting a cemetery, going to the doctor, etc.
are not as hard-wired and, therefore, are much more likely to
wither under stress. Michel Maffesoli’s concept of the neo-tribe is
especially helpful here. Neo-tribes are the intentional,
changeable, ill-defined local communities of which we are members
at various points in time but which lack significant control over
the actions of an individual.33 Using Internet expressions to
describe this situation, members are “opt-in” participants in the
nation, but can quickly “opt-out” if the conditions change.
Furthermore, identity building in cyberspace – whether in its
formation, maintenance or re-articulation forms – fails to meet
many of the requirements of nation-building. Such complications
will certainly provoke new and interesting questions about the role
of nationalism and national identity in a networked, globalized
world. It is clear, however, that the Internet is increasingly
functioning as a salve for the psychic wounds inflicted on the
Russian “beached diaspora.”

 

Bibliography

1 Blevins,
Jeffrey Layne. Counterhegemonic Media: Can Cyberspace Resist
Corporate Colonialism? In: Ebo, Bosah (ed.). Cyberimperialism?
Global Relations in the New Electronic Frontier. Westport, CT:
Praeger, 2001, p. 140.

2 Engel,
Christoph. The Internet and the Nation State. In: Engel, Christoph
and Heller, Kenneth H. (eds). Understanding the Impact of Global
Networks on Social, Political and Cultural Values. Baden-Baden:
Nomos Verlagsgellschaft, 2000.

3 Kitchin,
Rob. Cyberspace: The World in Wires. Chichester: John Wiley and
Sons, 1998, p. 11.

4 Mills,
Kurt. Cybernations: Identity, Self-Determination, Democracy and the
’Internet Effect’ in the Emerging Information Order. Global
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5 Kitchin,
Rob. Ibid., p. 74.

6 Falk,
Jim. The Meaning of the Web. The Information Society, Vol. 14,
1998, p. 288.

7 Falk,
Jim. Ibid., p. 288.

8 Cited
from: Emory, Margot and Bates, Benjamin J. Creating New Relations:
The Internet in Central and Eastern Europe. In: Ebo, Bosah (ed.).
Cyberimperialism? Global Relations in the New Electronic Frontier.
Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

9 Engel,
Laura B. and Murphy, Patrick D. Cultural Identity and
Cyberimperialsim: Computer-Mediated Exploration of Ethnicity,
Nation and Censorship. In: Ebo, Bosah (ed.). Cyberimperialism?
Global Relations in the New Electronic Frontier. Westport, CT:
Praeger, 2001, p. 187.

10 Mills,
Kurt. Ibid., p. 70.

11
Keleman, Mihaela and Smith, Warren. Community and Its ’Virtual’
Promises:

A Critique
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Vol. 4,
2001, No. 3, p. 376.

12
Rusciano, Frank Louis. The Three Faces of Cyberimperialism. In:
Ebo, Bosah (ed.). Cyberimperialism? Global Relations in the New
Electronic Frontier. Westport, CT: Praeger,
2001.

13
Poblocki, Kacper. Online National Communities. Polish Sociological
Review, Vol. 2, 2001, No. 134, pp. 221-246.

14
Ranganathan, Maya. Nurturing the Nation on the Net: The Case of
Tamil Eelam. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Vol. 8, 2002, No. 2,
p. 53.

15
Ranganathan, Maya. Ibid., p. 54.

16 Sassen,
Saskia. The Impact of the Internet on Sovereignty: Unfounded and
Real Worries. In: Engel, Christoph and Heller, Kenneth H. (eds).
Understanding the Impact of Global Networks in Local Social,
Political and Cultural Values. Baden-Baden: Nomos
Verlagsgesellschaft, 2000, p. 198.

17 Young,
Craig and Light, Duncan. Place, National Identity and
Post-Socialist Transformations: An Introduction. Political
Geography, Vol. 20, 2001, p. 942.

18 Emory,
Margot and Bates, Benjamin J. Creating New Relations: The Internet
in Central and Eastern Europe. In: Ebo, Bosah (ed.).
Cyberimperialism? Global Relations in the New Electronic Frontier.
Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

19 Cane,
Alan. Russia’s One Big Chance to Play Catch-Up. The Financial
Times, September 4, 2002.

20 Global
Reach. Global Internet Statistics. http://www.glreach.com/globstats/.
Downloaded August 22, 2003.

21
Keleman, Mihaela and Smith, Warren. Ibid., p.
376.

22
Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of
Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996,
pp. 5-6.

23
Appadurai, Arjun. Ibid., p. 156.

24
Ferguson, Yale H. and Mansbach, Richard W. Remapping Global
Politics: History’s Revenge and Future Shock
(forthcoming).

25
Appadurai, Arjun. Ibid., p. 166.

26 Mills,
Kurt. Ibid., p. 69.

27 Bhabha,
Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994, p.
2.

28
Brubaker, Rogers. Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National
Question in the New Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1996.

29 Kotkin,
Joel. The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Shaping the
American Landscape. New York: Random House, 2000, p.
169.

30
Keleman, Mihaela and Smith, Warren. Ibid., pp.
376.

31 Mills,
Kurt. Ibid., p. 72.

32
Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity and Identity on the
Internet. London: Routledge, 2002. Negroponte, Nicholas. Being
Digital. New York: Vintage, 1996.

33
McKerron, Morag. Neo-Tribes and Traditional Tribes: Identity
Construction and Interaction of Tourists and Highland People in a
Village in Northern Thailand.