Nationality: Cyber-Russian

10 november 2004

Robert A. Saunders

Resume: Cyberspace 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’ – have the ability to maintain and reinforce their identity in new and compelling ways.

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 Society, Vol. 16, 2002, No. 1, p. 69.

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 of Cyberlibertarian Rhetoric. Information, Communication & Society,

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.

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