Saturday, January 29, 2011

Before the Twitter revolutions, there was the Usenet revolution

Polina Antonova and Eugene Peskin operating Kremvax, the link between
Relcom and the West

The first example of relatively large-scale citizen journalism online was during the August 1991 coup attempt by eight high-level Soviet officials. There were two days of confrontation between demonstrators and troops, during which all Russian media except Usenet news groups were shut down by the authorities. Usenet, a precursor of today's Internet discussion forums, carried traffic into, out of and within Russia (70 cities) during the days of the coup attempt.

One of the quotes from that time foreshadows subsequent attempts to shut the Internet down. Polina Antonova of RELCOM, the Unix distributor that operated the network wrote:
They try to close all mass media, they stopped CNN an hour ago, and Soviet TV transmits opera and old movies. But, thank Heaven, they don't consider RELCOM mass media or they simply forgot about it. Now we transmit information enough to put us in prison for the rest of our life.
After two tense days, the coup failed and president Mikhail Gorbachev was restored to power. For more on the role of the network during the coup attempt, see:
The following video clip (3:13) was part of a documentary on the Internet. (It includes a short interview of me at the time -- no white hair :-).

Usenet played a relatively significant role during the Soviet coup attempt, but there was also some Usenet traffic during the 1989 Tienanmen Square protests. Everyone is familiar with the heroic image of the unidentified man stopping a column of tanks on June 6 1989 -- the day after troops had opened fire on protesters.

But, there was some Usenet traffic as well. Olivier Crepin-Leblond has saved a description of the situation that was posted by a Sun Microsystems employee on May 23. It describes the optimistic time before the storm, beginning with:
The situation here seems getting better and better. All army members are blocked outside Beijing city. The people’s life in the city looks as normal as usual.
Here is a movie clip of the tank man at Tiananmen Square:

This clip was not on the Internet at the time, but it is today -- providing a dramatic view of a heroic act and illustrating the futility of China's attempt to erase the memory of the event.

Update 8/20/2016

Slate has published a relatively long post entitled "An act of courage on the Soviet Internet" on RELCOM's role during the Soviet Coup attempt of 1991. The article describes my involvement at the time, but fails to link to the archive of the network traffic and other material, which is available to historians and others interested in the event.

I believe this was the first example of active citizen journalism involving the Internet. The Internet has given us a means of documenting historical events in detail -- "big data" for historians. We need a mechanism for discovering and preserving such archives.

Update 1/12/2017

Mark Graham, who relayed news over the Sovam Teleport link during the Soviet coup attempt, just sent me an article on their activity at the time. Unfortunately, the data they transmitted and received has been lost. Our archive is still online at the State University of New York site mentioned above and, even better, it is online at the Internet Archive.

Update 7/7/2018

For an excellent article on the role of RELCOM in the Soviet Coup attempt, click here.


  1. Anonymous10:32 PM

    Do you know what happened to her of RELcom? It would make a good movie.

  2. Polina is doing fine, after years of being a productive Web developer in San Francisco she decided to downshift and pursue her real passion - cooking:

    Relcom is still around, though over the years the core engineering team drifted apart (quite a few people, including Polina, ended up in US) - and it lost its dominant position in the market, being surpasses by younger and well-capitalized network providers.

    1. I just saw this comment and it may be very old. Were you at Relcom?

  3. I never understood usenet was such an important and useful information gathering tool during 1991. Looks like we came a long way since then. It's good to see services like Giganews Reviews is still around. Now we can send tweets from our phones, chat in real time over 3g networks, and virtually have a mobile computer in our pockets. Very exciting times.