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"We really aren't sure what's happening at this point," said one U.S. official. "We have no independent knowledge of what's going on," said another.
Phone lines between the USSR and the U.S. were reportedly down. But somehow my friend Oleg, whom I had met two years earlier when I visited the Soviet Union as a student, managed to get a message through to me in New York using the fax machine in the office where he worked as a translator. In frenzied desperation, he wrote:
I don't know how long it will be possible for me to use this channel of sending information. Situation is changed every minute. Two hours ago all Soviet Radio and TV programs began to read official propaganda messages of State Committee of Extraordinary Situation, which was organized last night...So, it is military coup d'etat.
Some independent Moscow broadcasters were stopped working this morning. Very popular independent broadcasting "Echo of Moscow" was turned off at 7:55 a.m. after they told that tanks are near Moscow. You can It imagine what I do feel now. I am afraid of civil war.... If you need any information from me send me fax A.S.A.P. This is only thing that I can do now for my poor country.
I was working as an intern at a national weekly magazine at the time. We were, of course,hungry for information about the putsch. I quickly scribbled a reply, asking my friend a number of questions. Three hours later, there was another fax from Oleg:
There are a lot of tanks in the city. I counted more than 40 in my district. They are going to Kremlin. Downtown is full of tanks and soldiers. 1 have seen more than three battalions near the American embassy. There are many guns and cannons in the center of Moscow.
People here are shocked...waiting for information about what's happened. All broadcasting and TV programs are still transmitting propaganda documents I wrote about before...All mass media are under control now. It's terrible.
In a handwritten scrawl at the bottom of the fax was a postscript: "The clouds are gathering over the city. It'll be storm."
Over the next few days, a truly historic battle for freedom was waged in what we now call the former Soviet Union. But curiously, there were no more faxes from my friend. Only on August 26, a week after his initial message, were we able to reestablish contact. By that time, the world had learned that the pro-democracy forces had successfully put down the coup. A fax from Oleg explained his silence. just hours after he had sent his second message, his international phone service had been cut off.
"What could I do? So I spent two nights and one day near our 'White House.' It was like a dream, but Kafka dream...In any case, today I live in free country. A lot of things are changed or going to be changed very soon. We have revolution now."
We have revolution now. Oleg was referring literally to the transition from Soviet communism to free-market democracy that was sweeping Eastern Europe—a series of events that signaled the end of the cold war and the rise of global capitalism. But there was another remarkable shift implied by the way in which he and I were communicating. Back in 1991, fax machines were still new enough that Oleg's ability to transmit instant, detailed reports of the Soviet Union's demise halfway across the world seemed itself to be revolutionary.
The newly minted independent media in the USSR had been neutralized by the old guard. In the West, journalists and heads of state alike were groping for the facts on the ground. Meanwhile, my humble twenty-one-year-old pal was able, for a time, to bypass official channels of communication to provide a firsthand account of a nation in tumultuous transition.
Oleg's ability to get information out of his country was actually only half the story. The revolution in Eastern Europe that took place between 1989 and 1991, owed much to the fact that new technology allowed dissidents to receive information—information that the ruling elites did not want them to have. This was a classic chapter in the ongoing historical relationship of technology to knowledge, and knowledge to power.
The highlights of this epic are familiar. In the wake of Gutenberg's fifteenth-century printing press, the availability of noncanonical religious tracts, most notably Luther's Ninety-five Theses, challenged and ultimately undermined the authority of the Roman Church. As printed works became available, individuals could for the first time begin to exercise real discretion over their information intake and their beliefs. As a sixteenth-century historian described it, "Each man became eager for knowledge, not without feeling a sense of amazement at his former blindness.
As printing methods improved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, books circulated more widely, and literacy and education blossomed. The scientific advances of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton became widely known. The Enlightenment philosophies of writers like Locke, Rousseau, and Paine found an audience—Paine's "Common Sense," for example, sold 120,000 copies in three months—and ultimately popular expression in the rise of the republic in Europe and America.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the advent of mass media—the rotary press, penny papers, photography, film, radio, television—helped to pull together increasingly large communities and to spur cohesive modern nation-states. In certain parts of the world, like the United States, constitutional safeguards led to the emergence of a vibrant free press. In areas like the Soviet bloc, however, mass media mostly meant an information monopoly for state propagandists. Industrious folks behind the iron curtain might have managed to procure some clandestine samizdat materials. But with their gulags and secret police, the autocrats still had the upper hand in the battle over the free flow of information.
During the late cold war years, though, as satellite, video, and microprocessors proliferated, it became increasingly difficult for dictators of the world to regulate knowledge. Oleg and I were a case in point. From the time we met in 1989, I had been faxing him clips from the Western press and peppering my messages with the latest news about uprisings in the communist satellite states. And this kind of information was flowing in to Oleg and others like him via other electronic media, as well. In the Baltics, television broadcasts from Northern Europe, including reruns of American programs like Dallas and Dynasty, seeped across the border. Video—and audiotapes with dissident messages circulated throughout Eastern Europe's underground. (In fact, when I visited the USSR in 1989, the most valued Western commodities were not Marlboro cigarettes or blue jeans, as conventional wisdom had it, but blank cassettes.) And in universities throughout the region, computer users were starting to keep in touch with colleagues around the globe using a growing computer network that would come to be known as the Internet.
The same uninhibited exchange was going on around the world. In China, the students of Tiananmen Square faxed pleas for help to the West and received faxes from supporters abroad giving them vital information and encouragement. In Central America, activists used shortwave radio to communicate with allies in the U.S. In short, technology was gradually giving individuals everywhere the ability to take control of information that was once parceled out exclusively by the state. Corrupt officials might have succeeded, for a time, in exercising their military might, but their efforts to hide the truth from their own people or the outside world were becoming futile...