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CURRENT TIME presents A documentary series by Andrey Loshak InterNYET: A History Of The Russian Internet Episode 1 It is hard to believe that this elderly man from a wealthy San Francisco suburb is one of the founding fathers of the Russian Internet. A scholar, a visionary, an idealist, and a businessman, Joel Schatz liked to test the limits of consciousness when he was a young man. Psychedelic experiments not only produced a dramatic increase in my perception of the interconnectedness of all elements of life. Why is it that, when we're not using these drugs, everything seems disconnected? My answer was: 'Well, it's because we need to develop information tools for helping the brain put those separate pieces of reality back together into whole patterns.' In the heat of the Cold War, Schatz came to the Soviet Union to build communication technology. There, he made friends with a like-minded Soviet mystic, visionary, and entrepreneur -- Joseph Goldin. Goldin was also obsessed with the idea of cross-border communications. He organized the first U.S.-Soviet Space Bridges. I’d like to say that commercials have a lot to do with sex in our country.
Do you have such commercials on television? We don’t have sex here and we're very much against it. We do have sex. We don’t have commercials. It’s all a mistake. Goldin was a passionate believer in the power of television. Schatz chose a different way. He made an arrangement with the Moscow Research Institute for Applied Automated Systems, or VNIIPAS. It was the only organization in the Soviet Union that had a dedicated line to the West. I made a proposal to connect computers. [Director Oleg Smirnov] accepted the idea on the premise that we would not ask permission from the security services. We would call this an experiment. Because to call it an experiment was not really official. So we began our work on an experimental basis to connect computers between the two countries. This is the first TV report about the precursor of the Internet: international teleconferences at VNIIPAS. Thanks to the author of this report, biochemist Anatoly Klyosov, we can see what the net looked like before the web was invented. To connect to a base computer in another country,
in this case in Canada, I type a short command, and the connection is established. The system offers me a so-called menu. It informs me that I have five new messages since my last login: two from Sweden -- I can see it right away -- another one from the U.S., and then from Finland and New Zealand. Then it shows me new messages in my teleconferences. A new agreement has been signed in Moscow about a new joint Soviet-American company like none other. The official name of the new organization is SovAm Teleport. This is Oleg Smirnov, director of VNIIPAS. This is John Schatz, director of the San Francisco-Moscow Teleport. It will be possible to send a chart or a letter to San Francisco, New York, or Canada.
This new Soviet-American joint venture, SovAm Teleport, will boost the ongoing democratic process in our country and help find proper partners in all areas. You really wanted to make friends with America, didn’t you? I don’t think we 'wanted to make friends.' We wanted to be part of the civilized world. SovAm Teleport was the first Internet service provider in the U.S.S.R. Two years later, Schatz returned to the United States. I never imagined that, as an adult, I would spend my entire life building telecommunications companies in Russia. I was more interested in normalizing relations, so the world would actually not go into nuclear war. The time we decided to leave Russia things were really normalizing. It was a very optimistic time, so there was no reason for us to stay there. He was a goof-off who’d been kicked out of the U.S. Army. He lived in a forest with a tribe of hippies, experimenting with LSD.
It was San Francisco in the late 1960s. It’s easy to imagine. He must have had a vision about the world -- a world that would make communication between people easy. When we meet now, I say to him, 'Everyone’s communicating with everyone, but they hate each other even more.' And he says, 'That must be human nature.' The spread of the Internet coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Schatz and Goldin's dream came true. The Iron Curtain fell in both the real and virtual worlds. I was 25 or so. I was hanging out with [performance artist Slava] Polunin, with artists and musicians: Obermaneken, Kino, Boris Grebenshchikov. What else could you ask for? The open world beyond the Iron Curtain attracted them. They staged crazy performances.
They once took an SS-20 strategic ballistic missile transporter, put Polunin and other clowns on it, and drove it to Red Square. There was no permission for this event. The police didn’t stop them. They assumed that they had permission from the highest authorities. And this was typical of Joseph. We're all so young, slim, and beautiful here. That’s me with a ponytail. Because I was an IT guy. SovAm Teleport later changed its name to Rossiya Online that was later sold to Golden Telecom, which later was acquired by Beeline for a record $4 billion. The enterprisng hippy Schatz woke up a rich man. We became wealthy. And again, this was a real shock to us because what took us to the Soviet Union in the first place was not a desire to make money. It was a desire to be helpful, introduce Russians and Americans so the world would be safer. Of course, it wasn't just Californian hippies who helped create the Russian Internet. After invading Afghanistan, the Soviet Union found itself under sanctions.
However, a group of developers made a Russian version of the Unix operation system, secretly brought from America, and they used it to build a network. Many Unix developers worked at the computer center of the Kurchatov Nuclear Energy Research Institute. It was a network of scientists who enjoyed horizontal communication. It hadn’t been the case before. If you needed some data from another institute, you had to file a request with your boss, who’d pass it on to the boss of that institute, who’d pass it down to his staff. Yes, anyone could contact anyone. There was an intensive exchange of articles, experiment results, etc. This photo shows the Soviet developers awarded by the Soviet government for the Demos operating system, a Russian version of Unix. These young scientists successfully adapted a piece of advanced software for use on obsolete Soviet computers. The government chose not to punish, but to encourage that. They gave everyone an award: a medal, a diploma, and 480 rubles.
It happened in the Kremlin, in this very hall, under the dome you can see from Red Square, the one behind Lenin's Mausoleum. This picture was taken when we went outside. In Red Square. That’s how this famous photo was made. That’s my dad. Mikhail Paremsky. Are any of these people here at the table? Here’s Rudnev. That’s Yegoshin. He still has the same haircut. I never liked suits. Natalya Paremsky, the widow of programmer Mikhail Paremsky, is celebrating Maslenitsa (Shrovetide) at her house in California. Her old Unix developer friends are among the guests. It was a spontaneous decision. Paremsky laid his hands on some Unix tapes and brought them to the Kurchatov Institute under his clothes.
People got interested. That wasn't an order from the Communist Party or the government. Those people were enthusiasts. We were all friends. It was similar to the Soviet bard movement. Our souls were in it. The Soviet Union always encouraged any research intended for the military. So, it was no surprise that nuclear physics centers were the first to be connected to the net. The Institute for High Energy Physics was aimed at cooperation with CERN and, partly, America. Many labs took part in joint experiments, so communication was very much needed. The only available channel was a phone line in the director’s office. It was given to me. I connected it to a modem and set up an email server on a Soviet computer running Unix.
It was a breakthrough. For an hour, we could write to a dozen people from all over the world and receive a reply. There was no control! It felt like a completely new experience. In 1991, a coup attempt happened. As state TV channels broadcast the ballet Swan Lake, Internet providers were telling the world what was happening. It became clear that the Internet could be an alternative source of information. We set up a node at the Kurchatov Institute and a backup node at Demos. We exchanged information. There were reports like this: 'I’m at this address now. I see tanks going by.' Then, Yeltsin made his speech and we communicated it right away. I called all my friends, begging them not to go to the barricades, but instead do their jobs, which was much more important.
At least once a week, computer programmer Aleksei Rudnev tries to fly over San Francisco Bay to 'clear his head,' as he says. A legendary UNIX developer, awarded by the Soviet government, he left Russia almost 20 years ago, just like many others in that memorable photo. At first, the Internet was run by former researchers and former lab chiefs. They were very honest, but very inexperienced in business. In the late 1990s, businesspeople took over, and it all became more about business than technical issues. It wasn’t as interesting, so people started looking for new jobs. Some of them found jobs in the States. I think about 60% found new jobs; maybe a bit more among those who moved here, but that’s an approximate figure. As they get together, the founding fathers of the Russian Internet often talk about the motherland that didn’t need their talent. Those were the 1990s, the era of 'wild capitalism.' Programmers were pushed to the side. It turned out that raising money, buying a channel, or renting an office were more important issues. At first, programmers were the most important people, but then businessmen took over.
The whole system changed. It was clear that technical specialists wouldn’t be needed for quite a while. Or rather, they wouldn’t be in charge. They’d be playing second fiddle. So many left. Like you did? Yes, that’s why I left. It was clear that people like me wouldn’t be needed for quite a while. Have programmers always been appreciated here? But, of course! In the early 1990s, most Russian Internet users were scholars and PhD students at universities and research centers in the West. That accounted for a high IQ level across the Russian Internet. Initially, it was the time of computer geeks from America. They were, of course, Russian speakers, but they had already integrated into the U.S. system. It was a common expectation that if you’d come to the Internet, you’d definitely speak English. You had to be intellectually qualified for the Internet.
The first people to come to the Internet were from universities or at least IT companies. There were no mediocrities among them. Some of them were weird or crazy, but certainly not banal. There was something interesting about them. In 1993, the World Wide Web came into existence. Browsers made the Internet accessible not just for scholars. By 1994, we had received another dedicated Internet channel at the Department of Mathematics. And we started building web pages, like everyone else. We didn’t know much about it. We just knew that you had to design a web page in a certain way. I went to the CERN web page, which might have been the first web server in the world. There was an About Me section for the creator of the HTTP protocol. We downloaded it. It said what his name was, that he’d created the Mosaic browser and the HTTP protocol, something about his hobbies and his picture.
Our guys replaced the name and the picture and suddenly they all had personal web pages. That was how 'copy and paste' worked: We knew nothing, but knew how to copy stuff. When I was in the United States in 1994, I found a website called Dazhdbog’s Grandsons. It was made by Sergei Naumov, a PhD student at some U.S. university. There were instructions on how to install Cyrillic on a Unix workstation. After four years of living abroad, I was so excited when I finally saw Russian words. The Russian Internet was so small back then. Now, we tend to draw the curtain on how it all started. But there was a term that we used back then: 'Two girls per hour.' It was the time of FidoNet and 1200-baud modems. It took an hour to download two erotic pictures, and there was nothing you could change about it. Was it that slow?
Yes, hence the phrase, 'Two girls per hour.' I beg your pardon. Artemy Lebedev Studio is celebrating its 23rd anniversary. Now it has almost 300 employees and thousands of completed projects. When the web appeared, Russia’s 'Designer No. 1' wasn’t even 20. He lived with his parents in the United States and had a hobby -- computer graphics. When I came back to Russia, I was the first to make websites for money. My first clients in 1996 and 1997 were Hewlett-Packard and the Central Bank of Russia. I made the Russian parliament's first website. I was sitting in my kitchen, and the clients would come to me because there was no one else to go to. I worked day and night, doing what would later take five people to do. My working day lasted 36 hours. I pulled down the curtains and had two 2-liter bottles of Coke and pizza. That was my only fuel. That and cigarettes. From here, we can see Yury Lotman. And here, we can still see him, with some effort.
Now, Lotman starts to disintegrate and turns into Cthulhu. At a time when communication speed was 'two girls per hour,' the Internet was more about text than pictures. It is symbolic that several pioneers of the Russian Internet were students of Yury Lotman, a legendary professor at the University of Tartu, Estonia. Lotman coined the term 'semiosphere.' The idea is that people are surrounded by signs that they themselves produce. The arrival of the Internet made us realize what the semiosphere actually was. Another of Lotman’s students, Dmitry Itskovich, owns a chain of popular bars today. In the mid-1990s, his apartment on Kalashny Pereulok in Moscow hosted Russia’s first online magazines: Zhurnal.ru and Polit.ru. This was the birthplace of Russia’s intellectual Internet. We had a modem and probably the first ethernet in Moscow. A beam from my apartment reached the nearby Academy of Sciences, which was our Internet provider.
I had five computers in one of the rooms. Someone would always sit there and create something. We set up the first IRS conferences with [writer-artist] Dmitri Prigov, the Auktsyon band, and [writer] Victor Pelevin. Was it possible to call Pelevin and ask him to do something back then? What do you mean? He’s not talking to anyone now. We offered the real thing. It was a breakthrough. He sat in the corner behind the door. So no one could see him? He was narrowing the space around him. It was a huge, formerly communal, apartment in decrepit condition. It was huge and dreadful, swarming with cockroaches. There was no heating, but the windows faced the Kremlin towers because it was the top floor. There were many rooms and hallways. You could run into [blogger] Anton Nosik in one room and Artemy Lebedev in another. Once I came there and met them all.
People would come and go. Someone would be writing an article. Andrei Levkin was sitting in a corner, making Polit.ru, the first real political news site. Someone would be playing rock 'n' roll nearby. That’s what the Russian Internet looked like at first. We were the first to publish Anton Nosik, [writer] Linor Goralik. The editor in chief, Evgeny Gorny, wasn’t bad, either. They were strong, substantive, and very lively people who enjoyed life and alcohol. Bands like Markscheider Kunst, Auktsyon, Tequilla Jazz practically lived there. It was a bohemian life. There were at least 12 people at dinner every night. Did you live there permanently? Yes. Did you have an apartment of your own? No, l lived in that one. Then I thought I’d had enough and moved it all to clubs like the OGI Project.
Itskovich and his partners opened the OGI Project, the first venue in Moscow where one could buy both books and alcohol. He lost interest in the Internet. The romantic era had ended. Making money offline was easier and more fun. At some point, there was so much text published on the Russian Internet that online literary awards came into fashion. The most famous one, Tenyota, started with a slap in the face of public taste. In 1997, Kirill Vorobyov’s novel Lower Pilotage was submitted under the pen name of Bayan Shiryanov. The organizers were shocked. It was a novel about drug addicts, where people made and used drugs. There were hallucinations and horrible scenes that could compete with [novelist] Vladimir Sorokin’s books. I think it was Anton Nosik who started the scandal by putting Shiryanov on the list of nominees. Some members of the jury wanted him off the list.
Others were opposed, and said that we'd agreed to accept everything, that it was an open and honest competition. [Writer Boris] Strugatsky had the final word, and he said that [Shiryanov’s book] was a piece of literature even if it described what looked more like the life of aliens. So it was accepted for competition. Shiryanov’s scandalous novel won the award. A year later, the writer gave a special prize to the award winners: a stack of copies of the pornographic newspaper Yeshcho. Shiryanov was sharing the stage with the would-be deputy head of Vladimir Putin’s administration, Sergei Kiriyenko. It was possible at that time. There was a drive to break stuff. It was very punk rock. What else do young people do? That’s how things work. You put the system to the test. Even touching this book is disgusting! In the early 2000s, the pro-Putin Walking Together movement launched a smear campaign against Sorokin and Shiryanov. Lower Pilotage was withdrawn from bookstores,
a criminal investigation was opened against Shiryanov. Bayan Shiryanov repeated the fate of his characters. A few years ago, he died of cirrhosis in poverty and oblivion. Girls are gonna come, Girl are gonna wash out My stomach and my liver. I’ll be young again. I’ll be healthy And fervid. One of the most fruitful branches in the RuNet genealogy leads to Jerusalem. In the early 1990s, a group of recent repatriates became friends. We went to Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem to sinг, just for fun. It’s a major pedestrian street, just like the Arbat in Moscow. We wanted to sing songs and try to make some money. People did throw in a few shekels and a pack of potato chips. It was a lot of fun. These three people would become important figures for RuNet. Revazov and Nosik went to the same medical school in Moscow.
Later in Israel, they met another repatriate, Demyan Kudryavtsev. We didn’t have a lot of money. But whoever had some, bought food for the others. We wrote lyrics, sang songs, went to literary festivals and clubs. We hung out, fell in love, went to concerts. We were the intellectual center of Jerusalem. Moscow was bleak at that time, while Jerusalem was warm and exciting. Yemelyan Zakharov went to medical school with Revazov and Nosik. He didn’t leave Moscow, but dove into the whirlpool of the wild 1990s. I had a friend, a very close one, Ilya Medkov. He was killed. He was a very successful businessman who could have become a real mogul. Alas, he didn’t live long enough because he was killed. I was a businessman, too, and it broke me psychologically. I realized I couldn’t walk around the city where we used to hang out.
I just couldn’t. I went to France and started binge drinking, the only time in my life. After that drinking bout, Zakharov returned to Russia with the idea to start an Internet service provider with affordable prices. He called Nosik and Revazov, they called Kudryavtsev and Lebedev. That’s how the legendary Cityline began. Its CEO was Yegor Shuppe, a friend of Zakharov, a businessman, and a son-in-law to Boris Berezovsky. Boris wanted to meet us and said, 'I’ll gather my folks, you come, and we’ll talk.' I had a one-on-one meeting with him, trying to explain to him what the Internet was. He said, 'What is this? Why? If we go into it, we’ll lose everything else.' Then we had an investment council. Boris brought [businessmen] Roman Abramovich, Eugene Shvidler, and Aleksandr Voloshin. We agreed that they’d give us money on the security of shares, which was a fair deal.
But it proved to be a nightmare because it was impossible to make Boris give you money. I had to find money elsewhere while Yemelyan looked for it, too. Eventually, we received only 30% of the agreed amount. I use Cityline. I use Cityline, too. Because it’s trendy. Yeah, it’s trendy. Cityline. Affordable Internet for everyone. Money and the Internet didn’t fit into one sentence at the time. Imagine talking about money at a poet’s party in the 1950s. It’s impossible. They’d kick you out as a filthy profiteer. I started to break this system. The content was free as there were no subscription fees at the time, but the writers were paid. It was a revolution. Nosik was one of the first authors.
I came up with a name for his daily column, The Evening Internet, and it grew very popular. They introduced a price of $36.60 per month -- all prices were in dollars back then -- for unlimited Internet access, which was very cheap. But it was clear to me and Yemelyan that no one would need the Internet if there was no content, so we invited [journalist-activist] Anton Nosik to produce content. Nosik lived in Jerusalem, which was fitting for a would-be apostle of RuNet, but he soon followed his friends back to Moscow. I returned to Russia because the Internet had already started here, and I’d been doing it for two years before that. The Internet in Russia was started by my friends. I had been working for them while living in Jerusalem. You couldn’t compare how much money you could make on the Internet in 1996 in tiny Israel with the prospects of the Russian Internet with 200 million potential users. In the 1990s, astrophysicist Dima Verner had a successful career at the University of Kentucky.
He had a small hobby: He collected jokes and published them online. Anekdot.ru was the first Russian website that was updated daily. It soon became Russia’s most visited website. There was no promotion, but people liked the website, and by the fall of 1996 it had grown from 100 visitors a day to 1,000. When Rambler’s Top 100, an online rating, appeared in 1997, I had become the number one website on the Russian Internet. I think it was Leonid Delitsyn who said that jokes are Russian sex. In other countries, porn is at the top. In Russia, it’s jokes. At a certain point, he had to make a choice between jokes and research. Cityline managers offered a good salary in exchange for the domain name. Verner chose jokes over science. Back then, I didn’t think a domain name had any value. I thought I had changed it a few times and I could change it again. I thought I was selling the domain name, but not the project. I kept working on it and was paid an editor’s fee.
So I was surprised when I read online that Cityline had sold Anekdot.ru. I was seen as an unworldly professor in America, and that was partially true. I lacked business acumen. Five years ago, Verner fulfilled his dream: He got a loan and bought back his website from RBC. He had sacrificed too much for jokes to let others run his project. My wife is also an astrophysicist and we worked together. She wanted me to continue my work as an astrophysicist, but I had gone headlong into the Russian Internet. Eventually, she stayed in the United States and I returned to Russia. As Cityline grew bigger, it faced new challenges: a shortage of fixed lines and hackers. The fixed-line issue remained unsolved, but the hackers were dealt with. There were some hackers who found it amusing to crash our servers with DDoS attacks.
Our clients had problems with our services and complained. We weren’t sure how to solve it. So I came up with an idea. Every login to the network could be traced back to a physical address. I got the address and went there with a baseball bat. I broke that guy’s legs and left. After that, no hacker ever attacked Cityline’s servers because they knew it wasn’t just system administrators who’d be after them. In 2000, Boris Berezovsky had a falling out with recently elected President Vladimir Putin and had to emigrate. Shuppe and his family followed him. We all left. They took my house, took several of my businesses. It’s a pity that I had to leave before completing what we’d planned.
Yegor Shuppe lives in his own house in an aristocratic suburb of London, but he’s still nostalgic about the Cityline times. We were building the foundation. There were others, of course, but we helped build the foundation of the Russian Internet. We were full of ideas. There was plenty of space for creativity before it all turned political. It probably was my best company; not financially, but in terms of spirit. We had a startup mentality. Yemelyan had a joke: 'I used to be a banker. Now I’m a mailman.' We were spectacular mailmen.
In 2000, Zakharov and Shuppe sold Cityline for $30 million. Shuppe invested it in Internet startups and became a successful venture capitalist. There’s a criminal case against him in Russia for allegedly organizing a murder. Yemelyan Zakharov fulfilled his dream and opened a contemporary art gallery. Demyan Kudryavtsev became close with Boris Berezovsky and was his right-hand aide for a long time. Revazov’s IMHO agency is a leader in online advertising in Russia. Anton Nosik ultimately became the main apostle of the Russian Internet. – We all live in Russia. – That’s right. – Drive safely. – Thanks. Good luck!
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