Technology Thwarted Coup Leaders' Success
Revolution in telecommunications made cable television, electronic mail, and faxes an easy way to communicate during the Soviet Union's coup
EVERETTE DENNIS, an American journalism specialist in Moscow for a short trip, woke up to a coup last Monday morning.As scheduled that day, he met with Moscow University students, who talked of little else. Some had seen tanks; others found out about the takeover through the Kremlin's pronouncements. But one student learned the news when he got a call from his mother in central Asia. Another heard it from a American friend who called from Nashville, Tenn. If the leaders of the coup were bent on leading a revolt, they failed utterly to grasp the revolution in telecommunications. Even in the Soviet Union faxes, electronic mail, computer bulletin boards, and cable television have opened the floodgates of information. Would-be dictators ignore this technology at their peril. "The availability of these alternative channels proved to be very important," says Owen Johnson, a journalism professor and director of the Indiana University Russian and East European Institute. "People had this sense that they knew what was going on," explains Mr. Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University. That led to greater certainty among the demonstrators and, he believes, a quicker end to the takeover. (Dennis left the USSR Tuesday and reached The Monitor by telephone in Prague.) Although the coup leaders did crack down on the press, they did nothing to control a basic technology like the telephone. This failure, analysts say, allowed their opponents to organize. The Soviet Union's earlier dictators were more astute. "Education is a weapon," Stalin once said, "whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed." Lenin understood the more subtle point about information as an organizing tool: "The press should be not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses." In this case, continued phone service allowed Soviets from Russian Republic leader Boris Yeltsin on down to organize, put out statements, and relay and receive news. During the height of the crisis, for example, Mr. Yeltsin received calls from President Bush and Britain's Prime Minister John Major, who later came out with strong messages of support for the opposition. By not controlling the telephone, the coup leaders allowed a whole range of newer communications techologies to flourish. "The really strange thing about this coup is that communication is no real problem," wrote Bob Clough to users of CompuServe, a US-based computer information service. Mr. Clough, an American working in Moscow selling software, was able to hook into the service by direct dialing to Finland. According to him, a whole range of similar computer bulletin boards within the Soviet Union continued to operate during the crisis. Even on a normal day, AT&T's allotted 67 circuits can't handle the volume of US calls to the Soviet Union. (Much smaller European countries have hundreds of such circuits.) When news of the coup hit the US late Sunday night, the call volume soared a hundredfold, says Jim Messenger, an AT&T spokesman. So, people found ingenious methods to get through. William Hogan, director of Harvard University's Project on Economic Reform in Ukraine, called his colleagues in Kiev through a friend in Poland, who has very modern telephone equipment. Mr. Hogan also made extensive use of electronic mail through two services with Soviet links - Internet and SovAm Teleport (a US-Soviet joint venture). News also flowed in both directions with apparent ease. Hogan relayed western wire service reports to his colleagues in Kiev. A joint venture, called Interfax, distributed news from the Soviet Union to the outside world (see related story). And traditional sources of western news, such as the BBC and Voice of America, were supplemented by Atlanta-based Cable News Network. Although its broadcasts are limited to such places as hotels within the Soviet Union, CNN is nevertheless picked up by regular Muscovites who stick antennas out their windows and aim them at a huge broadcasting tower in Moscow. Everybody does it," says Diane Schatz, an American who lives in Moscow. In February, she and her husband bought several eight-ruble antennas and gave them to their Russian friends. The antennas don't work on Soviet TV sets, she says, but Muscovites are buying Western sets. Ms. Schatz is director of special projects for SovAm Teleport USA. This US-Soviet joint venture started in 1989 to provide electronic-mail through a satellite link between teleports in Staten Island, N.Y., and Moscow. The organization is now completing its second joint venture to hook up Soviet hotels with the West. The system, due to open in the fall, will bypass the Soviet's international gateway switch with a satellite-linked switch of its own. As these links proliferate, regimes will find it much harder to cut off the flow of information. Certainly, the leaders of the coup could have done a better job of controlling the flow of information, these analysts say. China's leaders cut off Western broadcasts as well as their own before sending tanks into Tiananmen Square. Iraq pulled the plug on Kuwait's telephone system after it invaded and, apparently, closed down its own international links when the allies started bombing. "It's not necessarily technology that has made this increased flow of information possible," Mr. Johnson says. Political leaders decide that. "If they still want to use force they still can shut down much of this technological information flow." But that decision incurs tremendous costs because the same lines that relay news also facilitate commerce. "No modern industrial state can have a sound economy and a totalitarian government," says Dean Mills, a former Moscow correspondent and dean of the journalism school at the University of Missouri at Columbia. "You can't operate an economy that closes off information."