US Web-Surfer Keeps Tabs on the Kremlin
The cold war is over. Western spies are not as busy as they used to be here. But Kremlin-watching is as alive as ever - thanks to a freer flow of information since the Soviet Union crumbled seven years ago, and thanks to the Internet and David Johnson.
Many a scholar says a secret prayer for this obscure Russophile, who has exploited the global information revolution to keep Moscow on the map. From a desk in Washington, he pursues with almost-missionary zeal compiling the most authoritative Internet collection of data about the former Soviet Union.
This one-man information machine spends more than half of his waking hours putting together essays, opinions, and articles, and inviting debate on his very own Internet mailing list.
Since its launch two years ago, Johnson's Russia List has acquired a loyal readership of 2,200 academics, journalists, diplomats, and government officials, who say it is indispensible reading. "Johnson's List is a Kremlinologist's dream. I only wish he'd been around in the old days," says Alan Philps, the Daily Telegraph's veteran Moscow bureau chief.
From his watchtower as an analyst at the liberal Center for Defense Information in Washington, Mr. Johnson energetically puts out two dispatches a day, seven days a week. They include everything from translations of Russian articles to personal opinions about current trends. The work is an unpaid labor of love. "It was a mission early on. Now it's a habit," he says matter-of-factly, interviewed recently during his first visit to Moscow since 1985.
The Petersham, Mass., native began learning Russian when he was 15 and went on to get degrees in Russian studies at Brandeis and Harvard Universities. He then moved to Washington, where he has been primarily focusing on Soviet and now Rus-sian affairs.
The idea for the current e-mail service - known simply as "JRL" to insiders - occurred to Johnson during Russia's 1996 presidential campaign. He was put off by what he felt was biased coverage by major US newspapers and concluded there was a need for a broader spectrum of news about Russia. So he started surfing the Web, picking out items that caught his eye.
Johnson particularly likes to select material from British and non-mainstream American newspapers. His list snowballed by word of mouth into a regular service that Russia experts await eagerly.
What makes Johnson's list stand out from other such services is not just the range of information, but also the personal touch: Johnson himself enters each new item or subscriber. He sees his role as not just a provider of information but a stoker of discussions about "this mysterious subject, which still fascinates people."
Some subscriber eyebrows have been raised over Johnson's legally questionable practice of reprinting articles without permission. But except for a complaint from the American Spectator, most writers appear indifferent to or grateful for the unsolicited exposure. Harsher criticism focuses on the sheer volume of information, prompting calls for less overload.
"Johnson's list provides a very high level of discussion. It's interactive. Only Johnson's list makes it possible to ask opinions of top experts in the field and get answers back," says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "But there's so much coming in, it's almost impossible to read all the articles at once."
For a man who has dedicated his life to publishing others' views on Russia, the bespectacled Johnson is reticent about volunteering his own opinions. He prefers instead to canvas the thoughts of JRL contributors. And for one so clearly committed to Russia, Johnson was surprisingly eager to maintain his American roots during his two-week sojourn. Every morning he ate at the Starlite Diner - Moscow's quintessentially American restaurant.
"Fried eggs, toast, and orange juice," he says. "A real American breakfast. Great."