MOSCOW -- When I called a contact in Kiev recently for news of a political demonstration, he seemed unwilling to go into detail. I initially attributed his reluctance to a hangover from the bad old days of KGB-induced paranoia, but it soon became clear that the real problem was that he was one step ahead of me technologically. "I've written a full report on that. Switch on your fax," he instructed.
Reporting from the Soviet Union once consisted largely of scanning the official press and holding furtive meetings with dissidents. Now, foreign correspondents in Moscow, whether pursuing such ongoing stories as the Soviets' political disintegration or confronted with such stunning events as Eduard Schevardnadze's sudden resignation, have the opposite problem: not too little information, but too much. If it is allowed to continue, the information revolution sweeping the Soviet Union is likely to reshape that nation beyond the intentions of policies or policymakers.
The techniques and technology of news gathering have been transformed in the two and one-half years I have been in Moscow. When I arrived, it was common practice in Soviet institutions to keep Xerox machines under lock and key. Dissidents relied on smudgy carbons to spread word of their activities. Today, no self-respecting opposition group is without its own computer. So many independent news agencies have sprung up over the last few months, ranging from Daily Glasnost to the Siberian Information Service, that it has become quite impossible to keep track of them all. Perestroika has become a revolution by fax.
The information revolution has made a mockery of attempts by Communist Party bureaucrats to control the flow of news. After Lithuania declared its independence this year, Soviet authorities barred Western correspondents from traveling to the rebel Baltic republic for several months. The Lithuanian government circumvented the "information blockade" by firing off faxes to journalists in Moscow, chronicling every tortuous detail of their showdown with the Kremlin. Frustrated by government-imposed travel restrictions, many Western TV networks now distribute videocameras to amateur Soviet news gatherers. These "video cowboys," as they are known in the trade, supply much of the footage seen on American TV of demonstrations and riots in distant parts of the Soviet Union.
Subversive technology turns up in the most unlikely places. Last summer, I visited a priest in Suzdal, a provincial backwater some 200 miles east of Moscow, who had rebelled against the hierarchy of the state-controlled Russian Orthodox church. Unfortunately, I arrived too late for the weekly demonstration by his supporters, mainly God-fearing babushki with kerchiefs around their heads. Not to worry, said the priest, settling me down in front of his TV. For the next two hours, we watched a complete record of everything that had happened in Suzdal since the conflict began, zapping over the boring bits with the fast-forward button. It is exciting to see how the technology of revolution has developed. In the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in August 1980, I remember being struck by the sight of workers clutching cassette recorders to tape the negotiations that led to the creation of Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc. In Poland, the cassette recorder played a vital role in undermining authoritarian rule by destroying the regime's monopoly over the dissemination of information. It was later supplemented by the telex. Through a kind of chain-telex technique -- telexing news to five recipients, each of whom was responsible for retransmitting it to another five, and so on -- Solidarity was able to blanket the entire country with information in a very short time. In the space of a decade, telexes and cassette recorders have been replaced by faxes and videos. Viewed superficially, the Soviet Union's information revolution has been so stunning and so swift that it is tempting to conclude that it has become irreversible. In fact, the changes are more fragile and tenuous than appearances might suggest.
The most dramatic breakthroughs in communications technology have taken place within a small, Western-oriented enclave that has little to do with the rest of the country. Since the beginning of this year, Western journalists in Moscow have been able to tap into Western data networks via a U.S.-Soviet joint venture. I will soon be able to use a satellite phone system that gives me a Washington dialtone in my own office. But payment for these services is strictly in Western currency, effectively putting them beyond the reach of ordinary Soviets.
Despite a crash program to develop the Soviet computer industry, the Soviet Union still has no reliable version of the IBM PC. The Soviet Union may have more nuclear missiles than any other country in the world, but it ranks 45th in terms of computer development. "Our computers are shoddy copies of Western computers. If a computer works only half the time, then it isn't much use to you," said Zhura Pachykov, the founder of a children's computer club in Moscow. "Our other big problem is that our phones are lousy. Until we get a decent phone system, we won't be able to use computers effectively for communications."
The computer industry is plagued by the same problems as the rest of the Soviet economy: bureaucratic rivalries, lack of essential components and the absence of a developed consumer market. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe has dealt a further blow to the computerization of the Soviet Union. Under a supposedly "scientific" division of labor dreamed up by socialist planners, the Soviet Union assigned production of hard and floppy disks to its East European partners. Now that the Soviet-led trading organization Comecon has virtually disintegrated, these items must be paid for in precious convertible currency.
The number of computers in the Soviet Union, a country of 280 million people, is still pitifully small: around half a million, compared to 50 million in the United States. The scarcity is reflected in high prices. "In order to earn enough money to buy one of our computers, the average Soviet citizen would have to work for 18 years without having anything to eat," laughed Viktor Belilovsky, the manager of a new MicroAge computer center in Moscow.
Not surprisingly, Belilovsky has never sold a computer to an average Soviet citizen. Most of MicroAge's sales are to other joint ventures setting up businesses here or Soviet institutions who regard computers as prestige items. Many computers lie around uselessly, gathering dust on some bureaucrat's desk. To understand the difference between the purchase of Western technology and its effective application, it is necessary only to pass through Moscow's Sheremyetevo airport. The place is crammed full of expensive German technology but remains as maddeningly inefficient as any other Soviet airport.
Many of the computers and faxes now being used for overtly political purposes have been donated by western sympathizers. Russian political parties that have counterparts in the West -- such as the Christian Democrats and the Radicals -- are awash with fax machines and computers. The national liberation movements in the Baltic states, Ukraine and Armenia rely heavily on ethnic organizations in the United States for technological support. The Democratic Union Information Agency, which is affiliated with the Soviet Union's first opposition political party, says it received computers from a Soviet emigre organization and the U.S-based Center for the Endowment of Democracy. If the Kremlin wanted to shut down these unofficial news services, it could do so practically overnight. All it would take would be several thousand arrests and the confiscation of several hundred computers and fax machines. The KGB security police has almost certainly already prepared lists of opposition activists and journalists for use in the event of a crackdown.
"We understand very well that, if Gorbachev or someone else decides to tighten the screws again, we will be the very first people that the authorities will go after. We have no illusions about that," said Vitaly Mamedov, an editor at Daily Glasnost, the first independent news bulletin to challenge the Communist Party's information monopoly in the Soviet Union.
The ability of authoritarian governments to control the new information technology in the short term was illustrated by Poland's Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski on the night of December 13, 1981. He simply pulled the plug on the country's entire civilian telecommunications system. One moment, the telex was spewing out Solidarity press releases. The next, it was silent. Something similar occurred in China last year. After the bloodbath in Tiananmen Square, technological optimists in the West initially hoped to undermine the dulling effect of official propaganda by flooding the People's Republic with faxes. It didn't work. Deng Xiaoping simply stationed a soldier by each fax machine. A future Soviet government determined to crack down on dissent might consider similar measures.
Over the longer term, however, information control is self-defeating. The purpose of the new technology is to make individual users, and therefore society, more productive. The greater the bureaucratic obstacles to its use, the less efficient it is likely to become. Gorbachev appears to understand this logic very well, which is why he launched his perestroika reforms in the first place.
"The fact that we lagged so far behind the West forced Gorbachev to start perestroika. The need for economic and scientific progress meant that totalitarian regimes had to dismantle themselves. It was impossible to keep an Iron Curtain around the country, preventing information seaping out or in," said Pachykov, the founder of the computer club. "If there was a military coup here tomorrow, we would soon find ourselves facing the same old economc and technological dilemma. The coup would solve nothing."
In order to keep pace with the West, the Soviet Union must create a suitable political and economic environment for the information revolution to take place. Essentially that means that the state must abandon the idea that it can control the flow of information. "In the West, you introduced computers into a society that was already decentralized," observed Belilovsky, the manager of the computer store. "Here we are attempting to introduce them into a society that is still very centralized. That explains why computers are used less effectively here. If we want to reap the full benefits from this new technology, we have to change."
Michael Dobbs is bureau chief in Moscow for The Washington Post.