Notebook: Real Time (Part One)
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Sandbags protecting a monument to Dante from shelling in the historical center of Kyiv, March 26, 2022 (Photo by Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
I’m so sorry, readers, for my recent silence. I have been a bit struck dumb. Since the death of my friend and boss Joseph Brodsky in 1996 I’ve been involved, to a weirdly extreme degree for a non-native, in the twisting path of post-Soviet culture; in a way my very presence there was an embodiment of the international, place-among-nations vision of Russian civilization that was very nearly pulped on February 24. As with so many of the shocks of the current decade, it was hard to believe that this way of life was so ephemeral. Since then my friends and I have been trying to help those threatened by the cataclysm with our small suitcase of resources. The stories I have heard, from poets and artists mostly fleeing either a deadly threat or the tightening hand of the state, disclose a yawning hole in what had been my settled ideas of the possibilities of modern life.
In my little literary corner I am aware of how alive, amidst this upheaval, language has become to the present. The very fact of so-called “machine translation,” which brings us social media posts and messages from the front lines, from behind prison walls, from within bomb shelters, in real time out of languages few of us know, has for me been world-changing. For many years my childish Russian kept me at a translator’s remove from the thoughts and feelings of those near me who were living in history’s present. In addition to instant translation, smartphones allow those on history’s doorstep to share their surroundings unmediated: observers have noted that the Arab Spring movements and participants in the Syrian civil war used real-time social media for organizing, but since then the internet has become more image-centric, bringing visual information, as convincing as it can be dubious, roaring into our pockets. Live-streaming allows real-time encounters around the world with people otherwise tragically stuck in one sometimes very dangerous place.
In some ways these effects are supercharged in the post-Soviet world. Technical and science education, before and after the fall of the wall, has been a refuge for talented people seeking paths to mobility in stagnated economies and an education uncorrupted by politics. We’ve seen some malignant effects of this in the pools of mysterious and unaccountable hackers involving themselves in election meddling, social-media manipulation, and ransomware; now we are seeing some of the benefits. Ukrainians, from their media-savvy president down to a lone soldier in a field, have riveted the world with the ingenuity and finesse of their streamed reality. To site just one particularly dramatic example, two photojournalists trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol managed to convey, even as Russian troops hunted them down, documentation contradicting Russian denials of the assault, through an intermittent signal, including the famous photographs of a bombed maternity hospital, declared by Putin to be a false flag. From his home in Kyiv, Detroit-born independent journalist Terrell Jermaine Starr, equipped with a selfie stick, has been posting personal portraits-in-time of his neighbors while helping refugees escape the city.
For its part Russia, right up until the invasion on February 24, had been almost counterintuitively hosting a thriving independent media, in part attributable to an in many ways crowd-sourced internet that was up and running and well-integrated into people’s lives before the state mobilized to infuse it with constraints, as it has in China. Alongside digital platforms like Meduza and Mediazona (founded by a member of the guerilla art-protest group Pussy Riot), and the venerable independent television station TV Rain and radio station Ekho Mosvky (read Masha Gessen’s sorrowful report of TV Rain’s last days), the one viable member of Russia’s political opposition, Alexei Navalny, was able to run a widely influential operation exposing the corruption of Russian officials—corruption now understood as contributing to the state’s botched though still lethal war effort—using sophisticated production values and snappy delivery. Oksana Baulina, who was killed this week in shelling while on assignment in Kyiv for the Russian independent site The Insider, had earlier in her career run Navalny’s YouTube channel.
On March 4 the Russian government finally blocked a number of independent sites and then passed a law making reporting on the war an offense punishable by fifteen years in prison. In part because of their technical sophistication, and that of their audience, the Russian independents are poised to continue from abroad and remain accessible to enterprising Russian audiences able to elude dominant state media with VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) and, for now, still operative YouTube. Just last night four independent journalists (speaking also for a fifth, Nobel-Peace-Prize winner Dmitri Muratov) posted a Zoom interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that, though the government promptly outlawed it, remains visible on YouTube. (This morning Muratov’s journal, Novaya Gazeta, announced it is suspending operations under threats from censors until the end of—in quotes—the “special operation.”) American journalists like Ben Smith, Julia Ioffe, and Lucian Kim have encouraged us to support these outlets, to help bring real news of the war to an audience that, as the war’s opponents flee the threat of imprisonment, becomes more and more predominantly unbelieving.
Independent media are both drawing from and coasting on on this torrent of available digital information. Stolen Russian phone and digital data called probiv, gathered by the intrusive intelligence services and circulated by disgruntled or just greedy employees, helped the investigative outfit Bellingcat identify the Russian agents who poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skirpal in England in 2018 and Navalny himself while traveling last fall. The Ukrainian newspaper Pravda claimed to have secured the personal information of 120,000 Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine. A group of Polish hackers created a tool allowing users to text random Russians with anti-war messages from a pool of 20 million cell phone numbers. A Ukrainian businessman set up a web site to help Ukrainians convince their Russian relatives that the war is real. Russian military commanders, to the surprise of many, have been communicating on open channels, allowing relatively untutored observers to pick up surprisingly detailed and intimate information from the midst of battle. The New York Times Visual Investigations Team built a whole report on the invasion of the town of Makariv around intercepted Russian radio transmissions. Ukrainian forces use geolocation to track intercepted signals and attack. Ukrainian military planners were getting such useful information from the postings of amateur online sleuths that they opened a government app for citizen uploads. Jane Lytvynenko reported seeing a protester in New York holding up a sign with a QR code that loaded a resource document into her phone that she had virtually helped an activist in Kharkiv to prepare when the invasion began.
A digital sphere where a high degree of ingenuity and creativity comes up against a fairly inept bureaucracy has proved a fruitful zone for information. (Media observer Ben Smith wrote of probiv: “The irony is delicious, of Mr. Putin seeing his own tools of corruption and surveillance turned against him by the underpaid police and intelligence officials who put the secrets up for sale.”) “On the Media” reported recently that Bellingcat, a collective based in the Netherlands and partner of the Russian site (based in Latvia) for which Oksana Baulina was reporting from Kyiv, is now combing through material posted to social media in search of evidence of war crimes, and the Human Rights Center at the Berkeley School of Law is developing standards of evidence and analysis for so called “open-source intelligence” in international criminal courts and tribunals. Observers joke that the average Twitter user in 2022 has more information about battlefield operations than a World War II commander.
Stay tuned for Part Two!
Ann Kjellberg is the founder and editor of Book Post.
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