4.3.3 Zhurnal.ru: The rise of the Russian net community
An excerpt from: Eugene Gorny. A Creative History of the Russian Internet, 2006/2009. With added images and hyperlinks.
In summer 1996, an idea ‘to make a journal about the Internet’ occurred to the Moscow publisher Dmitri Itzkovich and his partner Mikhail Yakubov. They asked Eugene Gorny, who was known as one of the few journalists writing about the Internet at the time, to head the project. Gorny accepted the offer and entered into a correspondence with active Russian Internet content producers. The Russian Internet was in its infancy; there were just a handful of Russian content projects. All of the creators were well known in the community – the number of users/producers did not exceed a few dozen. Therefore, it was not difficult to identify and contact virtually all of them. Gorny (1996a) described the programme of the project and invited them to contribute their ideas or to join the editorial staff. The programme stated that the journal should be in Russian, for the Russian audience (independently of citizenship and the physical location); should focus on the issues of the “Russian Internet” and provide a “Russian view” of the Internet generally; should be published both in print and online; and should promote the Internet as a space for cultural creativity. The goals of the journal were defined as follows:
Narratives about trends of development, and discussion of the successes and problems of the Russian web, could perform, in our view, not only an informational function but also, in a sense, an educational (kulturtregerskuyu) function. It is crucial, we believe, to present the Internet not only as a source of information and a means of entertainment but also as a domain of lively creativity. If the first generally suggests a consumerist attitude to the Net, then the second can inspire people to their own creative endeavours. Only then the Russian web (pautina) will develop.
The programme also suggested that the journal would consolidate users/producers of the Russian Internet (“the people who do real work on the web”), serve as a place where they could share experience and ideas and also give them a chance to reach a wider audience. It promoted the idea of a “virtual association of the creators (deyateli) of the Russian web” which would form around the journal [The idea was realized a year latter by the establishment of the International Internet Association EZHE, a non-official trade union for Russian Internet professionals.].
As the result, an editorial staff was formed in which just two or three people worked in Moscow, including Gorny who had moved from Tallinn. Most contributing members were physically based abroad. Thus, Anton Nosik (Israel) established a mailing list, Leonid Delitsyn (US) drafted an online prototype of the journal, Artemy Lebedev (Moscow) designed the web site, Roman Leibov (Estonia) and Vadim Maslov (US) contributed articles, Shohdi Naguib (Egypt) translated a text from English… In was one of the first vivid examples of creative collaboration in Russian-language cyberspace.
The journal was christened Zhurnal.ru (abbreviated as ZR). Zhurnal in Russian means ‘journal’, and ‘.ru’ is an Internet acronym for Russia. The name resulted from an insight. For a long time the journal had remained nameless and was referred to in the correspondence as simply a ‘journal’ or ‘our journal’. When the time came to register a domain, Itzovich and Gorny complained to Eugene Peskin who worked at that time at Russia-on-Line that they could not think of a good name. He exclaimed, ‘But you’ve got a great name already!’ This was probably the first use of combination of a generic term and a first-level domain name as the name of a server on the Russian Internet. Later online media such as Gazeta.ru (“gazeta” in Russian means ’newspaper’) followed this model.
A subtitle that appeared in the second issue defined ZR as “The Herald of Net Culture” (Vestnik setevoj kul’tury) and introduced the concept of net culture. The concept was not a passive adoption of the English term but rather a homemade invention. It is noteworthy that Zhurnal.ru was genetically linked to the Tartu semiotic school, the centre of Russian structuralism, semiotics and cultural anthropology headed by Professor Yuri Lotman. Three key figures in ZR – Itzkovich, Leibov and Gorny – were Lotman’s disciples and graduates of the Department of Russian literature at University of Tartu. Mikhail Yakubov who contributed to the emerging ideology of ZR was linked with Tartu by family rather than academic ties (he met his wife there). However, it was he who first introduced Leibov and Gorny to the Internet in 1994 when, upon his return from the U.S., he found out that the Computer Centre provided free access to the Internet to the students and staff of Tartu University. The founders of ZR had a solid background in humanities and theories of culture which defined their interest in the Internet as a techno-cultural phenomenon and an environment for creativity and experiments. In this framework the idea of net culture was developed. It was influenced by the ideas of early cyberculture which opposed the values of online and offline worlds. The first issue of ZR featured a Russian translation of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the independence of cyberspace as well as a collection of sarcastic quotes about censorship (a few obscene words used in the text created some problems with distribution of the issue). The new culture emerging on the Internet rejected the principles of violence, lies, established status and hierarchies of “official culture” and proposed itself as a space of unrestricted self-expression, freedom and creativity. Net culture was therefore a form of cultural resistance. However, the emphasis was on production and communication of new values rather than the negation of what seemed obsolete. As Itzkovich put it in an interview, ‘from “abort”, “retry”, “ignore” Zhurnal.ru chooses “ignore” ‘(Ovchinnikov and Ivanov, 1997). The connection of ZR ideology to that of counter-culture movements was evident. It is not surprising that one of the epithets applied to ZR members by outsider critics was “net hippies”.
The active phase of ZR lasted about two years. Seven issues of the journal were published (of which five came out in print). Every issue featured both original and translated articles and had a central topic such as e-business, net sex, music, extremism or science and education in the age of the Internet. The last issue summarized the development of Runet over the preceding two years under the half-ironic motto “1000 years of The Russian Internet” and featured interviews with prominent Runet figures and stories about the most successful Russian web sites.
Most people who participated in ZR did it on a voluntary basis. Only a few of the core staff working full-time received a salary, albeit relatively small. The driving force that determined the flourishing of early Russian net culture was not commercial interest but the creative drive of the participants. Partly this was the result of an editorial strategy based on the idea of focusing the dispersed creative energy in one point to increase its effect and reach new syntheses. ZR FAQ, published on November 18, 1996 (Gorny, 1996b) emphasized user participatory creativity:
Zhurnal.Ru (further ZR) is a journal for Internet users published in Russian in print and online. Moreover, ZR is a site on the World Wide Web (WWW) which includes, apart from the journal, many interesting things, and where a permanent creative process takes place in which everyone who wishes can participate. In this sense, ZR is both a product and a catalyst of Internet creativity.
The FAQ also refrained from a strict definition of subject matter stating that ‘ZR is not limited by technological issues; it covers a wide range of topics related to the Internet and network culture.’ The metaphor of a mirror was used: “As the Internet is in a sense a mirror of the world, so Zhurnal.ru is a mirror of the Internet.” It defined the relationships of print and online versions as mutually complementary: “Roughly speaking, if ZR as a print publication is a journal about the Internet, then ZR as a web site is a testing area (ispytatel’nyj poligon) of the Russian Internet.”
The journal itself constituted only a small fraction of the entire project. ZR policy was to stimulate online creativity; therefore, it gave web space, technical and organizational support to innovative online projects initiated by the members of its distributed staff (and ZR membership was open to any creative individual). ZR FAQ put it as follows:
It is evident that a full-fledged development of information space in Russia and worldwide can only be achieved through collaborative work, disputes and experiments. We invite journalists, designers, sponsors and advertisers, anyone who is not indifferent to the present and future of the Russian Net. Openness to fresh ideas and creativity is our fundamental principle.
The call was heard and ZR grew from a web version of the print journal to a conglomerate of web sites, an entire network of online creativity. As observers (Ovchinnikov and Ivanov, 1997) noted, ‘Zhurnal.Ru available online not only reflects print issues: if in the journal net life is investigated, than on the web site with the same name it boils and bubbles over.’ A list of the projects developed under its umbrella can give an idea of the scale and diversity of ZR.
The News and Reviews section included Nastik Gryzunova’s InterNews (InterNovosti), a news column about computers and Internet; two columns reviewing web sites: Migrant Flies (Pereletnye mukhi) and Net Pilgrim (Setevoj Strannik); press releases announcing new web sites and services, as well as IT and cultural events. In 1998, two new projects emerged: Polit.ru, daily news and review on domestic and international politics and Bad Weather (Nepogoda) – “public discussion on problems and conflicts” featuring controversial publications on controversial topics.
The Culture section consisted of the enormous and fastest growing Music section which included articles, reviews, ratings, archives of rare musical files and authors’ projects such as Russian Reggae Rasta Roots by Russian-Egyptian rastafaray Shohdy Naguib (who latter received a Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide award for his project) and World Wide Beat by musical critic Oleg Pshenichny. Net Literature (Setevaya Slovesnost) published fresh literary works of both venerable and unknown authors in various genres such as novels, short stories, plays, poems, translations, experiments with hypertext and multimedia literature and included a lively “discussion on net literature” (seteratura) as well as a literary game, Garden of divergent hokkus. Finally, the Gallery featured Internet art projects such as Mirza Babayev’s Procession of Similacra and gave place to controversial artists (the home page of AES group is an example). In 1998, it was transformed into the Net Art section edited by the “father of Russian net art” Aleksey Shulgin. Finally, Kinoizm, a web site devoted to cinema and the film industry, joined the company.
The Business section had been mostly developed by a single author – Leonid Delitsyn, the founder of the first Russian Internet advertisement network Sputnik, among other things. In his column Where is the money (Gde den'gi lezhat) he published his studies on business and advertising on the Internet; he also launched a Russian version of ClickZ, an American e-journal on online advertising and paid the company for the publishing rights. Apart from Delitsyn’s writings, the Business category also included the Web Workshop (Web-masterskaya) which provided online lessons on web development and web design and from which a web design company of the same name grew at a later stage.
The Entertainment section contained a variety of authors’ projects such as Mirza Babayev’s Oneirocratia (Power of Dreams) where users shared and interpreted dreams; Roman Leibov’s Candy wrapper game (Igra v fantiki) exploring artistic, non-utilitarian uses of advertising banners; Question of the day (Vopros dnya), an online intellectual game updated daily and supported by the ‘What? Where? When?’ Internet club; Evgeniya Napartovich’s Recipe of the day (later known as cooking.ru); Roma Voronezhsky’s Nurzhal.Ru, a humorist web site which included, among other, a picturesque description of Zhurnal.ru headquarters; Paintball Life, a web site about paintball; Fashion Jam featuring fashion news and reviews; Gamer (Igrok) devoted to computer games; and KidNet (DetSet'), an attempt to build up a web space for (and by) children.
The Interaction section included transcripts of online conferences with hackers, musicians, writers and Internet figures that ZR had organized since October 1996 as well as various interactive tools such as guestbooks, online conferencing system and chat.
There were also a few uncategorized projects. Hack Zone provided space for debates on hacker issues. Jump! (Skok!) used a script that downloaded a random page from Zhurnal.ru by a button click; Don't click here!, demonstrated the power of Internet addiction in Leibov’s liberal translation of Canadian Ivan Lam’s project of the same name. Chiromancer Online, a prank online programme by aforementioned Leibov, promised “to diagnose for free by the lines of your palms your future and past, to help in optimizing the events of your life and also to predict adverse and favourable days”. For some time, one of the most popular ZR pages had been a comprehensive list of ‘Russian search engines, directories, classifieds, webboards, and catalogues’ compiled by Delitsyn – a useful tool in the pre-Googlian époque. The Ezhe movement which united the regularly updated Russian web sites and which has grown to a kind of trade union for Internet professionals also started in ZR.
Some of the projects in this Homeric list were long-standing, others more ephemeral. Some ceased to exist, others (for example, Setevaya slovesnost and Polit.ru) evolved into independent web sites. Nowadays such eclectic diversity seems almost incredible, but in those early days, when the Internet was still a virgin land and the division of labour and spheres of influence were in embryo, everything one was doing was almost inevitably new. Since there was almost nothing on the Russian net, it was interesting to try everything.
It is not an easy task to find Western analogues for ZR. The comparison with Wired – then the most usual reference point in Russia for publications on the Internet and technology – reveals more differences than similarities. As a print journal ZR was much thinner, had less advertising, a limited distribution (it was available primarily in Moscow) and its ideology can hardly be described in terms of Wired’s Californian ideology (Barbrook and Cameron, 1994/2001; Russian translation – Barbrook and Cameron, 1997) which valued ‘free-market economics, hedonic lifestyle, techno-utopianism and, crucially, complete disdain for the uniqueness of human consciousness’ (Stahlman, 1996). The comparison with the WELL community (Rheingold, 1993) which has been sometimes made is not very convincing either: the WELL flourished in the plain-text environment as a system of online discussion forums; by the contrast, ZR was WWW-based, it enjoyed the advantages of hypertext and multimedia technologies and used online discussion as just one of the many forms of creative collaboration. It was neither a server providing a free hosting for personal web sites such as Geocities, nor an agglomeration of entertainment and gaming web sites such as Chertovy Kulichki. The projects included in Zhurnal.ru were diverse but not isolated; they were unified in a common framework and coordinated by the editorial staff. Zhurnal.ru was ideologically and aesthetically eclectic and sometimes criticized for that (e.g. Sherman, 1997) but it was a deliberate policy of the editor.
What was the target audience of Zhurnal.ru? For many observers, it coincided to a great extent with its producers. As one critic said about ZR comparing it with other Internet publications, ‘They know for whom they write – for themselves.’ ZR targeted the Russian net community as a whole, without any discrimination on the basis of corporate, ideological or cultural affiliations. Only one thing was important to be considered as a member of this community – passion to create. As Itzkovich (Ovchinnikov and Ivanov, 1997) said in an interview, ‘Our audience is people who get off on stuff (“korotye prikalyvayusta”).’
It is difficult to tell now if such a policy was really absurd from a commercial point of view. Zhurnal.ru was one of the first Russian web sites to introduce banner advertisement, and it generated very high traffic. It enjoyed a tremendous popularity and influence. It made contracts with ISPs and used the most advanced technology such as broadband radio Ethernet. It did not actually avoid business. What it really needed was good management and some investments. But it was the will of fate that things happened otherwise. In 1997, an American businessman of Russian descent proposed to buy 30 percent of ZR shares for $80,000 (which was a considerable sum for a Russian start-up in 1997). He came to Moscow and the first stage of negotiations was very successful but then he suddenly disappeared. As it was discovered later, he collided with Russian mafia in Novosibirsk where he went for business so he lost a lot of money and was forced to rush back to U.S., to move house and go underground, as well as to suspend all his contacts and contracts. Dmitri Izkovitch, who financed ZR, also suffered damage from organized crime and sometimes could not keep his word about money.
However, regardless of the relatively short life of Zhurnal.ru, its role in the formation of the Russian Internet is hard to overestimate. First of all, Zhurnal.ru brought together the most active and creative Russian Internet users and thus led to the consolidation of the network community. As Anton Nosik (1997a) put it, thanks to Zhurnal.ru “the Russian network community proved to the world and to sceptics in its own environment the reality of its own existence”. The consolidation was not only virtual but also quite real. People working in seemingly competing publications and enterprises met in ZR headquarters to talk business, celebrate life, to drink vodka and smoke pot. As Kuznetsov (2004) points out, there were no feeling of competition between Internet workers at that time, or at least, it was balanced by a feeling of the common cause.
Members of ZR belonged to early adopters and many of them who continued their careers in Internet-related domains became known as the “Russian Internet élite.” “Legendary” has become a stable epithet applied to Zhurnal.ru in the following years. Maksim Kononenko compared the ZR community with the Russian underground rock scene of the 1980s: “there were two communities that have became legendary: the Piter [Leningrad] rock community and people who gathered in Kalashny [lane], in Zhurnal.ru headquarters” (Ivanov, 2004). Asked by the interviewer what defines the legendary status of Zhurnal.ru, he explained:
The Internet is still not as important as show business and television. But its influence and role are continuously increasing and the membership of the élite – the people who started then and who still define many things today – has remained almost the same. It is absolutely evident that these people will become Marxes and Engelses, founding fathers, and they will begin to determine the life of the country. They will lead the others. Nowadays everybody knows those with whom Putin worked in the city administration. Just like this, they will know those who used to drink in Kalashny. This is already legend. Further, its impact and significance will only grow.
Zhurnal.ru was also a school of online journalism. Some of those who had written their first articles for ZR which went through multiple editorial revisions before being published, later became renowned journalists and editors. ZR was also a good starting point for designers, programmers and workers in cultural fields.
The openness of ZR allowed for interaction and merging between “netheads” and various kinds of cultural producers. The central location of Zhurnal.ru headquarters had both practical and symbolic significance. It was located in Kalashny lane, right in front of the Estonian Embassy, not far from the Kremlin and Arbat. It was actually Itzkovich’s private flat – huge and unkempt, with cockroaches in the kitchen and unimaginably long corridors (‘As you walk along them, you can finish a cigarette’, as Roma Voronezhsky  recalled) – which he used also as an office, a guesthouse and a club. It quickly became a favourite meeting place for artists, musicians, writers, philosophers, activists and all sorts of weird types, thus creating a link between non-official offline and online cultures. The development of the tradition of intellectual conviviality with poetry readings, musical concerts and generous feasts, for which Zhurnal.ru was famous, led to the establishment of a network of Moscow clubs and restaurants under the mark of O.G.I. by Itskovich in the following years. (O.G.I. stands for United Humanitarian Publishers, in Russian Ob’edinennoe Gumanitarnoe Izdatel’stvo, the publishing house owned by Itzkovich.) The innovation of the O.G.I. network was a combination of a restaurant, a bookshop, a concert hall and a gallery all in one place open for visitors twenty-four hours a day.
For many reasons, ZR failed to become a profitable enterprise. The lack of money became an obstacle for further development. The publication of print issues of ZR was severely delayed; the fees promised to authors for print publications could not be paid. The idea of transforming ZR into a join-stock company with ZR staff as shareholders failed because of general organizational chaos and passive resistance on the part of the publisher. The alienation of authors from ZR began; some of them felt that they had been simply used and felt disappointed. So did the editor. The époque of pure enthusiasm was ending; a new class of Internet media professional was emerging and content providers had begun to pay money for online content. One of the first and definitely the most aggressive was Cityline, which bought a few talented online journalists including Nosik, Gagin, and Kuznetsov and paid them for their columns published on Cityline’s web site. Their fees were impressive; thus, Nosik received $80 for each issue of his Evening Internet. Taking onto account that his contract with Cityline obliged him to publish a column a day, he was the highest paid Internet journalist of that time as well as the first vivid example of the profession (Gorny and Sherman, 1999).
The enthusiasm-based model of producing online content was becoming obsolete. The lack of funding impeded the further development of Zhurnal.ru, caused a growing feeling of a sinking ship among its members and finally led to its dissolution. In March 1998, Gorny received an offer to join Russian Journal (Russkij zhurnal), a fresh online project by Gleb Pavlovsky launched the previous year, and after a series of negotiations with both Pavlovsky and Itzkovich accepted. For some time he continued editing ZR on a voluntarily basis, but finally resigned in October when his efforts to save Zhurnal.ru proved to be futile.