In a media landscape that comprises a multitude of voices, following events across countries can be bewildering. It is often difficult to separate the voices that know what they're talking about from those that merely like the sound of themselves. It can be harder still to know what the voices of locals on the ground sound like—the voices of those who actually live in the places that grace our international pages and television screens—when the voices in question speak and think in languages other than own.
For the past two years, Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock
) has co-edited RuNet Echo
, a project of Global Voices Online
that seeks to expand English speakers' understanding of one of the most fascinating and under-reported conversations of local voices in the world: the one that is currently taking place on the Russian internet, or RuNet, as it is more commonly known.
"I don't think English-language mainstream media coverage is necessary to understand Russia at all," Rothrock told Crikey
. "Go straight to the source. You’ll find analysis and commentary that’s more unfiltered -- and often quite zany -- but you'll come away with an improved sense of things and a more nuanced appreciation of current events' chaos."
"The Russian internet is unique because of Russia’s semi-authoritarian context," Rothrock said. "Any real political alternative to the Kremlin is relegated to the periphery, where its public presence is limited to the internet. As a result, the RuNet is the site of a vibrant, exciting political conversation.
"Yes, it's a cacophony, and it’s been inundated with some hateful and insane individuals. But it offers anyone in the world with a broadband connection the opportunity to study Russian civil society where it lives and breathes."
Rothrock first became interested in Russian civil society -- as well as with the country's language and culture -- in 2001, when Andrey Tselikov, his co-editor at Global Voices, started teaching him the Cyrillic alphabet on a road trip to Yellowstone Park. He lived in Moscow for six months in 2003, travelling on the University of California’s Education Abroad Program, and his fascination only grew with subsequent study and visits.
"It’s certainly possible to overstate the political significance of the RuNet," he said, "at least insofar as it's a forum for non-systemic political debate. People with genuine political power are not the key players online. The RuNet's biggest stars are a mix of writers, journalists, activists and aspiring politicians."
"It’s also true that most Russian internet users are not signing online in order to spread digital samizdat
designed to bring down the Putin regime. Most Russians are looking for music, movies and porn, like most people anywhere."