As Winston Churchill once said, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” Understanding the unraveling of the Soviet Union from perspective of information communication technologies is particularly instructive in this regard. I noted in a previous blog that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics communication network was so centralized that phone calls between two neighboring towns several hundred kilometers away from the capital would nevertheless be routed through a single switchboard in Moscow. How was the Kremlin’s iron grip on the information blockade eventually loosened?
Former US Secretary of State George Shultz recalls a conversation he had with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow back in 1985, more than 20 years ago:
I then talked about the information age: “Society is beginning to reorganize itself in profound ways. Closed and compartmented societies cannot take advantage of the information age. People must be free to express themselves, move around, emigrate and travel if they want to, challenge accepted ways without fear. Otherwise they can’t take advantage of the opportunities available. The Soviet economy will have to be radically changed to adapt to the new era.”
Far from being offended, Gorbachev suggested, “You should take over the planning office here in Moscow, become the new head of Gosplan [the Soviet ministry charged with economic planning], because you have more ideas than they have.”
Three years later, Gorbachev would address the UN’s General Assembly thus:
The newest techniques of communications, mass information and transport have made the world more visible and more tangible to everyone. International communication is easier now than ever before. Nowadays, it is virtually impossible for any society to be “closed.”
The literature towards the end of the 1980s was already taking note that modern horizontal ICTs emerging within the Soviet Union were eroding the “top-down vertical” systems of the Kremlin. As part of Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign, the USSR’s first privately owned and operated telecommunication network, Relcom, or Reliable Communication, came online in 1989.
According to the company’s president, the purpose of Relcom was,
specifically to support commercial activity otherwise stultified by the intentionally constrained Soviet telecommunication structure. […] Although economic conditions necessitated its invention, Relcom proved to be a powerful social weapon against centralized power. During the attempted coup in 1991, for example, Relcom played an important role gathering and disseminating information.