BOOK REVIEW : How a <i> Real</i> ‘Information Revolution’ Doomed the USSR : DISMANTLING UTOPIA: How Information Ended the Soviet Union <i> by Scott Shane</i> ; Ivan R. Dee, $25, 325 pages
From where we sat in the West back in 1989, the Soviet Union appeared as a massive fortress that suddenly and almost miraculously collapsed under its own dismal weight.
What we did not see--and what we discover in Scott Shane’s “Dismantling Utopia”--is that the Soviet Union had been undermined by a steady trickle of free thought that eroded the very foundations of one of the history’s most sophisticated and entrenched police states.
And so, when Mikhail Gorbachev embraced glasnost as a tool of reform, the structures of repression were washed away by a flood tide of something that had always been in short supply in the Soviet Union: information.
“Gorbachev seized upon information as reality therapy,” Shane writes. “The protean power of information loosed by Gorbachev would quickly take on an independent life, reproducing and spreading at a pace and on a scale and with consequences that he neither anticipated nor desired.”
Shane, a former Moscow correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, opens his book on the eve of the Soviet collapse, and he shows us an information-starved society where possessing a banned book was a political crime, a government so fearful that its tourist maps were intentionally distorted and falsified lest enemies of the state use them for invasion or subversion.
“Ordinary people’s maps were useless,” Shane writes, “because they were designed to be useless.”
Shane delves deeply into Russian history to explain the roots of Soviet mind-control. Like the “Potemkin villages” of the tsarist era, Soviet propaganda erected a cheerful but utterly phony facade of “socialist realism” to conceal the failures of communism while exhorting the people to ever greater efforts.
“Truth is good,” goes an old Russian proverb that Shane quotes, “but happiness is better.”
The earliest stirrings of free thought were nurtured on the radio broadcasts of Voice of America and the crude, self-published books and tape recordings of the Samizdat and Magnitizdat movements. By the end, of course, it was CNN and cellular phones that finally defeated the Soviet Union.
“The exploding arsenal of electronics--cellular telephones, fax machines, VCRs, satellite dishes, computers with modems--demonstrated a trend for technology to become more compact, portable, versatile and inexpensive,” Shane explains. “As such, the new machines seemed to be weapons the citizen could wield against the state as readily as the state could use them on the citizen.”
As Shane points out, the phrase “information revolution” takes on an entirely new meaning in this context. And he helps us understand how stirring but also how bizarre it must have been for a Soviet citizen to turn on his television set and see the top brass of the KGB on a call-in show: “Tonight they will be answering the questions,” the host announced.
Shane, to his credit, does not overstate the case for the mass media as a catalyst for liberation. What Russians are offered in place of tedious Soviet propaganda films, he points out, is the detritus of Western pop culture-- “Swedish Wife-Swappers Club,” for example. More troubling still, Shane argues, is the prospect that electronic media will be harnessed by new and dangerous forces.
“The void that resulted from the shattering of Leninist faith and Stalinist control,” writes Shane, “could, and did, accommodate not only productive markets but brazen crime, not only democratic politics but violent nationalism.”
And Shane concedes that the disintegration of Soviet authoritarianism has uncapped an upwelling of ethnic and nationalist passions so volcanic that they threaten to sweep away electronic media and high technology.
“Tribal warfare, unleashed in part by information’s destruction of the old regime,” Shane warns, “has been shown capable of turning a modern city into a wasteland where faxes and television do not function and even the water supply and the medical system fall apart.”
So Shane intends his book to be regarded as a caution as well as an explanation. But Shane’s greatest accomplishment is the sense he makes of Soviet history and Russian destiny. Indeed, he writes with such bracing authority, such startling insight, that “Dismantling Utopia” must be regarded as one of the essential works on the fall of the Soviet Union.
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