Fall-Winter 2002-2003

Community Networking in Post-Soviet Russia
by Sergei Stafeev

Paradoxes of Building of the Information Society in Russia and CIS

The disintegration of the USSR still influences the world to a great extent. The formation of a functioning civil society sector is needed to overcome the effects of the ex-soviet (CIS) state economical, social and cultural heritage of totalitarian government.  It is crucial to effectively use information and communication technologies (ICTs) for rapid improvement of the quality of life of the ordinary people, of women, youth, the elderly, the disabled, and the indigenous.

The Internet and related technologies have developed rapidly across Russia in the last 4-5 years. The country is at a crossroads as policymakers contemplate how to regulate this powerful medium. While there are vast commercial, educational, and societal benefits to the Internet, there are legitimate concerns regarding the privacy and security of Russia's government and citizens.  Like much of the rest of the world, Russia is struggling with a great number of issues and challenges posed by the Internet as a new medium of communication and commercial development—infrastructure and e-commerce, piracy and copyrights, access to information and freedom of speech, and regulatory control and legislative authority. However, Russia faces many unique technical, legal, and cultural challenges to the successful development of an online society, too.

While estimates vary, there appear to be between four to eight million regular Internet users (the lower figure seems more realistic because in the country there are only seven to eight million personal computers capable to work with Internet programs and a significant number of them haven't connected to the Net).  It is realistic to estimate that about 1.5 to 2% of the Russian population is online (compared, for instance, to 34% in Germany).  It is striking that about 38% of all Internet users in Russia live in Moscow.  This figure highlights the tremendous digital divide in our society. Also, recent polls indicate that only 12% of Internet users are older than 45.

The nation's IT sector accounts for little more than one-half of one percent of the nation's economy. In an attempt to develop the IT sector in Russia, the government recently initiated a $2.6 billion "Electronic Russia" program, which focuses on developing the regulatory and legal environment, Internet infrastructure, e-government, and e-education. It is the goal of the program to increase the IT sector's influence to two percent of the economy by 2010.  While the program has the potential to boost the nation's economy, provide distance-learning opportunities in remote regions, and develop Russia's democratic government, the complete details of E-Russia's implementation are still being determined.

A separate but equally crucial issue is the use of ICTs and the Internet for not-for-profit/civil society purposes.  Last year, the Centre for Community Networking and Information Policy Studies (CCNS) conducted a study on the use of ICTs in non-governmental organizations in Saint Petersburg and Leningrad .  Unfortunately only seven percent of the NGOs in the region regularly use ICTs in their work, and have email and web sites. In Russia only commercial Internet projects develop because of a lack of effective state programs aimed at creation of Internet centres for disabled people, low-income people and people living in small provincial towns. 

The Role of Community Networking

It is now commonplace to speak about the formation of the so-called "informational society" in the economically developed countries. In December 2003 there will be held a first World Summit of Information Society (WSIS) where a wide spectrum of issues concerning human civilization at this new stage of its development will be discussed.  But the critical question must be: Whose Information Society? Will it be the one that suits the elites but excludes the majority? Or will it be one that provides and expands sustainability, human rights, and people's dignity?

At present, Internet access in Russia is available primarily in major cities (at rates that are affordable to average users). Obviously, to bridge the digital divide between Russia and other nations, the Internet must be used in our country by more than just the elite. While there are many problems in creating an online Russia, they break down into two fundamental challenges: establishing a technical, economic, and legal environment that supports the Internet and creating a cultural environment that embraces this inherently transparent technology.

Community networks (CNs) and Community Informatics (CI) as projects and methods grew for most part within developed and western societies with related cultural, social, economic and technology assumptions and an existing "civil society" infrastructure of norms, values and institutional frameworks that can support these types of services. In societies which for historical reasons have not developed this civic infrastructure—for example, Russia and other states in transition—the development of community-based ICT services such as community networks is difficult.  As we develop our ideas about community networks and community informatics, we have begun to ask:  "How can ICTs be used as effective tools for fostering self-organizing models of governance in our region?"

The rebuilding of Russia involves revitalizing a sense of community economic development and enabling local citizens to participate in local self-government/self-organization. For a fully democratic society to emerge in Russia, local (geo)communities (groups of people living within the same locality and united by common values) need to play a greater role in public life.  During the Soviet era, communities were structured to a great extent around work places. In the current transition period with most enterprises, institutes, and state farms being shut down or experiencing dramatic cutbacks, there is a significant social vacuum at the local level.  Real community needs to become a basic structure unifying socially active citizens who are endeavoring to achieve development for their territory.  Right now, there is a need for local communities to play a greater role in public life and to develop networks across communities to unify socially active citizens who are endeavoring to achieve regional development.

We are sure that one of the main mechanisms for the development of civil society in post-communist states is the transformation of "neighbors" into "neighborhoods" formed by people of various social groups who are nevertheless ready to work together to solve local problems important for all of them. Under such conditions the work undertaken between and within local communities is extremely important.

Lessons Learned in Early CN Experiments

During the last four years the author has been working in several international research and development projects in the field of civil society structures development at the local level in Russia (Gardarika, UN Habitat Program, The Democracy Works et al.) and saw some cases of very effective use of ICT for creating a good "social atmosphere" within various geolocal communities, establishing new social links, and developing working partnerships. In our practical work we explored new ways and methods for local citizen participation in the decision-making process at the local level, especially through the use of ICTs.

In particular, we used tools such as community web sites and small local access centers.  In spite of the relatively small percent of Internet-connected local dwellers (most of those projects were implemented in small distant towns and rural areas), a significant part of local residents were involved in these activities.  Interestingly, the so-called Soviet intelligentsia—teachers, doctors, and engineers, well-educated people of middle and older ages who struggle to find their place in the new post-Soviet society—appear to form the potential base for Internet development in our region.

It is clear that the new information technology environment is not only about hardware—wires, modems, servers, routers, etc.—it is about how communities provide access, computer literacy, and organizational training whilst at the same time being aware of the related community development issues. The nature of the information infrastructure, e.g., the content, structure, and relationships among discrete information resources, providers and users is essential to consider because of the degree that this infrastructure can assist in the creation of a new public sphere, where democratic decision making and community building is enhanced.

Approaching CN/CI Research and Development (R&D)

In regard to a given R&D problem we consider structures of interaction, stakeholders, and regional agents of development as well as ICT infrastructure and capacity to send and receive reliable and objective information. In this sense, the following scheme describes stages in our work developing ICT projects in Russia:

  1. Description of the project in a language accessible to citizens, including possible ramifications of the project for the local community;
  2. Definition of the key focal points of communication infrastructure and stakeholders;
  3. Organization of dialogue, communicative and informational events;
  4. Strengthening of positive trends in local communities;
  5. Organization of sustainable relationship between local communities and regional ICT project developers.

In other words, communication projects should be viewed only as elements of the communication infrastructure development of local communities as a part of larger social projects. 

The Importance of CN/CI Practice and Theory

The studies we have conducted so far suggest that if information networks are seen only as the installation of computers and telecommunication facilities without any analysis of the larger social meaning of these, these information networks quickly die out or commercialize. That is why it is important to develop these resources together with people who will use them. This is why the practice and theory of community networks and community informatics is important.

We call it a principle of involvement. We must help all citizens to become producers as well as consumers in the ICT economy. We realize that CN can not be created on the same principles as traditional information channels (mass media). New culture is being created now, new principles of information interaction, where there is no difference between
"journalists" and "readers." That is why even in early stages of CN designing, community members should participate in the formation of local contents of CN. This results in a double effect —it both increases effectiveness of CN work and turns citizens into co-authors of their own information. Though at present development of CN in Russia depends on external financial support (foreign charity funds, international programs), we are confident that in the future we will be able to demonstrate the promise of these new tools in the economic and social development of municipalities and regions.  Consequently, development of CN will become an item within Russian budgets.


Development of such complex social ideas as community networking should be based on substantial inner resources (training programs and sessions, professional employees, methodology materials, and development models) as well as be politically supported (legislation, federal social budgets, municipal orders) in order to maintain national programs.

Adaptations of models used in other countries will only be successful in Russia if the environmental factors outlined above are accurately defined and accounted for prior to implementation. It is essential to initially screen external models for the adoption of ICT for community benefit against these considerations and their related procedures, methods, and tools.


Stafeev, S, "Community Networking in Russia: Identifying the Research Agenda," in Community Informatics. Shaping Computer-Mediated Relations, ed. by Keeble, L., and Loader B., Routledge, UK, 2001.

Stafeev, S., "ICTs in Russian Civil Society Sector Organizations/Analitical Review," HAIS Magazine, Manchester, UK, 2002.

Webb, S., Stafeev, S., "Community Informatics in Russia—Needing to Make a Leap," in Transforming Regional Economies and Communities with Information Technology, ed. by Marshall S. et al., Rockhampton, Australia, 2002.

Zaslavskaya, T., in "Social Structural Aspect of the Transforming Russian Society," in Sociological Studies, 8/2001, 23-27.

Sergei Stafeev
Sergei Stafeev is a director of the Centre of Community Networking and Information Policy Studies (CCNS), a Russian think-tank, based in St. Petersburg. Stafeev is one of the pioneers in using Internet for the Civil Society Sector development in Russia and chief of several international IT projects including the British-Russian Gardarika Project, Democracy Works, and Russian Communities Online.


Dear Mr. Stafeev,
I have read your article with interest and found it relevant to try to approach you. I represent a non-profit think tank based in Copenhagen and London, but trying to build up a platform for "social creation" in Moscow. We are looking for partner organisations in Moscow, that could be interested in actually entering into the project in order to strengthen social creation networks aorund or in their organisational environment. The use of ICT is of course part of the project, though not its core (in DK, we are beginning to experiment with the use of very open web-fora like Wikis to further develop our methods into the ICT domain) - but it seems to me that many of your interests are similar to ours. With you being based in St. Petersburg, what I asking of you is not so much a partnership at this stage, but more likely names of organisations, think tanks, institutes, firms, that may be interesting for us to contact in view of a partnership. We are applying for a grant from the TACIS program this spring, so we are eager to find more interactive partners than the ones we already have as backing and board members.

This became a long mail - please forgive me for taking up your time, but I would really appreciate if you could help me on this issue - as you state, Russia is not exactly completely present on the web, so my knowledge is building up at a far too slow pace.

Hopeful and kind regards,

Oleg Koefoed
Ph.D., Process Philosopher
Kesera Copenhagen
+45 21790786

Posted by: Oleg Koefoed at March 12, 2004 08:09 AM
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