Thoughts on Worldwide Connectedness

About 10 o'clock on a recent Saturday morning, I received a text message from Russia.
One of my traveling companions texted to say that the flight had arrived safely in Moscow and that the travelers were now safely ensconced at their hotel.

By 11 o'clock Sunday, I was receiving photos.

While I was not surprised by the technological ease of connecting to a person who is literally on the other side of the planet, I found the scenario awe-inspiring for other reasons.

Growing up in the '60s and '70s, Russia was a part of the Soviet Union - a place physically, politically, and culturally remote to us Westerners. It was a place that relatively few Americans visited, and those who did either had or were perceived to have high-level connections that helped make the Byzantine arrangements necessary for a visit to become a reality.

During the 1980s, it began to appear that a new era of openness might be upon us. In 1987, then-President Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall as a symbol of Gorbachev's stated desire for increasing freedom in the Eastern Bloc. East Germany finally opened the Berlin Wall in late 1989 after intense East German protest, and began dismantling the wall by the end of that year. It began to appear that glasnost (openness), one of Gorbachev's watchwords for the renovation of Soviet politics and society, might be more than mere rhetoric.

Events that unfolded in 1991 shed new light behind what was then called the "Iron Curtain."

On August 19, a "committee" of Soviet officials attempted a coup d-etat against Gorbachev. At that time, I was a reporter for a Seattle radio station and was called out in the middle of the night to attempt to get some comments from Soviet sailors who were aboard the Academic Shirshov, a research vessel docked on the Seattle waterfront. A gesture of goodwill in the form of a package of American cigarettes offered to the sailor guarding the gangplank produced a couple of sailors whose English was excellent and who were willing to speak and have their comments recorded, even though they wanted to remain anonymous. However, my success was cut short when the ship's political officer set up barricades preventing further access to the sailors. Two days later, six passengers and crew deserted the ship and sought political asylum in the U.S.

These events were among many that formed my opinion about the dearth of openness in the Soviet Union and, fairly or otherwise, in Russia.

Now, though the Soviet Union has been gone for nearly 20 years, Russia is still far from being an open society and is still rigidly bureaucratic in many regards (see previous posts). So the fact that a text and photos could so easily be sent from that country was still a bit surprising.

However, it also provided a stark illustration of the power that today's technology can provide to the people. From the digital photos of the "tank man" stopping a phalanx of tanks in Tienanmen Square in 1989 that were e-mailed around the world to today's uncensored access to the thoughts, opinions, and actions of others literally anywhere in the world, technology has brought us an openness that, despite a few recent attempts by besieged governments, seems to be here to stay regardless of what set of borders or political boundaries you might find yourself within.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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