One of the most critical speeches of our modern age was delivered in 1987, when President Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin and challenged then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.”
I stood at the site of this speech in Berlin in the late 2000s and tried to imagine President Reagan’s bold challenge to Gorbachev and the historic changes he brought about two years later. In effect, “the world was taken by surprise when, on the night of November 9, 1989, mobs of Germans began to dismantle the Berlin Wall, a barrier that for nearly 30 years had symbolized the Cold War’s division into Europe. In October 1990, Germany was reunited, triggering the rapid collapse of other Eastern European regimes.”
The collapse of the USSR was monumental and shaped the Russia we know today.
Although there were many political and economic factors involved in the breakup of the USSR, I was surprised to find that technology played a significant role in its downfall.
I learned about the technological connection in two ways. The USSR was called the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union controlled all the news that the people of the USSR received until the breakup. In most cases, the people of the USSR were unaware of the free world and the economic prosperity enjoyed by most of the world.
During a meeting with rogue journalists from several Eastern European countries who witnessed the big CeBIT Computer Fair in Hannover, Germany, in 1985, they told me about an underground media campaign to smuggle fax machines into Russia. The goal was to send information and news from the “outside world” about the West to small underground cell groups in Russia, and then make copies of these new stories to distribute.
Some of the Western journalists I was with were so impressed with their quest to bring world news to Russian citizens that some of us pitched in to buy them a fax machine to take back to their country and enter Russia through their clandestine network.
Then, five years after Gorbachev resigned and began giving speeches around the world about the fall of the USSR and the state of a new Russian Federation, I had the privilege of hearing him speak at New York. I had a personal connection with one of his American translators and was allowed to join a small group after the meeting who asked him a few questions. At one point I asked him if he could point out one specific thing that might have accelerated the changes in the USSR.
To my surprise, he said one thing that had an impact was fax machines. He noted that more and more outside information is becoming accessible to ordinary Russian citizens. This began to reverse the trend that had more people wanting a Russian world with more freedom and a more prosperous life.
Ironically, what we see today is a quest by Vladimir Putin to bring back the iron curtain in Russia and keep their citizens in the dark about their illegal invasion of Ukraine and influence all reporting around propaganda and news controlled by Russia. They have banned Facebook and Twitter and threatened jail time for anyone who violates their new media control laws.
However, keeping Russian citizens in the dark will be difficult in the digital age. Elon Musk’s decision to position his Starlink Satellites over Ukraine, then bring ground stations will help in Ukraine. Perhaps he needs to create smaller ground stations (the size of a fax machine) that can be smuggled into Russia to bring Starlink connections to a Russian world with no communications.
And just this week, the The BBC has revived shortwave broadcasts to Russia. “His it is often said that the truth is the first casualty of war,” BBC director-general Tim Davie said in a declaration. “In a conflict where disinformation and propaganda are rampant, there is a clear need for factual, independent information that people can trust – and in a significant development, millions more Russians are turning to the BBC”
Russia could try to block these signals, but it would be nearly impossible to do so to anyone in Russia who has modern radios with wide signal ranges.
Given Russia’s new Digital Iron Curtain mentality, the tech world needs to innovate to overcome this government-imposed information blockade and ensure the Russian people are properly informed of what’s going on. .
As Gorbachev said in his speech to our group, technology, like a fax machine, was instrumental in the breakup of the USSR
The tech world must respond aggressively and innovate to keep the Russian people informed of the truth and the disastrous war on Ukraine that will decimate their economy and potentially return them to the darkest days of the Soviet Union.