One of the more critical speeches in our modern age was made in 1987 when President Reagan stood at the Brandenberg Gate in West Berlin and challenged then Soviet Union Premier Mikhail Gorbachov to “Tear Down this wall.”
I stood on the site of this speech in Berlin in the late 2000s and tried to imagine President Reagan’s bold challenge to Gorbachov and the historic changes it brought about two years later. Indeed, “the world was taken by surprise when, during the night of November 9, 1989, crowds of Germans began dismantling the Berlin Wall—a barrier that for almost 30 years had symbolized the Cold War division of Europe. By October 1990, Germany was reunified, triggering the swift collapse of the other East European regimes.”
The collapse of the U.S.S.R. was monumental, and it formed Russia we know today.
While there were many political and economic factors involved in the breakup of the U.S.S.R., I was surprised to find that technology played a significant role in its fall.
I learned about the technology connection in two ways. The U.S.S.R. was called the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union controlled all the news that the people of the U.S.S.R. received until the breakup. In most cases, the people of the U.S.S.R. were not aware of the free world and the economic prosperity that most of the world enjoyed.
During a meeting with rogue journalists from multiple Eastern European countries who attended the big CeBIT computer show in Hannover, Germany, in 1985, they told me of an underground media campaign to smuggle fax machines into Russia. The goal was to send information and news of the “outside world” about the west to small clandestine cells groups in Russia and then make copies of these new stories to hand out.
Some of the western journalists I was with were so impressed by their quest to bring news of the world to Russian citizens that some of us pitched in to buy them a fax machine to take back to their countries and get into Russia through their underground network.
Then, five years after Gorbachev resigned and began giving speeches worldwide about the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the state of a new Russian Federation, I was privileged to hear him speak in N.Y.C. I had a personal connection with one of his U.S. translators and was allowed to join a small group after the meeting who asked him some questions. At one point, I asked him if he could point to any specific thing that perhaps hastened changes in the U.S.S.R.
To my surprise, he said that one thing that had an impact was fax machines. He noted that more and more outside information became available to regular Russian citizens. This began to turn the tide that caused more people to want a Russian world with more freedom and more prosperous life.
Ironically, what we are seeing today is a quest by Vladimir Putin to bring the Iron Curtain back to Russia and keep their citizens in the dark about their illegal invasion of Ukraine and sway all of the news stories around propaganda and Russian controlled news. They have banned Facebook and Twitter and threatened prison sentences to anyone who breaks their new media-controlled laws.
However, keeping Russian citizens in the dark will be difficult in this digital age. Elon Musk’s decision to position his Starlink satellites over Ukraine and then bring in-ground stations will help in Ukraine. Perhaps he needs to create smaller ground stations, (the size of fax machines) that can be smuggled into Russia to bring Starlink connections to a communications blacked-out Russian world.
And just this week, the B.B.C. resurrected shortwave broadcasts to Russia. “It’s often said truth is the first casualty of war,” B.B.C. Director-General Tim Davie said in a statement. “In a conflict where disinformation and propaganda is rife, there is a clear need for factual and independent news people can trust—and in a significant development, millions more Russians are turning to the B.B.C.”
Russia could try to block these signals, but it would be almost impossible to do this to all in Russia who have modern radios with broad signal ranges in them.
Given Russia’s newest digital Iron Curtain mentality, the tech world needs to innovate to get past this government-imposed information blackout and make sure the Russian people are accurately informed about what is happening.
As Gorbachov said in his talk to our group, technology like a fax machine, was instrumental in breaking up the U.S.S.R.
The world of tech needs to respond aggressively and innovate to keep the Russian people informed about the truth and the disastrous war on Ukraine that will decimate their economy and potentially bring them back to the darker days of the Soviet Union.