Net column

Net column

Andrew Brown for Angus McKinnon 10 September 1998

Mischa Kukobaka did eighteen years of hard time under the communists, in prison camps and psychiatric hospitals. But it took a computer to break his will. As a young man he walked into the Czech embassy in Moscow in the autumn of 1968 and solemnly told the occupants that he thought the Russian invasion of their country was a deeply immoral thing to do. It was an act of lunatic bravery, so the Soviet authorities duly locked him up as a lunatic. When the tortures that accompanied incarceration in a psychiatric hospital failed to cure him, he was briefly freed and then sent to a labour camp in the Urals, Perm 35.

There, he was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International; my wife, as part of the group looking after him, wrote to him every week for eight years, as did a group in Copenhagen. Only one of these hundreds of letters reached the camp in all that time, but they probably kept him alive. As an orphan, he had no family in the USSR to care whether he lived or died. He was one of the very last prisoners to be released under Gorbachev, since he refused tot he very end to sign anything that might suggest he was in any way guilty.

As soon as he was released, he moved back to Moscow, though he is a Belorussian; and from there sent a stream of handwritten letters back to Caroline, commenting with an extraordinary mixture of shrewdness and hope on the collapse of communism and the stillbirth of liberal democracy. After years in which his chief material concern was to scrounge enough food to stay alive, he had to embark on the terrible post-soviet obstacle course of finding a place to live, and then a job. He managed all that; and learned to survive on wages paid six months late. He even found a succession if improbably young girlfriends before disaster struck. Someone showed him a computer.

It took about a year to scrounge together the various bits he needed for one of his own, and then to realise that he had got all the wrong things, then to upgrade to the right ones, and finally, most catastrophically, to buy a translation program.

His letters were no longer about politics or the frustrations of everyday life. Instead, in a process familiar to anyone who has ever learnt computers, they became letters about the difficulty of writing letters. His handwriting, it is true, had always been dreadfully hard to decipher. The new machine-printed letters are much easier to read, though the preceding manual typewriter was also legible and was able to write letters that were not about typewriting.

His most recent letters have included machine translations. Here is a specimen: "I so long did not answer you that any apologies lose sense. The letter yours has received in complete order. Within one week intended to answer. But here my computer is unexpected has left out of operation (on mine, fault). And I would not like to write the letter by hand. You see handwriting at me bad. You were convinced how it is difficult to understand it (him) and to translate. After one week there was a week and I all could not consult (cope) with "my murderer of time" (practically all free time leaves on it.)"

How it is difficult to understand it (him) and to translate. Fortunately, there is also a Russian original, which my wife can turn into English, and from this we learn that he has managed to get hold of everything necessary to send email except for a phone connection. The reasons for this are not comprehensible even in the original Russian.

It is an article of faith of among the technolibertarians that computer networks will make tyranny impossible, and efficient economies essential. This is false in all sorts of obvious ways. Computers make possible a degree of surveillance and control of which earlier government could only dream. A properly wired tyranny in which Big Brother can watch our keystrokes will be much less free than one in which he can merely tap our phones. But Kukobaka’s story suggests that there is an even more effective way to damage democracy than by wiring up governments efficiently: if you give computers to the sort of lonely and determined individualists who are the backbone of any resistance, you will have disarmed them completely.

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