Nick Holdsworth meets the unlikely Godfather of Russian language Internet chatlines
Artiom Podstreshny seems an unlikely Godfather of Russian Internet chatlines. The slight, rather introverted fourth year maths student from Moscow State University (MSU) rarely surfs the net and would never dream of trying to find a date via cyberspace. But the 20-year-old Muscovite, who wrote his first computer program at the age of 11, loves giving other technophiles the opportunity.
Since he launched Russia's first Internet chat less than two years ago "Krovatka" (a little bed or small sofa) has recorded more than 5,000 users and nearly a million hits. From the fleeting and facile exchanges of "Barby", "Romantik" or "Pipeman" to the downright weird - "Xena, lesbian princess" who communicates in gothic English iambic pentameter with occasional diversions into the relative merits of Australian beers - Krovatka gives the Russian net community an open forum in which to socialise.
"I wanted to give Russian speakers the opportunity to use a chat service that was comfortable for them," Artiom explains over a glass of hot, sweet tea in the vast basement stolovaya (canteen) of MSU's main building. "Knowing the English versions on the net, I imagined it would be popular. More than seven million people use English chatlines, but I have been surprised at how quickly my service took off."
Artiom spent a week writing the program for Krovatka in the computer lab of the university's department of high energy physics where he works part-time at Radio MSU, not a student radio station but a sophisticated Internet provider linked to the net by satellite. He has been refining the 6,000 lines of C program code ever since, both to improve services and keep ahead of the competition he has spawned: since Krovatka launched more than 60 other chats have appeared in Russia from as far afield as Irkutsk and Novosibirsk in Siberia to Rostov-on-Don in the south. Strasti v Peroschnise (Lust in the Sandpit) and Kurilka u Vlada (Vlad's Little Smoker) are among the more exotic titles given the chats by their creators.
Artiom sees Krovatka as both a bit of fun and a service offering serious networking opportunities. Since its early days he has added a facility for private conversations and improved the policing of abuses such as bad language or swamping the screen with messages in huge fonts. He is upgrading a home page facility which will allow users to post personal details and a photograph.
He makes no money from the service: charging would exclude all but wealthy professionals and ruin the variety and spontaneity that open access allows. The attitude of Artiom's professors is benign: he is one of their top students and the mild eccentricity of his chatline is tolerated, if not openly encouraged.
An estimated 250,000 Russians use the Internet weekly, the vast majority being Moscow-based. Users are equally divided between people with home PCs and those who gain access through an office computer. Krovatka's participants are 40 per cent from Moscow, 30 per cent from the rest of the former Soviet republics and 30 per cent from around the world.
Although mainly a place to let off a little steam and indulge in some verbal jousting and flirting, Krovatka has been used for academic research. A student at MSU's sociology department, studying the new phenomenon of the Russian diaspora, found the chatline's international reach a research bonanza. The ending of Soviet restrictions on emigration has sparked an explosion in the growth of Russian communities throughout the world. London alone is home to more than 70,000. Homesick expatriates in Britain, the United States and Australia are regular visitors to the site.
A couple of hours surfing Krovatka on a snowy Moscow day when the mercury was nudging 20 C below zero gave a flavour of the experience. Ensconced in a warm corner of Radio MSU Artiom acted as guide through the open and private windows used for conversations.
With the screen showing the open line's colour-coded entries scrolling away on the left, we signed on as "Tony Blair" hoping to attract a response from English speakers. We quickly hooked "Akakii Akakievich" and exchanged greetings.
TB: "I'm a British reporter. May I ask you some questions?" AA: "What? Are you kidding, mate! Listen . . . actually, I'm in Sydney, Australia . . . . :))" After we established that AA was a 30-year old expat Russian software engineer, the conversation turned to how the Internet may develop in Russia. Akakievich doubted if Internet business services could develop in a cash-based economy such as Russia's.
AA: "No . . . (the Internet) does not look SERIOUS, you know what I mean? Someone propose you something, and you are not even sure in his existing. No, mostly ads, maybe music, stuff like that . . . the West has already proven and respectable financial institutions, which drive this stuff. How are you going to do business on the Net if you can operate just with cash?" "Jenny Lee", a 26-year old Moscow woman, had logged on from work, which she described as a "higher technical" occupation. She said Krovatka was "cool and fun" and that "of course" the Internet would become more popular in Russia, then said she had to go and signed off.
The growth of chatlines reflects a more serious increase in Internet use in Russia: 1997 saw the launch of the first of several cybercafes in Moscow where members of the public can dip into the Web over a cup of coffee without the expense of signing up with their own provider. A regional network of Internet-connected university computing systems was launched in provincial cities with backing from the Soros Foundation. But computer communication is only as good as the modems and phone lines the signals travel along and Russia remains a country where Internet connections can be frequently frustrated.
Kostya Vaxmakher, a 30-year old law student at MSU who paid $25 to a Russian-based service for an initial 10 hours of connection time 18 months ago, said he hardly every bothered to surf the net. "I only really use my computer for sending email. Fortunately the connection in my district is good because we have a new telephone exchange, but many parts of Moscow suffer from very poor lines and frequent modem crashes."