News

From U.S. News and World Report
January 27, 1997
[for personal use only;] http://www.usnews.com/usnews/main.htm

ELECTRONIC END RUN
The unvarnished, and undiplomatic, source on Russia
BY VICTORIA POPE

Information gathering in Moscow used to be a lot like subsistence farming: Diplomats and other Kremlin watchers were forced to scratch out small bits of news from the inhospitable soil of official news organs and orchestrated junkets to factories and collective farms.

Diplomats and intelligence operatives prized the insider secrets that would make their interpretation of events stand out.

With the cold war over, the premium is on quick access to direct, unreconstructed sources.

Hard-pressed diplomats still rely on their official Russian contacts to keep in the know, but they may well be online while waiting for their calls to be returned. Amid the multitude of databases and Web pages devoted to the former Soviet Union, one quietly enjoys an influential following: David Johnson's Russia List.

Open sources. As a direct conduit linking subscribers at the U.S. State Department, the CIA, the Russian parliament and presidential administration, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and others, the Russia List has become an underground classic. Operated by the Center for Defense Information research unit, the list gathers information from an eclectic mix of sources--some 60 separate pieces of news about Russia each day. It also abandons the constraints of diplomatic courtesy and academic understatement in favor of lively sparring: Every day, some of its 800 recipients, whether in Washington or Ulan Bator, fiercely debate the pros and cons of U.S. policy, linking opinion makers around the globe. (Internet users can send an E-mail request to [email protected] to receive the list.)

"It fills a vacuum," says Stanford University's Michael McFaul. "Scholarly journals have become more divorced than ever from the policy world." The resource has also drawn high praise from top U.S. officials who one might think would have better sources to draw upon. Fritz Ermarth, a leading CIA analyst on Russia, says, "Johnson isn't just sources, it's perspective, and nuances, and a community of people willing to engage in intellectual discourse." Thomas Pickering, until recently the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, wrote Johnson a similar kudogram.

The list started last May, during the Russian presidential campaign, as a counterpoint to what Johnson describes as oversimplified coverage. "The New York Times has done no favor to Russian democracy by rolling over on Yeltsin," he wrote in an opening salvo.

Although Johnson's pet view is that Boris Yeltsin's government is authoritarian and shouldn't be legitimized by American support, the list, in true Internet fashion, reflects a democracy of ideas. Along with the musings of intellectuals, are observations on daily life in Russia from an American aircraft maintenance man in Moscow ("Notes from the Ground") and a series of amateur "psychoportraits" of Russia's leaders from another subscriber, who concludes that Boris Yeltsin's celebrated act of climbing onto a tank during the 1991 attempted coup was not an act of bravery--but the antics of a "town drunk."