By Victor Sonkin
Internet junkies and academics may ordinarily be cut from different cloth, but two weeks ago, one stuck up for the other in a last-ditch effort to save one of Russian literature's greatest treasures.
Representatives of Moscow-Tartu Initiative, an association of private donors organized on the Internet, have pledged to bail out the Russian department of Estonia's Tartu University from financial ruin. Tartu University's Russian department is dear to many of Moscow's literati, as it became a haven for liberal thought during the stagnation of the 1970s. Yet falling enrollments meant that two of the department's professors would have been fired if the donors hadn't stepped in.
Speaking at the ceremony, Moscow-Tartu Initiative chairman Sergei Kuznetsov, who recently published a history of the Russian Internet called "Feeling The Elephant" (Oshchupyvaya Slona), said that the foundation lays waste to the charge that Russia's businessmen couldn't care less about their country and culture. "As private persons we are able to solve problems that politicians and officials ruefully neglect," the association reported Kuznetsov as saying.
Tartu University has been an important center of Russian studies for more than three decades, primarily due to the charisma and prominence of professor Yury Lotman, a leading figure in the field of structural semiotics. After Lotman's death in 1993, former students such as Dmitry Itskovich, owner of Moscow's OGI literary cafes, and Roman Leibov, a scholar of Russian literature who teaches at Tartu, transformed the quiet Estonian town into one of the centers of Russia's intellectual Internet movement.
"Ten years ago, the Internet was more developed in Russian university communities outside Russia," Kuznetsov said, "and it's time for us to repay the debt."
The problems plaguing this Russian department are universal among post-communist countries now shaking off their Soviet past. Tartu University finances its departments proportionally to their number of students, and Russian departments these days are not exactly overpacked.
"It has become much more difficult for our graduates to find jobs in Estonia, and there's little hope for significant change," Leibov wrote by e-mail last Monday. "With this in mind, Moscow's initiative, if not quite a cure-all, will certainly help us survive."
To this day, many Russian culture officials refuse to acknowledge the Internet community as a positive force in the arts. Columnist Maxim Sokolov once called it "a toy for American imbeciles," and Culture and Press Minister Alexander Sokolov called it "a hundred-headed hydra" as recently as last week. Members of Moscow-Tartu Initiative are right to emphasize the role of the Internet in their collective, if that is what it will take to get the web to be accepted as nothing less than a fact of life.