In 1991, Bill Pfeiffer, a soft-spoken environmental activist, and Davis Chapman, a young computer hacker, decided to smuggle a backpack full of laptop computers through Russian customs to environmental protesters in southern Russia.
"What we were doing wasn’t technically illegal…," Pfeiffer explains, but he decided the less said the better. It worked.
Within a few days they had set up an electronic mail connection to Lipetsk – one of the 10 most polluted cities in Russia – where protesters were trying to shut down a highly toxic industrial development. As a result, a protest which might have remained a state secret, suddenly had an international audience.
Siberian Secrets Revealed
Much farther east in central Siberia, a woman named Natalya Mironova works dangerously close to Chelyabinsk-65, the site of a 1957 nuclear explosion kept secret by the Soviet government. After Pfeiffer and Chapman connected her to e-mail, she and her 16-year-old son started broadcasting information about radiation fallout and water contamination to the world.
Notorious for their static, telephone lines in the former Soviet republics are unreliable. With the advent of electronic mail, computer specialists learned how to program modems to bypass the heavy static.
"Computer telecommunications networks have created an amazing new style of activism," explains Chapman. "An activist traveling with a laptop computer can send and receive mail, keep in close contact with friends and supporters, and send articles to international publications and organizations."
Gulnara Ishkuzina used her e-mail account in Estonia to communicate with her Russian colleagues when most means of communication between the two countries were banned.
"Borders were created between states of the former USSR. They became barriers to communications between people," she says.
Via e-mail, Ishkuzina has been discussing the Peipsi Lake region bordering Russia and Estonia with scientists in the US, Finland, Estonia, Russia, and Ukraine. "E-mail is extremely important as it helps us to stay in touch with environmental activists and experts all over the world," Ishkuzina says.
Sacred Earth Network
Pfeiffer and Chapman have now established electronic mail connections in all but one of the republics of the former Soviet Union. Their non-profit organization, the Sacred Earth Network (SEN), no longer smuggles computers. It now has an office in Moscow, where coordinator Susan Cutting publishes an e-mail address directory of more than 200 environmental groups in the former republics.
"Influencing change here takes a great deal of strength and initiative," Cutting says. "I believe in the West we have a great deal to learn."
"We are very thankful to SEN for their support," says Anna Syomina, a founder of MAMA86, a group of Kiev mothers who had children at the time of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion. MAMA86 is working to educate women in Kiev about the effects of the environment on children’s health. The group uses electronic mail to solicit help and to gather information from around the world.
"We feel permanent moral support from the global community being connected by e-mail," Syomina says.
Lee McDavid is a writer who lives in Norwich, Vermont. Contact the Sacred Earth Network at 267 East Street, Petersham, MA 01366, tel. 508/724-3443, e-mail: email@example.com.