February 28, 2014 1:34 pm

My first post-Soviet revolution

‘Suddenly the streets I knew so well turned into a terrifying kaleidoscope of dark images’
Illustration for Gillian Tett's 'My first post-Soviet revolution'©Shonagh Rae

Over recent days, plaudits have been pouring out for the protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square. No wonder. Those scenes of bloodied bodies have shocked the world, while the pictures of Viktor Yanukovich’s lavish excesses have infuriated Ukrainians. “Ukraine’s citizens are heroes,” Victor Pinchuk, the philanthropist, wrote in the Financial Times this week, echoing the sentiments of many Europeans and Americans. “Thanks to the bravery of its people and the support of international partners, Ukraine was able to step back from disaster.”

But it is worth remembering that there is another group of “heroes” in this story: smartphones and tablets. It was utterly remarkable that we could see these intimate images in real time; so was the fact that those Ukrainian protesters could react so quickly to this visual “news” (such as the shots of dead bodies) and then create more “news” too – often, more protests.

I say this with some emotion – and bitterness – since 22 years ago, I was caught up in my own, first post-Soviet revolution. The date was 1992 and I was conducting research for a doctorate at the main Tajik university in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. One day I discovered that some students I knew were assembling in the city’s central square, to protest against the corrupt former Soviet regime (sound familiar?).

So I went along too and, initially, it all seemed peaceful if not jolly. The students pitched camp, joined by local political activists, and we all licked ice-cream in the warm sunshine. Some of my Tajik friends from mountain villages carried hunting rifles but nobody thought these would be used. And when helicopters flew over, dropping pro-regime pamphlets, we giggled. It all seemed an exhilarating sign of democracy spreading in a former communist state.

A month later, the laughter stopped. As days turned into weeks, everyone became very tired – and tense. Pro-government demonstrators gathered in another nearby square. Troops suddenly appeared on the streets. The ice-cream sellers disappeared. Eventually – inevitably – somebody fired a shot. And, suddenly, the streets I knew so well turned into a terrifying kaleidoscope of dark, muddled images: dead bodies on the floor of a nearby mosque; a crowd of students, crushed next to me, desperately hiding behind the grandiose pillars at the entrance of the Tajik parliament; armed personnel carriers sweeping into the square, shooting wildly; helicopters hovering overhead, their blades creating such a disorientating echo that it almost drowned out the gunshots. Even now, whenever I hear a traffic helicopter overhead in New York, I experience a spasm of instinctive terror.

But then came the most startling moment of all: at some point the Tajik government troops realised that the protesters enjoyed strong public support and – quite unexpectedly – they fled. Stunned, we all rushed into the parliamentary building, past the pillars where we had sheltered, and I encountered another surreal scene. In a government office, on a desk next to a photograph of a family, was a still-warm bowl of tea. The men shooting at us, it seemed, had only just fled.

On one level, this might be Kiev in 2014. On another, it is wildly different. Twenty-four years ago, that kaleidoscope of dark images simply remained in my own sleep-deprived brain. None of us had smartphones to video the bloodshed or send the pictures elsewhere. It was difficult to even make international landline calls without bribing the local operators with grubby dollar bills or Marlboro cigarettes.

. . .

So nobody outside Dushanbe ever knew much about that uprising. We had little way of getting information about the outside world: the television channels were controlled by the government – at least until they fell into opposition hands. And while radio stations such as the BBC World Service offered a lifeline, those radio journalists did not really know what was happening in Tajikistan either. (Indeed, I started my career in journalism by filing amateur dispatches from Dushanbe, precisely because nobody knew what was going on.)

In Kiev today nobody needs to capture a television mast to control the news, or bribe people with cigarettes to dispatch “news” to a radio station. Visual images can be made and watched by anybody, at any time: they spread almost as fast as demonstrators and troops.

This is not always an unalloyed good. A 24-hour news cycle driven by real-time images can create reactive policy making, or dangerous populism. It also produces short and uneven attention spans. Everyone knows about the deaths in Kiev; fewer are watching the current carnage in the Congo.

But in one respect, that smartphone revolution is utterly extraordinary. The little revolt I witnessed in Dushanbe all those years ago had a grim postscript. When a bloody civil war later erupted, the old regime retook control amid brutal reprisals, partly because there were so few witnesses. Today, there are witnesses in Ukraine. If anything is going to deliver a good outcome to the current “revolution”, it might possibly be that fact. Here, at least, is hoping.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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