Passau in the online Encyclopedia Britannica

This month the Future of Russian core team and its active partners crossed borders in more than one respect. From February 3 to 6 they gathered, together with eight invitees, in Germany for the third Future of Russian conference. “The Russian Internet in a Global Context,” as F3 was called, was a truly transnational endeavor: presenters scrutinized new-media developments in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, but also Kazakhstan, the US, and Scandinavia. They did so at the more than aptly located city of Passau. This lovely town lies so close to the Czech and Austrian borders that even mobile phone providers were at a loss: should they welcome their traveling owners to Germany or to Austria?

Following an opening address by the president of the University of Passau, professor Walter Schweitzer, the conference opened on a sad note: the participants commemorated active project partner Daniela Hristova, who unexpectedly passed away last Autumn. Daniela is – and will be – sorely missed. A moment of silence in her honor was followed by the first keynote speech. In a thought-provoking presentation, Marie-Laure Ryan (U of Boulder) discussed various types of – globally enacted – transmedial storytelling, from ‘snowball’ (“a popular narrative spontaneously generates multiple offsprings”) to ‘distributed content’ types (“the participation of multiple media is planned from the very beginning”).

The rest of the first day was filled with politics, poetry, “digital talk” and Twitter. Michael Gorham (U of Florida) discussed the linguistic and stylistic strategies used in president Medvedev’s Tweets, Vlad Strukov (U of Leeds) examined the language policies of Russian online TV channels, Tine Roesen (Aarhus U) compared Russian and Anglo-American SNS sites that target an elite audience, Vera Zvereva (RGGU/U of Bergen) explored the impact of digital communication services – think or Twitter – on Russian language norms and poetics, Roman Leibov (U of Tartu) presented a who-is-who of Russian digital “poetic culture,” and yours truly (U of Bergen) advocated a transnational approach to the material that is central to the Future project: Russian digital language culture. The day ended online, with a dual keynote by Ewa Callahan (Quinnipiac U) and Susan Herring (Indiana U), and the latter joining the conference via an Adobe connection. Together, they examined multilingualism in LiveJournal and in university homepages – both with a focus on Russian. If English was spreading in the latter – so they concluded – then Russian-language usage is increasing in SNS sites, especially among young people.

As the participants acquainted themselves with the gothic and baroque splendours of Passau – and with its equally splendid food culture – the conference entered its second and last day. Sandra Birzer (U of Regensburg) opened the first session by revisiting her MA research on transliteration practices in Russian emails; Alexander Berdichevsky (U of Bergen) unraveled the peculiarities of Russian as opposed to non-Russian IM-language; and Ingunn Lunde (U of Bergen) took colleagues to Northern spheres with a typification of computer-mediated metalanguage in Russian, English, Danish and Norwegian online forums. The next session was devoted to developments in Ukraine and Belarus, with presentations by Alla Nedashkivska (U of Alberta), who updated colleagues on the language situation in “Cyber Ukraine”; Martin Paulsen (U of Bergen), who mapped out recent developments in the Belarusian Internet, and the ‘national turn in Internet governance’ of Belarusian authorities; and Galina Miazhevich (U of Oxford), who addressed the role of new media in generating a counter-hegemonic public sphere in Ukraine and Belarus.

After a lush lunch and more explorations of sunny Passau, the conference guests met for two last sessions, opened by Daniel Mueller (U of Giessen), who discussed digital debates on the state of the Russian language. Mueller’s talk was followed by presentations by Lara Ryazanova-Clarke (U of Edinburgh) on the online project Russia Global and its orientalizing and nostalgia-evoking use of the Russian language; by Gasan Gusejnov (Moscow/U of Basel) on the global function of Russian as used by 16-20 year old Russian bloggers; and, finally, by conference organizer Dirk Uffelmann (U of Passau) on the role of the Russian language as a means of communication among Internet users in former Soviet republics.

This tiny summary (for more information, surf here) in no way captures the factual and theoretical wealth that F3 provided – but it gives a peep into the material at stake in the various talks and groups discussions. From the latter, two recurring threads emerged that will undoubtedly impact on further work by the FoR members. First, this is the need to frame our research in transnational terms rather than as “uniquely Russian,” even if we retain a focus on the Russian-speaking segment of the Internet. Second, it concerns the question to what extent differences in digital-media usage today run across nationally defined lines in the first place: aren’t economic considerations an equally, if not more, decisive factor in defining and describing online language and behavior? With the fourth and fifth Future of Russian conference already in the making, we can, I think, safely answer these last musings with a promise: to be continued.