It wasn’t until the end of the Soviet era that American culture began flooding into Moscow. Coca Cola, McDonalds, Michael Jackson – the icons of Western capitalism had all arrived in the Russian capital at once.
This was around the same time Alexander Smotrov, who grew up in a small town outside Moscow, first watched Disney cartoons, ate a Mars chocolate bar and heard American music. It was the first time he learned about everyday life in the world outside the USSR. Needless to say, it was an important moment in his education.
“Suddenly, within a period of one or two years, the whole world opened up for us,” the London-based journalist and Wikipedian remembers. “We had been isolated for so many years and we had to adapt to everything very quickly.”
Smotrov’s parents, he recalls, were accustomed to the Soviet way of life, and struggled with the rapid change. He thrived on it.
The next time Smotrov would learn that much, that fast, it was the late 1990s and the Internet was at his fingertips for the first time. He again had to adapt quickly. Within a few years, he was blogging, making calls on Skype and using YouTube.
As he explored the online world, he noticed something missing. Research for his assignments took him to four or five sites to get what he needed. Some sites required payment, others were untrustworthy. All of it was painful to search through.
And then came Wikipedia.
“At first, I used it as a source just to double check facts, for work and for my own interest,” he says. But before too long, Smotrov was not just learning from Wikipedia. “When I realized that you could contribute to what you read, it was the most amazing experience.”
Since discovering Wikipedia in 2005, Smotrov has contributed more than 150 articles and thousands of edits. Most have been historical, like adding factual details about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Others have been more controversial.
“There is the Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, but in Russian they often call him ‘Evan’ McGregor. I think that’s insane,” he explains. “So I tried to change it to Ewan and there was a big, big, big debate with many people taking part. Opinions were split in half, because there are two different schools of thought in transcribing of foreign names.”
These are the spoils of free access to information. Before the Soviet Union dissolved, Smotrov remembers long queues, “very few really good things to enjoy” and learning very little about the world. Then, a deluge of information.
The same phenomenon happened when the Internet came into his life, but the transition to the new online world was made better with Wikipedia’s easily accessible, organized, unbiased information.
Living through the end of the Soviet Union, Smotrov has experienced some steep learning curves. Now, both as a journalist and Wikipedian, he devotes himself to sharing this education.
“I am amazed by the ability to learn something new and being able to transmit and to tell other people what you have learned,” he says. “You learn new things and you find the medium and you find the way to tell it to other people and you enjoy it and you enlighten other people and you enlighten yourself.”
Profile by Joshua Errett, Wikimedia Foundation Communications volunteer
Interview by Victor Grigas, Wikimedia Foundation Storyteller