Ian Watson — "Eastern" Europe, 1992-1994

During the years 1992-1994 I spent most of my time and energy exploring "eastern" Europe and the former Soviet Union at a time when all of these countries were going through incredible political and economic changes.

The purpose of this page is to link to a few documents from the time which might possibly now be of modest historical interest:

The first (1993) edition of my guidebook The Baltics and Russia Through the Back Door (PDF, 738K).

Zach Schrag's "Taiga Home Companion," letters written home from the apartment we shared in Moscow in 1993. Posted here with his permission (you can also visit his website).

The archives of the ALBNET mailing list on Albanian internet connectivity that I moderated from 1994-1996. (Plain text document, 379K)

My reports on the state of the Internet in southeastern Europe in the summer of 1994. These reports are a snapshot of early Internet development in Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia. I will not be posting them publicly, but you can read a summary, and I would gladly make the full reports available to scholars interested in the early history of the Internet in southeastern Europe. Please e-mail me if this is you.

A brief reading list of interesting books from these times and places.

Here's my own personal story of these years:

Americans got a lot of news about Poland and the Solidarity movement on television every evening in the early 1980s. But for most Americans, unless they had a family background in eastern Europe, the entire area was like an unheated and unlighted room whose door one always keeps shut. Most people knew nothing about the history, the cities, the landscapes, and few had much contact with the people. It was only the chance fact that my mother roomed next door to a Polish student at a summer course at Oxford University in 1984, and that the two of them struck up a friendship and correspondence, that created a connection for me.

In the summer of 1987 my sister and I backpacked in Europe, and she decided to try to visit the friend that my mother had made. It took some doing, but was not too difficult, for us to get Polish visas. Going to Poland was a watershed experience for me as I had never before been to a country with such a different language and culture. I was interested enough to study Polish informally and formally over the next couple years and I made another trip back in 1988.

In 1989 I started working for the Let's Go travel guidebooks, mostly in Scandinavia. But in 1990 I traveled to Albania, then just opening, and wrote a section on it in Let's Go: Europe. By chance, I then got to learn quite a bit of Albanian during a required linguistic field methods course that used an Albanian informant.

Working as editor of Let's Go: Europe in 1991 was especially exciting since I got to commission expanded sections on eastern Europe and new sections on the Baltic states. In the process I got to know a fun group of other Americans my age with deep interests in (mostly) Russia.

In the spring of 1992 I traveled to the Baltic states to see them first hand for the first time. For the fall of 1992 I decided to complete my last semester of college on a study abroad program in Beijing, China. I decided to spend the summer beforehand traveling through Russia and Mongolia on my way to China. The summer of 1992 was a very exciting and optimistic time in Russia. So after I finished my semester in China, I decided to return to Russia.

I spent January to October 1993 living in Moscow. For most of that time I shared an apartment with my college friend Zachary Schrag. I worked for an English-language radio station, I wrote a guidebook to Russia and the Baltics that came out under the Rick Steves line. Later, I worked for a small, short-lived American consulting company subcontracted to HIID, the Harvard Institute for International Development, which itself was in charge of a USAID-funded project to bring about privatization in Russia. (This last experience was a whole story in itself.)

After leaving Moscow I spent the fall of 1993 updating a Frommers' guidebook to Eastern Europe in Hungary, Slovenia, and Albania. In early 1994 I returned to Russia and the Baltics to update the Rick Steves guidebook.

Then in summer 1994 I agreed to work on a project for IREX (the International Research and Exchanges Board). IREX had for several years run an Internet training program in the former Soviet Union and was considering duplicating this program elsewhere. They wanted information about Internet use in southeastern Europe, particularly in the academic and non-profit sectors, so that they could decide whether such a program would be worthwhile. At this point the Internet was something quite new and unknown, even more so in southeastern Europe, and Internet communications infrastructure development was still largely driven by academic and government funding rather than by private demand for connectivity. I spent the summer of 1994 based at IREX's office in Skopje (Macedonia), traveling around the region and interviewing Internet providers and users. I wrote a report on what I saw. Tony Byrne, then responsible for Internet projects in IREX's Washington office, supervised my work.

IREX ultimately did not expand their program, although it still continues today (called IATP) in the former Soviet Union. The only real fruit of my efforts was an e-mail mailing list, called ALBNET, which linked people interested in the development of Internet access in Albania. This list continued for the next couple of years until I wrapped it up in October 1996.

Ten years later it is very clear to me how special a time these years were. It's fun to read the histories, memoirs, and fiction from this period that's coming out in larger and larger measure (see list below). For "Westerners" in Eastern Europe these years were a time of exploration, creativity, initiative, entrepreneurship, and naivete. For the countries themselves these years were a time of massive change in virtually every single social institution. Now, of course, countries like Hungary and Lithuania are as well documented with travel guidebooks, websites, literary translations, and so forth as the "western " countries like Portugal or Belgium from which they are increasingly indistinguishable.

Further reading

On the Baltic states in the early 1990s:
Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution

On the history of Russian privatization:
There are now more than half a dozen competing books. The first, not necessarily the best, but still the only one I've read, was Janine Wedel, Collision and Collusion. In 2006, David McClintick published a widely discussed article on the controversy surrounding the people in charge of the USAID/HIID privatization project.

Two fine memoirs by and about Americans in eastern Europe in the early 1990s:
Frederick Quinn, Democracy at Dawn (Texas A&M University Press, 1998)
Douglas Wells, In Search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment: Destination Estonia (2001)

Also of interest is Arthur Phillips' novel Prague — though forgettable as a novel, it's noteworthy for its especially conscious efforts to package and market the experience of Americans in eastern Europe in the early 1990s. This came through especially clearly on the now-defunct book web site.

-- Reykjavík, April 2004.

Last updated March 2006