Born and raised in remote Russian towns, Alexei and Nikolai met in 1980, in Afghanistan, where they were fulfilling their "international duty" as Soviet soldiers. Both were wounded and ended up in different hospitals. They lost touch for 28 years. Tomorrow they are having lunch together.
This is one of many stories with a happy ending, thanks to the overwhelming popularity of Russia's online social networks. While western countries are old hands at online networking--through sites like facebook.com, classmates.com, myspace.com and linkedin.com--the phenomenon is relatively new in Russia.
The most popular social network, odnoklassniki.ru (translated as "classmates") appeared in March 2006. Today it reports over nine million users. Its founder, Albert Popkov, said he expects that number to more than double in 2008. "The main purpose of this project is to help people find each other," Popkov said. "We created this site mostly for people 23 and older. Teenagers do not know what it's like to lose a paper address book when they move somewhere. They grew up with the internet and mobile phones. Besides, teens have not yet had a chance to 'get lost' properly."
Popkov said that he got the idea for odnoklassniki five years ago, when he met Jason Porter, creator of the British social network friendsreunited.co.uk. Popkov studied other foreign prototypes, such as Classmates and Facebook, and then launched his Russian descendant. "I built Odnoklassniki like a puzzle," he said. "I simply took everything that works well on other networks and added something of my own." For instance, apart from the usual "pick your school and college" options, Odnoklassniki has sections like "troop unit" and "vacation spot," for those who want to find army buddies or summer flames. Yet finding classmates seems to be users' main goal. "I went to four schools and made many friends, who are now spread around lots of cities and republics of the former USSR," said Andrei Tikhonov, who lives in Yaroslavl. "Thanks to the site, I found dozens of people that I now keep in touch with. The funniest thing is that one of them lives in the apartment building right next to mine."
Experts and users agree that one of the reasons such sites are so popular is because they allow people to reconnect with a past that predates the collapse of the USSR, adaptation to market realities, and, in some cases, emigration, regardless of their age. "In Russia, not many people my age know how to use a computer," said Natalya Surukina, 58. "But their children register them and find their classmates for them. Though I have only found a few childhood friends so far, finding them amid our troubling times was like finding myself."
Dr. Alexander Asmolov, a psychologist and member of the presidium of the Russian Society of Psychologists, concurred. "The thing that distinguishes our century and our civilization is the phenomenon of loneliness in the crowd. We used to know our neighbors very well, but nowadays, if you ask anybody, 'Who lives next door to you?' you will be met with an outrageous lack of information. This symptom is closely linked to another: loss of our own identity and raising questions such as 'Who am I?,' 'Where am I going?,' 'What are my values?' Finding someone from your school or hometown can help answer these questions. Thus, people search for their lost connections, and in the process search for their own lost identity."
The value of these connections is all the greater because Russian children have historically moved around less than, say, their American counterparts. Russian children typically spend a decade in school and five years in college with the same groups of friends. Classmates and collegemates thus become lifelong friends. Losing them is like losing a family member. "I now live in Austin, Texas, with my family," said Maria Hutson (nee Yaralova). …