The Russian Orthodox Web Page: A Case Study in New Partnerships

John F. Crow
John C. Patton
Members, Russia Committee
Diocese of New York, Episcopal Church, USA
http://www.russian-orthodox-net.org

Introduction

From a small subcommittee meeting to a global proposal, the past twelve months have proven to be an odyssey both in cyber and human terms. The resulting project has progressed from concept to reality and, in the process, its planners have a developed a structure to create new and enhance old avenues for social involvement using the World Wide Web as a means to that end. The purpose of this presentation is to summarize the unique features of this developing partnership, and to allow the listener to benefit from the experience of our successes and missteps in this process.

In essence, what began as a global training/Web project involving the Russian church in Moscow ("thinking globally") has developed into an initially local Web site which exists to support global ideals sponsored by a consortium of interests including nonprofit, religious, and commercial interests ("acting locally"). The complexities of global participation have not slowed the completion of this project, rather the challenges raised by bridging cultures and societies have enhanced the project by involving new partners and ideas. Internet connectivity has allowed the participants to be flexible in their approach to realizing this project's goals, in addition to allowing a multi-faceted group to participate.

The project and its goals

To facilitate the training for and utilization of existing connectivity in Russia both within the Russian Orthodox Church and among the social projects in which we are involved. Additionally, we are adding the Russian Orthodox Web site to the numerous orthodox and other religious sites which already exist on the World Wide Web.

Timeline to connectivity

1990, 1991 The Russian Orthodox Church is legalized in The USSR. The Episcopal Bishop of New York establishes the Russia Committee

1993, 1994 Trinity Church awards $20,000 grant for support of the ROC Department of External Relations (DER).

June, 1995 Participated in the Internet Society annual meeting in Hawaii to establish contacts for this project.

September, 1995 Proposal to the Soros Foundation for comprehensive training, and connectivity center to be housed in Moscow at the DER and at the seminary library at Moscow State Univ. Beginning of BelCom partnership

November, 1995 Brought over DER director to discuss the details of the connectivity project.

January, 1996 Given the nature of the grant process and personnel limitations in DER, committee decides to go forward with the Web site project on a local basis. Greg Cole enters the partnership with the offer of technical and design assistance.

February, 1996, Committee member travels Russia to discuss the state of the project. DER agrees with the necessity of immediate action on the project. Local work begins in New York. Begin approaching the Orthodox Church in America to include in the partnership.

April 15, 1996 The Russian Orthodox Net Web site goes online for demonstration at the committee annual fund-raiser.

May 15, 1996 The Web site is officially announced on the Internet.

June, 1996 Presentation to the Internet Society Annual Montreal meeting.

The four-year odyssey

Under the direction and leadership of the Right Reverend Richard Grein, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, a diocesan committee was founded in 1992 to support several Russian social projects in cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church. The historically significant and positive relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and churches in the Anglican Communion continues in the friendships formed around this committee and the ROC (a brief summary of this committee will be presented if time permits).With a $20,000 grant in 1994 from the Trinity Church in New York, the committee began the work of supporting the ROC's Department of External Relations (DER) in Moscow.

Initially, the DER used the money to purchase fax machines, telephones, and to establish what turned out to be intermittent (and unreliable) e-mail connectivity. In the winter of 1995, the authors joined the committee. We proposed the Internet as a means to disseminate information rather than relying on fax machines and the 1912-era Russian telephone system. Other than e-mail, this concept was rather startling, considering most committee members' absence of any prior exposure to the electronic medium's potential. In response to what appeared to be a significant opportunity, however, the Bishop and the committee endorsed the idea, dispatching one member to the 1995 Internet Society annual meeting in Hawaii where our Web site concept received its first boost.

Contacts made at that meeting have proven essential to the realization of this project. Building on these relationships, the authors submitted a proposal to the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute, for the creation of a Russia-based Internet network for the Russian Orthodox Church which would be initially housed at the DER and in the library of the seminary at Moscow State University. Sponsorship of this proposal included a consortium of interests among religious, nonprofit, and private business and telecommunications groups. All members of the partnership were readily persuaded of the tremendous opportunity to impact many Russians through the relationships and re-establishment of the partnerships which have made the project so dynamic. Specifically this project addresses the absence of a voice for the Russian Orthodox Church, which has such profound historical, social, and cultural significance for Russian society and as many as 80 million direct believers in its ranks. The absence of this voice has contributed to the two-dimensional quality of intellectual discourse on the Internet where secular and governmental interests are so dominant.

The project goes local

After an initial push to think globally, our project plateaued awaiting the Soros Foundation's review of our proposal. After waiting for decisions, we realized that for any Web presence to become an immediate reality we needed to refocus locally. A lack of resources at the DER in Moscow compounded the need to act on a local (i.e. New York) level. The New York diocesan committee elected to accept the initial financial, design, and content responsibility for the site. With that idea in hand, the partnership, which had formulated the original proposal, and some new participants including Greg Cole of Friends and Partners, went into action. With the assistance of a private design firm, Michael Pilla Designs, the initial site was created. Greg Cole volunteered to house the site on the Friends & Partners server and was instrumental in many technical aspects of the site. At the same time, the content of the site was reorganized to reflect the projects of the diocesan Russia committee in New York, as well as including news and other input from the DER. In the aftermath of the authors' February trip to Moscow, the DER embraced the reorganization of the site with one of the long-term goals being enhanced connectivity at the DER and within the ROC over time.

The reorganization

The current design of the site allows each subcommittee to host its own pages for information, education, and fundraising for their projects. The subcommittees are constructed in a manner so that virtually all of the activities represented on the site are mirrored by an organization in the Patriarchate in Moscow. This immediately enhanced the interest and participation in the project by a number of committee members, locally and by others in Moscow and elsewhere.


Exhibit 1: Mirroring The Reality on the Ground

The Web's metaphors--changing realities at a grassroots level

The advantage of this horizontal reorganization, much like the realities of the Web, is the creation of a process of decentralizing information flow and encouraging greater participation by a wider number of interests both within the Orthodox Church and between the Episcopal Church and the OCA, among others. This decentralization process, particularly within the DER in Moscow simply would not have happened without this project's influence.

New fundraising techniques mean flexibility, access, and simplicity

By subdividing the pages according to specific projects or by action and function of a subcommittee, we have also revolutionized our fundraising potential. Now, each subcommittee has the opportunity to demonstrate in whatever format desired, goals and projects either targeted at specific donors or funding agencies or on a general informational basis.

At the same time, the decentralized nature of the Web allows for other groups, both secular and religious, who share the interests of our committee, to access and participate in our projects. (Example: Migrant Training Center in Sergeiv Posad. This page will be in Hypertext Markup Language [HTML] format for the presentation). This openness is literally feeding the creation of new relationships descibed below.

New relationships form--developing a web around the Web project

In addition to the profound effects on fundraising and on the general completion of this project, local control has enabled our committee to establish contacts and working relationships with groups such as the Orthodox Church of America. The partnership building continues as we have now attracted several private and commercial sponsors to the project via live demonstrations of the Web site's graphic and connectivity links. It is essential to emphasize how both foundations and private sponsors that were previously uncommitted to the project, became much more involved upon the visual demonstration and tour which was provided at several fund raising ventures. Also, the opportunity to offer home page sponsorship for organizations which have collateral interests in social activity in the former Soviet Union has greatly expanded the local activities of the organization in more active affiliations with other groups (see example of HTML from NYC group that is now co-hosted by our Web site).

Summary and conclusion

This paper describes the first nine months of a one-year project which aims to support and enhance the information systems concerning the history, traditions, and current affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church. In describing this project we would conclude by offering to others the following from our experience:

Can we fully account for the social and cultural discourses in our opening societies if the voices of religious and cultural institutions remain silent?