Translation by Matteo Mazzoni, Carla Muschio, Tatiana Bellinzona and Paolo Attivissimo, as published in http://www.attivissimo.net/antibufala/valentin/valentin_russia_articolo.htm
The riddle of Kaluga. Internet user accused of slander (18/4/2000).
Who would have thought? An ordinary young man from Kaluga, an invalid to boot, has become a genuine threat for Kaluga's Èlektrosvjaz company, for the head office of the mail service of the Kaluga region, for the city's post office, for Kaluga's Public Prosecutor's office, and for the regional department of the Federal Security Service [translator's note: formerly known as the KGB] and possibly for thousands of users of the Internet in Europe.
How it all began
The tale of Kaluga had a very modest beginning. Valentin Michajlin, a seventeen-year-old student at the builders' technical school in Kaluga, decided to go on the Internet. In Moscow, the "world wide web" is ordinary stuff: you buy the card of one of hundreds of providers and you surf the global electronic jungle as you wish. But Kaluga, although only 150 km from Moscow, is still a patriarchal city. There are only two organizations that can get you onto the Internet: the local Post Office and the Èlektrosvjaz company, whose buildings happen to stand close to each other. The former is State-run, while the latter is the city's only telephone service provider as well as an Internet provider. Moreover, there are approximately three thousand Internet users in all in Kaluga, so everything is in full view.
Èlektrosvjaz asked Valentin Michajlin not only for his ID papers, but also for the documents of the computer and of the modem. Valentin provided them. On 26 August 1998, Èlektrosvjaz agreed contract no. 29/278-4633 with him. Payment for Internet usage is by the minute, as is well-known, so the student kept an eye on the connection time. Yet after a while he noticed that his bills were too high. In November, according to his records, he had been on the Internet for 48.60 roubles [roughly 1.5 euros], but he had received a bill for 422.95 roubles [about 13 euros].
Michajlin wrote a letter of complaint to the director of Èlektrosvjaz and received back 20 pages of logs of his connections to the server. Leafing through them, Valentin noticed some inconsistencies. For example, at 16:59 he allegedly went online and stayed online for 12 minutes. But at 17:00, after only one of the 12 minutes had passed, he apparently went online a second time, for one-and-a-half minutes. Having noticed these overlapping times, the suspicious student wrote a second letter of complaint, which was again refused. Michajlin felt offended and filed a legal action to recover his money from the monopolist of Kaluga. However, it was not easy for him to prove anything. Only a certification from the telephone operator would have confirmed the actual connection time to the Internet server, but one has to remember that Èlektrosvjaz also runs Kaluga's telephones.
So Valentin Michajlin had to pay all the bills until the dispute was resolved: they could have not only taken him offline, but disconnected his home telephone as well.
The court of Kaluga refused to examine Michajlin's legal complaint, so Valentin sent many local Internet users an e-mail in which he reported his problem. According to Michajlin, everything that happened to him -- two criminal trials -- is the revenge of a powerful company against an ordinary citizen.
"Sirs! I haven't eaten for three days!"
When Michajlin met this reporter, he forgot to mention what he had been doing on the Internet. "Dear colleagues! The ham radio operator's collective in the city of Kaluga is very concerned about the analyses of Russian and American economists, according to whom the next winter in Russia will have terrible consequences on the poorest part of the population. We are asking you to help us contact ham radio clubs and individuals in your country. Ask the members of your club to help their Russian colleages. Because of these difficulties, we cannot communicate by radio. Valentin Michajlin, secretary". According to Anatolij Obuchov, production manager of Èlektrosvjaz, hundreds and thousands of letters of this kind were sent abroad from Valentin Michajlin's e-mail address and home telephone. The titles he gave himself were bogus.
The e-mail traffic would become particularly intense before Christmas. The appeals had become increasingly tragic: "They're not paying our salaries, benefits and pensions. It is impossible to manage. We ask you to help our children by sending food for Christmas. God will not forget you. Valentin Michajlin, Kaluga, Ryleev street 6-45".
The messages were sent in English to a long list of addresses, but to a "closed" list, i.e., no recipient could see the others. Some addresses were written so that all the users of a given node would receive the message.
[Technical note: this description would appear to indicate that Valentin used the BCC (blind carbon copy) option of an ordinary e-mail program rather than specifically spam-oriented programs. In other words, his was a definitely homebrew operation]
Internet users call these actions "unaddressed mail". They're not considered criminal or civil crimes. Yes, there is the concept of "spam", which means "computer trash", but Michajlin's messages were not spam in the strictest meaning of the term. First of all, he almost always signed his name and even gave his home address (how could he receive aid if he did otherwise?); secondly, the computer community considers it a crime when one sends a far larger number of messages per day (e.g., a million e-mails per day) for entirely different purposes: sometimes hackers [yes, I know, deprecated usage of this term] send so many messages to a given e-mail address that they completely paralyze the server. Apparently, Valentin Michajlin did not engage in this harmful behavior.
Nonetheless, complaints had been received because of some of his messages. "One of your users is spamming us. His messages are suspicious, we did not give your user our address": Kaluga's Èlektrosvjaz and Rosnet, through which the company operates, were receiving replies of his kind.
One day, Michajlin's telephone number was used (as Èlektrosvjaz later established) to send to over 1700 European addresses a message signed by the network administrator, which said that "we, officers of Kozël'sk, have decided to detonate nuclear missiles in the large political, military and industrial complexes of Western Europe". The reason was well-known: "We're tired of seeing our children commit suicide, and our mothers and fathers die of hunger". An anonymous writer appended this note: "We would like to express our gratitude to the Èlektrosvjaz company for allowing us to send this message".
The US and Austrian embassies contacted the Russian Ministry of the Interior. That message was a crime according to article 207 of the penal code of the Russian Federation ("false communication intentionally reported in relation to a terrorist action") and fell within the duties of the FSB [the National Security Service]. Investigators conducted a search at Michajlin's home, confiscated his computer and started legal procedure no. 49. Actually, reporters in Kaluga say that all arrears have been paid at the missile division of Kozël'sk, where Western sources say there are approximately 60 SS-19 missiles.
Valentin Michajlin defended himself by writing a report to the Prosecutor's office, saying that after he had been disconnected from the Internet and had tried to contact Èlektrosvjaz to sign a new contract, unidentified individuals had come to his home and had asked him to give them his computer "for certification purposes".
When he refused, the two individuals allegedly told Valentin: "Then you'll have the Internet only in your dreams, kid!". Through the peephole, Michajlin was able to see that the individuals had tampered for a long time with the telephone box in the entrance hall. They were apparently holding a portable computer. According to Michajlin, the missile-related message may have been sent on purpose by these two individuals to cause trouble to a subscriber who had been an annoyance to the telecommunications company, but he had no way to prove this.
Valentin was subjected to a psychiatric assessment and was found to be of sound mind. In the summer, as he was a minor, he received an amnesty, and legal procedure no. 49 was left with a single defendant: Oleg Tichonov, a friend of Michajlin's. Apparently, Tichonov was the author of the fake message. Despite the careful work of the regional department of the Federal Security Service of Kaluga, it will not be easy to prove this accusation in court.
Today, all of the Internet is practically beyond the reach of the law. To send a few messages in someone else's name and from someone else's telephone, there's no need to take a walk in dark alleys. Any expert user can accomplish this in a few seconds with a simple program.
A line to the world
Many people replied to the electronic cries for help that arrived abroad from Kaluga. Between December 1998 and January 1999, the Michajlins (Valentin, his elder brother and his mother) received, at Post Office no. 30, 79 envelopes from abroad, and received a further 24 envelopes and 48 parcels in the first five months of 1999. They contained various items, food and just money. Clearly, this is why Michajlin and the members of his family, despite being jobless, were able not only to pay for Internet access but also to hire a lawyer.
Valentin had a mailbox at Post Office No. 30. When the amount of goods received by the Michajlins reached the maximum allowance, they tried to redefine the contract: use of a mailbox is much more expensive for a business concern registered as a juridical person. Michajlin wrote a letter of complaint to the Post Office, saying that he was receiving humanitarian aid but this had not turned him into a juridical person...
The mail included some items valued by the sender at more than 100 dollars. According to customs laws, in this case it was necessary to pay tax. The Michaylins refused and started complaining: what a cheek! The poor invalids weren't allowed to receive a Christmas present! So the mail district of Kaluga and the Customs were added to the list of "enemies" of the Michajlin family.
Soon the employees of the Kaluga Post Office started to notice strange letters: many small organizations in Kaluga (for example, the technical school for cooks) were receiving anonymous postcards with this message: "Dear comrades! More than once, foreign charities have sent letters with checks to your address. But by order of Kaluga Customs, all your letters were stolen. With sincere regrets, Engineer Vasin, Kaluga". Leaflets also appeared in town: "Help us to catch mail thieves! Hundreds of letter are sent every day from abroad to the address of the stamp collectors of Kaluga, but fail to reach the addressees. In exchange for a substantial reward, we are asking honest people to report the thieves and those who assist them". Clearly, someone wanted to harass the employees of the Customs and Post Office.
Complaints against Kaluga's mail workers got as far as the Swiss embassy in Russia. On the 4th of October of last year, the embassy sent Note no. 630 to the State Telecommunications Commission of the Russian Federation,
stating that: "According to information we have, mail between Swiss companies and their Russian correspondents is opened systematically... Some letters sent by regular mail never reach their addressee. These violations occur in the region of Kaluga". The state telecommunications company wrote a note to Valentina Savina, who at the time was director of the Moscow international post office. Savina ordered an inquiry in Kaluga. The result was that on 28 October 1999, the reply came that these facts were not confirmed and that "perhaps the Swiss embassy had been contacted by members of the Michajlin family, long known to us, who have been busy with international begging for many years". "By sending letters worldwide, - writes Savina about the Michajlins - these people describe themselves as penniless invalids and disseminate slanderous information regarding the wrongs that they have suffered. After creating a large network of contacts abroad, the Michajlins have started to send false information about the loss of envelopes sent to their address, forcing them to send new envelopes and complaints against the mail service of the Russian Federation".
Today, the agents of the security service, the mail district and the Customs all join the chorus in saying that "All the anonymous material is the Michajlins' doing! And nobody else's!". Kaluga is a really small town, and as the saying goes, everbody knows everyone else's business. But looking ahead, we notice that proving all this in court will not be easy.
Slander, Kaluga style
In the dark autumn evening of the 3rd of October of last year, the guards of the Kaluga Post Office noticed two individuals in the vicinity of the entrance. When they went out, the guards found an anonymous leaflet hanging on the door, claiming that five officers of the mail district, whose home addresses and telephone numbers were given, had embezzled money for 650,000 roubles [over 20,000 euros]. The post district contacted the Prosecutor's office.
"Michajlin! -- they established -- Nobody else!". They started a second criminal trial, no. 2770, based on one of the "dormant" articles of the penal code of the Russian Federation, i.e., no. 129, which deals with slander.
Usually, the courts refuse to start criminal trials for slander: this is clearly a "suspended article" - so far, nobody in our country has ever gone to jail because of this article. The slandered party usually has to make do with a civil action against the slanderer. But in this case, the judicial authorities were so tough with the Michajlins that a team of investigators led by the magistrate assigned to the most important cases was created in response to those sheets of paper stuck to a door!
On November 11, Michajlin's home was searched. As the films about Soviet police teach, the search was conducted nearly at midnight. According to the search warrant, the search sought technical material for organization and printing. Obviously they found none, because for some reason they confiscated a machete-like cooking knife, a school book of the technical institute, and 500 roubles and 140 dollars, and one of the people who dealt with the search turned out to be an inhabitant of Anapa [a small town on the Black Sea, quite far from Kaluga]. They failed to find even items of this kind in Michajlin's mother's apartment, so as Elena Michajlina states, they stacked apples and potatoes on the balcony, where "they froze". Michajlina wrote a letter of complaint to the General Prosecutor's Office in Moscow, saying that after the confiscation of the last money and the damage to the food, she had no way to buy anything to eat.
On December 15, 1999, she received a reply from the Prosecutor's office in Kaluga. Guess what the reply said? "Your rights were not violated... No evidence was found that items were damaged, or that the house was left untidy, or that food was damaged as you claim". And the money, apparently, had been confiscated "for safety in case of another civil action"!</p>
The seventeen-year-old Valentin Michajlin was sent to a prison for temporary detention. He was released by court order after signing a pledge not to leave the town, despite the town Prosecutor's attempts to contest this ruling. Michajlin stated that he had nothing to do with the leaflet and that at the time he was in the countryside. The employees of Èlektrosvjaz and of the post office, who according to Michajlin were interested parties, testified against him. His argument is that if there's a swearword on a gate and you walk on by after seeing it, that doesn't mean you wrote it.
Michajlin requested a chemical examination of the leaflet and of the glue and a fingerprinting. All these requests were rejected: it was obvious to everyone in Kaluga that it was him, Michajlin. Nobody else. Nobody in Kaluga receives parcels "from over the hill".
In a few days' time, two trials will take place in Ciolkovskij's city: one against the "missile terrorist" Oleg Tichonov and one against the evil slanderer Valentin Michajlin. If the accusations against Tichonov are confirmed in court, it will be essentially the first time that a computer vandal will be found guilty. As regards the slander, Michajlin's lawyer, Aleksandr Malachov, believes he can win the case. "Yes, the Michajlins are strange people; yes, they don't live like everybody else, -- he says -- Maybe you can condemn them -- morally. But there's no reason to put Michajlin in jail".
We're sorry for the conscientious mail workers in Kaluga, who in exchange for a miserable salary unload tons of questionable parcels for goodness knows who. We're sorry for the employees of Èlektrosvjaz, for the Prosecutor's office and for the regional department of the federal security service, flooded with stupid complaints. We're also sorry for the quirky Michajlin. The tragicomedy is that if Valentin were a Muscovite, it's unlikely that anyone would have noticed his behavior: compared to certain dealings in the capital city, his childish pranks are trivial.
Novye Izvestija ["News"], 18.04.2000
© Editorial staff of the daily www.OXPAHA.ru (gazeta@OXPAHA.ru).
Original link (english/italian translation)
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