MOSCOW – The Soviet Union may be in the dustbin of history, but there's one place the socialist utopia lives on: cyberspace.
Sixteen years after the superpower's collapse, Web sites ending in the Soviet ".su" domain name have been rising — registrations increased 45 percent this year alone.
Bloggers, entrepreneurs and die-hard communists are all part of a small but growing online community resisting repeated efforts to extinguish the online Soviet outpost.
Russian nostalgia for the Soviet empire is part of the story.
Nashi, or "Ours," is a pro-Kremlin youth group that gained notoriety for raucous protests against Kremlin critics. The group loyally praises President Vladimir Putin at "nashi.su," though it denies its choice of the ".su" domain was meant to send a political message.
Many Web entrepreneurs also see potential profits in the domain, grabbing instantly recognizable names already claimed in other, better known domains.
A small Moscow car repair shop that specializes in Ford vehicles boasts a home page at "ford.su," while the owner of "apple.su" is a Muscovite who said he is ready to swap it for a new laptop computer — and not necessarily a Mac from Apple Inc.
Vladimir Khramov, a network administrator from Moscow, said he bought "microsoft.su" last year simply to acquire an easy-to-remember ending for his e-mail address.
While Khramov insists he "did not buy it for reselling," others are out to make a quick ruble.
Yan Balayan registered a number of high-profile addresses, including "ussr.su," "stalin.su" and "kgb.su" — he's asking for $30,000 each, but stands ready to haggle.
[Bayalan's site also offers "kremlin.su," but that redirects to "kremlin.ru," Russian President Vladimir Putin's official Web site.]
With few exceptions — namely, the tech-savvy Baltic state of Estonia — Internet penetration is relatively low in the former Soviet republics.
Russia's Public Opinion Foundation says that only 27 percent of Russian adults use the Internet — and only about 12 percent of the adults on any given day.
Yet many Internet entrepreneurs are passionate about the ".su" domain, even as others are scornful of it as a relic of the past, saying it doesn't deserve the same status as ".ru" for Russia, ".uk" for the United Kingdom or ".fr" for France.
"They are selling tickets to a drowning ship," said Anton Nosik, a veteran Web journalist and founder of several successful online projects. "Their message is to losers and latecomers."
What's next? Domain names for the Roman Empire or Ancient Greece?
Country-code domains, derived from a list kept by the International Organization for Standardization, typically disappear when a country ceases to exist or changes its name.
Both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia lost their domain names after they broke up into smaller nations. So did Zaire after it became the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Internet's key oversight agency, the Marina del Rey, Calif.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and its predecessors have made several efforts since the 1990s to eliminate the ".su" address.
All have failed.
In late 2006, ICANN even sought advice from the community on how best to revoke outdated suffixes. Yet the resistance continued, and the phase-out seems to be in a stalemate. The domain continues to work normally, but listed in records as "being phased out."
"There are no technical issues," said John Crain, ICANN's chief technical officer. "It all comes down to politics."
The ".su" domain dates back to September 1990, a little more than a year before the Soviet collapse. Russia was given the ".ru" domain name in 1994. Other former Soviet republics were also assigned codes.
But the owners of ".su" sites stubbornly resisted switching on commercial, political and patriotic grounds. Some even accused the White House of scheming to eliminate the last remnants of its Cold War rival.
As a compromise, the Russian organization responsible for registering new domain names under ".su" agreed to stop issuing new ones, while existing ".su" addresses were allowed to continue for the time being.
A loophole allowed existing ".su" addresses like "lenin.su" to assign subdomains such as "vladimir.lenin.su." As a result, the online population at ".su" kept growing throughout the 1990s — although not nearly as fast as ".ru."
Then, in 2001, in response to pressure from users eager for freer access, registration in ".su" was opened to everyone everywhere.
The price was kept artificially high — $120 per name, six times the price for ".ru" — to limit the number of new users and prevent entrepreneurs from grabbing names for resale in a practice called cybersquatting, said Andrey Vorobyev, spokesman for RU-Center, the body authorized to register domain names.
But in January, RU-Center dropped the price for ".su" to $25 in a bid to boost the domain's worldwide popularity.
The attractive new price sparked a registration rush that bumped up the number of ".su" sites to 45,000 today, more than quadruple the 11,000 registered as of late 2006. The demand shows no signs of relenting — the jump from 31,000 in January represents a 45 percent rise.
But by domain name standards, the number of ".su" registrations is still very small. Russia's ".ru," for instance, has more than 1 million names. Germany's ".de" has 12 million, and the global ".com" has about 75 million.
Champions of the online Soviet domain say there is still plenty of room for growth.
Some envisage the ".su" domain as a virtual venue for those who fondly recall the old Soviet Union as a place where Russian, the lingua franca of the Soviet empire, knit together a host of Asian and European ethnic groups and cultures.
And by late April, the ".su" domain plans to start allowing names in Russian; currently such names are limited to English letters, numerals and the hyphen.