Growing up in the potassium-mining town of Soligorsk, where half the city’s population works for the government-owned mine, Morozov says he made the calculation at age 6 or 7 that he would have to work his way to a life abroad. When he was an adolescent, his parents, who both worked in professional positions at the mine until they retired, hired a friend of the family to tutor Morozov in English. In addition to working with her daily for five years, he practiced several hours a day on his own, essentially devoting the period of his life from ages 12 to 17 to preparing for the SAT. His reward was a full scholarship from the Open Society Foundations to attend American University in Bulgaria, where he joined a collection of strivers from throughout the former Soviet bloc. The default major for that crowd was either business administration or economics, so Morozov double majored just to be safe. “These were hungry students, and Evgeny was certainly one of the more hungry, ” says Aernout van Lynden, who began teaching at the university after 23 years as a war correspondent in the Middle East and the Balkans.

Morozov met van Lynden when he asked the professor for help finding funds to attend a conference, and van Lynden offered to cover the cost himself. After that, Morozov audited several of van Lynden’s journalism courses, hoping to improve his writing, and became fatefully immersed in the world of criticism when, at van Lynden’s suggestion, he started reading The New York Review of Books. One can sense in Morozov’s attraction to van Lynden a desire to model himself on courageous figures, and, in fact, he dedicated his first book to his professor, saying that he “showed me what courage and decency look like.” It also is clear that van Lynden represented a new and important presence in Morozov’s life. In the acknowledgments of that same book, Morozov thanks his family this way: “Despite the fact that they don’t fully grasp what it is that I do, my family back in Belarus have all been very supportive of my intellectual quest.”

In summer 2004, Morozov underwent a quintessentially Morozovian life transition—that is to say, he encountered something he thought was “crap” and made a vigorous effort to escape it. In this case, he spent what he calls “the 10 worst weeks of my life” as an intern for J.P. Morgan in England, something considered the height of achievement by most of his peers at university. To Morozov, though, it was confirmation that he had no future in finance. He finished his degree anyway, then, unsure what new direction his life might take, made his way to a non-degree liberal arts program in Berlin.

Morozov read widely on international affairs, and during this period he encountered the excitement that was growing in America about blogs as a political tool. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, in particular, had brought ideas about online organizing and fundraising into the mainstream. Meanwhile, the role of new media in politics was playing out in a much messier and less well-documented way in pro-democratic uprisings across Eastern Europe—the so-called Color Revolutions. According to news reports, new tools such as text messaging, blogs, and even video games had played an important and poorly understood role in this new strain of democratic movement. Morozov started to connect the dots between the American blogosphere and events on the ground in his home region. “Howard Dean lost, but in Eastern Europe you had regimes overthrown,” Morozov says. “Milosevic was headed to the Hague, Shevardnadze was overthrown in Georgia, Yushchenko was coming to power in Ukraine. You could actually see that things might change.”

He began writing about the political situation in Belarus for Transitions, a Prague-based NGO that encouraged the adoption of new media by independent journalists in the former Soviet bloc. In 2006, Transitions hired Morozov as its first director of new media, a job that had him traveling widely—at age 22—to train journalists and bloggers throughout Eastern Europe.

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.