J. MITCHELL JOHNSON IS ACCUSTOMED TO FIRSTS. The Fort Worth filmmaker was the first person to make travel videos for the respected Fodor’s company, and he produced Russia’s first American-style TV newsmagazine. But in the past year the 45-year-old has embarked on his most ambitious pioneer project yet: putting the Russian government’s visual archives—things like propaganda films and still photos—on the Internet.

It’s a tall order, considering that he has to catalog one million photos and 200,000 reels of film, some dating back to 1855. He expects it will be five years before his company, Abamedia, and its Russian partners finish converting everything into a digital format that computers can recognize. And they’ll need at least that long to build a searchable database: Johnson plans to create an English- and Russian-language World Wide Web site where users can enter a keyword (say, “Kennedy”), get a list of everything in the archive that mentions it (including a propaganda film alleging a conspiracy in the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr.), and then view the item on the spot.

It’s the kind of thing the U.S. government would like to see more of; Johnson’s initial funding came from a federal grant designed to foster joint media partnerships between American and Russian businesses. It’s also the kind of thing that could help change the popular image of the Internet as little more than a toy for sending e-mail and viewing pornography. “A documentary filmmaker in Australia who can’t afford to travel to Russia could sit at his computer and pull up video to use in his movie,” Johnson says. Academics will benefit from it too: “It’s remarkable,” says Clifford Gaddy, who analyzes the Russian economy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “This material—some of which probably hasn’t been seen before—would give a historical insight into what was going on inside Russia.”

Because the Web site won’t be ready for a while, Johnson is rounding up investors and partners, such as Austin’s Human Code, to work on Soviet-themed products that will pay off sooner. One possibility is a CD-ROM game based on the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; another is a film about the Russian space program to be produced by Austinite Fred Miller, who was the executive producer of For All Mankind, the Oscar-nominated 1989 documentary about the Apollo missions.

Whatever Johnson ends up doing, though, will only be a step on the road to achieving his ultimate goal. A creator of high-minded documentaries (including 1984’s Water Garden, about architect Philip Johnson), he wants to raise money to preserve old feature films and make new ones. “I want to make important movies that are interesting to me,” he says. “There aren’t many opportunities to do that. So I’m trying to find something meaningful to pay the bills and leave enough time to do something personal.”