Sharp & Sound’s Evegeny Morozov, a columnist for the Russian newspaper Akzia, had a piece in the International Herald Tribune with more detail on the “Zhe-Zhe” brouhaha. It turns out that what’s actually happening is yet another Kremlin push to control the Internet, with a smokescreen attacking America for doing the same.
If you are an aspiring dictator looking for ways to muzzle the independent media, do a stint in Moscow. The Kremlin’s successful recipe has been at work for a decade. First, take a reclusive oligarch who made his fortune by financing murky privatization deals in the 1990s but remained loyal to the regime. Then, throw in some elections, for which the regime would require media assistance. Have the oligarch buy some lucrative media asset enshrined by the Russian intelligentsia. Finally, find a controversial figure to run it.
Russians have been eating this cake ever since former President Boris Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996 was at stake. A decade later, the consolidation of Russian media in the hands of people and institutions affiliated with Kremlin has been almost completed. But as independent media were fighting for survival, many dissidents found asylum online. Banned from television, radio and many newspapers, they had no choice but to start blogging. Liberals and nationalists, Communists and reformers – all sorts of commentators that never fit with the Kremlin-controlled media – became not only visible, but appealing to the most dynamic sector of the Russian electorate: the youth.
By 2006, the number of Russian blogs hit the 1,000,000 mark. Surprisingly, most of them are hosted on a popular American service LiveJournal, not on a domestic blogging service. There are quite subtle explanations for LiveJournal’s popularity: Many Russians would not trust a Russian company to handle their personal information like passwords and credit cards, nor would they want to be subject to Russia’s draconian legal system and “dialogues” with the secret services. Therefore, when a two month-old Russian start-up with the funky name of Sup (“soup” in English) announced last week that it would take over the Cyrillic segment of LiveJournal from its American parent, the Russian blogosphere exploded with buzz.
Plenty of speculation about the Kremlin’s vicious plan to control and censor the blogosphere flooded the Internet. In a country that still mourns over the recent murder of Anna Politkovskaya, one of its most critical voices, many think that a crackdown on bloggers is long overdue. What’s so pernicious about the deal is that it replicates the very Kremlin model that poisoned the rest of the Russian media. All ingredients are in order. The oligarch (Aleksandr Mamut, one of the few oligarchs who made a smooth transition between the regimes, owns Sup); the upcoming 2007 and 2008 elections; the independent media asset with tremendous popularity; and the controversial figure in charge (Sup’s chief blogging officer is Anton Nossik, the father of the Russian Internet and, among other things, a former associate of Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin’s spindoctor).
Sup already announced the creation of an “abuse team.” Typically, abuse teams monitor, warn and suspend blogs that post inappropriate content; prior to the deal, this function was performed by LiveJournal’s American abuse team. Given Sup’s roots and potential ideology, one can hardly expect that the scope of discussions allowed on the Russian Internet will increase. If history is anything to judge by, the days of the Russian blogosphere buzzing with criticial opinions are numbered. Unfortunately, a simple solution of migrating to another blog service would only disrupt the existing communication networks that have made LiveJournal so popular.The truly extremist bloggers represent very tiny and rather isolated communities, which will easily migrate elsewhere.
But thousands of more mainstream bloggers, who have filled in the void left by the disappearance of independent media, will become divided, some of them falling for the Sup offer, some of them migrating to other services, and some of them stopping to blog altogether (a trend that has started after Sup’s announcement). Thus, with the direct or indirect assistance from Sup, the Kremlin will manage to burden and, perhaps, even reverse the process that has made opinion-sharing in Russia so easy. Who would be to blame for destroying a viable and vibrant public forum and turning it into another Kremlin- medicated sanatorium? Nossik, Sup’s blog boss, who increasingly resembles Ivan the Terrible killing his son in that famous Repin painting, should top anyone’s list of suspects.