Kremlin hand hovers over Russia's internet

So far the Russian government has resisted the temptation of controlling the Russian internet, but this may be about to change, says Mikhail Zygar
Mikhail Zygar
18 December 2009

A new official has recently appeared in the presidential administration.  His main function is to keep his finger on the pulse of the Russian internet, by monitoring everything that appears in electronic publications and popular blogs.   The idea for this post probably came from the President himself. As an active internet user, he must realize that he can’t keep track of everything that happens on the net. But he would like to – and, what’s more, to control it.

So far, of course, the state has not actively interfered with the internet. All the recent examples have been localized incidents, rather orders from on high.  Yandex, for example, refused to publish its blog ratings. The company naturally made this decision completely independently – after it got sick of calls from officials of various levels demanding that all mention of them be removed from the ratings. The last (two) straw(s), as the newspaper Kommersant wrote, involved the presidential envoy to the Northwestern Federal District Ilya Klebanov (bloggers had predicted he would soon lose his job) and OMON training (bloggers wrote that OMON troops were being trained to disperse pensioners’ protest meetings).  The Yandex management received two phone calls – from St. Petersburg and from the Interior Ministry, and after this the company, feeling rather nervous, closed down the popular service. It was their personal decision.

This well-known story, however, has an unknown sequel – the journalist from Kommersant who wrote about it was then summoned to the Lubyanka. He was asked to sign an undertaking not to reveal state secrets, although it was not revealed what these secrets were.

A similar thing happened with Yota. It is difficult to imagine that the company received the order to block the sites kasparov.ru and newtimes.ru from the Kremlin. It was probably a minor official acting off his own bat, but Yota proved to be all too obliging.

The state does not seem to want to introduce internet censorship at present. But it cannot help being concerned. For example, after the accident at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric station, the editor of the Abkhazian newspaper New Focus, Mikhail Afansiev, wrote that knocking had been heard from the flooded turbine room – people trying to get someone to let them out. A criminal case was opened against him. And after the Nevsky Express train crash, hundreds of bloggers wrote that it wasn’t terrorism, but the super-modern Sapsan train, which had passed by 40 minutes earlier and torn up the track. What could they do? Charge everyone at once?

For the moment the authorities have simply ordered an official in the administration to monitor the internet. We’ll see what happens next. If necessary, they will take other measures.

The same thing happened to television, as we all remember. There was no presidential decree to abolish good television and replace it with bad. It all happened very slowly, gradually, of its own accord – mainly through the efforts of the television employees themselves. Live political talk shows vanished. Real news vanished. But a new production genre was born – absolutely unknown in world television practice – when “an official reports to the president, and the president tells the official off”. Dmitry Medvedev has taken this to even greater heights – “a group of officials reports to the president in a video conference”. But at the very beginning no one could have imagined that it would all end this way. As one well-known “source close to the Kremlin” likes to say, if in 2000 Putin had been shown television as it is today and asked if he wanted it to be like this, he would have been horrified, and replied: “Of course not!”

However, there is one important difference between television and the internet. Television is indeed a powerful propaganda device. It’s aimed at the over 40s, the people who no longer believe in anything except television. These are mainly Soviet citizens, who remember what fear is in their bones. They know it’s better not to argue with the Soviet system. The Soviet notes in Ekaterina Andreeva’s voice have a magic effect on them – this audience gets in line and goes out to vote.

The internet is a tool of a completely different nature. It is inhabited by a different, “unwhipped” generation. These are mainly people who were too young to be members of the Komsomol (or the Pioneers). They don’t believe in anything at all, not even television. They aren’t scared of the Soviet system, because they never saw it. But for them the internet is not a collective agitator or collective organizer. It’s unlikely to line them up and send them off to action. For them it’s a collective kitchen, where they can come and talk about life. They can hear the latest political joke or gossip. They can talk about girls (or boys). And of course, they can complain.

Imagine that you’ve been mugged. Or an official forced you to give a bribe. Or you’ve been beaten up by the police. If you’re a person of the television generation, you’ll keep quiet. Or perhaps you’ll go to court. Or you’ll sit at the kitchen table and complain.

But if you’re a person of the internet generation, you have only one choice – to write about it on livejournal – because you don’t believe in the courts, you don’t believe in complaining in the kitchen and you don’t believe in keeping quiet. Your only hope is that people will read your posts. And this is even more important than justice.

What should be done with the ever increasing number of people who will gradually start replacing the good old audience of Channel One? Should they be nurtured and moulded into shape? Or are they essentially passive and harmless? Clearly no one is quite sure about this at present. But the process has started. There is already one official in the administration. This means that tomorrow there will be two officials, and in a year there will be an entire ministry. Not because some evil person has willed it, but because that’s how bureaucracy works. If the state is already interested in reading diaries and heart-to-heart talks, it won’t be able to deny itself the pleasure of going a little further. No official will come out and say it’s a pointless waste of state funds.

This is because the main goal of any state is to keep people mumbling in the kitchen for as long as possible.


This article originally appeared on www.OpenSpace.ru

Mikhail Zygar is political editor of the Russian edition of Newsweek.

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