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The people’s web: Russia’s citizen bloggers

After a decade in the wilderness, Russian civil society is finding a powerful voice online. Alexey Sidorenko and Oliver Carroll profile seven citizen bloggers who are leading this charge. A co-publication with Global Voices

Over the course of 2010, the Russian Internet (RuNet) confirmed itself as a semi-free and vibrant political environment, possible to manipulate but impossible to control. Overall Internet penetration in Russia grew significantly: June’s figures reported 42% of Russians now have access to the web, which translates into near-total coverage of certain sectors (e.g. the metropolitan youth). More crucially, a series of high-profile web successes transformed how the web was perceived. Long before the events in Egypt, online Russians understood the potential of cyberspace as a tool for social and democratic advancement. Few, of course, harboured any illusions about the threat of censorship or the web's ability to transform the political system completely.

Russian civil society has found a refuge in cyberspace. Alexey Navalny, pictured, was at vanguard of the growing online voice. Throughout the year his blog published brave and unusually informed investigations of government corruption.

There were several voices that stood out from the growing digital crowd. Political without necessarily being affiliated to political parties, they included photographer diarists reporting on the ebbs and flows of Russian political reality, internet veterans looking to contextualize new developments, citizen activists using new tools to assemble crowds of the willing, and investigative journalists combining a new language of cyber-democracy with older tricks such as sliv (“leaks”). The profiles that follow cover some of the most influential players.

Alexey Navalny (LJ-user navalny)

Moscow lawyer, former Yabloko activist, journalist and self-styled “protector of minority shareholder rights”, 33-year old Navalny was a star of the 2010 online. Throughout the year Navalny’s blog published a number of  brave and unusually informed investigations of government corruption. Undoubtedly, however, his most significant work was the one that focused on Transneft, the state company responsible for managing the country’s oil pipelines. In this one investigation alone, Navalny’s blog highlighted $4 billion worth of alleged theft, fixed tenders and dubious accounting. Not without reason, Time magazine referred to him as "Russia's Erin Brockovich".

While opponents pointed to an alleged nationalist past, and his own admission that he would accept money from businessmen to investigate rival companies, Navalny’s stock has never been higher. In October, he was elected “virtual mayor of Moscow” by readers of the influential news sites gazeta.ru and Kommersant Daily. The e-zine OpenSpace.ru declared him their “Hero of 2010". As the year turned, Navalny opened his own anti-corruption portal rospil.info, designed, in Wikileaks fashion, to highlight suspicious civil service tenders.

“Government has lost the moral and intellectual competition on the Internet. There’s no online platform where it is trusted.”

Read Global Voices interview with Alexey Navalny here.

Marina Litvinovich (LJ-user abstract2001)

36-year old political spin-doctor and online activist, Marina Litvinovich is a veteran of the blogosphere, having written her own journal for some ten years. Such experience no doubt explains Litvinovich’s unusual ability to spot the big story, able to turn an obscure posting from a little-known blogger into the story everyone is talking about.

Russia now has the second largest number of Internet users in Europe and highest rate of Internet penetration among the BRIC countries (click graphs to enlarge). This also translates into near-total Internet coverage of certain sectors of Russian population (e.g. the metropolitan youth)

Last year saw Litvinovich launch BestToday.ru, a web aggregator monitoring the Russian blogosphere. The site has since popularised and supported a number of successful online campaigns: turning a car accident on Leningradsky Prospect into a trial of oligarch impunity; forcing a second trial in the outrageous case of Anna Shavenkova, who caused another car accident yet escaped punishment because of political ties; and exposing the scandal of police who used people as a “live barrier” to catch a speeding motorist. In the short time of its existence, BestToday.ru has become a popular resource among Russian internet users.

Litvinovich was also one of the leading figures behind “Help Map”, a crowdsourcing platform developed during last summer’s wildfires. This resource, based on Ushahidi, connected volunteers with villages and regions that needed urgent assistance. Help Map demonstrated the growing power and solidarity of the Russian online community, in stark contrast with the bankruptcy and passivity of large parts of the state.

“If people see something as threatening enough to them personally, and the government also demonstrates ineffectiveness, the next step is for people to self-organize” 

Read Global Voices interview with Marina Litvinovich here

Ilya Varlamov (LJ-user zyalt)

The youngest blogger in our selection, 26-year old photojournalist Ilya Varlamov has become a cult figure of the Russian online. Varlamov’s distinctive offer is to combine news quality with aesthetic illustration, and to deliver it in the fastest and most accessible way via his blog. His ability to deliver such complete visual histories in superquick time and easily multipliable format have earned him the informal title "Eye of the RuNet”.

While his photo-reportages have often carried an intensely political feel, Varlamov has himself never actually expressed a civic position, nor made an overt political stand on any issue. Indeed, he has even been invited onto the government press pool and granted access to the Kremlin office of Putin’s controversial lieutenant Vladislav Surkov.

While photoblogger Ilya Varlamov has himself never actually expressed a civic position, some of his photo-reportages have carried an intensely political feel.

Despite the absence of an obvious civic position, Varlamov has shown that the blogosphere can easily rival conventional media in its illustrativity and credibility. Varlamov not alone in this trend: other leading photobloggers worth taking a look at include drugoiottenki_serogo, and igorpodgorny.

Anton Nossik (LJ-user dolboeb)

Anton Nossik, 44, is a founding father, activist and scholar of the Russian Internet. His early work pioneered the editorial and executive foundations for RuNet news giants such as lenta.ru, gazeta.ru and rambler.ru. Since then, he has remained involved at the cutting edge of the industry, most notably as ambassador for the SUP publishing company, which manages LiveJournal.com, the leading and almost monopolistic hosting service for Russian blogs.

Nossik has always been a fierce advocate of internet freedoms, and last year made a number of important interventions drawing awareness to threats and realities of online censorship. His blog rallied against the suspicious suspensions of LiveJournal user accounts, the gradual turning of the censor screws in the former Soviet Union generally, and the dubious deals that accompanied the launch of cyrillic domain addresses.

Nossik made a particularly successful intervention in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, which turned out to be instrumental in preventing a ban on the YouTube.com video hosting site. Regional prosecutors had used alleged extremist content in an attempt to justify the ban.

Valeriy Nazarov

Few had heard of 42-year old Chelyabinsk businessman Valeriy Nazarov before a summer of courageous posts turned his piligrim67 blog into one of the most visited of the RuNet. His coup de grace was the expose of Ruslan Gattarov, senator and leading light of Molodaya Gvardiya, United Russia’s youth wing. At a time that Russia was facing an ecological nightmare of uncontrollable forest fires, this young apparatchik released several pictures of him supposedly putting his life fighting some of these fires. Nazarov showed Gattarov had, in fact, deliberately set some trees on fire to make for a flattering photo-shoot. The embarassing revelation brought about Gattarov’s removal from Molodaya Gvardiya’s top table.

 

Molodaya Gvardia's Ruslan Gattarov "fighting forest fires". Bloggers were able to show how this leading light of the pro-Putin youth had, in fact, deliberately set trees on fire to make for a flattering photo-shoot.

In another example of smart digital journalism, Nazarov helped identify a gang of hooligans who were targeting lone drivers in the neighbouring city of Yekaterinburg. The attitude of the police varied from ignorance to incompetence, but Nazarov led a brilliant investigation, using photos and data collected from victims to lead him back to the criminals’ odnoklassniki social networking accounts. The evidence he uncovered was sensational, and led back to members of the United Russia party in the Tyumen region. After Nazarov’s investigation, police were forced into action and arrested one of the offenders. The blogger is also one of the founders of the mejdurechensk LiveJournal community, a space for free discussion of the hottest political topics.

In November 2010, Valeriy Nazarov’s LiveJournal account was controversially suspended. The hosting site have yet to come up with a satisfactory explanation why it closed one of the most read blogs on the RuNet; and Nazarov’s case has since been taken up by a number of fellow bloggers. That is not to say that the suspension in any way silenced him. Following the LiveJournal decision, Nazarov multiplied his presence, duplicating the blog on Twitter, Facebook, Blogspot.com and lj.rossia.org.

 “Effective and fast justice is possible only on the Internet” 

Valeriy Nazarov

 Oleg Kozyrev (LJ-user oleg-kozyrev)

Oleg Kozyrev, 38, is a professional blogger, writer and journalist. With over twelve thousand entries over the past six years, Kozyrev is one of RuNet’s most prolific contributors. He blogs with broadly civic intent, covering protests and pro-democracy campaigns, exposing fraud and arbitrary rule (see his video-channels herehere and here). Kozyrev was also a founder of online volunteer resources Dobrovolno.ru and ru_volunteers.

Oleg Kozyrev with his book "Diaries of a Freezing Muscovite”. Naturally enough, this national bestseller of 2007 was first published on the author's blog. Photo: Alexey Yushenkov, cc

Kozyrev combines such civil positions with more unequivocal political activism. He is a member of “Solidarity”, the unified opposition movement co-founded by Gary Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov in 2008; and is also part of the online and offline editorial team of the oppositionist “The New Times” magazine.

Kozyrev has enjoyed some success as a writer, with his "Diaries of a Freezing Muscovite” being recognized as a national bestseller in 2007. Naturally enough, this satirical work was first published on his blog.

Vadim Bulatov (LJ-user vadimb)

Vadim Bulatov is the most controversial blogger we cover here. Based in Nizhni Tagil (Urals), Bulatov represents so-called “civilized nationalists”, a new group of online chauvinists that is increasing in influence following the December 11 race riots. While it is difficult to justify the content of much of Bulatov’s blog, it is also hard to ignore the influence the blogger has gained over last several months.

About the authors

Alexey Sidorenko is an editor of the "RuNet Echo", a project dedicated to the Russian blogosphere, at GlobalVoicesOnline.org. Alexey Worked in Carnegie Moscow Center from 2005 to 2008 in the “Society and Regions” and “Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions” programmes. 

Alexey's blog — on travel, the Internet, geography and politics — is here (Rus)

Oliver Carroll is a former editor of oD Russia (2010-2014). He was a founder editor of Russian Esquire and has worked for a number of other print and online publications in Russia and the UK. 


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