: The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia

CHAPTER 6 Internet Rising

CHAPTER 6

Internet Rising

President Putin never forgot that Vladimir Gusinskys media empire had nearly broken the Kremlin. He was determined to seize control of broadcast television, by far the most pervasive and effective news media in Russia. But just as Putin went after television, the news media reached a turning point. People lost faith in traditional news sources and began to rely on digital outlets. A new wave was coming, gradually but with profound consequences, and it all started with a few independent bloggers.

Putin won the presidential elections on March 26, 2000, and took the oath of office on May 7 in a grand ceremony in the gilded and chandeliered Andreev throne hall of the Kremlin Palace. Four days later, on May 11, armed officers of the security services raided the offices of Media-Most on Palashevsky Lane in Moscow. A month later, on June 13, Gusinsky was detained and imprisoned in the Butyrka jail in the center of the city, placed in a tiny cell with six other inmates in the most notorious of Russian prisons. On the morning of his first day in jail, while meeting with his lawyer, Gusinsky wrote on a copy of his arrest warrant, It is a political intrigue, organized by high-placed officials for whom freedom of speech poses a danger and an obstacle to their plans.[1] Soon he received a message from Mikhail Lesin, the Russian governments press minister. Lesin wanted Gusinsky to sell Media-Most in return for his freedom. After three days in jail, Gusinsky agreed. He was released on June 16, and from the prison he went directly to the Media-Most offices and secretly recorded a video statement saying that he only agreed to sell the company under duress.

Gusinsky was put under house arrest. Over the next three weeks his lawyers hammered out the terms of the sale of Media-Most to the state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom. Gusinsky signed the agreement, and it was countersigned by Lesin in his capacity as minister. Then Gusinsky was allowed to leave the country. He fled to London and exile.

Despite the agreement, Gusinsky was reluctant to hand over the company. To pressure him, different law enforcement agencies, under guidance of the General Prosecutors Office, launched a massive attack on him personally and the media that were part of his empire. To turn up the heat, arrests, criminal cases, accusations, and visits from the FSB and tax police followed. The financial director of Media-Most, Anton Titov, was accused of fraud and sent to jail.

In January 2001 the General Prosecutors Office summoned Tatiana Mitkova, the top NTV anchor, for interrogation. Now the NTV journalists felt they needed to act on their own. Mitkovas colleague, Svetlana Sorokina, the presenter who had first interviewed Putin a year earlier, addressed Putin during her program on NTV, saying, Vladimir Vladimirovich, maybe you can find some time to meet us, the journalists of NTV? The same day she got a call from Putin, and a few days later the president invited eleven journalists from the channel to a meeting at the Kremlin.

At noon on January 29 the NTV journalists gathered at Red Square. They were ushered into the Kremlin through the gates of the Spasskaya Tower and directed to the Kremlin Senate building, an ornate, neoclassical structure with a dome visible from Red Square. Since the Bolshevik Revolution this stood as the very symbol of the state and the seat of power for Soviet leaders: Lenin lived here, and Stalin had kept a small apartment in the building. The journalists were escorted to the presidential library on the third floor. The round hall housing the library had recently been renovated: the expensive wooden shelves held beautiful volumes, but all of them were stored behind glass, mostly brand-new encyclopedias, books on Russian history, or gifts from foreign leaders.

Suddenly Sorokina was called to a private meeting with Putin while others waited at the library. Putin spoke to Sorokina for forty minutes. Only after that did Putin proceed to the library, accompanied by Vladislav Surkov, a backroom political strategist, and Alexey Gromov, an official from the presidential administration.

Putin walked around the group of journalists, shaking hands.

Viktor Shenderovich, a famous television presenter and political satirist, was in a gloomy mood. I didnt like the idea of asking the president for help, as if we were his slaves. I didnt believe it would end well, he recalled. He already knew that the Kremlin had quietly hand-carried a proposal to NTV with three demands: stop an anticorruption investigation of Yeltsins family, stop criticism of the Chechen war, and remove the puppet portraying Putin on Shenderovichs satirical television show known as Kukly, or puppets. The show had been poking fun at Russian politicians for five years by creating skits with puppet characters. It was wildly popular and had skewered Yeltsin and other politicians, but Putin disliked being mocked. Shenderovich had recently portrayed Putin as a character from German author E.T.A.Hoffmanns Klein Zachesan ugly dwarf who got magic powers over people.[2]

Shenderovich decided to speak first. He thought that, as a satirist, he had more freedom to speak out about uncomfortable truths. He asked whether Putin was ready to talk honestly, or would they talk on PR terms. What PR? asked Putin, I dont understand a thing about it! And his blue eyes zeroed in on Shenderovich. Then Shenderovich asked Putin to make a call to the general prosecutor and ask why Titov, the NTV financial director, was still in prison. Putin said that as president he couldnt interfere with the general prosecutors activities.

The meeting was a disaster. At the very beginning Sorokina wrote two words on a sheet of paper and handed it over to Shenderovich: All useless. But Shenderovich kept trying, as did his colleagues. To every question the journalists posed, Putin answered with bland formalities. He said he could not talk to the general prosecutor because the office was an independent institution in Russia. He claimed he did not appoint the general prosecutor because it was the right of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament; the president could only propose. And so it went on. But the journalists knew that Putins answers were a far stretch from the truth. What should one do when faced with a bald-faced lie over and over again? Shenderovich said. The most silent protest is to get up and leave. Maybe we should have done that, but nobody dared. He was a president, after all. And we had been sitting there for three and a half hours. Yevgeny Kiselev believed that Putin wanted to recruit them, promising a bright future if they stopped criticizing the Kremlin. When he understood we were not ready for this, he became hostile and turned to threats. He told me: And you, Mr. Kiselev, we know everything about your hour-long phone conversations with Gusinsky. Kiselev asked, Does it mean you are listening to my conversations? Putin pretended that he didnt hear the question.

For the next three months NTV was left twisting slowly in the wind. Then on the night of April 14 journalists were thrown out of the NTV offices located on the eighth floor of the Ostankino television building. The old NTV was over. Two days later the newspaper Segodnya was shut down, and the seventy-four people staffing Parkhomenkos Itogi newsweekly were ejected from their offices. The largest media empire independent of the Kremlin was brought to heel.

The journalists of Media-Most fought desperately, and they fought almost alone. Others in Russias journalistic community did not support them. We then worked at Izvestia, and although Irina was able to write critical stories about the government pressure on Media-Most, the newspaper office was filled with a mood of indifference if not quiet pleasure at the downfall of the Media-Most empire. The NTV journalists were regarded as very professional in news, but they were also seen as arrogant. They were well paid in a field where others were not. Many Russian journalists also rejected the argument offered by NTV that the Kremlin attack was aimed at silencing the only independent television channel in the country; they thought Gusinsky had just made a bid for power and lost. They did not see the attack on Gusinsky as an attack on them or press freedom generally.

What was missing from this picture was the fact that the public began to slowly turn against journalists. During the kompromat battles of the late 1990s and the television wars between the channels, the very idea of investigative journalism was seriously compromised. A number of famous reporters who made their reputation in the early 1990s turned out to be fairly corrupt, ready to publish all kinds of stories if paid properly.[3] The profession of journalism was thrown off the pedestal it had occupied since the perestroika years in the late 1980s. Perhaps even more salient was that to many people in Russian society, journalists and the free press symbolized the liberal values that flooded in after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A large segment of society still felt embittered and betrayed by the West, especially since the Russian economic crisis of 1998, when it seemed that markets and democracy, ideas imported from the West, had produced nothing but chaos. The very ideas of journalism and the free press suffered a loss of credibility.

Journalists in traditional media were losing not just the trust of the public but also their jobs. Over seven years the authors held positions at five publications: the political department at Izvestia was dispersed, the editor of Versiya weekly was fired, Moskovskie Novosti was closed down along with two subsequent attempts of the Moskovskie Novosti team to launch a political magazine, and a political website came to nothing. We then joined Novaya Gazeta, but after two years it let us go when the management decided to reduce its coverage of the secret services. In the early and mid-2000s Moscows newspapers and magazines often changed hands, most of them ending up at the hands of oligarchs loyal to the Kremlin, which helped Putin dampen any hostile reporting. This trend went almost unnoticed by the public. On October 6, 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, the most famous independent investigative journalist in Russia, was killed by hired assassins in the center of Moscow. More people went to the streets to honor her in Paris than in Moscow. Those who ordered this crime were never found.

With television under the control of Putins government and with the newspaper industry in pro-Kremlin hands, the oligarchs now turned to the Internet. In 19992000 they launched the most prominent and potent of the new media in Russia: Gusinsky started NTV.ru (Newsru.com since 2002), and Berezovsky started Grani.ru. The oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky bought Gazeta.ru from Pavlovsky and relaunched it.

Meanwhile Pavlovskys Foundation for Effective Politics, still in Putins corner, enjoyed free reign from the Kremlin and launched a number of ambitious projects, including Lenta.ru and Vesti.ru, both Internet newspapers, and Strana.ru, a Russian national news service, which was presented as a new kind of media combining text, video, and audio. Strana.rus editor position was given to Marina Litvinovich, Pavlovskys deputy, who, with Artemy Lebedev, had arrived late to the meeting with Putin in December 1999.[4]

All these new media lacked in-house correspondents, and Lenta.ru and Newsru.com were just news aggregators. Gazeta.ru was the only website with a full-scale editorial office. It was also the only site staffed by print journalists; Gazeta.ru was created by reporters who had previously worked at Kommersant. But Gazeta.ru was also the most expensive website to run, while the news aggregators limited themselves to few editors whose task was to rewrite the stories published by wire agencies and newspapers as quickly as possible. Presentation and packaging took over from fact-checking.

But it was clear that a new age was dawning.

On October 23, 2002, a group of armed Chechen terrorists seized a packed theater on Dubrovka Street in Moscow. The Nord-Ost crisis lasted for three days. On Saturday, October 26, FSB special troops stormed the theater, and 130 people were killed, many of them innocent civilians poisoned by a gas containing fentanyl, a narcotic pain reliever, that special forces pumped into the theater in order to subdue the terrorists. During and after the siege the Kremlin found itself for the first time overwhelmed by hundreds of news items and electronic messages critical of the official version of events, circulated on the Internet and promoted by news aggregators.

We worked then for the weekly Versiya, and on Sunday, October 27, the day after the storming of the theater, we realized we could not wait a week for our reportage to run in the printed paper. We had a story about what a disaster the storming of the theater had been, and we needed to get it out quickly. We decided to publish it on our website, Agentura.ru, launched two years before to cover the activities of the Russian secret services.[5]

The following Friday, November 1, when Versiya was finally going to press with our print story, a group of FSB officers arrived at the editorial offices of the paper and began a search. They hoped to stop the paper from printing but were too latethe pages had already been sent off. A few computers, including the editorial server and Andreis computer, were seized.[6] The FSBs raid lasted for hours, and our editor, fearing our arrest, told us to stay out of the office. We found a tiny caf? on Stary Arbat Street near the Versiya office. As we sat waiting, a gaggle of reporters we had worked with in the late 1990s at the crime department of Segodnya arrived. Hugs and smiles and jokes followed. Immediately they floated dozens of wild ideas on how to organize public support for us, but they were all pure fantasy. We all knew that this time was different. It was clear that the traditional print media our friends worked for were hardly in the mood to support journalists.

The stakes were high. The FSB kept up pressure on Versiya. Journalists were summoned for interrogation, including us, and we understood from the questioning that the security service was building a criminal case around a supposed disclosure of state secrets.

What was different this time, however, was the rise of the new media. A few days after the FSB had raided Versiya we went to the offices of Newsru.com, a few tiny rooms in the building occupied by Media-Most on Palashevsky Lane. We met with Lena Bereznitskaya-Bruni, an editor of Newsru.com, who had been a friend since the days when we worked at the newspaper Segodnya. Lena was outraged by the storming of the theater and promised to help. Newsru.com organized a constant stream of public pressure, reporting every interrogation, and finally succeeded in forcing the FSB to back off bringing any charges.

Meanwhile other traditional media who questioned the special forces performance at Nord-Ost were put under pressure. The press ministry officially warned the radio station Echo Moskvy that it could be closed down for airing interviews with the Chechen terrorists. The television channel Moskovias broadcasts were temporarily halted. Putin personally criticized the NTV coverage of the crisis.[7]

But the Kremlin could not catch the new media. The independent digital outlets were better designed, faster, and smarter than anyone else. This time the flow of information turned squarely against the Kremlin. Pavlovskys pro-Kremlin websites lost the battle for the online audience. In 2002 Pavlovsky had sold two online projects, Vesti.ru and Strana.ru, to the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, a state-owned corporation that included a major television channel. If this was intended to bolster the Kremlins defenses with more resources, it faltered. The problem was that these outlets just appeared hapless and vapid at a time of crisis. As an attempt to spin public opinion, it failed. A few years later Strana.ru was quietly relaunched as a guidebook about Russias regions.

In the mid-2000s more print journalists lost their jobs. For many the Internet was the only place where it was possible to express their opinions. At the same time, online media had no resources to pay for investigative journalism and genuine revelatory reportage. So instead reporters turned into bloggers and opinion columnists, which would be less expensive. The overwhelming number of them were highly critical of Russian domestic policy, despite lacking access to information. Some enjoyed thousands of followers. Many of them also had very popular blogs on LiveJournal.com, a blogging platform. Among them, Nossik had been one of the first Russian-speaking users of LiveJournal.com; soon he was the most prominent Russian blogger. In 2006 he was appointed the chief blogging officer at SUP Media, the owner of LiveJournal.com. Within a year he had a new position in the company: social media evangelist.

The Kremlin was not happy with the explosion of bloggers and turned to means already proven to be effective in dealing with newspapers: having loyal oligarchs buy off the Internet platforms. The first to go was Gazeta.ruthen the only news website with a fully staffed team of reporterspurchased in 2006 by Alisher Usmanov, founder of Metalloinvest and close to the Kremlin. Early the same year Usmanov had acquired Kommersant Publishing House, including its respected business newspaper Kommersant, and Gazeta.ru went under its control. In 2008 Usmanov further expanded his media empire: Kommersant agreed to merge Gazeta.ru into SUP Media, the biggest blog service in Russia. The result was that it all ended up in the hands of an oligarch.

In May 2008 Putin turned the presidency of Russia over to Dmitry Medvedev, and Putin became prime minister. The mild-mannered Medvedev, then forty-three, who had first worked with Putin in St. Petersburg, was presented to the public as a liberal-minded politician with an interest in the Internet and technology. But he was still close to Putin. He was the same Medvedev who had been chief of Putins campaign staff in the Alexander House back in 2000.

One of Medvedevs early moves was to recruit Alexey Soldatov, who had done so much to bring the Internet to Russia at the Kurchatov Institute, to become deputy minister of communications, responsible for the Internet. Alexey agreed to take the post. The joint venture of Relcom, his company, and FAPSI had come to nothing, and the company had struggled to survive for years in competition with big telecom holdings that also had their own landlines, an advantage Relcom never had. In a last desperate move the teams of Relcom and Demos tried to unite, but the attempt failed, and the national network of Relcom ceased to exist.

Andrei and Alexey Soldatovs relationship was strained again, and Andrei learned about his fathers appointment when he got a call from a wire service correspondent. At that moment he was in the parking lot of Novaya Gazeta trying to inflate a tire on his eight-year-old car, an Opel. Wow, Andrei, leave your old Opelyour black BMW is surely coming! was the first mocking reaction of our amused colleagues at Novaya Gazeta.

Months after Medvedev took office, in August 2008, war broke out with Georgia. In six days the Russian army crushed the Georgian army, but the Kremlin was not happy with media coverage, especially on the Internet, where the war was frequently criticized.

At the time the biggest and the most popular search engine in the Russian-speaking world was Yandex. Every day the Russian news media struggled to get their stories placed in the top rankings of the search engine. In the late 2000s the middle class in Russia, especially educated people in the cities, lost their newspaper-reading habit in the morning and instead started using the Yandex home page as the starting point of the day and for their daily journey on the Internet. Five top news items on Yandexs home page replaced the front pages of newspapers for millions of Russian Internet users.

In 2008 Yandex became the ninth-largest search engine in the world.[8] The company grew so quickly that the management thought of moving out of the offices on Samokatnaya Street that they had moved into just three years before. This pleasant area of Moscow was built up with red-brick factories in the late nineteenth century and maintains its character to this day. Yandex extensively renovated a three-and-a-half-story building of a former weaving mill down the road, giving it all the hallmarks of a global Internet giant headquarters: a parking lot for bicycles, a large open space inside, a reception desk held up by the letters of the Yandex logo, and an internal museum, with the very first server of the company on display.

In early September 2008, at the end of a working day, two black BMW sedans with flashing lights passed through the gates at Samokatnaya Street, past the life-sized statues of horses that had been brightly painted by children of Yandex employees, and pulled to a stop in front of the former factory.

Out of the cars climbed Surkov, Putins backroom strategist who was deputy chief of the presidential administration, and Konstantin Kostin, deputy head of the internal politics section of the administration.[9] Surkov and Kostin went to the second floor, to the office of Arkady Volozh, the head of Yandex. In those days Volozh and the Yandex team were preoccupied with the threat of takeover by the oligarch Usmanov. His moves mysteriously coincided with the troubles the company now faced: a new data center had not opened because of a lack of some documentation, a strange criminal case was launched, with Yandexs CEO made defendant, and so on. Volozh was a frequent guest at the presidential administration, and he tried to make friends to counter Usmanovs moves. The Yandex people expected Usmanov to be the main topic of the meeting. For that reason Volozh invited Elena Ivashentseva, a senior partner at Baring-Vostok, a private equity fund and the main Yandex shareholder, to be present.

Lev Gershenzon, the twenty-nine-year-old chief of the Yandex News section, was also tipped off and told to be ready to provide explanations if the visitors were to ask how Yandex used algorithms to select news for the home page of the search engine. Volozh told Gershenzon that when he had gone to see Medvedev a few days before, he had noticed on his table a few screenshots of the Yandex home page, with headlines from Georgian media. Gershenzon recalled, I had two tasks: to show them that it was a robot, not a human, who chose the news, and for that, to show the internal interface, the mechanism. The second task was to explain the top of the rating, and to show that it was selected by algorithm, not randomly.

Indeed, soon after the meeting started, Gershenzon was summoned to Volozhs office. When he came to the room, he saw Volozh, with two subordinates, along with Ivashentseva, Surkov, and Kostin standing. He was introduced, but Surkov and Kostin did not introduce themselves. They shook hands, and Gershenzon rushed to the table, knocking a glass over the table. It crashed to the floor. He quickly plugged his laptop into a large, flat TV and started showing his slides.

Gershenzon, who spoke slowly and softly, had strong democratic views. In fact, he had participated in all the anti-Putin protest marches. Gershenzon was not a programmer but rather a linguist. He joined Yandex in the fall of 2005 along with a team of friends to work on a special projectto use the search engine to identify the events connected with known persons, like politicians and celebrities, and fashion it into a news stream. Soon Gershenzon became the head of the larger operation of Yandex News. He knew how it worked from the inside, and when he was summoned to the meeting with Surkov and Kostin, he was well aware what was at stake.[10]

Surkov, forty-three, was widely known as the Kremlins gray cardinal.[11] He had an astonishing career; he had started in the early 1990s as a bodyguard for one of the most prominent Russian oligarchs, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then made it to the position of his top advertising and then public relations man. In 1999 he landed in the presidents administration. Under Putin, he was believed to be behind most of the attempts to transform Russia into what he called a sovereign democracy, a term coined by Surkov, meaning that democracy in Russia should have different rules from that of the world outside.[12] These projects included creating pro-Kremlin youth organizations who could take to the streets to counter popular demonstrations, the so-called color revolutions such as Rose in Georgia and Orange in Ukraine, both uprisings that had forcibly ejected leaders from office. Surkov also built an effective system to corral the traditional media. He had sat at Putins right hand during the meeting with NTV journalists seven years earlier. Kostin, thirty-eight and fat and bulky, in the early 1990s had worked briefly at Kommersant, had a brief stint in public relations work, and had then gone to Khodorkovskys Menatep Bank, where he met Surkov. He worked on many pro-Kremlin projects, maintained good relations with Surkov, and in June 2008 was appointed to the presidents administration as the right hand of Surkov.

I briefly explained to them how news stories are selected, what factors affect the ranking, what principles are used for annotation and for headlines, recalled Gershenson. I showed screenshots related to the war in Georgia. Gershenzon tried to explain why it was normal to have a couple of references to Georgian media, out of fifteen altogether.

Surkov interrupted him, pointing his finger to the headline from a liberal media outlet in the Yandex ranking, This is our enemy, Surkov said. Thats what we do not need!

Gershenzon soon left the room, and Surkov told Yandexs leadership that the Kremlin needed Russian business success stories. He clearly tried to leave the impression they wanted to be friends, but Kostin requested access to the interface of Yandex News that had Gershenzon explained to them. When the two Kremlin officials finally left, the Yandex people gathered to talk over what had happened. Everybody was impressed, and clearly shocked, Gershenzon said. He tried to persuade the Yandex management to not cooperate too closely with the Kremlin. I told them, guys, these are not our terms, we do not need to talk their language, we do not need to talk in terms of enemies and friends.

Surkov and Kostin wanted to control not only traditional media but also what Russias growing Internet audience was seeing on Yandex. They wanted to define a political agenda every day and every hour. When they pressured Yandex to exclude Georgian sites from the algorithm, they wanted to control not only Russian media, traditional and online, but also the wider Russian-speaking Internet.

Yandex refused to provide access but instead decided to put greater effort into explaining how the news was chosen.

Kostin returned to Yandex once again in spring of 2009. Eventually they came to some sort of agreement. The Yandex operating model was to have relations with all media they had added to Yandexs database of news; the outlets were called partners. They agreed to treat Kostin as a partner. What did he get? Inside Yandex Kostin was given a special name, interested representative of a newsmaker, and a special phone number to call in case the presidential administration had any questions about the news headlines the Yandex News algorithm selected. Gershenzon recalled, It was clear, of course, that they were not very interested in algorithms; they were interested in one thing, that they have only what they wanted in Yandex News, and what they do not want will be removed. But we were playing this game very successfully. Kostin called, and Gershenzon sent back explanatory letters. The reaction from Kostin was, All your explanations are extremely unconvincing.

In most cases these angry calls were caused by the Kremlins own public relations mistakes. They might present some sort of initiative they wanted to promote and request progovernment media to publish stories about it, but these media just copied the message over and over again. The Yandex algorithm immediately identified the flood of almost identical stories as duplicates and ranked the story very low.

For some time the game satisfied the Kremlin. Yandex withstood the pressure and did not give in.

On September 6, 2008, Medvedev changed the structure of the Interior Ministry, which acts as a national police force. The department dedicated to fighting organized crime and terrorism was disbanded and a new department established, charged with countering extremism. Similar changes were made through all regional departments. With a new global financial crisis hitting Russia, the authorities feared popular uprising. The new department and the FSB launched a massive program to monitor any kind of civil activity, including surveillance of religious organizations, political parties not in parliament, and even informal youth groups. Most of the effort was invested in building huge databases on would-be troublemakers and developing and installing systems to control movements on all kinds of transport. The intention was to have technologies and logistics that could be used to prevent activists from reaching the demonstration. The Interior Ministry, the FSB, and local authorities started to buy advanced surveillance technologies, ranging from drones to closed-circuit television cameras to face recognition systems, all installed on railway stations and the Moscow Metro.[13]

Simultaneously the Kremlin was desperately searching for new methods to deal with the ever-growing blogging community and independent websites. For some years liberal bloggers had complained of trolls. In Internet slang, a troll means a person who sows discord by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online communitya newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blogwith the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion. It is possible to post anonymous posts on LiveJournal.com, an option the Russian trolls exploited to the fullest. Meanwhile liberal media websites suffered a series of attacks known as distributed denial of service, or DDOS, which were carried out by hacker patriots, who also attacked government agencies in Estonia, Georgia, and Lithuania. The DDOS is a sort of attack in which a targeted site receives so many requests for access that it simply shuts down. It is a simple, cheap, and effective way to disrupt a website, at least temporarily.

But who were these hacker patriots? During the 2000s the Kremlin had created large pro-Kremlin youth organizations, which mostly consisted of youth recruited in Russias regions. Two of the most important organizations were Nashi (Ours), the oldest movement, built up under direct guidance of Surkov, and Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard), the youth wing of the pro-Kremlin political party United Russia. It was hardly surprising that activists of both movements were caught trolling and launching DDOS attacks against the Kremlins opponents.[14] But for a while the tactics helped maintain a fa?ade of plausible deniability for the Kremlin.

In May 2009 a Kremlin school of bloggers was launched, headed by an associate of Pavlovsky.[15] The school reportedly consisted of eighty people from all over Russia, each working with two or three activists, and their graduates were supposed to organize information campaigns online. The Kremlin also tried co-opting some prominent bloggers and promised them access to high-ranking officials.

Then, on August 17, 2009, the Sayano-Shushenskaya Station on the Yenisei River in Siberia, the largest hydroelectric plant in Russia, suffered an accident that caused flooding of the engine and turbine rooms and a transformer explosion, killing seventy-four people. The accident was caused by human error, and the media coverage of the catastrophe worried the Kremlin. In response, they tested new media approach: A journalist from Interfax, a straightforward news agency, was expelled from the area of the Sayano-Shushenskaya Station for his critical reporting. Instead, the popular blogger, Rustem Adagamov, also known as drugoi, or another, who headed the multimedia department of SUP, the company that owned LiveJournal, was invited to report on the relief operation. So he did, reporting favorably for the authorities. In October Adagamov was invited to join the Kremlin press pool, an elite group given special access to the president who are also sympathetic journalists, and he accepted. The new approach showed that the Kremlin could substitute hard-hitting news coverage with friendly bloggers.

Two developments changed the landscape on the Russian Internet in 2010. In April a new cable television channel called TV Dozhd, or Rain, was launched. The channels owner and main driving force was Natalia Sindeeva. An energetic woman who always greeted people with a big smile, Sindeeva had no television experience. But she had launched a very successful radio entertainment station, Serebryany Dozhd (Silver Rain), in the 1990s. It had taken Sindeeva three years to launch TV Dozhd, and the idea slowly expanded so that by the spring of 2010 she was leading a small media empire, consisting of the news website Slon.ru, launched in May 2009, and a just-acquired city magazine, Bolshoi Gorod, or Big City. All of Moscows journalists were guessing who underwrote Sindeevas projects, though the official version was that they were funded by her husband, a banker, Alexander Vinokurov.

Sindeeva, very ambitious, first wanted to rent a space for her channel in one of the soaring towers of Moscow city, a skyscraper financial district still developing. The idea was dropped because of the economic crisis of 2008. She desperately needed to find space for a headquarters and one day took a call from friends. They told me, look, there are premises which could be rented for 100 dollars for a square meter, she recalled. It was the former Red October chocolate factory, a large red-brick complex built in the late nineteenth century on an island in the Moscow River, with a view of the Kremlin. Sindeeva went to look at it; the large space, still smelling of chocolate, was almost empty. Sindeeva found the owner, but the talks took months, and then more months were spent on renovation. When finally TV Dozhd opened on the fifth floor of the building, Red October had already become a very fashionable place in Moscow, the epicenter of the hipster movement, with dozens of caf?s and art studios occupying other floors and premises.

At first TV Dozhd was not meant to have much presence on the Internet or be a political challenge to the authorities. In the beginning we didnt think of a news channel, said Sindeeva. We thought of television with hosts as authors, we thought of the channel that should get the audience back to intelligent content. After all, I knew that a news channel was the most expensive thing to launch. And personally I was not interested in news.

The full logo of the channel was displayed in English: TV Rain: The Optimistic Channel. And indeed, optimistic it wasthe main color was pink, the channels logo was pink, and the office of Sindeeva in the corner of the large, open space on the fifth floor of Red October was full of devices in pinkeven her chair and the refrigerator were pink. Whats more, even though Moscow was full of disenchanted TV journalists who had lost their jobs in the 2000s, Sindeeva didnt want them; her presenters had no prior experience on television. She wanted a fresh, positive perspective.

The channel was officially launched in April 2010, but it was not admitted to the cable television world right away, as she had planned. When we went on air on April 27, Sindeeva recalled, we were immediately turned off by cable operators, not because we did something, but as a preventive measure. Surkov simply didnt want an independent channel and, at a meeting with the owners of the two biggest cable operators, he voiced his opinion.[16]

She turned to the website of Slon.ru, a part of her nascent media empire, and on the home page of the site appeared a window, displaying the broadcasts of TV Dozhd. Quickly TV Dozhd became very popular. Intelligent speech and faces were missed so badly on television that all of a sudden Moscows middle classes tuned in to the new channel. In the summer Sindeeva realized that her audience wanted not only intelligent faces but political news as well.

Now she needed an editor-in-chief for the channel. As a temporary measure, she asked an editor from Slon.ru to sit in and create a news team. In September Dozhd was included in the package of the NTV Plus satellite pay-TV platform. It was a way to let TV Dozhd in Moscow homes and not just on the Internet.

To lead the news team Sindeeva selected a journalist from Russian Newsweek, which had just ceased operating. Mikhail Zygar, twenty-nine years old, had spent nearly a decade at the foreign desk of Kommersant. I saw my task very clearly from the beginning, Zygar remembered. I was there since June, and, well, I found here twenty-three-year-old journalists, and a twenty-five-year-old journalist was considered very experienced.[17] Sindeeva never defined the task for Zygar; they just decided they could work together.

With that, Russia again had a private, independent television channel.

And the digital wave was unfolding ever faster. In 2010 Alexey Navalny, a thirty-four-year-old lawyer, became the most popular Russian blogger with a clear political agenda. Over the previous decade Navalny tried different roads to prominence. He joined the democratic and socialist party Yabloko, from which he was expelled for his xenophobic views.[18] In 2007 he founded a nationalistic movement, Narod, or People. He even took part in the Russian March, an anti-immigrants rally in Moscow, calling for Russia to separate from the North Caucasus. He didnt gain popularity.

He found his magic tool in the spring of 2008 when he bought stocks of the biggest oil and gas companies like Rosneft, Gazprom, and the oil transport monopoly Transneft, all of which were partially owned by the state. He spent over 300,000 rubles, or about $10,000, for all the shares. He gained the right to receive information about the companies activity and then sue their leadership for corruption. My goal is to include the question of this investigation into the political agenda of the country, Navalny declared in a blog post about Transneft on November 17, 2010.[19]

That month Navalny posted on his blog his investigation of corruption in Transneft during the construction of a pipeline from Eastern Siberia to the Pacific Ocean. He found that 120 billion rubles had disappeared, and he then posted online scans of documents he had obtained. The next day he woke up the most popular muckraker in Russia. In the country where traditional media were distrusted and investigative journalism was compromised, he soon earned a reputation as a fearless fighter of corruption. My blog exists only because there is a censorship in media, said Navalny.[20] His popularity among the middle classes in big Russian cities, fed up with corruption, rocketed. TV Dozhd reported his every move.

Meanwhile the authorities were still foundering in the new digital era. Medvedev made a show of being in tune with the age by visiting Silicon Valley in the United States. He opened a Twitter account@kremlinrussiaduring his visit to Twitter headquarters and ordered government ministries to launch Twitter accounts as well. Even the FSB followed orders and launched an account, but only for a few months. Medvedev also started a high-tech incubator project known as Skolkovo, an attempt to create a Russian version of Silicon Valley. But it was very late to the game, and rather than springing up from innovation, it was directed from the top down.

Medvedev wanted to make Russia technically advanced but not necessarily more democratic. He was eager to follow Singapores authoritarian leader, Lee Kuan Yew, who was put on the board of Skolkovo, chaired by Medvedev. When Medvedev visited Singapore in 2009, the bureaucracys effectiveness impressed him; he registered a company online, and it took just a few minutes. Medvedev cited Singapore as the model Russia must follow.[21]

Navalny was equally fond of Lee Kuan Yew, praised his effectiveness in fighting corruption, and said, I would forgive many things to Putin, if he were a Russian Lee Kuan Yew.[22]

Authoritarian leaders dont tolerate criticism from outside and zealously protect their national sovereignty. Medvedev shared this approach, and Shchegolev, his minister of communications, began to promote the idea of Russias national sovereignty on the Internet. Soldatov helped acquire for Russia the Cyrillic domain . from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, in charge of managing domain names worldwide. But he left the government in November 2010, unwilling to support other ideas being debated, such as the development of a national computer operating system or a national search engine that would stand apart from the wider world of the Internet, ideas that were being frequently discussed in the corridors of power.


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