MOSCOW -- Not long ago, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill warned his clergy not to be tempted to seek "illusory popularity" online by engaging with the masses on social networking sites.
This week, however, Kirill relented and opened his own Facebook page.
The decision by the erstwhile Internet-phobic patriarch to make his presence felt on the world's top social networking platform -- which raised at least $16 billion in an initial public offering (IPO) on May 17 that valued the company at a staggering $104 billion -- is a sign of the times.
Facebook, whose shares will begin trading publicly on the Nasdaq stock exchange on May 18, has been famously slow to take off in Russia, lagging far behind more popular local sites like Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, and Moi Mir.
Nonetheless, it has grown more than threefold over the past year.
To be sure, Facebook still ranks fourth among social-networking platforms in Russia. But it is increasingly becoming the platform of choice for the urban professionals who made up the backbone of the opposition protests that have rocked Russia over the past several months -- a phenomenon that has made it the place to be for politically engaged Russians.
Politically Active Users
Gregory Asmolov, an expert on the Russian Internet at the London School of Economics, has suggested that Facebook’s meteoric rise mirrors that of the blogging platform LiveJournal, which over the past decade became a popular space for uncensored political debate.
"To an extent it's similar to what happened with LiveJournal in the beginning, some years ago," he says. "Russian young professionals, politicians, the young elites, and intellectuals are the ones using Facebook pretty actively. The reason that Facebook is important is that the people who use Facebook are politically active."
Facebook really began to take off in Russia in the aftermath of last December's disputed State Duma elections, which sparked massive street protests.
Facebook has become the principal platform for digital-savvy opposition activists in Moscow.
The large demonstrations that rocked Moscow on December 10 and 24, for example, were largely organized on the site, which quickly became a networking and communications hub for opposition-minded and Internet-savvy citizens.
Opposition journalist Ilya Klishin took the innovative step of using Facebook's event-listing function to drum up interest in the December 10 protest on Bolotnaya Square, which drew approximately 100,000 people to the streets.
Klishin said Facebook’s easy-to-use interface made it a logical choice.
"In Russia, this was the first time Facebook came out as the principal platform for mobilization," says Marina Litvinovich, a former Kremlin adviser who is now an opposition activist.
Mainly In Moscow
Asmolov notes that while LiveJournal is a useful site for uncensored political debate and opinion, Facebook is better equipped for the coordination activities that became vital when the opposition movement took to the streets.
“Facebook is a very convenient platform for organizing events, protests and for distributing information," he says. "So you can see the emergence of a politically active community who know each other, communicate with each other, share information and create events."
A poll in February by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research
found that 18 percent of Russia’s 60 million Internet users are now on Facebook -- a marked increase from just 5 percent a year earlier.
The microblogging site Twitter has likewise surged in popularity, with 9 percent of Russian Internet users now using the site as opposed to 2 percent a year ago.
Analysts note, however, that despite Facebook's rapid growth in Russia, it remains largely a Moscow phenomenon. In the regions, Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki still dominate.
Klishin notes that while Facebook was instrumental in organizing the large protests in Moscow, the local sites were used outside the capital. "This probably is explained by the fact that the people who kick started it all -- that is journalists, bloggers, and political activists in Moscow -- themselves actively use [Facebook] and slightly shun Vkontakte for perhaps aesthetic reasons,” he says.
Patriarch Kirill, meanwhile, had a rough debut on Facebook this week.
The patriarch -- who has been the subject of numerous controversies in recent months and who has been criticized by the opposition for his close association with President Vladimir Putin -- had his page bombarded with negative comments.