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As Other Media Stagnate In Russia, Internet Changing Rules Of Engagement

Vkontakte is one of Russia's most popular homegrown social-networking sites and a common means of civic activism.
Vkontakte is one of Russia's most popular homegrown social-networking sites and a common means of civic activism.
Svetlana Privalova was a 19-year-old student in the Tatar capital of Kazan when she watched, helplessly, as residents in North Ossetia struggled with the cataclysmic grief of the death of more than 300 children and adults in the Beslan school siege.

"I really wanted to help," she said of the 2004 crisis. "We were all so worried. But I didn't know what to do."

This July, Privalova watched another tragedy unfold as an overloaded cruise ship, the "Bulgaria," sank in the Volga River outside Kazan, drowning more than 120 people, mainly women and children.

This time, Privalova didn't hesitate. She quickly joined a support group, helping to provide care for children orphaned by the disaster and organizing a traditional mourning ceremony 40 days after the incident.

"This was a group that was formed with the aim of helping out, rallying together, uniting. We even held a special event, a memorial day, for the 40th day," Privalova says. "No one from the authorities even responded, they didn't do anything. The entire thing was the initiative of ordinary people."

So what changed in the seven years that passed between Beslan and the "Bulgaria"?

For one, Privalova had become an independent adult, a professional marketer and mother of a young daughter. But perhaps more significantly, the country had changed as well.

Long an unplugged media monolith dominated by state-run television and a dearth of political compassion, Russia had evolved into a fast-growing Internet market where "ordinary people" suddenly had options for getting their information -- and options for acting on it as well.

In Privalova's case, this was a special page dedicated to the "Bulgaria" tragedy on the so-called "Russian Facebook," the social-networking site Vkontakte. The "Bulgaria" site, which includes a photo gallery of the victims, a detailed breakdown of the accident, and a constant stream of dialogue about ways to help, now has more than 5,000 supporters, from locations as diverse as St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Sochi, and Nizhnevartovsk.

In an otherwise bleak media landscape, the rapid rise of the Internet is shifting the Russian information industry from a top-down operation to a looser, more pluralistic affair where regular Russians are no longer expected to be passive consumers of traditional news.

Television, which still reigns supreme as a source of news for 85 percent of Russians, may provide a glossy and orchestrated image of the world that suits the Kremlin's needs. The dwindling newspaper trade may deliver tailored bulletins to niche audiences. But the Russian Internet, or RuNet, is the first medium in the country to come without a built-in ideological bent.

And along the way, it's fueling a new wave of civic activism -- one that may not bring sweeping political change or find common cause with the traditional opposition, but which is rapidly giving regular Russians power to bear on issues that affect them most, from car inspections to community safety to bureaucracy and corruption.

Vadim Nikitin, a Russian-born blogger and RuNet analyst, says the rise of social networking, blogs, and video sharing have handed Russians an unprecedented opportunity to free themselves from larger political debate and simply connect over "real-life problems."

"In the West, YouTube is a place for cat videos. In Russia, YouTube is a place where you see videos about police corruption and traffic abuses," Nikitin says. "Really, YouTube has been a big channel where civic activism is involved. And those kinds of questions that touch on people's ordinary lives are the ones that have the biggest scope for bringing in participation."

Plugged In, Acting Out

Even five years ago, it was hard to imagine a world in which a police whistleblower could gain an international audience for his home-taped views on internal corruption or an impromptu rap video could inspire public protests against corporate bigwigs driving murderously on city streets.

A YouTube video by the Russian rapper Noize MC protests against the actions of LUKoil executive Antatoly Barkov (pictured).
A YouTube video by the Russian rapper Noize MC protests against the actions of LUKoil executive Antatoly Barkov (pictured).
Now it's hard to imagine it otherwise. Aleksei Dymovsky, the "YouTube Cop" who received more than a million hits in 2009 after posting a video alleging massive police corruption in the city of Novorossiisk, was one of the earliest signs that the Internet might be the launching pad for a resurgent protest movement.

And rapper Noize MC raised a massive public outcry after posting a song and video blaming a powerful LUKoil executive for the death of two women in a Moscow car accident in which the businessman's chauffeur-driven Mercedes appeared to veer into oncoming traffic. The video touched a nerve with many Russians and sparked "blue bucket" protests against officials who use flashing blue lights to force their way through traffic.

Such defiance still comes with a price. Dymovsky was fired and ultimately arrested for his allegations; Noize MC and several blue-bucket protesters faced punitive measures as well. But the punishment did little to dampen enthusiasm for the Internet's potential for public activism.

And the platform has grown accordingly: after a slow start, RuNet has seen rapid expansion. In 2004, only one-third of Russians had been online even once. Now, nearly half of Russians have regular Internet access at home, and by some estimates, penetration levels will reach those of Western Europe within just a few years.

Nor is it purely the privilege of the urban elite: although the typical RuNet user is young, educated, and comparatively well-off, nearly one-third of the country's weekly Internet users reside in towns and villages of fewer than 100,000. In this regard, the government has proven a surprising booster of the Internet, more than doubling the rate of broadband access in 2009-10 and supporting computer drives for far-flung libraries and town halls. Across wide swathes of the country, Russians can now enjoy reliable broadband connections for as little as $10-$30 a month.

Anna Arutiunova, a blogger and executive editor at Russia Profile, an English-language website published by Russia's RIA Novosti news agency, says the RuNet has proven an effective equalizer for the country's more than 60 million Internet users -- from soon-to-be-former presidential videoblogger Dmitry Medvedev to small-town scribes in distant pockets of Russia hoping to rally community support around road-building projects or a clean-streets initiative.

"The Internet has really become very affordable in Russia," Arutiunova says. "I think it is no longer just this homogenous mass of educated, well-off people, voicing their correct thoughts and their take on events. The Internet is huge in Russia and I think it's a huge driver for change. The question now is whether this is more of a constructive or more of a destructive process for the Russian society."

Gated Communities

That question acknowledges the Internet's limitations as a broad-base social mobilizer in Russia, where the passivity bred by 70 years under the Soviet welfare state retains a tenacious grip on public thinking. One 2010 survey indicates that a scant 2 percent of Russians believe they can influence the situation in their country. In addition, a July poll by the respected Levada Center indicates nearly 80 percent of Russians still believe a majority of the population cannot survive without government patronage -- a figure, astonishingly, that is nearly 20 percentage points higher than similar polls taken on the eve of the Soviet collapse.

In such an environment, observers can be heartened by the examples set by people like Aleksei Navalny, the lawyer-turned-blogger who has encouraged ordinary citizens to anonymously report suspicious government deals and post corporate documents in an attempt to shed light on elite-level corruption. Last year's massive wildfires, which caught the government flat-footed, also marked a high point in the RuNet's success as an activizing base, with thousands of Russians using the web to track the spread of the fires and equip volunteers to fight the blazes themselves.

Blogger Aleksei Navalny has used the forum to expose high-level corruption.
Blogger Aleksei Navalny has used the forum to expose high-level corruption.
Since then, the web has also been used successfully to locate missing persons, by mobilizing search groups and word-of-mouth campaigns. Most recently, organizers have used a combined strategy of Vkontakte, LiveJournal, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube bulletins to aid the search for a Moscow State University student, Irina Artyomova, who disappeared on September 13.

Such initiatives, supporters say, automatically prove the RuNet's worth.

But Masha Gessen, the editor of the Russian print and online journal "Snob," says such stories overlook the fact that the RuNet is not only a haven for like-minded do-gooders: nationalists and xenophobes have found a soapbox there as well. Russia, to her mind, remains a deeply fragmented country with no central sense of community. So while the Internet may be useful in supporting local issues, Gessen says, it will never mobilize the public at a national level.

"You can not talk about Russians as a whole," Gessen says. "The reason I think that distinction is key is that I think that what's happened to Russian society is that it's become incredibly disjointed. It's become a series of small isolated communities. And within each of these communities there can be incredible cruelty or incredible charity, there can be mutual assistance or there can be mutual ignorance. But they're separate from each other."

Freedom And Pragmatism

The local nature of the RuNet may ultimately be its saving grace. Unlike Iran or China, which have strenuously sought to restrict Internet content -- or even Russian-speaking countries like Belarus and Kazakhstan, which have actively prosecuted web-based activists -- Russia has watched over the Internet and its purveyors with relatively little interference.

Still, the Kremlin is positioned to tighten the reins if the need arises. Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev has described the Internet as a "means of organizing extremist or even terrorist actions," and has suggested the web should be monitored or even limited in order to protect impressionable members of society from exposure to violent or xenophobic screeds.

The ruling elite is also free to reel in the RuNet with help from the oligarchs who control it. Nearly half of the top 20 Internet sites in Russia -- the Yandex search engine, Vkontakte,, and LiveJournal, among others -- are owned or controlled by entrepreneurs with close Kremlin ties, including metals magnate Alisher Usmanov and Vladimir Potanin, the co-owner of Norilsk Nickel.

"Blue bucket" protesters have been mobilized across Russia against the abuse of road privileges for top bureaucrats.
"Blue bucket" protesters have been mobilized across Russia against the abuse of road privileges for top bureaucrats.
Under such conditions, it's unlikely that ordinary Russians will tempt fate by using the web as a staging ground for full-scale political confrontation. Life in the era of Vladimir Putin -- whose political career has largely coincided with the advent of the Internet, and who is now set to extend his reign for 12 more years -- has seen many Russians willingly set aside loftier democratic demands in exchange for more immediate comforts.

An Egypt-uprising scenario, with young protesters using social networks to ultimately topple the ruling order, seems unlikely in Russia. For now, RuNet users -- with the exception of Navalny and a handful of others -- appear ready to limit their activism to less political, community-driven issues in return for relatively unsupervised Internet freedom. For now, at least, individuality is the new revolution.

And that, say Nikitin and other RuNet supporters, might be a good thing. With Russia's civic engagement still in its earliest stages, he says, the Internet should be celebrated as an opportunity to coax all of its citizens -- including his father, a government ship inspector in the far northern city of Murmansk -- into a new age where they can choose the news they want to consume, and choose what to do about it.

"My dad and most of his friends, they're in their 60s, and they use the Internet. They have learned in the last five years how to use Skype and go online and have e-mail, and my dad goes to and he goes to Navalny's blog and listens to Ekho Moskvy and reads these kinds of liberal opposition newspapers," Nikitin says.

"I think everyone understands that the police are corrupt, the entire government is a kleptocracy. But what can somebody in Murmansk to do to oppose the government in this abstract sense? When people are faced with real-life situations that really affect them, they're much more likely to participate and use the Internet as a tool for that."

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