This month marks my fifth anniversary at Global Voices, where I’ve edited RuNet Echo alongside three talented individuals: Andrey Tselikov, Tanya Lokot, and Isaac Webb. I’ve also worked with dozens of very gifted volunteer writers — both professional journalists and scholars, and others just breaking into the field. And it’s been my honor to follow the leadership of people like Executive Director Ivan Sigal, Managing Editor Sahar Habib Ghazi, and Advocacy Director Ellery Biddle.
I can’t vouch for RuNet Echo’s readers, but I am having a very good time writing for you.
Our website tells me that I’ve written 445 texts since I started and this little ditty makes 446. I joined Global Voices in the spring of 2012, just as Russia’s so-called “Winter of Discontent” was coming apart at the seams. Vladimir Putin was just a few days away from a blowout presidential victory, and Dmitry Medvedev was still (technically speaking) the president.
In the last five years, some things in Russia have come full circle, while others seem to be gone irrevocably. Dmitry Medvedev once embodied many Russians’ hopes that the government would prioritize political freedom and end the country’s demonization of democracy.
Today, Medvedev is the face of corruption, thanks almost singlehandedly to opposition leader Alexey Navalny, the blogger king who cut his teeth exposing graft and dirty dealing in Russia’s state-owned corporations.
Five years ago, it was still possible to map LiveJournal pages and treat it like a visualization of the Russian blogosphere. Today, as with most places in the world, blogging in Russia as it’s traditionally understood is dead. There are still millions of Russians using LiveJournal, but civil society’s pulse — an admittedly elusive and possibly ludicrous concept — has now scattered across a dozen popular platforms.
On Facebook, Moscow’s journalists and activists dump political exegeses and trade ad hominems in confusingly-threaded comments. On Twitter, anonymous accounts with national flags in their avatars ankle-bite each other and anyone reacting to breaking news. You can follow the anti-Kremlin opposition’s hipster parties on Instagram, where there’s also footage of the even more luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the sons and daughters of prominent Russian officials. There’s something called Telegram now — launched by the ousted creator of Vkontakte, which is what most ordinary Russians use, instead of Facebook — and on Telegram you can subscribe to “channels” that share what is ostensibly “insider political analysis.”
All this is to say nothing of YouTube, Internet forums like Dvach, managed communities like TJournal, satirical news projects like Lentach, and what I’m sure are boatloads of other corners of the Web that I’ve never even heard of.
While at RuNet Echo, I’ve witnessed several waves of the Russian news cycle. When I started in 2012, lawmakers in Moscow were just rolling out the Internet blacklist that’s now such a core feature of Russian censorship. The “registry,” as it’s known formally, started out innocently enough as a shield to protect young children from the nastiest stuff online. The first legislation even had the support of Ilya Ponomarev, the only deputy in Russia’s entire parliament who would later vote against Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
Five years later, the state of Internet freedom in Russia is still murky, but it’s worse than it used to be, and — more importantly for me, as someone who writes about this — it’s not something that surprises people much anymore, which is another way of saying that people outside Russia (RuNet Echo’s main audience) now don’t care as much.
Of course, Americans, at any rate, care more about Russia today than they have since the 1990s, when you-know-what came crashing down. But we’ve seen the Internet censorship story before. And we’ve seen the report from the Moscow protest where the riot police arrest the peaceful demonstrator.
Four burly cops carried off a young woman, kicking and screaming? There’s a photo?
Tragic, yes, but also totally familiar — a phrase you could add as a caption to just about anything there is to say today about the Putin regime. The Russian news cycle isn’t new anymore.
But some day it will be, again. Whether it’s a youth revolt sparked by one of Navalny’s viral videos, or a quiet reshuffling of Russia’s presidency, the Putin era has an expiration date, and that will be new.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking I’ve gotten a bit hifalutin. After all, what business does an American with his nose in the RuNet have pontificating about the future of Russian high politics? On a daily basis, when it comes to most of what goes on in Russian cyberspace, Vladimir Putin doesn’t matter. Many of the best stories there are to tell about Russia don’t have a thing to do with Putin.
But the Kremlin’s role in society is still enormously influential on Russia’s Internet culture — particularly among the activists seeking a voice and the journalists who know more than they can say at work.
* * *
When sitting down to write this, I hoped I’d work my way to a grand conclusion right about now. Something about how it’s impossible to write “the RuNet thinks Y about Z,” though there are trends and moods, and it is feasible to imagine “Russian Internet culture” as a semi-coherent concept. And, yes, there are all the politics. There’s Putin and the State Duma and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, flooding Facebook with snark.
There is, in the end, too much to count and consider. I’ve been doing it for five years, and I hope to be here for many more. Thank you, everyone, for reading RuNet Echo. Tell your friends. Tell anybody.