Just over 25 years ago, the .ru domain name was created and with it the RuNet was born. Russian journalist Andrey Loshak celebrated the anniversary with the publication of “Holivar” (known in English as “Holy War” or “InterNyet”), a seven-part documentary on the evolution of the Russian internet. With interviews with entrepreneurs behind Russian iconic digital brands such as VKontakte, Yandex and Mail.ru, the series shows the rise of the RuNet from a part of the subculture of the 1990s to the ubiquitous part of society, culture and Russian politics it has become today.
The first episode of the series premiered on June 9, 2019 at the Beat Film Festival, and premiered on YouTube's Current Time channel, owned by Radio Free Europe, on September 5. The series has been critically acclaimed in Russia and abroad, and has won the Redkollegia and Professiya-Jurnalists awards:
Как будто смотришь фильм о медленном и мучительном умирании близкого друга и бессилен ему чем-омопом
I like watching a movie about the slow and painful death of a close friend and not being able to help him in any way.
– Featured comment below the sixth episode of Holy War on YouTube
A story of “nostalgic technoutopianism”
Loshak's film simultaneously celebrates a milestone and says goodbye to the Russian internet that he once knew – and seems to have known everyone – and there are very few prominent live (or enemy) businessmen of the RuNet who do not appear in the documentary. Although their stories may seem anachronistic to viewers in Europe and North America, these figures tell a unique story of nostalgic technoutopism that seems far removed from the current political and moral panic about data security and the uncontrolled influence of digital giants.
In this account, RuNet was the creation of some bellicose “disruptors” (the good ones) and their inherent internationalism and openness now under the threat of the Russian State (the bad ones), determined to nationalize it as a “divisionet”. The series begins and ends in California, begins with an innovative hippie who helped build the Soviet internet, and ends with these same praiseworthy innovators who have moved to Silicon Valley because Vladimir Putin's Russia was no longer useful to them.
Following the introduction of Russia's “sovereign internet” bill in November, there is an urgent need to recall the international lineage of the Russian internet. Detractors and supporters of the bill are very aware of this story, the former highlight the role of Anton Nossik and the Russian-Israeli technology engineers who returned to Russia in the 1990s, and the latter (including Vladimir Putin) argue that The internet has always been – and without a doubt remains – a project of Western intelligence services.
Perhaps the most interesting lesson of the Loshak documentary is that, despite its international origins, RuNet has long been “sovereign” – but not as the authorities would prefer.
Now it seems worth mentioning how little Putin and the Russian elite seemed to care about the internet in their early days. In a memorable anecdote, the late Anton Nossik and the investor Egor Shuppe remember the meeting of then Prime Minister Putin in 1999 with prominent representatives of the “online community.” Shuppe recalls that “our hidden agenda was to explain that we were children that we had no power, so they should leave us alone … and the strangest thing was that Putin gave us his word and kept it for 15 years.”
Similarly, in 2001, when the first web conference was held in line with Putin's participation, journalist Marina Litvinovich remembers having to explain to the president what the internet was. Reportedly, Putin told him that he didn't need the internet, since he had many other sources of information – an attitude that, according to some accounts, persists so far:
Ну, я думала что поскольку он разведчик, КГБщик, то я рассказывала чтоэ Я показала ему несколько сайта поисков, Yandex, Rambler, Yahoo. Не было много времени, но я помню что, вообщем, не проникулся он интернетом. Я много раз узнавала у разных людей, что он не ползовался интернетом и не понимает зачем. Он много раз потом говорил, что это какая-то помойка.
Well, I thought he was a secret service agent, a KGB man, so I told him that it is a large database, with which you can find everything you need, and I showed him some sites. I showed you some search engines, Yandex, Rambler, Yahoo. There wasn't much time, but I remember that, in general, he didn't care much about the internet. I heard many times from several people who did not use the internet and did not understand why they should care. He has said many times that it is just a garbage can.
Testing the waters
Then, the Kremlin showed some interest in the growing opportunities of an online presence. After the destruction of Media Most, of the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, of oppositional tendency, occurred during the first years of the Putin government, the new president's team made its first foray into online media. The political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, for whom Litvinovich worked at that time, helped launch the first online news platforms such as Strana, Vesti and Lenta.ru, with limited success and tough competition from popular news aggregators, and the authorities They gradually lost interest in the initiative.
But the need generates inventiveness: in the absence of investment, RuNet entrepreneurs created an autonomous digital ecosystem, with their own leading digital brands. As Russian investor Yury Miller points out, RuNet's unique character lies in the fact that Russian technology companies continue to hold significant positions – and sometimes, leaders – in the market, without state interference or protectionism (unlike China).
Some of these brands, such as Miller's Mail.Ru, have even entered the London Stock Exchange – and despite the global financial crisis of a decade ago, influential entrepreneurs like Alisher Usmanov continued to invest in RuNet.
When Putin returned to the Russian presidency in 2012, the atmosphere was very different. The impact of the Arab Spring, widely attributed to the power of social media, forced Russian rulers to consider the revolutionary potential of RuNet. When the media and the written press were put to the test, RuNet became a space for combative and independent journalism, outside the reach of the State.
By 2012, Yandex News and Lenta.ru were more popular than the state channel Channel One. Something had to be done, and it was done. Putin's return to power was accompanied by protests over the first restrictive legislation against RuNet. It would be the first of many.
These years marked a new proactive approach of the Kremlin towards digital governance. When “gray cardinal” Gleb Pavlovsky, who left the presidential administration in 2011, joined the opposition, the Kremlin found a new “internet director” in Konstantin Rykov. In the documentary, Pavlovsky seems to like the “ostentatious projects with many Russian flags” that emerged. They evolved so well that Rykov, who brought the style to the RuNet, was no longer necessary, says Pavlovsky. “Anyone can do it now.”
So it was. The Kremlin and its supporters soon learned the value of a “civil society” organized by the State. In 2011, Alexey Malofeev, a monarchist and oligarch traditionalist, founded the Internet Safe League; its “cyber squares” watched the internet for objectionable content in the name of protecting family values and keeping children away from harmful material online. The Kremlin's growing interest in digital governance was therefore linked to a conservative “grassroots” turn, aided by the pronouncements of frank and socially conservative legislators such as Yelena Mizulina.
In these initiatives you can also see the origin of the Internet Research Agency, the well-known trolley factory ”in St. Petersburg, which would then flood any critical content with angry messages from employees posing as patriotic citizens.
As of 2012, interventions became massive and fast. A law on the blacklist of the Internet was approved, initially to attack the abuse of children and narcotics, but in 2013 its scope was extended to include “the defense of extremism” and “the convening of illegal meetings”.
At the same time, the Government exerted pressure to change the editorial direction of Gazeta.ru, and blocked the independent Grani.ru news website. In 2014, in the period before the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the majority of Lenta.ru's editors, from editor Galina Timchenko, organized a strike to protest political interference, and then founded the independent website of media Meduza.
That same year, VKontakte, Russia's largest media network, was under the control of the Russian authorities when its founder and CEO, Pavel Durov, refused to hand over user data to Russian law enforcement. When leaving the country, Durov denounced Russia as “now incompatible with the internet business.” VKontakte and Odnkolassniki, another popular Russian social network, are now owned by Mail.ru. Revealingly, the current director of the digital giant is Boris Dobrodeev, son of Oleg Dobrodeev, general director of the Russian state broadcaster VGTRK.
Repression in cyberspace
With the appointment of German Klimenko as Putin's new internet advisor at the end of 2015, the Kremlin tightened the nuts of cyberspace. For 2016, the Government turned its attention to Yandex. A new law on news aggregators would affect this early RuNet giant, which was now required to index only stories from media sources approved by the state communications control agency, Roskomnadzor. These restrictions culminated in the Yarovaya law, which extended the existing anti-terrorism legislation to make the demands of data collection on Russian internet users more demanding.
Loshak interviewees do not hesitate to underline how unprofitable these restrictions have been for the once vibrant Russian digital market. It was said that Yandex, for example, was ahead of Google in some innovations, although unfortunately, investment in the RuNet has receded to what it was a decade ago. While some miss the RuNet of the turbulent 1990s as a space of free expression, others miss it as a space of unbridled business opportunity. In the series, the two are strongly presented as synonyms.
However, Loshak's approach in RuNet's self-proclaimed architects leads him to avoid a key category of RuNet's “entrepreneur” – the ordinary citizens who have endorsed it, often in difficult circumstances. It is an innovation for which RuNet is famous, and fuels a worldwide conversation about digital freedoms and creativity.
Abroad, RuNet is known primarily not for its investment potential, but for its users' commitment to free access to culture and knowledge, which it often achieves in a semi-legal manner. Sci-Hub, Lib.ru and LibraryGenesis are all examples of this battle over culture and copyright, which a purely commercial or political account of RuNet's evils cannot fully address.
To date, the Duma has passed more than 20 laws that restrict Internet freedom in Russia. Nor does it seem that they are going to stop; Loshak suggests that the next frontier could now be YouTube which, like the online media of the 2010s, is more difficult to control than a television station or a traditional newspaper.
As blogger Ilya Varlamov tells Loshak, the Kremlin's approach to YouTube reflects his attempts to take strong action against bloggers during the 2010s. However, in 2019, videobloggers are at the forefront of social and political conversation, in a RuNet much more sophisticated and popular than a decade ago. Their ability to prosper thanks to the donations of their armies of followers presents a dangerous financial, and also political autonomy.
What will the last chapter of RuNet history be like? According to Loshak, what will save RuNet will not be professionalism, but “idiocy of corruption” – which may mean that bold state plans will not be properly implemented as a result. However, he added, the current confrontation is inevitable:
(Рунет) помогает людям объединиться, горизонтально, а наша власть привыкла к такой строгой иерарий поротарий горой горой Они входят в этот клинч. Тут правда такой конфликт онтологический… Я не вижу как еще власть может реагировать кроме пытать потать потать потать потать
RuNet helps people organize horizontally, and our authorities are accustomed to strict hierarchies and vertical power. They are tight, this is an ontological conflict by nature … I don't see how the authorities could react more than trying to treat and take it completely under their control.
– Andrey Loshak in conversation with Ekho Moskvy, September 5, 2019