On November 5, 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned the country's language council to discuss, as he said in his inaugural address, “the war against the Russian language.” Although a good part of the conversations revolved around national grammar rules, Putin also stressed the importance of “implementing an effective system of support for the Russian environment abroad, in the fields of information, education and aid humanitarian ”.
Along the same lines, Putin suggested replacing Wikipedia with an electronic version of the Great Russian Encyclopedia, which would provide “reliable information, presented in a modern way.” Putin's words have provoked a heated debate on the web about the rigor of Wikipedia, and the accuracy of the encyclopedia with which the Russian Government wants to replace it.
The presidential claim of a Russian encyclopedia on the Internet came only days after the “sovereign internet” law came into force on November 1. And in the context of the progressive submission of the Internet by the Kremlin (which includes recent laws against “fake news”, “extremism” and “disrespect to state authorities” on the network, as well as a proposed law which would criminalize “drug propaganda” on the internet), the idea of developing a state-approved digital encyclopedia seems to be another attempt to control the Russian-language narrative on the web:
The Great Russian Encyclopedia is not new. Founded by presidential decree in 2002, its 35 volumes were published gradually between 2004 and 2017 under the auspices of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Since 2016 there is a digital version, and plans to expand it as a “substitute” for Wikipedia are already underway. In October, the Russian media group RBK reported that the publisher of the Great Russian Encyclopedia had allocated 2,000 million rubles (more than $ 30 million) to the development of a “national equivalent” of Wikipedia that would be ready by the end of 2022.
For some tweeters, the complaint of Wikipedia by the authorities is the best publicity of the platform:
Если Википедия была бы лажой, её бы не пыталась запретить российская власть, привыкшая врать и.
Если в России что-то пытаются запретить – это лучшая рекомендация для нормальных людей.
Империя зла ведёт борьбу с любыми проявлениями правды и добра.
– Вася # Шиес (@ br020201) November 6, 2019
If Wikipedia were disgusting, Russian authorities would not be trying to ban it, they are used to lying and distorting historical facts. If Russia tries to ban something, that is most recommended for ordinary people. The evil empire fights a battle against any manifestation of truth and good.
The lawyer Ilya Novikov suggested that Putin's revenge is personal:
Википедия о Путине: Путину 67 лет, рост 1.7 метра
Путин о Википедии: Лучше заменить ее Большой Российской новой энциклопедией в электронном виде pic.twitter.com/1ulgAdWVDo
– Ilya Novikov (@vertiporokh) November 5, 2019
Wikipedia on Putin: Putin is 67 years old and measures 1.70 m.
Putin on Wikipedia: It is better to replace it with the Great Russian Encyclopedia in electronic format.
Alexey Navalny, the famous opposition activist and head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, was especially critical of the project and its costs. On November 7, 2019, in one of his usual live broadcasts, Navalny referred to Wikipedia in Russian as “a triumph of the Russian language and the Russian people,” he said that Putin's aversion to using the internet is famous ( all his work is done on paper), and concluded that the Russian president does not really understand what Wikipedia is or what the internet is:
Путин никогда не был в „Википедии“, он не знает, что это такое. Человек никогда не пользовался интернетом, он ни черта в этом не понимает и работает в окружениховекинова Этот человек пытается сломать то, что он даже не создавал.
Putin has never consulted Wikipedia, he doesn't know what it is (…) he is a man who has never used the internet: he doesn't understand any of that, and he works with people just as ignorant (…) This guy is trying to destroy something he didn't create.
With the “Sovereign Internet Law” officially in force, Navalny's suspicion that the authorities maneuver to “destroy” Wikipedia is not far-fetched. As Stanislav Kozlovsky, executive director of Wikimedia.ru told Gazeta.ru, the idea of ”replacing” Wikipedia (in the words of Putin himself) is quite ambiguous:
Не очень понятно, что значит – заменить «Википедию» ?. Заблокировать? Этот нюанс не прояснен. В принципе? Мы только за то, чтобы источников становилось больше. Если же это подразумевает уничтожение всего остального, то не очень понятно. Вряд ли Путин имел ввиду последнее. Я надеюсь
It is not really clear. What does it mean to replace Wikipedia? Block it? This nuance has not been clarified. Usually? We just want to have more sources. It is not clear if this implies the destruction of everything else. That is unlikely to be what Putin means. I hope.
In addition, it would be difficult to compete with the Russian platform of Wikipedia, which is the seventh in number of articles. As Kozlovsky noted in several comments in the popular online publication Gazeta.ru, Russian Wikipedia already has about 1.6 million articles, while the Great Russian Encyclopedia only has about 80,000 entries of a few paragraphs each.
Comparing the entries of both platforms, the BBC Russian Service also discovered some differences in content. For example, while Russian Wikipedia has a great deal of information about same-sex marriage in different countries of the world, the Great Russian Encyclopedia only contains an article about same-sex couples (not marriage), and stresses that in Russia it doesn't They have legal support or are directly illegal.
In this context, preventing access to the platform seems the easiest way to “replace” Wikipedia. If the Sovereign Internet Law is implemented as planned, the authorities will soon have the technical capacity to eliminate what they consider undesirable content on the network. Already set a precedent in 2015: Roskomnadozor, the Internet supervisor of the Russian Government, briefly blocked specific Wikipedia articles on some types of narcotics.
However, in statements to the state news agency TASS, the presidential press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, insisted that they do not consider or prohibit or limit access to Wikipedia, even though it is an unreliable source:
При всем уважении все-таки информация, опубликованная в “Википедии” и регулярно обновляемая в “Википедии” никем не гарантируется, не гарантируется ее правильность и достоверность.
With all due respect, nobody guarantees the information that is published and updated regularly on Wikipedia. Its veracity and validity are not verified.
Some will argue that Peskov is right when he questions the reliability of Wikipedia. Although the standards that the sources must meet have become more stringent in recent years, and the improvements in their system of checks and balances, entries can change greatly from one language to another. For example, while Wikipedia in English has an article on “The annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation”, the Russian page is about “Crimea's accession to the Russian Federation” (Присоединение Крыма к Российской Федерации), a difference as linguistic as geopolitical.
Given the Wikipedia collaborative writing model, it is also necessary to protect the platform from attempts to use its pages for political purposes. Earlier this year, for example, the independent news website Meduza reported that Wikipedia had blocked a group of Russian users for editing articles, just before the municipal elections, to negatively describe the leaders of the opposition and positive way to local rulers and their projects.
In addition, the Russian Government is well known for making its own editions on Wikipedia. In 2014, the bot @RuGovEdits, which sends alerts when a Wikipedia page is edited from an IP of the Russian Government, noted changes in the article about the Malaysian Airlines MH17 commercial flight accident only one day after the plane crashed east of Ukraine. On July 18, 2014, an IP address belonging to the state television and radio station All Russia (VGTRK) deleted text linking Russia with the Buk missile system that shot down the plane, and rewrote the entry to reflect a popular theory Russian conspiracy according to which the plane was hit by shots from the Ukrainian army.
A Norwegian programmer compiled a list of 6909 anonymous editions on Russian Wikipedia pages made from IP addresses belonging to Russian state agencies between 2003 and 2014. But since Russian Wikipedia is the fifth in number of editions (about 103 million) , manually modifying the entries to fit the government narrative would be an impossible task.
Therefore, developing the Great Russian Encyclopedia as an alternative “reliable” reference is an attractive option for the authorities, who continue their crusade towards greater technical and rhetorical control of the RuNet. As the well-known entrepreneur and innovator Georgy Vasiliev told the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta on November 8:
В «Википедии» нет главной редакции, человека, который своей властью правит чужой текст. Это не энциклопедия в обычном понимании. У одной статьи «Википедии» может быть сотня авторов, и все они равны в правах. Чтобы добиться изменений, ты должен убедить других соавторов. В этом смысле Большая российская энциклопедия – гораздо более управляемое издание.
In Wikipedia there is no editor in chief, there is no one with the power to choose between one text or another. It is not an encyclopedia in the traditional sense. A Wikipedia article can have hundreds of authors, and everyone has the same rights. To make changes, you have to convince the other collaborators. In this sense, the Great Russian Encyclopedia is a much more controllable publication.
In this context, the maneuver against Wikipedia reflects that the Russian government aims to create a controlled RuNet from above, not from below. In a word, a more “manageable” internet.