Russia’s Unique Internet Logic
In 1999, Vladimir Putin, recently appointed prime minister of Russia, held the first high-level meeting between leaders of the Russian internet community and Russian authorities. While some Kremlin officials urged an increase in the state’s control over the new technology, Putin offered an encouraging statement: “We will not seek a balance between freedom and regulation: the choice will always be in favor of freedom.” Later, during his first candidacy for President, Putin argued that the “internet is a very promising form of communication,” and praised its role in education, though also expressed regret that he didn’t personally use it enough.
After taking office, his enthusiasm for the internet began to wane, and Putin started to express some concerns about the impact of the internet on children and the absence of “positive content” online. But the decisive shift occurred in 2010, when the Russian leader famously stated that “50 percent of the internet’s content is pornography.” In addition, he described the internet as a space for the propagation of terrorism, extremism, and xenophobia.
Since that pivot, Putin’s discourse has focused on regulations aimed to protect children and copyright. His views have also become increasingly focused on the internet’s sociopolitical influences. In 2014, Putin stated that “All this internet was created as a CIA special project and it develops accordingly.” That statement signaled the start of increasing political regulation of the online space, a process that eventually resulted in the approval of Russia’s internet sovereignty law. Putin argues that there is no contradiction between internet sovereignty and internet freedom, since the purpose of the law is to protect Russian internet infrastructure from acts of external hostility that might disconnect the nation from the global network. Therefore, an autonomous Russian internet is essential to protect critical communications infrastructure. In that light, “The more sovereignty, including in the digital realm, the better,” concluded Putin. Finally, in 2021, Putin declared that the internet should follow not only legal rules, but also what he called “moral laws;” otherwise, Russian society could be destroyed from within.
The dramatic evolution of Putin’s position on internet freedom highlights the unique socio-political environment in which the Russian internet has developed. The histories of national internets can be generally divided into two groups. In the first case, we can see the development of the internet in liberal countries (e.g., the United States, and in Europe, and other more open societies). In the second case, we can see how the internet evolved in authoritarian environments (as in the case of China). The Russian internet is often considered an example of an internet developed under authoritarian principles, due to an increasing number of legal initiatives and policies, including the Internet Sovereignty bill, designed to increase control over the internet. However, the comparison of Russian internet sovereignty to the Great Firewall of China is misleading and incomplete.
The Russian internet is the only internet that started as a totally free space—to some extent even less regulated than the Western internet—and developed into one of the most regulated and restricted internet spaces. That's why, unlike other internet spheres that haven’t experienced such a dramatic change, it’s full of contradictions between different logics. Understanding the logic of Russian social media requires an analogy from geology. “Superposition” is the idea that “the oldest layer is at the base and that the layers are progressively younger with ascending order in the sequence.” In the case of the Russian internet (Runet), the internet as an alternative socio-political space without any substantial control of state, can be thought of as the base layer of Runet’s development. Subsequent, more tightly controlled layers could not totally replace the existing structure, but were built on top of it, while creating contradictions between the different layers. The continuous conflict between different logics is the defining feature of the Runet, though the tightly controlled top layers now put increasing pressure on the older, unregulated foundation.
Runet: Between two logics
A renowned 19th century Russian philosopher, Pyotr Chaadayev, made a famous argument about the unique location of Russia between two major civilizations: “[W]e belong neither to the West nor to the East, and we possess the traditions of neither.” (Since Chaadayev questioned the unique role of Russia and its greatness, he was declared legally insane and put under medical supervision.) The early development of Runet was driven by the tension between those who believed the Russian internet was “something genuinely Russian” and those who supported the “Westernization” and “Internationalization” associated with internet adoption (Henrike Schmidt & Katy Teubener, (2006) “Our RuNet”? Cultural Identity and Media Usage (p. 19) in Control + Shift Public and Private Usages of the Russian Internet.)
The development of the Russian internet can also be seen as a product of tension between two major digital civilizations. On the one hand, the initial development of Runet relied on libertarian ideas of the internet as an alternative socio-political and cultural space that offered new degrees of freedom beyond the state's control. This ideology, which became popular in Silicon Valley, also captured the idea of some Russian internet pioneers, notably Pavel Durov, founder of VKontakte. Many leading Russian platforms, including Odnoklassniki and VKontakte, were developed relying on Western prototypes and adopted some of the presumptions of these platforms.
On the other hand, in the economic domain, many Russian entrepreneurs tried to follow the Chinese model. A key player in the early development of Runet, Yuri Milner—a co-founder of Mail.ru Group—has told the press that he started to visit China in 2003 to learn from Chinese internet business models. China was the source of inspiration for the integration of social networks with online games, and the origin of premium digital badges and gifts, a common practice in Chinese social media that has had little traction in the United States. At the same time, China was also a model to consider when Russian authorities realized the need to increase their political control of Runet. The Great Chinese Firewall approach was impractical, both politically and technically, in a digital domain that was initially developed as a free space with a high level of integration with global platforms. However, some practices related to online control, including new forms of regulation and citizen engagement in state-sponsored surveillance, were inspired by Chinese practices.
Odnoklassniki vs. VKontakte: The logic of contradictions
The development of Runet can’t be explained by a single logic, or even a couple of logics. Instead, it has been driven by contradictions between these logics and continuous tensions between cultural, social, political, and economic forces. Understanding the logics of Runet requires exploring the history of platforms’ development in a way that accounts for internal complexity and continuous clashes between different logics. In effect, we need to look at the geologic strata that support contemporary internet developments. The battle between two major Russian social networks—Odnoklassniki and VKontakte—that ended with both networks being purchased by the same holding company illustrates the importance of this historical understanding.
Odnoklassniki was launched in spring 2006 and quickly grew to have 4 million users in 2007. It modeled Classmates.com as a prototype: Social networking was mostly driven by an opportunity to find former classmates and friends from high school and college. One of the major affordances of the platform was the ability to give “marks” to the photos of your friends. A paid service allowed customers to give special marks, as well as to remove bad marks from their own photos. In effect, the service introduced a variety of paid virtual presents and unique emoji. From the very beginning, Odnoklassniki sought to satisfy emotional needs related to interpersonal communication through a rich array of digital affordances associated with the symbolic manifestation of emotions.
Several months later, a new Russian social network was born. Unlike Odnoklassniki, VKontakte relied on Facebook as a prototype, targeting current university students based on their university affiliation and looked visually similar to Mark Zuckerberg’s project. Odnoklassniki and VKontakte shared a focus on communities of classmates, but also shared the idea that the consumption of content on social networks doesn’t necessarily need to be limited to content produced by “friends.” Instead, these social networks also became platforms for sharing different types of content.
This innovation—a social network that features a broad range of content as well as posts from friends—was critical to the success of VKontakte. It wasn’t only a social network but also a mix of 4chan, Napster, and Pornhub. It offered an unlimited opportunity to host and share music and video files, including pirated full-length movies and pornography. It provided spaces for different types of underground cultures and communities to flourish. And it served as an imageboard that allowed continuous circulation of memes and black humor. Imagine a network that combined the reach of Facebook with some elements of the darknet—that was VKontakte to the Russian-speaking world.
The public pages of VKontakte became a leading publishing medium across the Runet. One of the most popular public pages—MDK—which has more than 11 million followers, was created as a counter-cultural space to poke fun at various mainstream trends and share politically incorrect humor. Today, the rating of top popular public pages offers pages dedicated to new music and movies, and pages used to share memes, jokes, black humor, and ironic depictions of modern life. A network of public pages under a common title Podslushano (overheard) is a popular space to hear—and spread—local rumors.
Both Odnoklassniki and VKontakte have dedicated significant effort to integrating online games, which offer a major source of monetization. Recent data indicates that gaming continues to be the second most popular function of Russian social networks after communication (62 percent vs. 54 percent), followed by listening to music (49 percent) and watching video (42 percent ). Other recent data shows that the major source of income for Odnoklassniki is still gaming and virtual gifts, not advertising. According to the current head of Odnoklassniki, Anton Fedchin, his social network makes substantial income from fulfilling emotional needs by sharing signs of virtual recognition. For instance, paid virtual gifts are particularly popular for International Women’s Day (March 8).
Despite similarities, there are substantial differences between Odnoklassniki and VKontakte, perhaps best represented by the personalities of the founders of these networks. The founder of Odnoklassniki—Albert Popkov—has said that he wasn’t ready to break some of the boundaries that VKontakte had broken. In an interview with Russian journalist Andrey Loshak, he observed, “We had certain postulates that we did not want to overstep, but VKontakte could. Porn, theft of content, VKontakte very quickly made music, made video sharing available.” Though Odnoklassniki ultimately lost the battle for the younger generation, it has been able to keep older users and users from areas far from Moscow (“the regions”). One of the Runet’s founders Anton Nossik characterized the competitors as a network that looks into the past and a network that looks into the future: “For people who have lived their lives unsuccessfully and in vain, and in adulthood see that they have surrounded themselves with the wrong people, Odnoklassniki allows you to erase all this random foam. Facebook, VKontakte is for those who have everything ahead, and Odnoklassniki is for those who had their last interesting meetings 30 years ago.”
Despite the differences between the networks, Yuri Milner of the Mail.ru Group—a holding company anchored by Russia’s most popular email service—tried to gather Russia’s most influential internet projects under the same roof. In 2008, Odnoklassniki was sold to a holding company that Milner controlled. The story of the ownership battle for VKontakte was much more complicated but eventually, it also was taken under full control by the Mail.ru group. By that point, Mail.ru was owned by several actors, including Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov. (Usmanov formally left Mail.ru’s orbit in 2018, interestingly handing more control of the conglomerate to Chinese companies.)
According to Milner, the Russian internet presents a unique case of successful development of a local digital ecosystem without state-sponsored protectionism. However, Russia’s nonintervention in internet development began to change in 2008. The global economic crisis that year forced independent internet companies to look for additional funding sources, including oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin. Several years later, in 2012, thousands of Russians went out to the streets to protest unfair elections. Alongside Facebook, VKontakte was actively used by young Russians to share information about protests and support mobilizations. Russian security services demanded platforms disclose the personal information of members of oppositional groups. Pavel Durov, the libertarian founder of VKontakte, publicly refused to do so. Eventually, Durov was forced to leave both VKontakte and Russia. He later founded Telegram outside of Russia, and that platform has consistently refused subsequent demands by Russian authorities.
Since 2012, the state of the Russian internet has changed dramatically. Russian authorities started to realize the political importance of keeping the internet under tighter control. That’s why new layers of control and surveillance were built on top of an architecture that was constructed as an independent and alternative space. At present, VKontakte cooperates with Russian authorities and allows surveillance of content by Russian security forces. At the same time, despite stricter copyright regulations, it still serves as a major host for pirated music, movies, and pornography. VKontakte embodies the contradictions of Runet, where the libertarian spirit of Durov's vision coexists with the state’s online regulation and surveillance model.
In addition to these contradictions, the trend on both Odnoklassniki and VKontakte is the shift from offering an opportunity to maintain social connections toward content production. The head of Odnoklassniki, Anton Fedchin, summarized this trend:
“We really want to get away from the restrictions associated with the fact that users are subscribed to specific people and groups. Previously, we have always been a platform for communicating with close friends, but now the user’s inner circle can no longer generate enough content for the user to cover his needs. So that he does not go to other platforms, we want to diversify the feed content by adding recommended content to the users in the main feed.”
The Rankings: Battleground Runet
Looking into the popularity of the websites in the Russian internet demonstrates a set of battles that have characterized Runet over the past 25 years. (There are many Russian and Western versions of popularity rankings, though they all show similar trends with some differences; see e.g., Alexa, Similarweb). That history can be divided into several confrontations: the battle between Russian social networks, particularly Odnoklassniki and VKontakte; the battle between Russian platform ecosystems, particularly Mail.ru, Yandex, and Rambler; but also the battle for dominance between Russian and Western platforms.
The struggle between Russian and Western online platforms unfolds in several areas of Russian internet rankings. In search engines, we see a continuous struggle between homegrown Yandex and Google, which compete for leadership in their category. In the sector of social networking, the top positions are held by VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. The Western social networks, particularly Instagram and Facebook, are close to the top, while Twitter is a little farther behind. These Western networks are popular despite continuous pressure by Russian authorities on Facebook, Twitter, and recently Tiktok, seeking to ensure that these foreign websites do not outrank homegrown counterparts on the charts. Though these platforms haven’t been banned thus far, Russian authorities’ recent decision to slow down the access to Twitter may not only decrease its popularity but also serve as a “yellow card” prior to a more thorough ban of Western social media in Russia.
The landscape of Russian internet platforms, integrated companies that combine several functions, is complex, crossing lines of functionality and occasionally nationality. LiveJournal, the American and, later, Russian platform that was once the symbol of Runet, is now just a bit player. Mail.ru is not only the leading e-mail service in Russia, but also the winner in the platform game, owning both social networks Odnoklassniki and VKontakte. At the same time, search engine Yandex continues expanding into services and AI, taking control over Uber in Russia and offering the Russian alternative of Amazon’s Alexa: Alisa. There are no signs of the presence of eBay and Amazon on Runet’s top popularity rankings. Instead, Russians have Avito.ru, Wildberries, Ozon.ru and AliExpress (the only Chinese platform that has a significant presence in the top ranks of Russian internet sites.) Western e-commerce platforms regularly fail to grow in Russia due to issues with international delivery and a failure to integrate with Russian online payment systems.
The Russian concept of internet sovereignty is driven by a vision that Russian platforms should occupy the top of all the rankings. In addition to various regulations and restrictions on Western platforms (e.g., limiting the speed of access to Twitter), Russian authorities try to create favorable conditions for local platforms. For instance, a recent Russian government decision requires all mobile devices sold in Russia to have a long list of Russian applications pre-installed, including Odnoklassniki and VKontakte. Russian authorities also have invested significantly to develop the so-called “social internet” that will offer free internet access to a “white list” of websites that the government has approved. It seems likely that only Russian sites will be included on this whitelist.
At the same time, some key internet segments are dominated by Western platforms, highlighting the failure to develop Russian alternatives. Most remarkable is the popularity of YouTube—Russian RUTUBE failed to offer a viable alternative to the Western video-sharing platform despite the powerful backing of Gazprom-Media. The popularity of Wikipedia also demonstrates Russian authorities’ failure to develop an alternative state-sponsored online encyclopedia despite several efforts to sponsor the development of an official Russian Wikipedia. Runet chat logic is dominated by Telegram and WhatsApp, both outside of Russian control, despite Telegram’s authorship by Pavel Durov. Finally, there is the striking absence of LinkedIn, the only major Western social network that has been officially blocked in Russia. There are almost no local alternatives that support professional development: The most popular platform in this segment is Headhunter, which is a job board and an online resume website, but not a professional social network.
Conflict is the way it is
The development of Runet is an outcome of the dramatic history of Russian social, cultural, economic, and political development over the last 25 years. Runet’s logic should be seen in context as a continuous struggle between various internet visions that are promoted by different cultural, political, and economic elites (Asmolov & Kolozaridi, 2017; Asmolov & Kolozaridi, 2020). In that light, the Russian social media logic is different from Western prototypes. It’s an outcome of a history of contradictions and of tensions between different social, cultural, political, and economic realities. Very different, often contradictory logics coexist next to each other, while simultaneously struggling with each other in the same space. In the case of VKontakte, some of the underground and libertarian logics are so fundamental to the development of the platforms that it’s impossible to remove and replace them without collapsing the whole system. Some of this coexistence of contradictions follows a tacit agreement that some prohibited practices are allowed, but they are also completely transparent to state surveillance.
These websites continue to be a battleground between different visions of the internet broadly and Runet specifically, shaped by political forces (those that regulate platforms) and economic forces (those that own platforms), as well as by developers and users. While it appears that Russian authorities are exerting more and more pressure in order to increase the control over Russian platforms, while limiting the access to Western ones, the overall battle for Runet is far from being decided. The nature of Runet is a struggle between different logics. When one logic gains the upper hand, it often results in the development of new spaces, as in the case of Telegram. Therefore, while platforms and their communities fall and new ones rise in the clash of conflicting logics and models, we may see Runet continue to look for its unique place between the East and the West.
Gregory Asmolov is a lecturer in digital entrepreneurship at the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London.