Harry Riley-Gould's Blog

The Irrepressible Rise of the Runet

September 2, 2014

Imagine you are on a gameshow, and are asked the following question: in which year did the Russian language internet -- commonly known as Runet-- begin? The answer, you could assume, is 1990, with the creation of Relcom. Unless its 1983, that is, with the San Francisco Moscow Teleport. Which would mean you aren’t accepting the 1972 Express automated data network. In which case, you would also be ignoring the argument that really it’s simultaneously in 1835 and 4338.


These last dates, incidentally, refer to the 1835 science fiction novel The Year 4338: Petersburg Letters by Vladimir Odoyevsky, in which the author predicted the use of ‘magnetic telegraphs’ through which distant acquaintances could correspond. This is arguably the first appearance of the idea of a global data network, and ideas such as these helped shape the internet in its formative years. Odoyevsky, notably, was a philosopher and writer who supposedly was the last descendent of Russia’s founding Rurikid dynasty, so perhaps the concept of the Runet ultimately finds it roots in 862 with Rurik’s ascension to Novgorod rule.


This, perhaps, is pushing things a touch too far. Nonetheless the question is an interesting one because as we approach the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the nation is currently undergoing an online revolution of its own. In 2004 less than five percent of Russians accessed the internet more than once a week; jump forward ten years and it is well over half. The number of active online users outweighed the offline population for the first time in 2012.1 Whilst this may seem relatively low compared to Western standards -- the UK, Germany and France all have online populations of well over 80% of capita -- the sheer size of its population means that Russia now has the largest internet market in Europe. It is topped globally only by China, the United States, India, Japan and Brazil. The prevalence of Russian language on the internet grew by an enormous 1825.8% between 2001 and 2011.2


Source: Wikipedia3


Moreover, Russia is unique in its carving out a purely Russian space within the world wide web. Sites like Yandex and VK have established a Russian-language alternative to US giants such as Google and Facebook, which have subsequently struggled to achieve penetration into the Russian market. The sole other nation to have achieved this is China, which has managed to do so only with the use of the Golden Shield project, A.K.A. the ‘Great Firewall of China’: an enormous and nationwide censorship program which blocks access to sites the Chinese government considers a threat. Russia, contrastingly, has successfully established a Russian-oriented internet space without resorting to such regressive policies, making a distinctive anomaly within the online world.


What does the Runet look like?


The prevalence of Russian-based companies, creating unique platforms for Russian users, means that the architecture of the Runet is notably dissimilar to Western usage. Websites such as LiveJournal combine social media functions with blog capacity, and form the backbone of the Runet. Impressively, the crossover of purpose which these sites utilise has promoted the highest levels of online engagement in the world.4


One of the more fascinating pieces of research into the Runet in recent years has been a Harvard University project mapping the nature of political discourse on such platforms.

russian blogsphere.pngSource: The Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University5

The research belies common stereotypes of a lack of political engagement in Russia. On the contrary, the paper reveals political discussion to be a central feature of Runet blogs. Furthermore, the study also noted several significant differences between political discourse in the Russian and United States blogospheres. Russian internet users are far more likely to engage across ideological divides and examine a far wider range of sources than their US counterparts. In doing so, they avoid the ‘echo chamber’ effect common in US networks, by which internet users form clusters which conform to their preconceived opinions. Subsequently, Russian bloggers are far more likely to identify as independent and are less polarised than their US counterparts. The study emphasised the peer-produced and largely egalitarian nature of the Russian blogosphere, and is important in dismissing common misconceptions of the Russian people as somehow inherently apathetic to politics.6.


Fallout From Revolution 2014


Clearly, then, Russia’s engagement with the internet has developed in a way quite distinct to the rest of the world. The effect of this vast explosion in Russian online activity has already been evident. The use of social networks to coordinate dissent played a critical role in fostering the 2011/12 opposition protests, and a growing proportion of the population are using the internet to find alternative news sources.7 The growth of the Runet has also promoted greater popular engagement by the political class -- as diverse figures as Dmitri Medvedev and Alexei Navalny have made use of popular blogging networks such as LiveJournal.


This rapid expansion of online activity, as well as its central role in the 2011/12 protests, has not gone unnoticed by the Russian government. Whereas in March 2012 the BBC asserted that the Runet was essentially entirely uncensored, greater state control has subsequently been established over the internet in order to prevent instability.8 As of August 2014, bloggers with a readership of over three thousand must register with the media oversight agency Roskomnadzor.9 The government also employs mass surveillance of online communications.


However, it is important to place Russian internet laws in perspective; before 2012 the Runet was remarkably free of control, and new laws being established are not significantly more concerning than the mass-data collection and online smear tactics adopted by Western nations.10 We are unlikely, for example, to discover that Russia too has been using Furbie children’s toys to spy on families, as Edward Snowden has alleged.11 Furthermore, laws to force US companies to host their Russian user data on Russian servers, currently being discussed, are also not necessarily as threatening as some Western media outlets have assumed.12 By bypassing US servers Russia will protect its citizens information from Western data-collection programs.


The Future of the Runet


It is worth noting that Russian internet saturation still has a long way to go. President Putin himself, famously, uses neither email nor telephone communications. This statement however, should be understood as one of potential and not pessimism: Russia’s online presence is the largest in Europe, and critically, is still growing apace. This growth will inevitably unbalance both social and power relations between individual citizens, society and state. How these changes will affect Russia has yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: the growth of the Runet is not going to slow any time soon.





5 Bruce Etling, Karina Alexanyan, John Kelly, Robert Faris, John Palfrey, and Urs Gasser, ‘Public Discourse in the Russian Blogosphere: Mapping RuNet Politics and Mobilization’, Berkman Center Research Publication, No. 2010-2011, (October 19, 2010).


7 Etling, Alexanyan, Kelly, Faris, Palfrey, and Gasser.



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