How Putin’s digital Iron Curtain is struggling to suppress dissent over war

RuTube and RossGram fail to stop Russians bypassing Kremlin censorship

Putin's plans to build a sovereign 'RuNet' are aimed at mirroring the success of China’s 'Great Firewall' Credit: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images Europe

With its homepage full of cooking tips, the latest sporting highlights and cute animal clips, RuTube bears an uncanny similarity to its American counterpart, YouTube.

A little further down, however, its news and media section is dominated by the likes of Russian state-owned RT, Sputnik and Rossiya 24.

Originally launched in 2006, and bought by Gazprom Media in 2020, RuTube has been billed by Kremlin officials as a patriotic alternative to its Google-owned rival. But Vladimir Putin’s attempts to rebuild the web in the Kremlin’s own image – and force Russians on to apps where it can control the narrative – are floundering.

Apps outside of state control remain overwhelmingly popular. Some 63pc of Russia’s population of 144m watch YouTube videos. An estimated 84m use Facebook-owned WhatsApp.

Moscow’s attempts to rein in technology companies has ramped up in recent months, rapping Google with a $365m (£300m) fine for “prohibited content” and what it claims to be false videos about the war in Ukraine. It is unclear whether that fine will ever get paid. Google has already wound down its Russian business.

It has banned Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, cutting off easy access for many of its citizens to Western media and fuelling fears of an accelerated “splinternet”, a Balkanised web. That, on top of attempts to create its own alternatives.

The Kremlin is attempting to force Russians onto apps where it can control the narrative Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/AP

Yet it was not always that way. At the turn of the millennium, when Putin came into power, a flurry of technology companies were created as Russia plugged itself into the global internet in a more open, post-Soviet economy.

Yandex, founded in 2000 and known as “Russia’s Google”, is one of its most successful technology exports. The service is the fifth most popular search engine worldwide.

“Yandex was actually a very well run company and it was successful,” says Esther Dyson, a former Yandex board member. “Government-backing does not build a well run company.”

Meanwhile in 2007, internet entrepreneur Pavel Durov launched VK, a site analogous to Facebook that now has 500m users.

But over time the noose has tightened around Russia’s technology success stories. Putin, advised by an ever more hawkish cult of security experts – known as the siloviki – began to crack down on the country’s fledgling internet industry.

Durov claims he was forced out of VK, and ultimately fled Russia in 2014. “I’m out of Russia and have no plans to go back. Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with the internet business at the moment,” he said at the time.

In 2021, the majority of VK shares were acquired by state-owned Gazprombank, while Yandex was pressured into giving up a golden share in the business to a foundation staffed by Kremlin allies.

As the war in Ukraine broke out earlier this year, Yandex – long made to walk a tightrope with government officials – was forced to block independent news sites from its media aggregator and ultimately its search results.

“The search engine was until recently relatively free. Initially it was a question of what was in the news feed, but when everything was banned in Russia the search engine could no longer find it,” says Dyson, who resigned from the company’s board shortly before the war.

The value of the company, which was dual listed in New York and Moscow, plummeted from $30bn last year to just $5bn. Its shares have since been suspended in the US.

It is just one example of Russia’s censorship machine having ramped up and particularly since the war in Ukraine.

State plans to build a sovereign “RuNet” – a Russian internet that can be disconnected from the rest of the world – are aimed at mirroring the success of China’s “Great Firewall”. Russian telecoms companies already have to install a “black box” that monitors all incoming traffic.

“The system is not yet operating at full capacity,” says Stanislav Shakirov, founder of Russian digital rights group Roskomsvoboda and Privacy Accelerator. But, he adds, “the chances of success in building a sovereign RuNet in Russia are high, although it is clear that for citizens and society, ‘success’ is in quotation marks.”

Younger internet users often turn to VPNs that give access to foreign websites Credit: MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP

Yet, efforts by the Kremlin to force technology firms – and its population – to kowtow have so far largely failed.

In 2020, Russia was forced into lifting a two-year ban on messaging app Telegram, founded by Durov, formerly of VK. Popular with Russian speakers and used by 500m people, Telegram had refused to hand over encryption keys to the state to monitor private conversations.

Meanwhile, despite television news and state media websites being dominated by propaganda and pro-regime news reports, young internet users routinely turn to virtual private networks – or VPNs – that give access to foreign websites and apps.

An estimated 30pc of Russians have bypassed Kremlin censorship in this way, despite the state banning dozens of companies that offer VPNs. Even Kremlin officials have admitted to turning to VPNs to access apps that have cut off their services in Russia.

Russia has also struggled in building apps to replace those banned by officials.

Local entrepreneurs have derided Russia’s copycat efforts to create “RossGram”, an alternative to Instagram, as “embarrassing”. Despite being announced in March, it still has yet to launch.

RuTube, meanwhile, records about 35m site visits per month – a fraction of that of YouTube. Joanna Szostek, a lecturer in political communications at Glasgow University, says: “It’s a mixed bag. Russia’s attempts to replace YouTube are not successful and are not likely to be.”

However, she adds VK and fellow Facebook rival Odnoklassniki, “have been more popular than Facebook in Russia for many years”.

The state is also clamping down on smartphones, making it easier to censor or block apps. In July, legislators issued a draft law to make it mandatory for smartphone makers to pre-install a domestic app store.

VK launched its own RuStore in May, although the alternative to Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store only offers around 1,000 apps.

Building apps and services that can rival those that have left or been banned has been made challenging by an exodus of talent, according to Dyson: “The biggest problem for tech businesses is many of the smart people who are free to do so are leaving Russia.” Independent Russian news site Meduza claims that as many as 5,000 Yandex staff have left or been relocated out of Russia.

Still, for many ordinary Russians, Yandex and VK remain popular. “I would not say Russian social networks are failing,” says Mikhail Klimarev, of the non-profit Internet Protection Society. “At the same time, I would not say that Russian social networks are completely successful.

“One of the hypotheses is that in Russian social networks it is impossible to get any other point of view than official propaganda. Therefore, users of these platforms do not tend to spend more time there.”

So far at least, Russia’s efforts to mimic China’s Great Firewall with a digital Iron Curtain have proven to be full of holes. As Shakirov says: “People have learned to deal with it and to bypass blockages.”