RuNet: The Miniseries ‘Meduza’ interviews creator of new documentary about Russian Internet's rise
This week, the television and digital network Current Time will release “Holy War,” a new miniseries by journalist Andrey Loshak about the evolution of the Russian Internet, spanning the first experiments on the Web to the rise of giant corporations, covering everything from the first startup investments to the explosion of government regulations and the arrest of Baring Vostok founder Michael Calvey. Meduza deputy chief editor Sultan Suleimanov spoke to Loshak about the miniseries and the figures who feature in the show. “Holy War” will be available on YouTube on September 5.
What makes now a good time to watch a docu-series about the rise of Russia’s Internet industry and culture? Journalist Andrey Loshak, the man behind Current Time’s new show “Holy War,” points out that the premiere coincides with a significant RuNet milestone — the 25th anniversary of the .ru domain — but he quickly admits that the real impetus for the miniseries was the mere opportunity to work on another major project.
When deciding what the show should be about, Loshak says he looked for issues that would still be relevant for audiences, by the time he was done filming and editing. He knew Russia’s Internet story was a safe bet, and the RuNet has only grown more important since he started on the project, thanks to the government’s new “isolation” initiative.
Something to be proud of, dammit
But Loshak says he was also attracted to the positivity inspired by Russia’s Internet successes: “I liked the fact that this wasn’t just another story about how awful everything is, which is what usually happens in the democratic press, but a story about something that’s actually pretty cool, where there’s a lot to talk about that’s awesome and interesting. [...] This is one of those rare cases, where there’s genuinely something in Russia that you’re never ashamed of — something cool that you can say a lot about.”
Loshak says his sense of pride in the RuNet’s achievements crystallized when he was filming a recent documentary series about Alexey Navalny’s volunteer network, which led him to Egor Chernyuk, the campaign coordinator in Kaliningrad. Chernyuk told him that he wanted the country to be more like the Russian Internet of the early 2000s — before the government began meddling and investment started dwindling. This was the RuNet’s heyday, Loshak says, when domestic companies defeated American juggernauts like Google and Facebook in open market competition. The honeymoon came to an end in 2012, when demonstrations against Putin’s return to the presidency transformed the Kremlin’s perception of the Internet and precipitated today's hostility.
Before the RuNet could threaten the Kremlin, however, it had to get off the ground. According to Loshak, Russia’s Internet owes its start to the individual pioneers who created its first websites, which paved the way for actual businesses. The first entrepreneurs who got involved — men like Demyan Kudryavtsev, Yemelyan Zaharov, and Anton Nosik — understood that the RuNet needed content before it could sell anything. For a long time, this grunt work belonged to hobbyists like Maxim Moshkov, who launched an online library, and Dmitry Verner, who started a website that collected jokes. These first RuNet content creators were largely “technical people” with technical degrees and research jobs in the West, and they managed these websites in their spare time, when they weren’t crunching numbers and grinding out science. The RuNet of the 1990s was “a place with a fairly high IQ,” says Loshak.
Here's to the crazy ones
But not everyone from the early days made a bundle. For example, Dmitry Belinsky, who worked on the website Fuck.ru with Konstantin Rykov and Egor Lavrov, now lives in an unremarkable apartment building in Podolsk, outside Moscow. Sometimes, the ones who failed to get rich are just as interesting, Loshak says: “I’m interested in the people who end up on the sidelines — not just the down-and-outs, but the oddballs who simply didn’t fit somewhere, and for some reason couldn’t or wouldn’t do this or that.”
Generally speaking, most of the people involved in the early RuNet either made a lot of money and emigrated to the West, or they earned nothing and gave up. There are a rare few individuals who got rich and stayed in the industry, but these people are the exception, not the norm (though Loshak says this might have more to do with business people’s psychology than Russia’s political environment). There are still many interesting startups in Russia today, Loshak argues, but long-time investors like former Mail.Ru Group co-owner Yuri Milner have abandoned the industry, and cases like the prosecution of Michael Calvey, one of the RuNet’s biggest and best respected foreign investors, have hurt Russia’s Internet.
Incompetence to the rescue
Proud of the RuNet’s past, Loshak is not so optimistic about its future, and he has little faith in the government to do anything but harm. “I think nothing will change for the better, as long as this regime lives. There will be no thaw or liberalization,” he says, adding that the Internet’s best hope against state control in Russia is the government’s own “stupidity and corruption,” which is what torpedoed the promotion of the “Sputnik” search engine (designed to be a state-funded alternative to Yandex and Google), and prevents the authorities from effectively blocking the instant messenger Telegram.
In this dreary environment, maybe the RuNet’s Founding Fathers should take after Western Internet pioneers like Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee and become public spokespeople for broader issues related to the Web? Should Russians expect more from people like “Art Lebedev Studio” founder Artemy Lebedev and Yandex founder Arkady Volozh? Should these figures establish a public dialogue with the government? It won’t help, Loshak warns, pointing out that Volozh and Mail.Ru Group co-founder Dmitry Grishin already tried meeting with Putin in 2016, and it led nowhere. “I don’t think any communication with our state is possible. It doesn’t really listen, and it’s used to just barking and banning,” Loshak says.
The closest thing today’s RuNet has to a public communicator is VKontakte and Telegram founder Pavel Durov, who’s established himself in this role thanks to his manifestos and ability to mobilize protest campaigns, like the paper-airplane flashmob in April 2018, when Russia’s censor first tried to ban Telegram. But Durov’s main competitive edge these days is the fact that his development team is based mostly abroad and Russia isn’t his main market, which gives him the freedom to advocate “the Internet’s basic principles.” But these principles, such as online anonymity, are under fire everywhere today — not just in Russia. “That old Internet, the Internet of the 1990s, is anarchic in spirit,” Loshak explains. “It’s cross-border, and it’s super-free. I think Durov carries this spirit, and that’s why he’s not in Russia.”
Summary by Kevin Rothrock