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Rutube’s stand at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in July 2021

Resurrecting Rutube The Russian authorities have been investing in domestic ‘alternatives’ to YouTube, investigative journalists report

Source: Agentstvo
Rutube’s stand at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in July 2021
Rutube’s stand at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in July 2021
Vladislav Shatilo / RBC / TASS

The Russian authorities have been sinking money into domestic alternatives to YouTube for over a year, says a new investigation from iStories and Agentstvo. Allegedly, these Russian video platforms are meant to serve as substitutes in the event that Russia’s censorship agency bans YouTube altogether. However, sources say blocking YouTube would be a last resort — apparently, the authorities in the Kremlin hope that its parent company, Google, can be “forced into submission” through fines and threats to throttle YouTube’s traffic.

According to iStories and Agentstvo, Russia has seen a “boom” in the number of domestic alternatives to popular video platforms over the past year. The main one is Rutube — a video platform that’s been around since the mid-2000s.

In late 2020, Gazprom-Media became Rutube’s sole proprietor. Around the same time, the media holding bought “Ya Molodets”, a mobile app developed with the support of the Innopraktika Foundation (which, as it happens, is run by Vladimir Putin’s alleged daughter, Katerina Tikhonova). Last fall, this app was used to launch a “Russian TikTok” called Yappy.   

Also in the fall of 2021, the holding company VK (formerly Group) announced the launch of its own video platform, VK Video. Shortly afterward, Gazprom-Media acquired a controlling stake in VK, too. 

As Agentstvo and iStories recount, Rutube first attracted the attention of the authorities back in 2008. Around this time, there wasn’t such a stark contrast between the size of its audience and Youtube’s, relatively speaking. In the spring of 2007, 1–2 million people visited Rutube every month, whereas YouTube’s monthly worldwide audience was 40 million people. However, as the journalists put it, the Russian authorities “missed their chance to grow something worthwhile from Rutube and later the platform was doomed.” For nearly a decade, Rutube was like a “suitcase without a handle” (“hard to carry around, and a pity to throw away” as the Russian adage goes). As a result, in 2016, Gazprom-Media sold off its shares in the platform. 

In 2020–2021, however, officials in the Kremlin once again began to say that “it would be nice if an alternative video hosting [platform] appeared in Russia.” As the journalists note, these conversations coincided with the poisoning and arrest of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, the opposition protests in Moscow, and the deterioration of Russia’s relations with Western countries.

In the end, Gazprom-Media ended up buying Rutube back, and the state began allocating funds to pay popular bloggers to switch from YouTube to the domestic platform. That said, all of the bloggers Agentstvo and iStories interviewed said they rejected these offers. 

Gazprom-Media’s current CEO is Alexander Zharov, the former head of Russia’s censorship agency (Roskomnadzor). Zharov’s name is “strongly associated with censorship and attacks on Western platforms,” iStories and Agentstvo underscore. After moving from Roskomnadzor to Gazprom-Media — which is now playing an active role in promoting Russia’s alternative video platforms — Zharov’s annual salary increased 75 fold. 

Speaking to Agentstvo and iStories, one high-level Russian official with knowledge of the IT industry said that the country’s leadership “doesn’t believe that anything will come of” these domestic “products.” Current and former staff from Putin’s administration said the same thing. “The authorities have much higher hopes that Western platforms will succumb to pressure and meet Russian regulatory agencies halfway,” the journalists explain. 

According to one source, the “economists” in the government won out: “It was decided that first, economic measures would be taken against YouTube, including a ban on advertising for Russian companies, [then] a slowdown, and only then a shutdown.”

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