Julia Ioffe’s latest article on Facebook in Russia hits upon the confusing – and perhaps brilliant – strategy by the Russian leadership to tightly contain print media and live civic activism, but at the same time let the internet stand relatively free and uncensored.
Most importantly, though, there is a long tradition in Russia of relying on informal information networks for simple day-to-day survival. “In Russia, there is no sense that you can rely on the public or the system, so you’ve traditionally had to rely on a network of friends,” says Esther Dyson, a venture capitalist who has been investing in Russia’s tech sector for over a decade. In a country with weak institutions, “it’s very natural for people to network for what they want.” Even in these less oppressive, post-Soviet times, relationships are critical to everything from landing a job to wriggling out of a problem with authorities.
It’s no coincidence that the Russian love affair with the Internet has blossomed at a time when citizens are once again seeing their political and media freedoms dwindle. “[The Web] has become a place where you have absolute freedom of speech, where you can say whatever you want, good or bad,” says Ilya Krasilshchik, editor-in-chief of Afisha, a Russian lifestyle magazine and website. Afisha was one of the first Russian sites to incorporate the Facebook Like feature, which allows users to share content with friends on the site. Krasilshchik points out that Russia is different from China, where censorship prevails online. “We have this strange paradox where civil society is hemmed in, but its freedoms are limitless online.”